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Populists?


Alison Holmes investigates how we should now define Trump & Sanders


M


any publications from The New Yorker to Slate have


been bandying around the ‘P’ word to discuss the current presidential candidates, but Populism can be quite a slippery term. In an ideal world, it should be the


perfect description of American poli- tics. Founded on a (violent) wave of egalitarian ideals, but with the bal- last of a commitment to democracy, checks and balances, and the radical notion (at the time) that sovereignty rests in the people – surely all Ameri- can politics, defined by Merriam- Webster as “the belief in the rights, wisdom or virtues of the common people” – must have populist roots? All politicians seek to be popu-


lar, but few would actively embrace the idea of being a populist. Many commentators tut-tut the populist leanings of individuals and parties, though generally fail to recognize that they can come from the left as well as the right. Asked in the street, relatively few voters could identify a ‘populist’ policy – but they know what they like. So how is it that two distinctly American


populists are


running for the highest office in the land? In a race where to be the most ‘outside outsider’ is hard won ground, it is hardly surprising that populist


70 The American


credentials have risen to the fore. Most would would agree that


Donald Trump is a right wing popu- list. A billionaire who flaunts his posi- tion firmly in the 1%, he has still man- aged to strike a deep nerve in the American psyche. His litany of accu- sations against the government’s flaws both great and small has kept him at the front of a pack who have little to distinguish themselves from each other, yet few were willing to follow Trump to the alley in which he sought to fight. In the early days, the general trend towards merg- ing comedy, politics and the ‘reality’ genre gave Trump the much-needed oxygen of publicity. However, farce is never far from truth or tragedy and Trump is the product of a culture that has merged comedy and politics, belittling the political process and those who work in it. By the time the media elite realized that Trump was making real headway ‘out there’ the damage was done. Some would not concur that


Bernie Sanders is cut from the same populist cloth, but offer instead the more dignified identification of dem- ocratic socialist (etc.). However cast, Sanders has managed to turn a long political career inside-out to suggest he too is an outsider, an honest ‘rube’


who just wants to talk some sense into national government. It’s a line he has played for over 25 years - gen- erally from a catbird seat in the politi- cal establishment. Candidates are always shaped by


the larger political landscape and both Trump and Sanders are fighting a campaign at a time that may come to be deemed the pinnacle of the age of the professional political image makers. What started in the ‘70s and ‘80s with focus groups and the development of ‘hot button’ issues, evolved into detailed demographic analysis and ‘dog whistle’ issues. First 24 hour news, then online media demanded that politicians speak in sound bites and now in tweets while the pretense of a unified policy pro- gram falls further and further behind. Connect the issues? Explain how


tp pay for immigration or education programs? How terribly old-fash- ioned. The single issue campaigner, once outside the system speaking truth to power, has become the quin- tessential campaign manager, creat- ing both Trump and Sanders as a new breed of populist – or perhaps a very old kind of American. Throughout US history populism


has been part of the story. Demo- crats such as Andrew Jackson cham-


PHOTOS © GAGE SKIDMORE


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