Signaling that it's going to work hard to elevate Donald Trump during the upcoming presidential campaign, The New York Times recently suggested that Trump and Elizabeth Warren are politically similar because both offer up a version of “populism.” They just do it from different perspectives, the article posited. Specifically, the Times dissected speeches that each gave on the same day last week. “The two back-to-back addresses laid out the competing versions of populism that could come to define the presidential campaign,” the newspaper noted.
This is wildly misguided. It's also a continuation of the media’s Both Sides Olympics, and represents a depressing preview of 2020 coverage, where journalists scramble to make sure Trump and whoever the Democratic nominee is appear to be somewhat similar, or at least of similar stature. (The Times is not alone on this: “Trump v Warren rallies preview possible 2020 populist duel,” read a BBC headline last week.)
The truth is, “populist” serves as a crutch. And when it’s used today, the identifier represents a lazy shorthand used to describe Trump’s grab bag of often-contradictory political positions. Words matter, which is why journalists should be reaching for “nativist,” “white nationalist,” and “authoritarian”—not “populist”—when identifying Trump.
Yet “populist” persists. And in the unfolding campaign scenario, that means elevating Trump, a congenital liar, a racist, and someone with questionable mental stability, to the same status as Elizabeth Warren, a U.S. senator and a Harvard Law School professor. It's a concerted effort to pretend that Trump is a serious person like Warren, and has given lots of thought to his political philosophy in terms of a populist agenda. In other words, it's a complete fantasy. But it's one the press is very comfortable promoting. In fact, it's one the press must promote during the upcoming 2020 campaign in order to continue its long-running pattern of trying to normalize Trump's behavior. (The seemingly impossible alternative is to aggressively call out Trump's radical and unsettling behavior.)
Reminder: Populism represents a political struggle on behalf of regular people against elite economic forces. It's an ideology that pits ordinary people against a self-serving elite, appealing to a sense that the political establishment has grown corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of everyday people. Today, Trump’s brand of pro-corporate, anti-worker politics represents the exact opposite.
Indeed, “populist” and “economic anxiety” were two of the media's biggest Trump cons of the 2016 campaign. Trump’s alleged “populism” enticed the press and provided journalists with an acceptable, nonthreatening way to address his primary and general election successes. It was a way to downplay white nationalism, race-baiting, and sexism as the driving forces of his campaign.