Populism is a term many people have seized upon to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon. But the definition of populism has always been somewhat hazy, and the Trump era has had a dearth of concrete policy fights that could be explained as an expression of the president’s populism. During the Russia and Ukraine scandals, you could sort of discern ad hoc populist coalitions defending Trump against the national security establishment, but while Trump’s supporters in these episodes presented the issue as being “really” about national security, in reality they were simply justifying a bunch of corruption and abuses of power.
But now, at the very end of his presidency, we finally have a public-policy issue that casts Trump-era populism in sharp relief: the fight over Congress’s mega-deal to fund the government and pump roughly $900 billion of economic relief into the economy.
The bill has come under attack from populist coalitions on the left and the right that have articulated strikingly similar critiques: Insiders in Congress have conspired to write a complex, ineffective bill that benefits powerful special interests at the expense of the clear and obvious solution to the crisis, namely $2,000 direct payments to individuals.
Washington Post Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah, a leftist, argues, “While many other advanced nations have figured out how to get their struggling citizens monthly checks, it’s an international disgrace that the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, has so far only provided one-time $1,200 stimulus payments. Another $600 won’t make the response any less disgraceful.” Senator Josh Hawley, a conservative, complains, “The negotiators are saying they could only find enough $$ for $600/person relief checks for working people. But mark my words, there will be hundreds of BILLIONS spent on special interests, banks, and government.”
They have likewise converged on a process critique, attacking the bill’s authors for crafting it in secret:
And populists on both sides have zeroed in on foreign-aid provisions in the budget, contrasting the miserly relief for Americans with the lavish spending on foreigners.
There is some distinction between the populist response on the right, which has mocked foreign aid in general, and that on the left, which has focused specifically on foreign aid for Israel:
Both the populist left and right have treated Trump as the explicit or implicit hero of the story for his blunt demand that Congress prioritize Americans by giving them $2,000 checks:
(Klobuchar was not actually attacking the $2,000-check idea but Trump’s implicit threat to veto the bill.)
The populist attacks draw upon elements of truth. The economic relief in the bill isn’t as large as it should have been, the bill was cobbled together quickly and in secret, and the horse-trading that allowed it to gain widespread support resulted in several bad provisions, the most notable being a two-year extension of a notorious tax break for corporate meals.
But the populists also rely heavily on a series of misleading or outright false claims about what the bill can do. They assert or imply that the $600 checks are the sole source of economic relief in the bill, obscuring the larger sums contained in its unemployment benefits, the extension of small-business loans, the aid for schools, and other measures. Many of them, especially on the left, falsely assert that other advanced countries have passed generous income-replacement plans — which, as Josh Barro notes, isn’t true. At 4 percent of gross domestic product, the bill is “one of the largest fiscal support packages ever enacted in the U.S.,” he explains.
The populists further exploit the fact that the emergency economic relief was combined with an annual government budget whose imminent expiration helped prod Congress to finalize the deal. That’s why you’re seeing these comparisons between items like foreign aid and economic relief, which are then further distorted by misleading comparisons between aggregate spending for entire countries and per capita spending. Whether or not one agrees with either the general concept or the specific design of the U.S. foreign-aid budget, obviously an entire country is going to get more money than a person. Writing Sudan or Israel a $600 check would not serve any purpose.
Many people expected or hoped Trump’s presidency would break the traditional left-right battle lines and open space for new coalitions pitting elites against populists. Instead, Trump’s agenda mostly revised familiar right-vs.-left battles over conventional Republican plans to cut taxes for the wealthy, roll back Obamacare, and deregulate pollution. (His most heterodox goal, revising NAFTA, ended up as minor tweaks that generated little controversy.)
Now we have finally seen an issue that genuinely divides both parties’ elites from their populist wings. But what it reveals about the populists is not very encouraging. Their case is shot through with demagoguery and outright lies. Whatever chance they had to leverage a concrete improvement by prodding Congress to increase the size of the checks has been squandered by an incoherent strategy that refuses to acknowledge the actual legislative constraints to be attacked. (Both breeds of populist are obsessed with blaming House Democrats, who passed a $3 trillion bill last May, and not Senate Republicans, who actually account for holding down the bill’s size.)
Rather than seeing a populist movement, what we seem to have is a loose collection of media and political personalities jockeying to increase their market share by catering to the ignorance of their audiences. They have a good trick for generating engagement by making people angry but have little regard for either the intelligence or the concrete well-being of the people they rile up. You can say this for the populists: They learned a lot from Trump.