What’s Left of Trump’s Populism?

Conservative pundit and Trump supporter Rich Lowry agrees that Trumpism is in crisis — just not for the reason most people assume.

Trumpism is in crisis.

This isn’t a function of poll numbers, or the Russia controversy, or any other melodrama of the past three months, but something more fundamental: No officeholder in Washington seems to understand President Donald Trump’s populism or have a cogent theory of how to effect it in practice, including the president himself.

A lot of ink has been spilled recently in an attempt to define populism in the Trump era. But let’s simply stipulate that it means making an appeal to white working class voters. It’s interesting to note that Lowry admits that even the president himself doesn’t seem to have a cogent theory of how to effect that in practice. Who would’ve guessed that a billionaire who inherited his fortune wouldn’t have a clue about how to actually address the needs of white working class Americans?

That lack of awareness was on display when Trump pressed for passage of the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare — which would have disproportionately hurt the very people his so-called “populism” targeted. Similarly, most economists have determined that Trump’s tax plan is more designed to benefit people like him than white working class Americans.

On Tuesday, Trump made a show of including coal miners in his signing ceremony for the order to begin work on rolling back Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In what looks like a populist appeal, he promised them that they’d be going back to work. But you know who is most pleased with this action taken by Trump? More than the actual miners, it is people like Robert Murray, founder and chief executive of Murray Energy, the largest privately-held coal mining operation in the US. He summed up his views on climate change like this: “We do not have a climate change or global warming problem, we have an energy cost problem.” But take a look at what Murray himself said about coal mining jobs:

Trump has consistently pledged to restore mining jobs, but many of those jobs were lost to technology rather than regulation and to competition from natural gas and renewables, which makes it unlikely that he can do much to significantly grow the number of jobs in the industry, said Murray.

“I suggested that he temper his expectations. Those are my exact words,” said Murray. “He can’t bring them back.”

Beyond that, Trump said that he’d bring back those jobs because he supports “clean coal.” What Trump doesn’t know or tries to ignore is that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama also supported clean coal. The latter even devoted $3.4 billion in funding for pilot clean coal projects as part of his stimulus package in 2009. The end result is that, while carbon capture might work, it is way too expensive to compete with cheaper energy sources and has been almost completely abandoned by private industry.

The truth is that Trump’s economic populism consists of promises based on lies. But there is one arena of his populism that is actually moving forward – albeit in fits and starts. That is his appeal to xenophobia. While the administration’s travel ban is being held up in the courts, its message is spreading around the globe.

Nearly 40 percent of colleges are reporting overall declines in applications from international students, according to a survey of 250 college and universities, released this week by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The biggest decline is in applications from the Middle East.

In this country, the Trump administration’s deportation force is sending undocumented immigrants farther underground. As was predicted, victims of crime now fear reporting it to law enforcement and children are being pulled out of free lunch programs at school for fear of being deported. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is planning to pull federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities,” and has broadcast that he will no longer pursue police brutality investigations.

To the extent that these kinds of activities address the concerns of Trump’s base of support among white working class Americans, his populism is solely based on what many of us assumed it would be all along…white nationalism. The only question is when and if any of his supporters who thought his presidency would be about anything else will catch on.

UPDATE: Another one of Trump’s so-called “populist” appeals is going down the tubes. Apparently he’s only going to try to make modest changes to NAFTA.

…Jeffrey Schott, a trade scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics…noted that a number of the proposed negotiating objectives echo provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact among Pacific Rim countries. Mr. Trump campaigned heavily against the TPP.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.