Populism is defined as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” I begin with this because populism—along with fascism, globalism and a variety of other isms—is often misrepresented in the media and discourse, resulting in arguments over whether politician X is a populist or not. While often used as a dirty word, the term should be positive. After all, doesn’t it just mean following the public’s will?
Well, the reality is more complicated than that. Populists view society as a struggle between two groups: the corrupt elite and the honest people. Ideally, the people should be the average person, and the elite should be those who oppress them. The problem comes in when avowed populists have to define who falls into these groups.
Media outlets like the BBC and Time have linked far-right candidates across the United States and Europe to a new wave of populism. In many of these cases, the “corrupt elite” ends up being experts and existent politicians, while the “honest people” just so happen to include racists and nationalists. Obviously, this form of populism is misleading and dangerous, as many thinkpieces have said. However, I would argue that these examples are not a far-right wave in and of themselves but rather are the result of a greater public-private conflict in the making.
President Donald Trump is anything but a career politician. This was a point he took advantage of on the campaign trail, where he would rally his base with slogans like “America first” and especially “Drain the swamp.” In this way, he (and his disciples) claimed to call out the “corrupt elite” politicians with the goal of replacing them with his “honest people,” real red-blooded Americans. Clearly, he has appealed to populism.
Looking at his actions, though, his definitions of which groups are spoiled versus pure are a little … odd. While career politicians are bad because they are out-of-touch, bloated companies with poor working conditions are just fine. Making America business-friendly—even at the expense of workers and the public—is somehow justified because, well, at least it isn’t in line with what big-government people want.
These are not views limited to the far-right; any neoliberal could say the same things. As a matter of fact, we already have examples coming from America’s democrats. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks and butt of every joke for the past few weeks, has adopted a similar strategy. This time, though, Schultz has tried to use the failures of establishment democrats as evidence that he could accomplish the same goals better. At the core, though, his message is the same as Trump’s: The American public should not trust politicians and should instead trust wealthy businessmen.
This is insane, though. While lobbying and corporate interests have parasitized and twisted the system, we pay politicians to act in the interest of the people. To claim that corporate leaders, who have other commitments to their business empires, could do this better just does not make sense.
Clearly, then, this wave of populism is an attack on the public from private interests. Intentionally or not, business leaders want to make people more suspicious of government and more sympathetic to companies. But capitalism dictates that these companies don’t really care about people. It’s all about profit and control.
This is the true, insidious nature of populism in America: People are led to distrust the political system by professional manipulators with questionable motives. It is certainly a far cry from the optimistic view of populism implied by just its definition. The only hope is that we will all wake up to see these shams for what they are.
Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.