"Populism" is an empty term.
Trump's victory is widely declared to be a victory for "populism." So is Brexit. Trump's speech has been called "populist." I reject this, and I think the analysis is based on deep conceptual confusion. There was a Populist party and movement in the 1800's in America, with William Jennings Bryan as its head (or figurehead, perhaps). Today's political phenomena are different.
Western countries tend to have a distinct political class that runs their respective countries and international organizations, largely for their own benefit. Donald Trump's inaugural speech began by acknowledging this, and then continued to say his election was bringing it to an end, and that government would become a servant of the people. This isn't populism. Enlightenment political thought, e.g. John Locke's Two Treatises on Government, overturned the traditional relation between ruler and ruled -- that is, that the citizen is a subject, a servant of the ruler -- and replaced it with the radical idea that government exists only to benefit the people. Or as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence,
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
For too long, a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished -- but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered -- but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
That all changes -- starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.
Calling this "populism" is terrifically confused. It simply is not "populism." Today's federal government is run by the political class, for the benefit of the political class. Government, as it's done today, is firstly a means of accumulating power and siphoning wealth from those who create it. It certainly does not act as a servant to the typical citizen.
Here's a good example. America's economic recovery, trumpeted by Obama as one of his achievements, is concentrated in a minority of American counties -- maybe ten percent
, while the rest of the country has not recovered
. Of the six American counties with the highest average income, five are in the DC beltway
. Hence Trump's observation, "...a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished -- but the people did not share in its wealth."
The political class has thrived while much of the country has not. Another indicator of this is the dreadful performance
of America's government schools. Despite having expenditures per pupil
which are among the highest in the world, American students tend to be quite poorly educated by developed world standards. Teacher's unions prosper, administrative positions multiply, political indoctrination on behalf of all this grows. Hence "for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists... an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge..."
There are other examples, but I've made my point. There's nothing populist about this. A largely parasitical political class has gamed the system for its own benefit. The entire purpose of the system is to serve citizens' needs. That's not populism. It's a rejection of the divine right of kings, or other elites, to rule.
Another charge directed at the speech is that it is "nativist." This is even more ridiculous. The President of the United States is empowered only to faithfully execute federal laws, command the military, negotiate treaties, and a few other things, all on behalf of the United States. He's not empowered to represent Mexican immigrants, "Syrian" refugees, or anything else that isn't American. When Trump said "The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans" he showed an entirely correct understanding of what he is undertaking. He was similarly correct in saying "From this moment on, it's going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength."
The only thing I contest is his economic analysis. American does not lose from free trade; no country does. OTOH, it is certainly true that Chinese industrial espionage and violation of intellectual property has harmed American firms, workers, and even consumers. (I will provide details iff anyone asks; I am not a big fan of patent and copyright. I am certainly an advocate of trademark. And the Chinese, led by the national government, regularly violate all three.) But the president's job is to be concerned with the well-being of America, not the rest of the world. Trump's emphasis is correct, even if his economics is flawed.
Given the cabinet he is appointing, there's good reason to be hopeful about all this. I am sure "we" at Unforeseen Contingencies will suffer disappointments during the Trump years, but things could be much, much worse, and things are surprisingly good. I expect Trump to fight the political class (Go Trump!) and in the space created we defenders of liberty have the chance to take the offensive.