Foiling Faux-Populism

Rejecting the TPP doesn't make Trump a genuine populist. But the Left must advance its own economic agenda to beat him.

A trailer-home dealership in Middlesboro, KY a few days before the 2016 presidential election. Don Sniegowski / Flickr

Donald Trump’s announcement today that the US will withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership builds on the protectionist rhetoric of his inaugural address. This was some red meat for the Trump base, following a weekend of scrapes over numbers.

While we should neither mourn the demise of the TPP nor celebrate the faux-populism that Trump is now staging, it is a good time to take stock of the balance of political forces and think about what kind of strategy we need to defeat Trump going forward.

In the heyday of New Deal liberalism, Democrats made bread-and-butter issues their bread and butter; they expressly constructed state policies around various kinds of worker protections. Since the neoliberal turn of the Clinton years, however, many Democrats have reflexively favored free-trade arrangements, no matter their effect on workers.

The New Democrats’ trade agreements envisioned export-driven paths to development for poor countries — and, consequently, facilitated the export of US industrial jobs to those countries, where labor was cheap and environmental, health, and safety oversight lax. Worse yet, the Democrats never developed any semblance of a comprehensive industrial policy that would retrain workers and retool industries in the most-affected regions.

The Rust Belt was left to rust.

Trump saw the Democrats’ self-imposed weakness and has zeroed in on it. He speaks of “protection” in positive terms. He deploys, whenever possible, the rhetoric of theft: the idea that someone somewhere might steal American companies and destroy American jobs. He rallies the “forgotten American” against the liberal elites who would sell them out.

By all indications, Trump brandishes such rhetoric as a cover for deregulation, privatization, and tax cutting. But faux-populism was what put Trump over the top by razor-thin margins in the Rust Belt, and it will continue to have traction until the Left can effectively advance its own economic agenda.

The anti-inaugural protests were impressive, and the Women’s March turned out millions. That so many took to the streets is both immensely encouraging and worthy of celebration.

At the same time, the big anti-Trump demonstrations have underemphasized labor and economic issues. So far, march organizers have doubled down on the terms of a lost election, essentially radicalizing a liberal identity politics that is strong on various sorts of civil rights but weak (or worse) on labor rights and economic issues.

We know that Trump is hateful toward women and immigrants, that he harbors animus toward Muslims, that he doesn’t care about LGBT rights, and that the slogan “black lives matter” is anathema to him and many of his supporters.

We should never relent in opposing him on these issues. But the more challenging work that lies ahead is showing how Trump’s rhetoric, far from protecting workers — a broad class of people that includes most whites, blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and LGBT people — will expose them to the usual forms of Republican theft.

Only a reinvigorated left that unites various sections of the working class behind a broad social-democratic agenda can effectively contest Trump’s faux-populism.