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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Krugman: Trump’s Phony Populism Screws Working-Class Supporters

From Paul Krugman’s syndicated column, “Working-class voters duped by Trump’s ‘populism‘”:

Authoritarians with an animus against ethnic minorities are on the march across the Western world. They control governments in Hungary and Poland, and will soon take power in the United States. And they’re organizing across borders: Austria’s Freedom Party, founded by former Nazis, has signed an agreement with Russia’s ruling party — and met with Donald Trump’s choice for national security adviser.

But what should we call these groups? Many reporters are using the term ‘‘populist,’’ which seems inadequate and misleading. I guess racism can be considered populist in the sense that it represents the views of some non-elite people. But are the other shared features of this movement — addiction to conspiracy theories, indifference to the rule of law, a penchant for punishing critics — really captured by the ‘‘populist’’ label?

Political writers in the U.S. have struggled with the term “populism” for a long time, since it encompasses both pro-worker and racist movements. But they use it more frequently nowadays to describe the more authoritarian, racist movements that have emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. But Krugman pinpoints the crucial distinction between ‘populist’ movements in the U.S. and those in Europe.

…The European members of this emerging alliance have offered some real benefits to workers. Hungary’s Fidesz party has provided mortgage relief and pushed down utility prices. Poland’s Law and Justice party has increased child benefits, raised the minimum wage and reduced the retirement age. France’s National Front is running as a defender of that nation’s extensive welfare state — but only for the right people.

Trumpism is, however, different. The campaign rhetoric might have included promises to keep Medicare and Social Security intact and replace Obamacare with something ‘‘terrific.’’ But the emerging policy agenda is anything but populist.

All indications are that we’re looking at huge windfalls for billionaires combined with savage cuts in programs that serve not just the poor but also the middle class. And the white working class, which provided much of the 46 percent Trump vote share, is shaping up as the biggest loser.

For those who may be wondering why European populist movements deliver some benefits to the working-class, while the U.S. versions never produce any such reforms, the answer is the stronger labor unions in Europe, particularly in north Europe. Racist leaders in Europe know they have to defend and expand worker benefits to survive in a unionized economy. And so they do, even as the whip up xenophobic attacks on their immigrant workers, who are mostly from predominantly Muslim nations.

In the U.S., however, Trump’s cabinet picks and other actions so far have more in common with an all-out war on his white-working-class supporters, than an effort to improve their lives. As Krugman explains:

Both his pick as budget director and his choice to head Health and Human Services want to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and privatize Medicare. His choice as labor secretary is a fast-food tycoon who has been a vociferous opponent of Obamacare and of minimum wage hikes. And House Republicans have submitted plans for drastic cuts in Social Security, including a sharp rise in the retirement age.

What would these policies do? Obamacare led to big declines in the number of the uninsured in regions that voted Trump this year, and repealing it would undo all those gains. The nonpartisan Urban Institute estimates that repeal would cause 30 million Americans — 16 million of them non-Hispanic whites — to lose health coverage…And no, there won’t be a ‘‘terrific’’ replacement: Republican plans would cover only a fraction as many people as the law they would displace, and they’d be different people — younger, healthier and richer.

Converting Medicare into a voucher system would also amount to a severe benefit cut, partly because it would lead to lower government spending, partly because a significant fraction of spending would be diverted into the overhead and profits of private insurance companies. And raising the retirement age for Social Security would hit especially hard among Americans whose life expectancy has stagnated or declined, or who have disabilities that make it hard for them to continue working — problems that are strongly correlated with Trump votes.

“European populism is at least partly real,” wrties Krugman, “while Trumpist populism is turning out to be entirely fake, a scam sold to working-class voters who are in for a rude awakening.” Krugman warns that Trump’s supporters will try to blame President Obama and the Democrats for Trump’s failure to deliver any benefits to working families. They will also roll out media distractions and stunts and international confrontations to deflect accountability for  Trump’s failures.

For Democrats, the challenge is to stay focused on the core issues of economic opportunity and refuse to let Trump and the Republicans off the hook. “Above all,” concludes Krugman, Democrats “shouldn’t let themselves be sucked into cooperation that leaves them sharing part of the blame. The perpetrators of this scam should be forced to own it.”

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