To Defeat Donald Trump, Unite Behind a Populist

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A populist fervor is sweeping the Western world. Populist parties, both left and right, are recording meteoric gains across Europe as the old establishment parties struggle for survival. The United States is no exception to this trend, which means that a populist is likely to win the 2024 US presidential election. RFK Jr.’s Policies + PoliticsRead More

A populist fervor is sweeping the Western world. Populist parties, both left and right, are recording meteoric gains across Europe as the old establishment parties struggle for survival. 

The United States is no exception to this trend, which means that a populist is likely to win the 2024 US presidential election. 

That is bad news for our country, because Donald Trump is running as a populist. While he certainly appeals to some of the darkest impulses in the national psyche, it would be a mistake to attribute his appeal to racism, xenophobia, and hateful ideology alone. To do so is to underestimate and insult his supporters, many of whom voted for Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 — sufficiently demonstrating that a large part of his support is neither racist nor fundamentally right-wing. 

Those who want to prevent the catastrophe of a second Donald Trump term must understand the nature of his appeal, not just as a conservative, but as a populist.

Populism can take on a leftist or a rightist character. These categories fail to capture the essence of the uprising in Europe or the U.S. While opposition to immigration is strong in both places, so is anger at economic inequality. When the establishment ignores or denies that anger, explaining it away as racism or ignorance, demagogues will exploit it and channel it into jingoism and xenophobic hate.

The Vietnam era offers an historical precedent. In 1968 my father led a multiracial populist movement that would likely have propelled him to the White House had an assassin’s bullet not cut his life short. In 1972, millions of his white supporters flocked to the anti-establishment candidacy of the segregationist George Wallace, whose political views were diametrically opposed to my father’s. 

There is no Obama in 2024; nor a Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden’s cognitive infirmity only exacerbates his disadvantage as a thoroughly establishment candidate. The lack of public enthusiasm, the lack of real buzz for any of his potential replacements, along with their lackluster poll numbers, confirms that an establishment candidate is unelectable.

Democrats would do well to honestly consider why in a head-to-head matchup, I poll roughly equal to Donald Trump or even slightly ahead of him, while no Democratic candidate comes close. What is it that allows me to do so much better?

 It isn’t the Kennedy name. Whatever help that lends me has surely been more than offset by the relentless calumny leveled at that name in the mainstream press.

No, the reason is that I, like Donald Trump, ride a mounting wave of populist fervor. My style, my tone, and my policy positions on numerous issues couldn’t be more different from his, but we share an appeal to the alienated and the dispossessed. My highest level of support is among households earning less than $50K per year. Donald Trump outpolls Joe Biden in that demographic as well, while Democrats dominate Republicans among the top 20% of earners.

Think about that. The poor and working class have forsaken the Democrats — the traditional party of the poor and working class.

Unfortunately, the man the working class has turned to, Donald Trump, offers them little beyond bombast and bluster. His massive tax cut benefited mostly the wealthy. He filled his administration with the very creatures of the swamp he promised to drain. The trends that fuel populist anger — income inequality, decline of public services, decaying infrastructure, unaffordable housing, chronic disease, and addiction — all intensified during his term in office.

Even so, his impudent behavior and a few genuinely populist policies such as trade protectionism and border security have cemented his status as an anti-establishment candidate, a status that his endless legal troubles only reinforce. 

The Democrats rigged the primary process to forestall the candidacy of any genuine insurgent such as Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 and myself last year. Ironically, both Bernie and I are more closely aligned with traditional Democratic values than Joe Biden or any Democratic nominee possibly since Walter Mondale.

For example, I am a vigorous advocate for civil liberties, peace abroad, organized labor, government transparency, criminal justice reform, and the environment. These are issues to which establishment Democrats give mere lip service or have abandoned entirely. Even the issue of border security was once a liberal position. Liberals favored a strong border and tight immigration controls to protect American workers’ wages.

Their abandonment of that issue along with other once-liberal positions against censorship, against corporate influence, against money in politics, for peace, for government transparency, etc. has created an awful lot of homeless Democrats. They could be reclaimed by a candidate who embodies these traditional Democratic values.

Ironically and tragically, the party most desperate to defeat Donald Trump, that very same Democratic Party, is unlikely to find such a person within their ranks. The one person on the political landscape (me) who can beat Donald Trump is now a former Democrat. 

Is a second Trump presidency unstoppable then? No. Another path remains. The populist energy that Donald Trump has seized simmers within the Democratic Party too. Those fleeing its disarray or fed up with its figurehead may take a second look at my candidacy and discover that my positions are aligned with the Democratic values that drew them to the party in the first place. As my candidacy becomes more obviously viable, they will join wavering Trump supporters repulsed by the unhinged grandiosity and divisiveness so grotesquely displayed on the debate stage. We need not cede populism to Donald Trump.

The reign of the establishment Democrats, the corporate Democrats, the Wall Street Democrats has run its course. Admonishing people to vote for the responsible candidate will serve them no better than it served Emmanual Macron in France. The populist moment is upon us. Donald Trump will seize it if those who value truth and human dignity do not. 

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