President-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric outflanked the Democrats in one crucial aspect this year: the idea of populism. Populism, the movement of the masses against the elite and powerful, has typically been utilized by Democrats in recent years to decry Wall Street and the “1 percent.” But in an election in which the Democratic candidate was a symbol of the establishment and ruling class, the Republican Party was able to steal the anti-elite rhetoric from its political rivals. Among the many issues where Trump’s policies will likely differ from his campaign rhetoric — especially given his decisions in the month after Election Day — few could be as stark as this appeal to populism. The swamp doesn’t seem to be draining all too quickly.
It starts with his Cabinet and closest advisers. One of the most important Cabinet members, secretary of the treasury, will be Steven Mnuchin, the finance chairman for Trump’s campaign. Trump repeatedly claimed on the campaign trail that “Wall Street has caused tremendous problems for us,” that he knows the guys at Goldman Sachs and that these people have total control over politicians. He even tied Hillary Clinton to Goldman Sachs in a final campaign ad, suggesting Clinton would implement policies to help the banking industry. Rhetoric such as this gave Trump the populist mantle. Interestingly enough, his pick for the most important economic position is a 17-year Goldman Sachs alum, who drove a Porsche in college and named the hedge fund he founded after an area near his house in the Hamptons. This doesn’t sound like the man to carry the populist torch Trump talked about.
And then he announced his nomination for secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross. When George W. Bush put his Cabinet together in 2001, he was lambasted for having too wealthy an array of advisers who were out of touch with the American people — their net worth was about $250 million. Wilbur Ross alone is worth about 10 times Bush’s entire Cabinet.
All told, Trump’s administration could be worth up to $35 billion! Let’s not forget Steven Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, who will be yet another Goldman Sachs alum with the immediate ear of the president. Raging against those affiliated with the banking industry and Goldman Sachs, Trump has surrounded himself with an awfully large number of them.
It’s warranted to criticize Trump’s Cabinet as out of touch because of the collective wealth of its members, but in reality it comes down to the policies they enact and how those will affect millions of Americans. And the policies he has suggested, at least early on, are in line with his choices for advisers. For example, Trump’s tax plan would eliminate the federal estate tax that targets 0.2 percent of the wealthiest Americans. Half of his proposed tax benefits would directly benefit the top 1 percent. He has said that the federal minimum wage should be abolished.
Trump and Mnuchin have said they want to “strip back” and dismantle the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Dodd-Frank, enacted in response to the Great Recession, was intended to reform and regulate Wall Street so that a similar crisis, like one created by recklessness on Wall Street, wouldn’t happen so easily again. It’s a symbol of the populist reaction to the Great Recession. Trump’s desire to dismantle it, jointed with his positions on taxes and the minimum wage, is a signal that the populist rhetoric of his campaign could end when he begins to actually govern.
When evaluating potential Democratic responses to the next four years of Trump, populism presents a powerful chance to take advantage of emerging voter tendencies. In terms of rhetoric, the likes of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and their mass of followers must carry the populist mantle. Attacking Trump directly for what he says won’t be enough — look no further than the election for evidence. Democrats would be wise to establish a singular, policy-oriented line of attack.
Trump rode into power on the wave of anger at the establishment, but now he’s the establishment, surrounded by the same flourishing fish in the same swamp. It’s time for the Democrats to become the party of populism — the party of the people — once again.
CJ Mayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.