The Utter Emptiness of Trump’s Populism

In Europe, right-wing demagogues steer material benefits to working-class supporters, but the current U.S. president has delivered nothing of the sort.

Donald Trump
Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

President Donald Trump is a big fan of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, which, like him, demonizes immigrants and the press. Trump traveled to Warsaw to meet the party’s leaders less than six months after taking office, before he visited Britain, Germany, or France. In September 2018, one day after the European Commission sued Andrzej Duda’s government for undermining the Polish judiciary, Trump praised the Polish people for “standing up for their independence, their security, and their sovereignty.” And when Duda visited the White House this June, Trump offered what The New York Times called “an elaborate show of support,” including “a rare and showy F-35 jet flyover.” What Duda’s government has done “over the last five years,” Trump effused, “has been something that the world has watched and the world has marveled at.”

Trump was exaggerating. Poland’s government has not become an international model to anyone but Trump and his fellow authoritarian hyper-nationalists. But inside Poland itself, many are indeed marveling. Last month, Law and Justice pulled off what one observer called “the largest triumph in the history of [Polish] parliamentary elections.” It won reelection by defeating its closest rival by a whopping 16 points.

But far from boding well for the current occupant of the White House, the success of Duda’s party in Poland helps explain why Trump’s approval rating is stuck at about 40 percent. Law and Justice has built a political majority by doing more than just playing on public fears and resentments. Unlike Trump, it has offered its working-class supporters genuine material benefits, too.

Poland, like the United States, is divided between young, educated, urban, internationalist cultural liberals and older, rural, nationalist, and nativist cultural conservatives. But unlike the United States, Poland isn’t equally divided between parties of the left and the right; Law and Justice is politically dominant. That dominance may stem in part from the party’s growing control of the press. But there’s more to it than that. The single biggest reason for Law and Justice’s popularity, Aleks Szczerbiak, an expert on Polish politics at the University of Sussex, argued in a blog post last year, is that “the government has delivered on several of the high-profile social spending pledges” it made when first elected, including an initiative that offers every family a monthly subsidy of roughly $125 a child. This program has helped cut Poland’s rate of extreme child poverty from almost 12 percent to less than 3 percent. Law and Justice has also increased payments to the elderly and pledged to hike the minimum wage. Business groups have grumbled, but as the Times notes, Duda’s government has “built a floor under low- and middle-income families” that is “wildly popular.” It has established a political majority by doing what Trump has not: going right on culture but left on economics.

Law and Justice isn’t alone. Other far-right European parties have also expanded—or promised to expand—the welfare state. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has established what The Economist calls “New Deal–style public-works programmes.” Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom has slammed the Dutch government for cutting spending on health care. Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Rally has criticized the free-market reforms of French President Emmanuel Macron while demanding higher welfare payments and a lower retirement age. Even Boris Johnson has irked corporate leaders in Britain by proposing to boost the minimum wage and spend more on the National Health Service.

Trump hasn’t done any such thing. Other than on trade, he’s utterly abandoned the economic populism that he touted during the 2016 campaign. As a candidate, he vowed not to reduce Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. In office, he endorsed a push to turn Medicaid into a block grant, thus leaving it vulnerable to dramatic cuts. On the campaign trail, he pledged to end the carried-interest deduction that benefits the private-equity and hedge-fund industries and promised not to cut taxes for the rich. As president, though, he signed a tax cut whose benefits go mostly to the wealthiest and offered little support when Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee pushed for a child tax credit vaguely reminiscent of what Poland offers. Candidate Trump suggested raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour and instituting a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. In office, he has backed off both.

Trump has done all this even though his populist economic rhetoric probably helped him win the presidency. Most Americans, including most Republicans, want to raise the minimum wage. Most want the government to spend more on infrastructure. Most want the government to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and require health insurers to cover preexisting conditions. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has pointed out, one of Trump’s selling points to working-class whites was that, in contrast to Mitt Romney, he “was a culture warrior instead of a plutocrat.” Trump’s pro-safety net rhetoric was likely one reason that Americans in 2016 deemed him more moderate than any other Republican nominee since 1972.

His reversals, by contrast, have cost him. The congressional GOP’s push to repeal Obamacare, which Trump backed, was wildly unpopular and helped Democrats regain the House of Representatives in 2018. Most Americans opposed Trump’s tax cut. And his plutocratic agenda may help explain why, despite a strong economy, barely over one-third of Americans, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, believed Trump “cares about people like me.”

Why hasn’t Trump followed Law and Justice’s formula for success? One answer is that he finds the welfare state boring. While Trump talked about Medicare, Social Security, and the minimum wage in 2016, they weren’t near the heart of his campaign. What roused his crowds was racial and cultural resentment. And again and again during his short political career, Trump has prioritized subjects that command media attention and excite his base over subjects that might help him expand it. He’s happy to talk about trade, an economic issue that allows him to demonize foreigners. But a topic such as expanding the child tax credit may be unbearably dull to someone whose attention span is as short as Trump’s and whose grasp of public policy is as thin.

Trump also lacks the political skill to overcome the Republican Party’s deep-seated antagonism to redistributing wealth. In Europe, the far right has found it easier to embrace the welfare state because European moderate conservatives were already less hostile to it. The same ideological gap that exists between Trump and Boris Johnson existed between Romney and David Cameron. Shifting the Republican Party’s approach to the welfare state, therefore, would have required prolonged skirmishes with a phalanx of lobbyists and politicians determined to preserve the privileges enjoyed by corporations and the very rich. Trump has few experienced, influential Beltway Republicans to help in such an effort. Just as there aren’t many prominent, credentialed, GOP foreign-policy advisers who want to withdraw American troops from Asia and the Middle East, there aren’t many prominent GOP domestic-policy advisers who want to expand the welfare state. And Trump doesn’t appear to have looked very hard. So he’s ended up with a domestic policy quarterbacked by Mick Mulvaney, the budget director and acting chief of staff, who lets Trump tweet his heart out while pursuing a right-wing economic agenda that has little public support beyond Wall Street and K Street.

Trump’s lack of interest in reshaping GOP domestic policy—and his lack of skilled allies in doing so—has made it easy for Republican elites to trade their acquiescence to his racism and corruption for his acquiescence in their effort to starve and dismantle the welfare state. After Trump considered imposing fees on corporations that stashed money abroad to pay for his infrastructure plan, or imposing a gas tax, he quickly relented in the face of opposition from business groups and congressional Republicans.

When Paul Ryan was asked in March 2016 whether he would endorse Trump, the then–House speaker tellingly suggested that it would depend on whether Trump endorsed “our bold, conservative agenda,” which included tax and spending cuts that contradicted Trump’s campaign promises. And when Ryan retired from Congress in 2018, he cited as among his top achievements the $1.5 trillion tax cut—geared mostly to the wealthy—that Trump had signed, despite his campaign promises. While Ryan had “indulged Trump on a personal level,” noted Yglesias, Trump had “embraced Ryan’s vision of lower taxes on the rich and a stingier welfare state, even though he campaigned promising the opposite.”

The alliance between Big Business and authoritarian demagogues is an old story. Joseph McCarthy so shamelessly fronted for the soft-drink industry that he was dubbed the “Pepsi-Cola kid.” Had Trump not assented to Ryan’s agenda, it’s unlikely that his reelection campaign and its GOP auxiliaries could have raised more than $300 million so far this year. But Trump’s experience also reveals that it’s far harder in the United States than it is in Europe for a hyper-nationalist movement to also be a truly populist one. It’s a reality for which the Democratic candidates seeking to supplant Trump should be deeply grateful.

In explaining his party’s ambitious effort to provide economic security to Poland’s working class, Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski recently insisted, “A person whose pockets are empty is not really free.” If Trump spoke—and governed—that way, he might be on his way to winning reelection by 16 points, too.