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Much of the media tags President Donald Trump a “populist.” So historian and author John Hennen says it’s time for some truth-in-labeling.

Moscow Mitch

“Trump is not a populist,” maintained the West Virginia native who recently retired to Virginia from Morehead, Ky., State University. “He uses the rhetoric of ‘draining the swamp’ which, of course, he has no intention of doing.

“He lashes out rhetorically against Goldman Sachs while he hires from Goldman Sachs. He lashes out rhetorically against many of the institutional abuses that have impoverished people and destroyed the working class, but he has no interest in reforming those institutions.”

Trump is not just a bogus populist, according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. He wrote that the president-elect engages “in fake policy,” like taking credit for saving jobs at the Carrier furnace plant in Indianapolis.

“Real policy, in a nation as big and rich as America, involves large sums of money and affects broad swaths of the economy,” Krugman explained. “Repealing the Affordable Care Act, which would snatch away hundreds of billions in insurance subsidies to low- and middle-income families and cause around 30 million people to lose coverage, would certainly qualify.”

The pundit continued: “Some reports say that 800 U.S. jobs were saved [at Carrier]; others suggest that the company will simply replace workers with machines. But even accepting the most positive spin, for every worker whose job was saved in that deal, around a hundred others lost their jobs the same day.

“In other words, it may have sounded as if Mr. Trump was doing something substantive by intervening with Carrier, but he wasn’t. This was fake policy — a show intended to impress the rubes, not to achieve real results.”

Krugman said “fake policy” is a “natural counterpart to fake populism. Mr. Trump won overwhelming support from white working-class voters, who believed that he was on their side. Yet his real policy agenda, aside from the looming trade war, is standard-issue modern Republicanism: huge tax cuts for billionaires and savage cuts to public programs, including those essential to many Trump voters.”

Hennen, who helped start the Kentucky Labor Institute, acknowledged that when he and the likes of Krugman call Trump and his movement phony, they invite the “liberal elitist” charge.

Trump’s really not going to do anything to redirect wealth and power to working class people and poor people who feel vulnerable and scared

“But Trump’s really not going to do anything to redirect wealth and power to working class people and poor people who feel vulnerable and scared,” Hennen said.

Trump prefers “right to work” states to non-RTW states. He fought tooth and nail against a union at his Las Vegas hotel.

He has waffled on the minimum wage. He evidently has no problem with companies busting unions in non-RTW states and moving to RTW states.

“Trump has convinced many people that the way for them to get back to prosperity or to have prosperity for the first time is to get rid of immigrants,” said Hennen, whose specialty is labor and Appalachian history. “He taps into their fear and paranoia about immigrants.”

Trump, according to Hennen, is the opposite of “real deal Populists.” He meant hard-pressed farmers and workers who rose up in the 1890s to form the Peoples Party, better known as the Populist Party.

The 1892 party platform didn’t pull punches. “The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty,” the preamble read in part. “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”

John Hennen

John Hennen

Unlike Trump and the Republicans, the Populists did not demonize government. They saw government as their vehicle to right economic and social wrongs and to redistribute wealth downward. They advocated government activism to aid farmers and workers.

Most Populists were farmers; the movement mainly was rooted in the soil. But Populists supported the eight-hour day and the right of workers to unionize and strike.

They wanted a graduated income tax based on the idea that the more one made the more one should pay.

They believed government should run railroad, telephone and telegraph companies. They argued that transportation and communication were too vital to the national well-being to be controlled by individuals whose chief interest was personal profit.

They advocated “free silver,” an inflationary monetary policy to help boost farmer income.

They championed the direct election of U.S. senators, who had been elected by state legislatures since the country was founded.

The Populists achieved remarkable success at the polls. They elected almost a dozen members of Congress and a number of governors. They won majorities in three state legislatures, which in turn elected some Populists to the U.S. senate.

When Iowan James B. Weaver ran for president in 1892, he polled more than a million votes and carried a quartet of western states.

“The Populists had a really sophisticated, analytical approach as to how the institutions of power in the United States—especially banks, railroads and large corporations—abused the common people,” said Hennen, who wrote The Americanization of West Virginia: Creating a Modern Industrial State, 1916-1925, which the University Press of Kentucky published in 1996.

Ultimately, the Populists faded. In 1896, the Party endorsed pro-union and partly populist-minded Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president. He lost in a landslide to conservative, anti-union, pro-business Republican William McKinley.

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The pervasive racism of late 19th-century America also contributed to the Populists’ undoing, Hennen said. Early on, the Populists urged poor whites and African Americans to unite at the ballot box against the abuses inherent in an unfettered capitalist system.

But in the rural South, a Populist stronghold, the white supremacist Democratic powers-that-be played the race card and split the movement. “There was also an element of scapegoating immigrants among the Populists, too,” Hennen said.

In addition to the Party’s failure to unite blacks and whites—and farmers and workers—“there was the lure of electoral politics-all of that combining to destroy the Populist movement,” Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States. After the Populists backed Bryan, the party drowned "in a sea of Democratic politics.”

Hennen said Bernie Sanders’ largely grassroots presidential campaign did much to rekindle the old Populist fire, but without the racism, nativism and xenophobia.

Meanwhile, Hennen is surprised that a big chunk of Trump voters hasn’t already turned against him. “Look at all the people he’s surrounding himself with. You’d think people who voted for him would be protesting in the streets.”

The fact they aren’t is more proof “of how good he is at pushing the right buttons,” Hennen said. “What we are seeing with Trump is a renunciation of 300 years of Enlightenment thought.

"The validity of science is questioned. So are our fundamental institutions. I’ve never considered myself an institutionalist. I’ve often been critical of government.

"But at least our governmental, political, social and educational institutions are based on some kind of consensus that truth matters. Now it doesn’t.”

Hennen decried rising “willful ignorance,” which he said creates “a fertile ground for demagogues like Trump.”

Hennen agreed that the even before Trump’s advent, the tea party GOP would have been a reactionary fringe party in western Europe. Yet America has long been the most conservative and most capitalist of Western industrial democracies.

The U.S. is the only one that doesn't have a comprehensive national health insurance system and the only one that still uses the death penalty.

Too, Hennen argued that our political system lends itself more to extremism than European parliamentary governments. "In parliamentary systems, you have to build coalitions to govern. You have multiple parties. We don’t; it’s one party or the other, and winner-take-all."

With the Republicans controlling the House, Senate and White House, “these right wing populists have no interest whatsoever in compromising with the Democrats or moderating,” he said.

The same, Hennen added, could be said for Kentucky where a Republican is governor and like-minded Republican reactionaries command super majorities in both houses of the state legislature. They teamed up to enact a trio of union-busting laws, one of which made Kentucky the 27th "right to work" state.

As bleak as the political landscape seems for an unabashed leftist like Hennen, he’s optimistic about the future.

Dog whistle appeals to racism, sexism, misogyny, nativism, homophobia and religious bigotry don’t work with many young people, notably millennials.

Dog whistle appeals to racism, sexism, misogyny, nativism, homophobia and religious bigotry don’t work with many young people, notably millennials. Hennen agrees that many older whites see Trump as their last hope for an American dominated by straight, white Christian male conservatives.

Much of their near desperate fervor for Trump is rooted in fear—fear of a coming America that will be more diverse and more tolerant. They know the future is not their's. They voted for Trump hoping to at least preserve the present as their's.

They translated "Make America Great Again" as "Make America White Again." So they voted for Trump figuring he’d stick it to minorities and immigrants. Hennen says he’ll stick it to them, too.

“But there is momentum building against Trump,” he said, stressing that Hillary Clinton polled nearly 3 million more votes that Trump did and that he’s president only by the grace of the electoral college.

“Regular people are taking small steps. You just don’t see it.”

Hennen cited some Virginia women who showed up at the Roanoke office of Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte. They carried a stack of new year's cards which addressed several issues, including his proposal to weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

The GOP gave up on gutting the office after a storm of national criticism.

More recently, hundreds of union members and union supporters rallied in Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital, to protest the “right to work” law, a measure to repeal the prevailing wage and legislation to make it harder for some unions to collect dues through payroll deduction.

Unions hope their strong showing will discourage Bevin and his legislature from passing more anti-union legislation.

Also in Kentucky, the state Democratic Party hosted a "Feed the Resistance Luncheon" to coincide with Trump's swearing in. Grassroots groups in Louisville, Lexington and Murray held sister marches to the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21.

[dc]“T[/dc]his is what Bernie Sanders was talking about,” Hennen said. “It’s great to go to the big national demonstrations in Washington. But people need to get active locally. We need to put the heat on our state legislators and our local officials. We’ve got to make ourselves heard.”

Berry Craig

Berry Craig