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As you might imagine, in this year of global political turmoil, I’ve been especially busy. Populism–a luminous term denoting both an uplifting doctrine of egalitarianism and a political-economic-cultural movement with deep roots in America’s progressive history–has been routinely sullied throughout 2016 by elites misusing it as a synonym for ignorance and bigotry:
- When right-wing, anti-Muslim mobs in a few European nations literally went to their national borders to block desperate Syrian war refugees from getting safe passage into Europe, most mainline media labeled the boisterous reactionaries “populists”;
- When flummoxed elites in Great Britain, frantic over Brexit, blindly blamed their people’s vote to exit the European Union on the “populist” bigotry of working-class Brits;
- When, back in the USA, the unreal reality show The Donald spooked the corporate/political establishment, which denied that Trump had harnessed public fury toward them, but instead smugly attributed his rise solely to “populist” bumpkins who embraced his demeaning attacks on women, Mexicans, Muslims, union members, immigrants, people with disabilities, veterans, and others. Indeed, the power elites sneeringly branded Trump himself a “populist.”
Excuse me, but if that bilious billionaire blow-hard is a populist, then I’m a contender in his Miss Universe contest.
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A dose of reality
In June, I was pleasantly surprised that, out of the blue, a major player in this year’s presidential race gave me a big helping hand in cleaning the manure off the democratic ideal of genuine populism. “I’m not prepared to concede the notion that some of the rhetoric that’s been popping up is populist,” said my fellow scrubber. He added that a politician doesn’t “suddenly become a populist” by denigrating people of other races, cultures, religions, and nations.
“That’s not the measure of populism. That’s nativism or xenophobia or worse. Or it’s just cynicism. So I would just advise everybody to be careful about suddenly attributing to whoever pops up at a time of economic anxiety the label that they’re a ‘populist.’ Where have they been? Have they been on the frontlines for working people? Have they been [laboring] to open up opportunity for more people?”
You tell ’em, Bernie! But wait–that wasn’t Sanders. It was Barack Obama, delivering an impromptu tutorial on the populist doctrine at a June 29 press conference.
Granted, Obama himself has hardly been a practicing populist. But he was nonetheless right about what populism is NOT. He also noted that real populists embrace the inclusive democratic values of egalitarianism and pluralism, which are presently under a ferocious assault by a horde of faux populists led by Trump, Ted Cruz, and other foam-at-the-mouth immigrant bashers.
While the incitement of anti-immigrant prejudice for political gain is shameful and socially explosive, it is certainly not new or uncommon in our country. Nor is it unbeatable. For more than two centuries, the US has experienced periodic eruptions of such ugliness from within our body politic, yet generations of Americans have successfully overcome the xenophobic furies of their times by countering the bigotry with our society’s prevailing ethic that all people are created equal–and with the realization that, after all, almost all of our families came from somewhere else. Indeed, the irrational fear of foreign masses and the insular demand to pull up the drawbridges loomed here even before the US of A existed, as revealed in this startling, mid-18th century plea:
“Why should [German immigrants] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together to establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
“The Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia, chiefly tawny. …And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are [most of] the Germans. …Why should we … darken [America’s] people? Why increase the Sons of Africa by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawnys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?”
This screed was not the blathering of some low-IQ lout in colonial America’s backwoods, but a socially accepted expression of the prejudice of that time penned in a 1751 essay by a supposedly sage and sophisticated man of the world: Benjamin Franklin!
To its credit, America has absorbed wave after wave of immigrants from all around the world, gradually blossoming into a dynamic, multicultural society. But now, 265 years after crotchety Ben tried to shut out those “Swarthy” Germans and Swedes (!), we’re confronted with another sinkhole in the path of progress: Donald J. Trump, the celebrity CEO who will “Make America Great Again,” because he is:
* The Amazing Wallbuilder! * The Preening Populist Imposter of 2017 * The Great Deporter, Able to Expel 11 Million Brown-skinned Residents in One Autocratic Blow! * The Colossus of the US Shoreline, Single-Handedly Keeping Muslims Out! * The New Nixon, A Throw-em-in Prison, Law & Order Strongman! * The Relentless Trumpeter, Rallying Racial Hostility Toward Black Protesters! * The Herculean Shredder of Our Constitution!
What did we do to deserve this? America is trapped in a nightmarish, nationwide funeral tour, burying a long, bleak procession of black men killed by police (The Guardian documented 306 in 2015 and 156 as of July this year), as well as interring police gunned down in two mass shootings by lone black veterans. Muslim Americans have become targets of hate solely because of their religion, dress, and foreign-sounding names. Meanwhile, America’s superrich are intentionally and brazenly knocking down the middle class and poor to further enrich themselves, aided by clueless, corrupt politicians who don’t care about the future of ordinary Americans or of America itself. In this tense time, along comes a swaggering billionaire braggart promising greatness by goading working-class white people into mollifying their pain and anxiety by despising those “other people” situated near them on the social-economic ladder.
Yet, the media establishment has put the “populist” crown on Trump, endorsing his absurd assertion that he might be a billionaire, but he’s “our” billionaire, fighting for us commoners!
I’m not telling anyone how to vote, and I certainly understand the inclination to grab the biggest stick you can find to whack the bejeezus out of those holding you and your family down. Trump has sold himself as the biggest, baddest stick around, the “outsider” who pummeled Jeb!, Marco, Ted, and the entire Republican establishment.
But I am here to say, don’t be a sucker. There’s not a single populist muscle in Donnie’s whole flabby, plutocratic body. He will sell out wage earners, small business people, and anyone else to serve his own needs or whims, as his lifelong record (as opposed to his recent rhetoric) reveals.
FIRST, his deplorable corporate practices. Donnie learned from Daddy Fred, who built his son’s inherited fortune by milking federal housing programs in the 1940s and ’50s, and then–as the landlord of these New York City apartments–flagrantly discriminated against black applicants. One of Fred’s tenants was Woody Guthrie, who was so appalled, he wrote about Trump’s greed and racism. No surprise then that son Donnie has enhanced his fortune by emulating the father’s business ethics, including engaging in wage theft, outsourcing his clothing line and other brand-name products to such low-wage countries as China and Vietnam, and underpaying undocumented immigrants engaged in dangerous construction work on his luxury projects. Also, as of June, Trump or his companies were defendants in 1,300 lawsuits–many of which were over stiffing cabinet makers, plumbers and other small business suppliers.
SECOND, read between his lies. Candidate Trump grandiosely says he’ll lift up the middle class, but his proposed economic policies would do the opposite by expanding the GOP’s old anti-labor agenda: giving massive new tax cuts to corporations and the rich, slashing public spending on programs that working families rely on, and embracing the laissez-faire ideological claptrap that Tea Party Republicans mindlessly repeat in their ceaseless efforts to drive down wages. On the minimum wage, he’s taken more positions than you’ll find in the Kama Sutra. First, he said $7.25 an hour was already too much; then he called for abolishing the wage floor entirely; then he mused that he might be open to an increase (but certainly not the $15-an-hour living wage that worker activists are fighting for). Even Trump’s “rock-solid” opposition to NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and other trade scams now looks to be a political bait-and-switch fraud, as indicated by his choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to be his VP and top policy “partner.” Pence is a notorious free-trade fanatic who pushed zealously to pass all eight trade deals that came before him while in Congress, and he’s been lobbying hard this year for passage of the TPP. This matters, for Trump says his Number Two will be the most powerful VP in history, serving as CEO of the executive branch, in charge of running both domestic and foreign policy. The Donald sees himself more of a hands-off chair of the board, dedicated to Making America Great Again.
THIRD, notice whom he’s vilifying, mocking, and bullying at his rallies and in his tweets. Overwhelmingly, they are terrorized migrants, Mexican immigrants he labels “rapists,” black protestors experiencing police brutality, disabled individuals, and so on. This pampered son of privilege wants America’s hard-hit, angry working people to elect him because he demonstrates the “courage” to be politically incorrect by kicking the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. Since he’s willing to do that, how long will it take him to throw those workers into the ditch, too?
Some might see Trump as a brilliant, can-do corporate chieftain (though his multiple bankruptcies among other business disasters make that assessment doubtful). Or they might be tempted to cast a protest vote to throw the political class into disarray. But people should consider the consequences and not fool themselves into thinking Trump’s a populist who’ll be on our side. In his heart, mind, and whole being, the central political truth about Trump is that he’s foremost a Trumpist–of, by, and for himself.
Racism and Populism
MLK on how plutocrats undermine populists
In March 1965, at the end of the historic Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights, Martin Luther King spoke from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. Within his eloquent remarks was this history lesson: [read more]
The widening chasm of inequality in our country today–separating the 1-percent of the 1-percenters from the rest of us–has spawned a rising rebellion that’s uniting the poor with the declining working class. Occupy Wall Street, Dreamers, Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, Elizabeth Warren, National People’s Action, Democracy Initiative, No KXL Pipeline, #FeeltheBern, Stop the TPP, the People’s Summit, and so many more grassroots challenges to the corporate order represent the coalescing of a genuine movement that’s really beginning to move.
So here come the “dog whistles.” A real dog whistle emits a frequency that dogs, can hear, but not humans. Similarly, dog whistle politics uses words that sound benign to most, but convey a subliminal, secondary message that can stir racial resentment in targeted voters. Instead of declaring, “We need to hold down black people,” the coded message says, “We need to hold down spending on these social programs,” or “We need to get tough on crime.” Such phrases–repeated incessantly by right-wing politicos, pundits, media, and think tanks–signal to financially stressed, mad-as-hell white workers who’re being discarded and disrespected by the economic and political establishments that their distress is caused by big government spenders who give “free stuff” to minorities and allow foreign workers to take their jobs.
And now people already on edge about their economic prospects are being told that the very lives of their families and the security of America itself are under assault–by roving gangs of black cop killers, murderous Latinos pouring in across our Southern border, and demonic Islamists imposing Sharia law and plotting jihad in our homeland. It’s dog whistling gone nuclear.
Trump’s howling speech at the Republican National Convention was a fear-mongering classic, with Trump whipping his nearly all-white partisans into a frenzy by depicting an American Apocalypse coming out of the evil darkness of dark-skinned people. Worse than that, it was calculated racism, allowing him to resurrect the lock-’em-up, law-and-order, police state agendas of Dick Nixon and George Wallace. Trust me to protect you from those beneath you, he shouted from the podium, thus diverting the people from looking up at the penthouse elites who’ve actually created the social divide, anxiety, and anger that really do endanger America.
This is why white populists must join black families and other people of color to confront and expose this coded racism–not only out of sympathy for targeted minorities, but also out of our mutual self-interest and commitment to the common good. As Bill Moyers points out, over the past 50 years, corporate and cultural right-wingers have joined hands to master the use of dog-whistle phrases (welfare queens, takers v. makers, illegals, states’ rights, voter fraud, and food stamp president) “to turn Americans against each other while turning America over to plutocrats.”
Ian Haney Lopez, author of the insightful and very useful 2014 book, Dog Whistle Politics, explains that by linking “government giveaways” to THEM (undeserving people of color sponging off hard-working, struggling whites) the whistlers not only fracture our movement’s interracial unity, but also undermine broad political support for unemployment benefits, college grants, Medicaid, parks, and other public investments that benefit all of us. As Lopez puts it: “When racism wins, everyone loses.”
Recommended reading: In Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, legal scholar Ian Haney López details the insidious effects of political pandering to racial fears.
López diagnoses the problem, but what can we do as individuals to heal the divides? If you’re white and can find talking about race issues more than a little awk, check out “How to talk to other white people about race (and why it’s necessary),” by Kayla Blau. Her story gives support and language that you might find very helpful.
And we can’t say enough about the day-to-day work of Race Forward, a nonprofit organization that works for “a world in which people of all races create, share and enjoy resources and relationships equitably.” https://www.raceforward.org/ Show them some love!