Is ‘populist’ sometimes a euphemism for ‘stupid?’

I sort of felt like Gerald Seib, the Wall Street Journal‘s Washington bureau chief, was tiptoeing around something in this political analysis, which seems to go nowhere really, reaching no coherent conclusion (it read less like something a senior political writer is inspired to write than a reply dragged from a schoolboy by the question, “Compare and contrast these two politicians…”):

Could the nascent 2016 campaign turn into one of those elections that shakes up the system?

The question arises most obviously because of the summer sensation of Donald Trump, billionaire populist with a long history of giving to Democrats who has somehow tapped into a deep vein of working-class anger to become a current (though temporary) leader in the Republican presidential field. There are enough mind-bending contradictions in that sentence alone to at least raise the question of whether something broader is going on. The thought is only enhanced by the fact that the single hottest political draw right now is Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 73-year-old socialist who favors a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the breakup of big banks….

In fact, those are just two forces at work suggesting the system is straining to break loose from some of its traditional moorings. The combination of a wide-open race, populist strains at the base of both parties and big demographic changes all open the doors to destabilizing forces.

Polls suggest Mr. Trump’s resonance is greatest with disillusioned lower-income voters, illustrating that Republicans are trying to come to terms with a party that has grown more blue-collar, working-class and antiestablishment as it has grown….

Seems to me like he’s straining with that “populist” label in an effort to come up with a word that describes the appeal of both Trump and Sanders. With Sanders, I can see it, but with Trump? Really? A populist billionaire who revels into  his own excess? How can a guy who’s best-known catchphrase is “You’re fired!” be any kind of a populist?

Seib describes the GOP as “a party that has grown more blue-collar, working-class and antiestablishment,” but is that really who is applauding Trump right now? There’s a word that seems to be missing, and it describes a long-standing tradition in American politics: anti-intellectual.

I wouldn’t apply that label to the GOP in general. But it’s definitely the impulse that Trump is tapping into.

From the election of flat-Earther Andrew Jackson over the supremely qualified John Quincy Adams to the present day, there has been a perverse streak in the electorate that causes significant numbers to go for whoever is dumbing down politics the most.

I’m not saying the voters themselves are stupid (that would be anathema in American politics, right?), I’m just saying that sometimes, some voters have a sort of fit that causes them to convulsively embrace whoever is making the biggest jackass of himself on the political stage.

And at the moment, that is unquestionably Trump.

And yeah, there is a disturbing simplicity to Bernie Sanders’ vision of how to build a more perfect union. But to the extent that the two share a trait, is “populist” really the word for it?

67 thoughts on “Is ‘populist’ sometimes a euphemism for ‘stupid?’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    For a second there, I thought Joe Wilson was bucking to be called a populist. But then I read beyond the headline of the release, and realized he was just dressing up an anti-union bill in populist language:

    Congressman Wilson Sponsors Employee Rights Act
    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02) announced today that he is an original co-sponsor of the Employee Rights Act, legislation that empowers American workers and shields them from unfair treatment in the workplace:

    “I am grateful to cosponsor the Employee Rights Act. This legislation is critical to empowering American workers and shielding them from unfair treatment in the workplace. The Employee Rights Act establishes firm protections for America’s workers—to not join a union, to have a secret ballot, and, if they choose to join a union, to know how their dues are spent.

    “South Carolina is a staunch defender of right-to-work protections, even when threatened with multiple lawsuits from the National Labor Relations Board. For years, the President’s Big Labor Bully, the NLRB, has threatened to destroy jobs, invaded employee privacy, and encroached upon worker rights.

    “We know that job creation and economic growth comes from expanded freedoms and free markets. Right-to-work states, like South Carolina, have seen these benefits first-hand. We need to expand common-sense reforms, like those in the Employee Rights Act to protect American workers and create jobs.”

    Wilson joined Senator Orrin Hatch, Senator Lamar Alexander, Congressman Tom Price, and Congressman David Rouzer at a press conference earlier today where they introduced the legislation.
    Wilson serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.


    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Right, because a union is far more likely to treat employees unfairly than, say, their employer! [head explodes]

      1. Mike Cakora

        Unions have a proud history of abusing their members to benefit the leadership’s political preferences and personal wealth.

        The latest scams have been perpetrated primarily by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) through schemes its leaders cooked up with various state Democrat politicians to “rob” home-healthcare providers of a portion of the disability payments they received to care for severely disabled family members. Since Brad’s website holds hostage posts with more that one weblink, I’ll provide just one example here from Michigan.

        The two main federal disability payments are the Social Security Insurance child disability benefits and Medicare disability payments for adults under age 65. Each has an application process and once payments begin a family member usually serves as the caregiver because payments are modest. As many states do, Michigan established state-level oversight through its Home Help Services program.

        In 2005, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, created the Michigan Quality Community Care Council — commonly referred to as “MQC3” — ostensibly for the purpose of keeping tracking track of program’s 45,000 participants. However the entity also made it legally possible for the state to claim the participants were actually employees and therefore eligible for collective bargaining.

        Got that? With the stroke of a pen, the beloved governor twisted reality by legislating that payments to individuals for disability were really payments to the caregiver, and that the caregiver was a state employee! This was part one of the nefarious plan. Part two followed:

        The following year, Granholm signed a collective bargaining contract with SEIU Healthcare Michigan, after a mail-in ballot in which only 20 percent of the program participants voted. It is not clear how many in the program even knew an election was going on or what the ballot represented.
        “This evidence shows the truth about the Granholm-inspired unionization of those in the home help program,” said Patrick Wright, director of the free market Mackinac Center Legal Foundation , which first reported the union’s federal filing. “When given the choice, those in the program didn’t want to give the union a dime.”

        Thanks to the collective-bargaining agreement and “payroll deduction,” a portion of the paltry disability payments was diverted to the SEIU as dues.

        What could the SEIU do in return? Collective-bargaining was not possible because the payments for the programs was set at the federal level. Working conditions? Er, the folks were working in their homes. It was just another colossal scam intended to divert government funds from the needy through a union to provide contributions to favored politicians, usually Democrats. Taking much needed money from the disabled is abhorrent, but it’s what Democrats and their cronies do.

        As the linked article indicate, the election of Republican Rick put an end to this particular union abuse when he signed the state’s right-to-work law.

        Any more thoughts on the benevolence of unions?

        1. Mike Cakora

          Unions, primarily SEIU, have benefited from state-sanctioned skimming of disability payments in Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, California, and who knows where else.

          To attract and retain members, the unions do stuff likethis. Figure the odds.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    I think the common thread is anti-establishment (and yes, it is extremely ironic that the Donald is appealing to an anti-establishment crowd). Antiestablishmentarianism and populism have a lot of commonality, but not nearly a complete overlap. Sanders is against Big Banks (with a lot of compelling arguments) and Big Campaign Money. Trump is sticking it to the Big Business wing GOP, with its ideas of measured responses to immigration (that favor Big Business), and good manners, etc. Of course, Trump is the apogee of Big Business, but for some reason, his peeps haven’t made that connection–they just see that he’s successful and tells it like it is (as if) and can run the country like The Trump Organization, which I think they think means like the Oprah Show (but with no uppity blacks): “you get a car and you get a car and…”

        1. Karen Pearson

          Not if he uses his own money. oh wait, he’s already defaulted (gone bankrupt) several times.

          1. Doug Ross

            Are you in favor of abolishing the ability for people to legally declare bankruptcy? or just certain people? I’m very okay with making sure people pay back what they borrow. Are you with me?

            1. Doug Ross

              Think of how stupid all those big banks that everyone hates must be to continue to loan Trump money. He didn’t steal any of it. In fact, I bet they are lining up to give him more now to fund some of the projects he has going in New York:

              And I bet there are plenty of union construction workers who are thankful for Trump.. and the hundreds of New Yorkers who are employed as part of his workforce diversification program.

              I think he should shut down his hotels and golf courses and see which liberal businesses will step up to hire the thousands of employees his properties employ.

          2. Kathryn Fenner

            Default is not the same as going bankrupt. A borrower defaults when s/he/it does something that constitutes a default under the loan documents—usually failing to make payments, but also failing to maintain certain financial standards such as debt-to-equity ratios and so on. Bankruptcy is a federal procedure wherein a party demonstrates that the party’s liabilities exceed assets or cash flow exceeds ability to meet debt service. The bankrupt either gets a clean slate or an opportunity to reorganize without threat of foreclosure by the creditors. (Foreclosure, loosely, is when a creditor seeks to sell secured assets to repay a defaulted loan.)

              1. Karen Pearson

                Should have said bankrupt. Thanks for the clarification. Seems to me that that allows him to shed some debt.

              2. Kathryn Fenner

                But since W was also a business failure, I doubt the GOP will hold this against Trump….

  3. Mark Stewart

    We have crackpots leading the polls because the mainline candidates are so seriously flawed. I would write off populism, too, except for that unique historical exception: Teddy Roosevelt.

    I can’t believe I am saying this: Is Scott Walker really the best candidate in the running – from either party? The opportunity here is for some credible contenders to vigorously leap into the race(s) after the first debates. We can only hope…

      1. Mark Stewart

        The easy substitution for Hillary Clinton is Kirsten Gillibrand. That would be an awesome development for the Democrats. Hopefully a palace coup is brewing inside the Clinton machine (these are after all, first and foremost, people who want to be in power).

        If he were 10 years younger, Jerry Brown would be an interesting candidate for them as well.

        As I said, Walker probably has the best shot for the Republicans. Jeb is a more credible candidate than Hillary, but he is just as much of a spoiler for his party as she is for hers. Marco Rubio could have been in it for real, but he just keeps on being himself. And that isn’t going to propel him forward.

        The single worst possible outcome for the country, no matter one’s political outlook, would be a Clinton vs. Bush general election. I think both the voters and the power brokers are going to wake up to that fact over the coming months.

    1. Norm Ivey

      On the Republican side, I’d suggest John Kasich. For the Dems, Jim Webb. That would be a campaign of substance. Both are serious, thoughtful politicians. I trust them both. It’s a shame that Trump and Sanders get all the attention. (I’m not equating the two–Sanders is much more serious, but too far left to get elected).

  4. Doug Ross

    There is a large segment of the population that is fed up with the establishment candidates and business as usual. There are all the Democrats who got duped into believing Obama was going to be a game changer and the Republicans who are tired of rich legacies like Bush and Romney buying their way into office.

    Now Democrats are left with a retread in Hillary Clinton — Reason magazine suggested that Hillary would have to kill a puppy on live TV to lose any votes. What does it say about a party that would vote for a candidate no matter what?

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Um, Reason Magazine does not, in fact, know what voters would do in the very unlikely event HRC killed a puppy on live television….

      1. Doug Ross

        “very unlikely event HRC killed a puppy on live television….”

        So you’re saying there’s a CHANCE she might do it?

    2. Mark Stewart

      Hillary cannot gain enough votes to win. If she had any integrity she would step aside – now.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Say what???

        Consider two facts:
        — The nomination is hers.
        — The GOP in general currently has WAY higher negatives. (Can’t remember where I read that this morning, but it was dramatic.)

        I’m not saying she OUGHT to win, or ought NOT to win. She just has a really fine chance…

        1. Mark Stewart

          You want to wager that Hillary wins the nomination? I’ll take that bet. I don’t bet on politics, nor on human impulses – but this one is a safe bet.

          Someone is going to seize the opportunity and give her one quick shove right off the political stage.

        2. Doug Ross

          The nomination was “hers” in 2008. She’s not a good candidate on the trail. Too sheltered, too packaged. She doesn’t connect well with voters personally. She lacks the energy of the day-to-day grind it out politician. Whatever faults Romney and Obama have, they both demonstrated a passion for winning the job. Hillary demonstrates a “just get me to the coronation” attitude.

          What makes her a better choice next year than she was eight years ago? Benghazi?

          1. Mark Stewart

            Her email server.

            When senior administration officials of various agencies have very nearly been charged with felony crimes for taking home classified information on their laptops; it is hard to imagine how transmitting classified documents through a home-based, unsecured (and extra-governmental) server would not similarly be viewed as a serious crime. Politics notwithstanding…

            1. Zombie Richard Nixon

              When the President Secretary of State does it, that means that it’s not illegal.

            2. Bryan Caskey

              My favorite part of the e-mail scandal (so far) is that she printed out 55k pages of actual paper for Congress in response to their request for her e-mails, but she gave all the same information to her personal lawyer via a thumb-drive.

              That’s some expert-level litigation style trolling, right there. By the way, since we know that some of the e-mail contained classified information at the time she sent it AND some of the information is classified now, I really hope her lawyer is cleared to receive classified information, or that’s another problem right there. I don’t think that just being a lawyer automatically makes him a safe harbor for classified information.

              Eh, it will never come to anything, because there’s no way that Obama is going to allow Hillary to get tangled up in any actual criminal prosecution. He’ll hold the DOJ back so as not to hurt the “team”. No special prosecutor, no nothing.

              And she’ll be our next President.

              1. Doug Ross

                Unless, Bryan, Obama is holding back til the latest possible point to destroy Hillary but still put up another candidate? Remember, Obama was schooled in Chicago politics and he may just be waiting to drop the hammer for Clintonista dirty tricks back in 2007-8. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Obama unleashes the DOJ and then drops the mic.

                But, no, you’re probably right. Hillary is coated in the same teflon that Reagan was.

        3. Karen Pearson

          Right now, the Republican runners (by and large) are doing such a good job of slitting their own throats that no one, not even sane Republicans (of which there are many) will look at any of them seriously by the time the primaries roll around.

          1. Doug Ross

            And yet no matter what happens over the next 15 months, the split between the winner and loser will be no more than 5% nationally. There’s no way on this Earth that Hillary gets more than 52%.

  5. David Carlton

    Certainly anti-intellectualism is “populist,” because intellectuals are elites in the most traditional sense; their claims to authority are based neither on democratic election or the imprimatur of the market (If we’re so damn smart, why ain’t we rich?). Furthermore, a lot of us seek to maintain and augment our power by allying with dangerous underclasses like those rapacious Mexicans. . This sort of both-ends-against-the-middle paranoia is intrinsic to Populism (The Omaha Platform of the Populist Party spoke of “the two great classes–tramps and millionaires”), which identifies “the people” with the “producing classes.” Bankers, bureaucrats, professors–we’re all people who use ill-gotten authority to rip off the people who really do the work, and seek allies among the “taker” underclass. For now, at least, Trump’s claims to authority are based on (a) wealth, and the appearance that he “earned” it, and (b) the polls. Despite his wealth, that gives him “populist” street cred, at least for the nonce. Frankly, though, I’m with Nate Cohn of the Upshot; he’s mainly a Flavor of the Month, and those who want a showman will move on after a while.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I’m thinking the number one reason Trump is topping the polls is name recognition. Now, if you put him up against, say, Kim Kardashian (is she old enough to be elected?), I wonder who would win. Make it Kris Jenner–she sure knows how to build an empire!

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, that’s part of it. I’m sure the numbers for Trump include some people who don’t know anything about him (and therefore are not showing approval what what he says and does) except that they’ve heard the name…

      2. Karen Pearson

        Will Kardashian or Jenner declare as running for the Republican nomination next?

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    There’s a lot of hype about the Buckley-Vidal “debates” of 1968 in the media now. Where is Mr. F’Buckley when you need him?

  7. bud

    The term “populist” is just a convenient label used to describe politicians who support issues that benefit the common man over those in power who game the system to the benefit of the wealthy. Bernie Sanders has described himself as a socialist, not a populist. That too is just a relative term. Sanders isn’t likely to push for a Soviet Union style economic system but would move the country in a direction that would moderately alter the current version of the guilded age. All the Republicans, and to a lessor extent HRC, would push for more of the same failed trickle down, Ayn Rand policies that continue to push our nation down in most international rankings. So let’s not denigrate Sanders because he comes across as eccentric. He has some great ideas.

  8. susanincola

    Donald Trump feels like he hits sort of the same nerve that Newt Gingrich hit last time, even though they would disagree on a lot of things. But Newt was saying outrageous things that people could feel strong and angry about then, and Donald seems to evoke a similar response in supporters.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          and what is wrong with that? She honors her vows. I don’t recall any part about “till death or that ho who works for you do us part.”

    1. Scout

      I agree, and now Huckabee is trying to get in on the game, I think, with his comments about the Iran deal and the holocaust.

      Lindsey Graham was on This Week Sunday and said some astute things. I don’t always agree with him but I thought this assessment was pretty on target, and it was nice that someone in the party was acknowledging it.

      From Here ( )

      ‘ Graham said he believes there’s a market in both political parties for candidates who say “outrageous” things.

      “There’s a market in my party for people if you say that [President] Obama’s not born in America — that he’s actually born in Kenya — there are people who want to believe that,” he said.

      “If you said [former President George W.] Bush was a war criminal or he’s stupid, there’s a market for that on the other side,” Graham later added.

      On what Trump offers the party, Graham argued that “he’s appealing to fear and prejudice, and there’s a market for that.” But he said he believes that is not good for the country, even though there may be a “market” for it. ‘

      I agree in general – just because there is a market for something doesn’t make it good. There are some who seem to think that the market is like a god and that letting market forces take their course can solve any problem – but the results are not always a good thing.

  9. Harry Harris

    There are always groups of potential voters who respond to attacks on “those people.” Trump and Sanders couldn’t be more different, and their appeal isn’t nearly similar. Trump’s supposed leader numbers are a relatively small segment of a party that has become a default haven for angry folks ho like bomb-throwers. He’s likely topped-out at at out 15-20% of the 35% or so self-identified Republicans. When the field narrows, he’ll still feed his few and be passed by more serious contenders. It’s interesting to see Cruz and Huckabee trying to out-nasty Trump (tall task) in hopes of inheriting the angry folks and xenophobes when Trump fades away.
    Sanders is building support as voters actually begin to know his policies and personality beyond the labeling and mischaracterization. He has a ceiling among Democratic voters because of being unknown, unconnected politically and campaign money-wise, but many Democrats find Hillary too connected to monied interests.

    1. Doug Ross

      ” many Democrats find Hillary too connected to monied interests.”

      Yet they will vote for her no matter what once next year rolls around. Most couldn’t be bothered to even spend 15 minutes trying to understand the difference between her and Webb, O’Malley, Sanders, and Chafee.

      1. Harry Harris

        Actually, the ones who don’t like her big-spender connections are probably the most likely to know the real positions of other candidates. The more blind supporters go along with the notion that she can win, get things done, and is better than any alternative on the Republican side. I like her broad preparation and her grasp of many issues, her acquaintance with many political leaders. I don’t like her bent toward militarism, her attraction to big money, and her timidity about getting out front on important issues.

        1. Brad Warthen

          Harry, what I think you mean by her bent toward “militarism” — which I would call her understanding of our international interests and obligations, of which military deployment is but a part — is the very thing I like about her.

  10. Bryan Caskey

    Maybe Trump and Sanders can both run in the general, and they can work together to kill the two-party system.

    1. Mike Cakora

      Whoa, gonna be a lot of crucifixes hitting the market suddenly. Sadly, I don’t think that there’s much of a market for them here. Maybe Africa?

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