Trump, Economic Populist?

Donald Trump is making the Republican establishment nervous — and not only because he continues to lead in the polls.

The New York real-estate developer seeking the GOP nomination for president by stoking the fears and resentments of the white working class in a way not seen in years. His attacks on immigrants have garnered the press — along with touch talk on foreign policy. But he’s also placed hedge-fund managers in his rhetorical cites and has floated taxes and tariffs on “unpatriotic” corporations.

I am not endorsing Trump’s economic plan — far from it. What he’s unveiled so far is incoherent, inconsistent and includes several nods to the money class. (He supports the Bush tax cuts and an end to the estate tax, for instance.) But his rhetoric on taxes has broader implications than the Republican primaries.

“The middle class built this country, not the hedge fund guys,” he said Aug. 27. And he has been attacking companies that move overseas as a tax dodge — though his solution (lower corporate taxes) is questionable at best.

The point, as economist Peter Morici told CNN, is that his attacks are resonating — in the same way that his no-nothing assaults on immigrants have resonated — with a segment of voters who feel abandoned.

“One of the reasons he is winning votes is he’s talking about the macro issues that so frustrate many Americans and seem so blatantly unfair,” says Morici, a professor of economics at University of Maryland’s Robert Smith school of business. (CNN)

The GOP is not happy, as the New York Times reported Sept. 1:

“All of those are anti-growth policies,” David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, told the Times. “Yes he’s a businessman, but if those are the policies he implements, they’ll drive the economy into the ground and we’ll see huge drops in GDP, and frankly I think it would lead to massive loss of jobs.”

That’s rhetoric usually used by the right to attack lefty populists like Sens. Bernie Sanders (more on him in a bit) and Sherrod Brown. It is not the kind of rhetoric you usually expect one of the right’s pre-eminent lobbying outfits to lob at the Republican frontrunner. But we appear to be in a special political moment, one in which dueling strains of American populism are upending the political orthodoxy. On the right, we have Donald Trump playing to the worst tendencies of conservative populism – its nativist and racist strains – and making hay in the polls. On the left, we have the insurgent candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an avowed socialist running as a Democrat and drawing massive crowds.

There are differences between the two – Trump is a bully and a bore, someone who constantly talks about how people love him and spews invective at the people he dislikes or who question him. Sanders, while strident, has a long record of service and a consistent commitment to progressive policies. Both, however, have tapped into the deep dissatisfaction and disaffection many Americans are feeling, the sense that the country is floundering and that the economy only works for the powerful.

For progressives – many of whom are backing Sanders – Trump offers an opportunity, though not for the reasons the Beltway press might offer. Trump’s Know-Nothing approach to immigration is dragging the GOP even further into the nativist morass, and should ensure that Latinos vote Democratic in 2016. But that is not all. His populist rhetoric on taxes and the economy should create more room for Sanders to maneuver and cast more light on an economic system that works only for the few.

Sanders already has been banging the drum on economic inequality this campaign season, with other Democrats starting to follow suit. He’s getting the crowds, but not the campaign coverage. Trump’s foray into a version of economic populism could be enough to force the political press to take Sanders more seriously.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Facebook, hank.kalet

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2015

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