Populism is a term easily thrown around in today's political lexicon. But it is often misapplied.
American-style populism dates to the era of William Jennings Bryan at the end of the 19th century. Bryan's movement was a protest against Wall Street greed and the big banks. Rhetorical warfare in opposition to the ways and means of the upper classes was the fuel; "free silver" (in order to drive up commodity prices) and trust busting became its preferred goals. The anti-wealth flavor of this easily agitated faction continues to be recognizable among today's leading Democrats.
Now fast forward to a New York real estate tycoon and recently-elected president and his program to kick-start economic growth. Fully half of the Trump economic agenda is traditional, Reaganesque economics – cutting business and personal taxes, regulatory retrenchment, tort reform. This is familiar policy right out of the Republican playbook. But the other half of the program reflects a truly populist rift targeted to the voters who got President Trump elected last November – alienated working class folks who feel betrayed by the Washington establishment and left behind in an era of increasing globalism.
Trump's distaste for omnibus trade deals and a ballooning trade deficit was established early during the 2016 campaign. Recall candidate Trump targeting "unfair" trade agreements as a major contributing factor to a declining Rust Belt economy. Accordingly, one of Trump's very first acts was to disengage the U.S. from the Trans Pacific Partnership. This single act has become a key talking point at Trump post-election campaign rallies around the country, to sustained applause.
The paradigm shift is dramatic. Gone are the days of extended, multi-party negotiations. America's trade representatives now look to negotiate bilateral agreements – a slower and cumbersome track, but one where economic impact is more easily calibrated for those who wish to keep score.
Voters should take note that even where it will be difficult to leave an existing trade agreement (i.e. NAFTA), the administration will insist on modernizing amendments and new side agreements intended to assist U.S. exporters. You can bet every new surplus (or improving deficit) with a trading partner will be duly noted at future campaign rallies.
But the most visible element of Trump populism concerns immigration – illegal and legal. The former defined candidate Trump. He would build that "big, beautiful wall" and get Mexico to pay for it. He would bolster the disillusioned border patrol. He would use his bully pulpit to send a message that the new sheriff in town means business.
Eight months later, it appears the message has hit home. Illegal border crossings have fallen to 17-year lows, prior to construction of the wall or the passage of a comprehensive immigration bill.
The president's plan for legal immigration has now assumed center stage with his recent endorsement of a Senate reform bill that makes marketable skills a higher immigration priority and seeks to limit the overall number of new immigrants. Both goals comport with Trump's political and substantive indictment of the immigration status quo, but each contravenes long-established GOP policy.
Talk about an awkward juxtaposition. Trump's approach is contrary to what big business and the GOP leadership have preached for the last three decades – even Ronald Reagan supported increased levels of legal immigration (and cut an amnesty deal regarding illegals). But Trump's targeted audience is not the Chamber of Commerce or the socially-conservative groups that have supported liberalized immigration in the interest of keeping families intact. This president's focus is Main Street USA, a place where plenty of voters believe the influx of cheap labor has contributed to the loss of lower-skilled manufacturing jobs.
A fascinating sidelight here concerns those organized interests who are not a part of this populist uprising, but should be. I refer to minorities and organized labor. Here, basic economics should lead both groups to oppose the over-supply of cheap labor that keeps wages depressed and marginal American families…marginal.
But this is the Age of Trump and strident partisan conflict. The NAACP and (most) big labor bosses have long-jettisoned economic sense for politics – Democratic politics, that is. The Trump administration should expect no help from either group in its campaign to limit legal or illegal immigration.
Another interesting element here concerns how the president will integrate recent strong economic indicators (labor participation is way up as are job openings) with his plans for limiting legal immigration and a smaller labor pool. My prediction: Trump will not abandon his economic populism even as he takes credit for a booming stock market and historically-low unemployment. After all, past recoveries and periodic bouts of solid growth have bypassed his targeted Rust Belt audience.
This time, they will not be forgotten.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich is a Washington Examiner columnist, partner at King & Spalding and author of three books, including the recently released Turning Point. He was governor of Maryland from 2003 - 2007.