Wednesday 18 September 2019

Tim Stanley: 'Trump must close gap between populist rhetoric and reality - or risk losing power'

Losing hand: US President Donald Trump has failed his own populist brand of politics, and it may well cost him. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Pool via Reuters
Losing hand: US President Donald Trump has failed his own populist brand of politics, and it may well cost him. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Pool via Reuters

Tim Stanley

Donald Trump is on course to lose the 2020 presidential election. His approval rating hasn't cracked 45pc for more than two years and he's running behind key Democrats in the polls.

If he loses, a lot of people will blame his populist politics. The right will say: "Here's what happens when you depart from free-market capitalism."

The left will say: "Populism was really just white racism and there aren't enough whites to keep Trump in power."

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Populism, it turns out, isn't that popular.

But there is an alternative reading of the Trump presidency, one that says the real problem is that Mr Trump hasn't been populist enough.

Before I explain, a word in defence of the president.

However low Mr Trump's ratings may be, the journalist Justin Fox points out he was actually the second most popular leader at the G7 meeting in France.

Mr Trump has an approval rating of just 41.6pc, but Emmanuel Macron - globally celebrated as the nemesis of right-wing populism - is on 28pc.

This is a tough time everywhere to be in charge, similar to the late seventies and early eighties. At this exact point in their administrations, Jimmy Carter was on 32pc and Ronald Reagan 43pc.

But Reagan in mid-1983 was coming out of Carter's recession and, as the economy dashed for growth, spurred on by tax cuts, his popularity leapt to dizzy heights.

By contrast, Mr Trump is already sitting on an economic boom. So, why are his ratings so low?

Well, there's a growing argument among populist intellectuals that says Mr Trump has slightly bungled their project.

Populism on the right usually flies on two wings: cultural conservatism and an approach to economics that borders on class war - the little people versus the elites.

Mr Trump has exploited cultural conservatism by taking tough positions on abortion and guns, and kept the country at peace.

Right-wing populism's opposition to war confuses the critics. Isn't the right supposed to be pro-military?

Of course. But it's the epitome of decadent elitism to send young Americans to die in pointless wars.

That's an example of Mr Trump's gut populism: my people, my country, my culture should always come first.

The problem is that it's unclear how well he understands the Judeo-Christian settlement he is defending. When asked if he was an Old Testament or a New Testament guy, he famously said: "Uh, probably equal."

There's not much of Jesus's charity or love in Mr Trump's politics, and quite a bit of loudmouth chauvinism.

This disguises a softer side to his character: he deserves credit for taking on America's crisis of addiction to popping pills.

Opioid prescriptions are down dramatically since their peak in 2012, and overdose deaths appear to be slowing.

But Mr Trump's rhetoric eclipses accomplishment. Just when the country calms down, he'll tell a non-white congresswoman to go back to her own country, or announce he wants to buy Greenland.

Fatigue with unrelenting controversy is alienating the suburbs. Classic Republicans, such as small-town women and the college-educated, are abandoning the party.

To be sure, the president has also converted working-class Democrats in swing states. But what has he done for them that no one else could or would? He could answer that he has cut the taxes of middle earners by around $1,000 a year. But Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney would have done the same.

Republican elites point out Mr Trump's wins have often come when he governs like a textbook Republican - only to be undermined by idiosyncratic policies such as his trade war with China.

For a populist to really be a populist, they have to take on America's corporate bullies, too.

This is where right-wing populism hits a wall of its own contradictions.

When China put new taxes on US goods last week, Mr Trump tweeted that US companies were "hereby ordered" to stop doing business with China. If he's willing to order business around to kick China, why not do it to fight poverty?

Mr Trump has shrunk the Republican coalition by pushing out old-school capitalists, but hasn't expanded it enough by drawing in working-class populists. His tax cuts largely favoured the rich. He won't reform an absurd healthcare system, where it costs $32,000 to give birth.

The gap between the class war rhetoric of populism and reality is most apparent on the southern border, where progress on that "great wall" is slow. Some populists, like the pundit Ann Coulter, now accuse the president of treachery.

Some suggest that, for populism to work, it needs to tinker with American capitalism itself.

Among those daring to think the unthinkable are tech genius Peter Thiel, Fox host Tucker Carlson, writer JD Vance and Senator Josh Hawley.

The senator recently wrote elite choices and obsession with GDP growth are killing the country, that the opioid epidemic is a cry of "loneliness and despair".

Few of these names started out as Trump supporters; several changed their politics in recognition that he understood Middle America better than they did. (© The Daily Telegraph)

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