As dissatisfaction with this stagnating capitalist system has grown in most of the Western imperialist countries, pundits and the media have come up with a label for politicians who rail against the “establishment” and speak in the name of “the people.” That word is “populist.” But, like the politicians they pin the term on, the media are deliberately confusing the public.
Reactionaries like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France aren’t populists, they’re racist demagogues.
Populism originated in the 19th century in the United States. Here’s one short description of the Populist movement:
“The first movement of this kind was started in the 1880s, by farmers who were suffering because of plummeting cotton prices in the South and a drought in the Great Plains. As farmers sank deeper into debt, their simmering resentments of Eastern elites were ignited, especially by bankers charging exorbitant lending rates and railroad barons charging high prices. The farmers, labor unions, and their sympathizers formed what they officially called the People’s Party but was commonly known as the Populists. The Populists felt ‘squeezed by the unfettered capitalism of the Gilded Age,’ says Rutgers University historian David Greenberg. The Populists wanted to nationalize railroads, break up big trusts, and get rid of the gold standard, which restricted the money supply. They also advocated an eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage, and a progressive income tax.” (theweek.com)
Vince Copeland, a co-founder of Workers World Party along with Sam Marcy and Dorothy Ballan, in his book “Market Elections” quoted Mary Ellen Lease, a farm woman and leading Populist orator: “Wall Street owns the country. It is … a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.” And populism wasn’t just a white movement. Many Black farmers in the South, betrayed by the Republican Party of the northern bankers, were in the Populist movement.
Really, even in the wildest stretch of the imagination it would be false to call Donald Trump a populist. Will he nationalize the railroads? Break up big trusts? Support shorter hours with better pay for workers? Hit the billionaires with a progressive income tax?
Trump and his grouping shudder at all these things. They want to lower taxes on the rich while cutting social programs for the masses. They don’t want to nationalize anything profitable, rather they want to privatize education.
Trump’s cabinet appointments read like a Who’s Who of big business, from former Exxon-Mobil head Rex Tillerson as secretary of state to a flock of bankers, especially from Goldman Sachs, that include Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Special Adviser Stephen K. Bannon. And there are the actual billionaires: Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary and investor Carl Icahn as special adviser on regulatory reform.
Are all the rich ruling class for Trump? Obviously not. He is under attack from plenty in the ruling class who fear he and his “alt-right” advisers are going to mess up the political system in this country, which has served their interests so well.
Trump is a living example of not a populist but a demagogue. He preys on the vulnerabilities of millions who feel they have been losing ground and turns their anxieties and anger into fear and hatred of people who themselves are even bigger casualties of imperialist globalization. His campaign mixed vicious, racist rhetoric with promises he never intended to keep — all to get the votes of workers and the middle class.
Populism? No. Right-wing demagogy? You bet