Donald Trump: Unprincipled Populist

English: 1896 Judge cartoon shows William Jenn...
English: 1896 Judge cartoon shows William Jennings Bryan/Populism as a snake swallowing up the mule representing the Democratic party. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign rhetoric is, by most accounts, “populist, ” but that’s a broad description. Trump takes his “populism” from a particular historical tradition — one with a baleful history in American politics.

What is populism, and what’s the problem with Trump’s version of it?

Simplified, populism is the notion that society consists of two classes — the righteous but oppressed masses, and the greedy and oppressive power elites. That notion is timeless, but in modern political theory we can trace it to two French libertarians, Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, who correctly identified the righteous masses as “the productive class” (those who make their living through honest labor and exchange) and the greedy power elites as “the political class” (those who make their living, and accrue their power, by working for or buying the favor of the state).

Karl Marx repurposed Comte’s and Dunoyer’s theory and put it in harness to his nutty economic theories. Marx’s righteous masses were “the workers;” his greedy power elites were “the capitalists.” His proposed solutions militated in a non-libertarian direction, but he was at least clear on the relationship between the power elites and the state.  The state, he said, is “the executive committee of the ruling class.”

The final disposition of the ruling class is the rub with most “populist” agitators: They aim to topple the existing ruling class and replace it with another.  They don’t want to get rid of the power elites; they just want to BECOME the power elites. And they promise that their constituents (the righteous masses) will ascend to power with them.

Principled populism aims to end the existing class division altogether. By either limiting or liquidating government, it proposes to make the formation or existence of a “political class” impossible. In a genuine populist society,  a libertarian society, honest labor and free exchange are the sole sources of wealth and power.

Trump’s populism descends from an odd twist in American populism which treats the most marginalized and oppressed groups as the oppressive power elites, the middle class as the oppressed righteous masses, and a demagogue as the savior of those masses. We saw this kind of populism in the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948, in George Wallace’s independent presidential campaigns, in Nixon’s “southern strategy” and in Pat Buchanan’s upstart Republican and Reform Party efforts.

Trump tells Pennsylvania steel workers and Louisiana carpenters and Kansas farmers that the oppressive power elites aren’t the political class (American government’s taxers, regulators and subsidy eaters), but rather foreign workers crossing the border and foreign governments American politicians get “a bad deal” from.

He tells the white middle class that the power elites aren’t the political class (government police terrorizing our communities), but their fellow productive class Americans (often  African-Americans) who object to assault and even slaughter by those police.

He tells Americans that putting him in power will put them in power.

Don’t fall for it. It’s a lie. Trump’s a fake populist and a run-of-the-mill (except for the really bad hair) power seeker.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Also published on Medium.

  • JdL

    All very true. I really hate the idea of Trump being president, but there’s something I hate and fear even more: Hillary as president.

    • I’m not sure which one I hate/fear more. As I’ve written elsewhere, Clinton as president strikes me as the equivalent of spending eight hours a day for four years hitting my hand with a ball peen hammer, while Trump strikes me as the equivalent of spending four years jumping back and forth between two balconies located on the 100th floor of adjacent buildings, with my hands and feet greased for maximum slipitude. The choice seems to be between incredibly painful all the time but only occasionally slightly dangerous on one hand, and not painful at all most of the time, but incredibly dangerous all the time, on the other.

      • JdL

        After making the comment, I read this (linked from rrnd): . Smith’s view and mine align closely. I see Hillary as a near-certain warmonger (let’s pick a fight with Russia; what could possibly go wrong?), and Trump less so.

        • Based on my own reading of their public statements, they’re both warmongers. She just the more consistent warmonger, the known quantity. It’s a bad quantity, but Trump is just so all over the place, bouncing back and forth from warmonger to peacenik in the space of 30 seconds, that there’s just no telling what the hell he would do as president. IMO, he’s the real-life Greg Stillson.

          • Three months until election day. I think Scott Adams has a few good points in Donald Trump’s favor.

          • I’ve generally considered that piece to include one of the best examples of Adams’s three-card monte game vis a vis Trump.

            He starts with an account of a negative report from someone who spent time with Trump daily for years.

            Then mere moments later informs us that “we continue to be puzzled at how Trump has been a terrible person for several decades and yet we hear only glowing reports from the people who know him best …”

          • It is very curious how some folks see the Trump glass as half empty and others see the Trump glass as half full.

            “Wenzel vs Block Again on Trump”

          • Every time I read anything by block the last few years, I’m reminded of the scene in Red Dragon where Will has to explain to Lecter that his disadvantage isn’t that he’s not smart, it’s that he’s insane.