Paul Krugman: Trump’s ‘populism’ is a cruel joke that only harms those he’s claiming to help

As president of the United States, Donald J. Trump has preached a right-wing brand of populism that often echoes Patrick Buchanan’s nationalist and protectionist themes and utter contempt for “elites” — and Trump’s rally in Orlando, Florida on Tuesday made it clear that he will be hitting those themes aggressively in his 2020 reelection campaign. But economist Paul Krugman, in a New York Times column published this week, outlines the many ways in which Trump’s “populism” is a cruel joke that only hurts the working class Americans he is claiming to look out for.

Krugman recalls that when Trump was running for president in 2016, he famously declared, “I love the poorly educated.” And Trump, Krugman notes, “sounded as if he might be a European-style populist, blending racism with support for social programs that benefit white people.”

Krugman unfavorably compares Trump to far-right Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, pointing out that Orbán talks like a populist yet has “promoted crony capitalism on a grand scale.” But at least Orbán, Krugman asserts, has offered “a bit of actual populism” and policies that “offer some benefits to the little guy” — whereas Trump hasn’t even done that much. And so many of the things that Trump has done as president, Krugman complains, have been terrible for the working class.

For example, Krugman writes, the GOP’s “2017 tax cut was a huge break for corporations and business owners. The handful of crumbs thrown at ordinary families was so small that most people believe they got nothing at all.” On top of that, Krugman adds, Trump “keeps trying to destroy key provisions of Obamacare — protection for pre-existing conditions, premium subsidies and the expansion of Medicaid — even though these provisions are highly popular and have been of enormous benefit to states like Kentucky and West Virginia that favored him by huge margins.”

Krugman goes on to say that while Trump uses tariffs to set himself apart from the GOP establishment, tariffs only hurt the “little guy.”

“Trump may believe that he can make up for his pro-plutocrat tax and health policies with tariffs, his one significant deviation from GOP orthodoxy,” Krugman observes. “But despite Trump’s insistence that foreigners will pay the tariffs, an overwhelming majority of noncollege whites believe that they will end up paying more for the things they buy.”

Although Krugman never mentions President Richard Nixon in his June 17 column, it should be noted that Nixon also championed a right-wing populism. But Nixon combined his anti-communism, tough-on-crime rhetoric, social conservatism and nationalist themes with a support for universal health care and social programs like Social Security and Medicare; Trump, in contrast, has done nothing but undermine the United States’ social safety net.

Krugman wraps up his column by stressing that Trump hasn’t “engaged in even a smidgen of actual populism,” thus giving Democrats a golden opportunity to offer a viable alternative if they play their cards right.

“The simple fact is that Trump isn’t a populist, unless we redefine populism as nothing but a synonym for racism,” Krugman asserts. “At least some in the white working class seem to have realized that he’s not on their side. And Democrats would be foolish not to make the most of this opening.”