President Trump - Popular or a Populist Like “Old Hickory”?
Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric and America first bluster has been considered by many to be “populist”. When you listen closely, is it more popular than populist? It’s more about him, his brand, playing down to the most base levels of racism and American xenophobia and delusions of grandeur than substance.
Traditional populism has a few distinct elements. It is a style of rhetoric used by a politician/party to tap into the sentiments of a large group of the electorate who feel alienated, disenfranchised and forsaken by the “elite” and the special interests who implement their wishes. Populism tends to play to the sentiments of a particular group of people such as farmers, labor or taxpayers and their moral outrage against the excesses of elites. It’s them vs. us; the little and forgotten vs. the powerful ruling class. In America, there has also been and continues to be an undercurrent of white nationalism, sexism and paternalism that are subtlety or not so subtlety articulated. Racism and/or xenophobia are often used as the context through which populist’s rally and galvanize the target group.
Andrew Jackson or “Old Hickory” was the first “populist” American presidential candidate. He ran against John Quincy Adams, a Harvard educated Phi Beta Kappa and son of America’s second President, John Adams. It was Jackson, the tough “every man” vs. Adams the elite “Washington insider.” According to Henry Watson at Smithsonian.com, “ His (Jackson’s) vision of the “people” had no room for people of color… Jackson’s populism was thus a Trojan horse for pro-slavery, pro-states- rights interests. He was a wealthy slaveholder himself, with no qualms about African-American bondage and deep hostility to abolitionism. He ignored the early movement for women’s rights, and his infamous policy of Indian removal partly stemmed from demands by his “base” for plentiful free land. Jackson ushered in “White-populism.” As Dr. Ronald Walters writes in White Nationalism Black Interests, “class plays a role in building alienation” while “race also plays a role in the process of White alienation, since it has the capacity to motivate groups across class lines.”
One of the fundamental tenants of Jackson’s presidency was the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands, better known as the Indian Removal Policy. Jackson said of this policy, “It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters. By opening the whole territory…to the settlement of the whites it will incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier....” Jackson went on to say, “It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power.”
Even though President Trump’s Executive Order is not the green light for EAP to complete construction of the DAP, he is obviously siding with the oil interests against the Sioux’s interests of sacred space, clean drinking water and a clean environment. This is eerily reminiscent of Jackson’s ignoring long standing treaties and his interests in enabling “…those States (or corporations) to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power.”
This policy is also consistent with Trump’s support of Israel’s annexation of Palestinian land and the continued illegal building of settlements. Emboldened by Trump’s win, Israel has ramped up its settlement expansion.
In his Inauguration Address, Trump spoke in a populist lexicon but in a much broader context. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed.” The jobs left the country? Well, he’s one of those who took jobs overseas and prospered as his clothing line is made in China.
In his speech, Trump tries to ignore the very racism that he tapped into to win. “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” Oh contraire’, just listen to the National Anthem “No refuge could save the hireling and slave; From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave…“ this country was founded on racism. The three 5ths compromise, the fugitive slave clause and the fact that the importations of enslaved Africans could exist for 20 years after the Constitution was ratified. These are just a few examples.” Dred Scott, Plessy, etc. etc. etc.
President Trump’s recent comments about taking Iraqi oil are eerily reminiscent of the phrase, "to the victor belongs the spoils" which was said by New York Senator William L. Marcy, in reference to the victory of the Jackson Democrats in the election of 1828. Trump said in his January 21st speech to the
CIA, “If we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place... So we should have kept the oil, but, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance.”
But Trump did not develop in a vacuum. His message was most recently articulated in 2011 by Sarah Palin, “The government created the problem…Today big business, big labor, big government, they have seats at the table. The little guy doesn’t but we’re the ones left holding the tab. We are paying the bill. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. This is not the way it must be.”
Trump like Palin may be more popular than populist. As stated above, populists are anti-elite but usually appeal to clearly defined categories of people such as labor or farmers, not the more general “all of our people” or “you, the people” as articulated by Trump or “the people” as stated by Palin. Also, populism is not anti-intellectual. As stated by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, “Populism, by definition, is anti-elitist. But that is very different from being anti-intellectual… The danger of an anti-intellectual politics is that it quickly becomes unmoored from real problems and real answers.”
Whether he is championing the Birther Movement, calling for the execution of the Central Park Five (who were proven by DNA evidence to be innocent), becoming consumed by the lie that his inaugural crowd was larger than Obama’s, building a wall to “protect our border” when according to the Center for Migration Studies cited in the National Review “nearly 60 percent of new illegal immigrants are believed to have entered legally on some sort of visa (or visa-waiver status, if they’re from a developed country) and then just stayed on after their time expired” or calling for a federal investigation into his false claim of voter fraud while ignoring the real issue of voter suppression implemented by the Republican Party, Trump has definitely become unmoored from real problems and real answers.
Is Trump Popular or populist? That we can debate. But what is apparent to all of us with clear vision and insight is that it’s not that he does not know the answers; it’s that he does not understand the questions. Trump is delusional and dangerous. As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said about President Bush 43’, he is "more dangerous than a monkey with a razor blade.”
Dr. Wilmer Leon is the author of Politics Another Perspective, Producer/ Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program “Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon,” on SiriusXM Satellite radio channel 126. Go to or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. and Dr. Leon’s Prescription at Facebook.com