Trump set the tone of American populism 2016. Another Trump-like figure will sooner or later rear its opportunistic head even if the Democrats win.
It’s still the ‘American People’ vs ‘The Establishment’
Although even at the best of times they are a capricious and unreliable medium, as 2016 illustrated, the current polls once again indicate a victory awaiting the Democrats in the coming US Presidential Election. If the intention of the Democrats is just to win and defeat the present incumbent Donald Trump next month, the polls suggest they are to be successful. But if this intention is indeed the sole priority of the Democrats, they are laying the groundwork for their own future defeat.
To the disappointment of America’s left-wing populace, the Democrats nominated Joe Biden, a moderate to the bone, no matter how vivaciously Donald Trump and Mike Pence claim he is a sleeper agent for ‘radical leftism’. His victory in November means the defeat of Trumpism, so what is the problem? Put simply, it does not defeat populism; if anything, it catalyses populism’s spectre.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton epitomized ‘unpopular’. As the Guardian describes, ‘her checkered record on progressive policies, bland centrist message … probably did not help’. At points during her campaign, and even in subsequent years, Clinton ranked lower in popularity than Donald Trump himself; she may have won the popular vote, but she was not popular for her character. It was almost too easy for Trump to brand Clinton as ‘crooked Hillary’, given her public perception as an establishment career politician that she made little effort to distance herself from. The fact that she never visited swing-state Wisconsin during her campaign certainly played into the image of ‘aloof politician’. There’s a tangible reason Donald Trump’s promise to ‘drain the swamp’ (a phrase also used to great effect by Reagan) gained popularity, and why even today the Republican strategy is to paint opponents as establishment figures. In the recent Vice-President debate, after Kamala Harris named the types of people who had endorsed Joe Biden’s presidency, Mike Pence rebutted that most of the listed people were ‘people from Washington’. Conversely, according to Pence, Trump was a businessman representing ‘the American people’.
But that was Hillary Clinton. The Democrats have learnt from their past mistake — surely? No. At the end of the day, former Vice-President Joe Biden with the former district attorney of San Francisco Kamala Harris as his VP nominee screams ‘establishment’ just as loud as Clinton did. They received nominations from ‘moderate’ Republicans like John Kasich and from outward centrist Bill Clinton, who this year was revealed to have close links to Jeffrey Epstein. They are just as easily identifiable as the Washington politician; worlds away from the standard American worker and voter, especially to those in rural states who cannot relate to the almost metropolitan aesthetic of modern politics. To the progressive voters, hearing Senator Harris’ assurance that the campaign supported the continued practice of fracking did little to ease their dissidence. Biden’s good polling is not a resurgence of passion for the establishment, it is a rejection of Trump following his response to coronavirus, his distancing from the military officials he once lauded, and the collapse of the economy. Even with this staining her opponent, Kamala Harris’s favourability (%) rating has only a couple of times exceeded double digits. ‘Settle for Biden’ is anti-Trump, not pro-Biden.
The urban-rural wealth gap sustains populism
So, when the dust settles come November, assuming the polls are accurate this election, Joe Biden will become President. But the ground for populism will remain fertile and ready to be exploited. Not by Trump, but by a potential successor. The issues that led to the vitriolic dislike of Hillary Clinton and establishment politicians have not been resolved, they have simply been overshadowed by the pandemic and economy. Besides, the type of populism Trump fine-tuned — rejection of the detached, smug elite — can never fully be defeated in America where the livelihood of central New Yorkers is scarcely comparable to the welfare of people in rural Iowa or Kansas. The promise of employment is forever apt to be exploited, and the worker is forever susceptible to manipulation because there will always be the demand for employment; why shouldn’t the worker support the candidate that promises more jobs and a stronger economy? Putting faith in a promise, no matter how unrealistic, is far better than reaffirming one’s trust in the privileged politician who will never understand rural plights and stagnating labour markets.
The Democrats need a makeover
The Democrats must make the complete effort to repaint their image. A politician may always face margins of dissonance with the average American at the best of times, but efforts need to be made to negate that social divide as best as possible. An educated enough voter will look with scorn at the party who preaches messages of social mobility, falsified compassion and accountability, whilst accepting millions in donations from corporations who actively lobby to resist social mobility. How can a voter be expected to trust the ‘caring party’ if the majority of its senators and representatives are silent on holding bank executives accountable for their palpable contribution to the housing bubble and subsequent recession — whose ramifications hit the innocent citizens harder than it did the culprits.
If the Democrats are not willing to commit to this much-needed reformation, they have no excuse when Trump’s inevitable protégé emerges from the dark and sweeps a victory using tactics perfected in 2016. How soon will this be? Nobody can really say, but it seems an inevitability. If the Republican platform post-Trump is to return to the ‘moderate’ stance it adopted under Romney, this will only further fuel discontent with the standard voter. If a voter looks upon the only two feasible parties as virtually indistinguishable, they are already on track to be swayed by populism whenever it next rears its head.