Move Over, Corporate Democrats. A New Wave of Left Populists Is on the Rise.

It’s 2018. Candidates don’t need the establishment anymore.

Theo Anderson

In spring 2016, a U.S. presidential candidate made the above prediction to Businessweek. That candidate was none other than Donald Trump, and he was speaking of the GOP. His words seem ludicrous, but Trump’s anti-corruption pose, populism and vaguely left-sounding economic rhetoric would ultimately take him all the way to the White House. Trump was also openly racist, misogynistic and unencumbered by facts. But he foregrounded economic decline and corruption — and the tight link between them— with a rhetorical force and consistency that always eluded his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. In a campaign speech in a small Pennsylvania town in June 2016, Trump noted that Pittsburgh’s steel had built much of the nation. But our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal,” he said. Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.” Political corruption, in other words, was the root of the nation’s economic stagnation. I alone can fix it,” he famously thundered at the 2016 GOP Convention. Of course, Trump’s policies bear no relation to his rhetoric. He stocked his administration with members of the corporate elite who pursue tax breaks for the corporate elite. He put the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration under the control of the industries they are tasked with regulating. Trump has, in short, infected our politics with new doses of corruption while posing as the antidote. Trump’s 2016 campaign against the rigging of our politics drew from a deep well of righteous fear and anger that neither major party was prepared to tap — because neither would rise to the moral challenge. Had it chosen to, the Democratic Party might have occupied the populist vacuum filled by Trump. But the party’s New Deal-era critique of concentrated wealth and power has been supplanted by a corporate-friendly worldview. To cite one of endless examples: In the 2017 – 18 election cycle, 11 of the top 20 recipients of financial sector donations have been Democrats. That sector is easily the largest source of campaign contributions to federal candidates,” according to OpenSe​crets​.org. House Speaker Paul Ryan ranks first, and Republicans take in more donations overall. But three Democratic senators place second, fourth and fifth: Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Tim Kaine (Va.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio).

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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