--Published by Truthdig, January 24, 2017
We live in a nation of sound bites and short attention spans. So it’s not surprising that reporters and pundits parsing the 1,443-word inaugural address of Donald Trump have tried to distill the essence of the new president’s message as one of simple and straightforward populism.
This interpretation has been offered by commentators across the mainstream media’s political spectrum—from Charles Krauthammer and Tucker Carlson on Fox to Jake Tapper on CNN and Chuck Todd on NBC. Speaking during CNN’s live Inauguration Day coverage, David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former chief strategist, summed up the consensus when he termed Trump’s remarks a “full-throated … populist manifesto,” citing the speech’s attacks on the “Washington … establishment” and Trump’s pledge to bring back and protect American jobs.
Even some notable supporters of Bernie Sanders, such as Jill Yordy, director of his 2016 presidential campaign in Alaska, seemingly agreed. In a blog post published by The Hill on Friday, Yordy wrote, “I couldn’t help feeling that many of [Trump’s] lines would have been in Bernie’s speech had he won the presidency.”
To such various and sundry voices, I have a one-word response: Really?
Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t see a populist strain in Trump’s speech, especially with respect to jobs. It’s there. The question, however—and the one everyone should be asking—is: What kind of populism is Trump pushing?
Unfortunately, that’s an inquiry that can’t be answered in a sound bite. It’s an inquiry that demands context and a sense of history—analytical tools all too rarely deployed today.
In the generic sense, populism is a political movement or style aimed at promoting the interests of ordinary people, as contrasted with the privileges of social, economic and political elites. But populism isn’t, and never has been, a phenomenon of one size fits all.
There have been populist movements of the right and of the left, both demagogic and democratic. There have been movements that looked to restore the imaginary glories of an idealized nationalistic past, and those that have been inspired by the possibilities of an unrealized future.
Sometimes, at least at the outset, it’s difficult to discern where the populism of any given era falls along the political continuum. Not so for Trump. His populism is a classically authoritarian type, constructed on the cult of his wealth and celebrity, imbued with rhetoric and imagery that fuses the fate and fortunes of the nation with his personal rise to power, delegitimizes all agencies of opposition, relentlessly scapegoats the country’s alleged enemies, and propagates lies and “alternative facts,” large and small.
Invoking the old and dangerous slogan popularized by World War II-vintage isolationists and Nazi sympathizers such as Charles Lindbergh, Trump proudly declared in his inaugural address:
From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
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Like other right-wing demagogues who have come before him—including, yes, both Mussolini and Hitler, whose populism transmuted into outright fascism—Trump offered a catalog of destiny-altering promises. Among them were an end to what he called the “American carnage,” characterized by “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
He promised “to make America safe again” and to rid not just the country, but the entire earth, of “radical Islamic terrorism.” He vowed to do so by halting “the very sad depletion of our military.”
Above all, he promised jobs for “the forgotten men and women of our country,” and to reverse the “disrepair and decay of America’s infrastructure.”
The media’s fecklessness in the face of Trump’s inaugural speech isn’t the least bit shocking. Corporate giants in their own rights, the big networks live by the credo that “to go along, you have to get along.” We may never hear a genuine on-air debate about whether our 45th chief executive is the American coming of Mussolini or Hitler.
Mussolini, like Trump, based his mass appeal to a significant degree on the belief that he was a job creator. In a speech delivered on March 24, 1932, from a balcony overlooking Rome’s storied Palazzo Venezia, Il Duce not only promised more work for his countrymen, but added a very Trump-like admonition, no doubt with his jaw jutted forward, telling his supporters, “The watchword for every one of us must be resistance and ever more resistance. … You know, I always keep my promises.”
A story about Benito Mussolini in the March 24, 1932, edition of the Chicago Tribune. (Chicago Tribune)
Similarly, eerie echoes of Trump’s metaphor about “American carnage” can be heard in Hitler’s very first radio address as Reich chancellor on Feb. 1, 1933, in which the soon-to-be fuhrer spoke of the “appalling inheritance” that the German people were left with after 1918. “Filled with the deepest distress, millions of the best German men and women from all walks of life see the unity of the nation disintegrating in a welter of egoistical political opinions, economic interests, and ideological conflicts,” Hitler told an anxious nation.
“The misery of our people is terrible,” he continued. “The starving industrial proletariat have become unemployed in their millions, while the whole middle and artisan class have been made paupers. If the German farmer also is involved in this collapse, we shall be faced with a catastrophe of vast proportions. Starting with the family, and including all notions of honor and loyalty, nation and fatherland, culture and economy, even the eternal foundations of our morals and our faith—nothing is spared.”
Days later, on Feb. 10, 1933, Hitler repeated much the same message before a packed and impassioned crowd at Berlin’s Sportspalast.
The concepts of loyalty and allegiance to the nation were central to Hitler’s mission to rebuild the fatherland by rooting out and destroying all vestiges of pluralism and dissent. So, too, with Trump?
Perhaps the media’s single biggest blind spot in their inaugural reporting was their collective failure to notice, highlight and dissect Trump’s comments on this very subject, delivered at roughly the two-thirds mark of his speech, when he declared: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.’ “
As limp as the mainstream media may be, they have also become one of the new president’s favorite targets. Trump began his campaign with a warning that, if elected, he would work to “open up” our libel laws to make it easier for public figures to silence their critics. Since then, he has routinely maligned reporters as “dishonest,” and in an appearance at CIA headquarters over the weekend openly acknowledged that he is “at war” with the press.
Of course, we have a First Amendment in this country that Germany of the 1930s lacked. Nonetheless, our history—there’s that concept again, which can’t be reduced to sound bites—demonstrates that freedom of speech comes neither easily nor automatically. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the Red scares of the early and mid-20th century, the COINTELPRO operations of the 1970s, and the more recent upsurge in whistleblower prosecutions, those deemed disloyal are often left without constitutional protections.
It was one thing when Trump’s invective was just the stuff of late-night tweets tapped out by a private citizen on a smartphone. But Trump has become the most powerful public official in world, and his tweets now have the potential to become the stuff of official policy. The inaugural address was just the beginning.
So let’s get beyond tepid references to populism and find the courage to ask whether a new age of McCarthyism—or worse, an American brand of fascism—is dawning. It shouldn’t take Trump donning a mustache and armband for the media, and the rest of us, to demand an answer.