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Election 2020: Elizabeth Warren's version of populism has more in common with Trumpism than Democrats want to admit

In terms of substance, both progressive and nationalist brands of populism often share more similarities than distinctions.
Image: Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., addresses an audience during a town hall event on July 8, 2018, in Natick, Massachusetts.Steven Senne / AP file

For millions of Americans, even a majority of voters, the election in 2016 was not a choice between two qualified candidates. Rather, two deeply unpopular New Yorkers plagued by scandal and unburdened by principle left many voters searching for the lesser of two evils. Sadly, it seems Americans may be treated to another illusory choice in 2020, albeit of a slightly different nature: not between two symbols of heedless ambition, but one between two slightly distinctive flavors of populism.

Democratic positioning ahead of the party’s presidential primaries has already begun. Only credulous activists and Democratic communications staffers could say otherwise with a straight face. At this early stage, however, one trait stands out among many of the prospective Democratic candidates hoping to ride Trump’s unpopularity into the White House: an affinity for populist progressivism. As Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore observed, even pragmatic and calculating liberals like Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand know which way the wind is blowing and have tacked their sails accordingly.

Though her star has faded somewhat as more and more of her colleagues have sought to mimic her style and adopt her politics, few do progressive populism better than Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And in a recent interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, Warren demonstrated exactly why she is such a capable politician who should not be underestimated. Unfortunately for those who honestly hope to see a real directional shift in the White House, she also demonstrated why her brand of politics is just Trumpism with a bleeding heart.

One trait stands out among many of the prospective Democratic candidates hoping to ride Trump’s unpopularity into the White House: an affinity for populist progressivism.

Of course, no populist is truly for the people, generally speaking. They are for their people. Therefore, no populist can be an effective populist without identifying and attacking the enemies of their people. Trump has his enemies; they consist primarily of the people and institutions who fail to flatter him to his satisfaction, but not entirely. Trump also spent 2016 upbraiding an ill-defined set of political and cultural elites who had supposedly sold out the country to feather their own nests.

Progressive populists have enemies, too. According to Warren, they are the “folks who like having the power and the riches they have” and who need only to “tweak their pinkie” to compel politicians to see to their economic interests. “They're the ones who want to take advantage of this country,” Warren told CNBC’s Harwood. “They're the ones who want to cheat.” Who is the “they” here? That depends on who you hate today.

Answering the charge that she, like so many of today’s ascendant Democrats, is more socialist than not, Warren issued a passionate denial. “I believe in markets,” she insisted. “But only fair markets, markets with rules.” She claimed that “markets without rules” in which “the rich take it all” are undesirable, but Warren is arguing against conditions that do not exist. Unregulated, anarchic capitalism is a figment of progressive imaginations.

Warren is arguing against conditions that do not exist. Unregulated, anarchic capitalism is a figment of progressive imaginations.

Warren’s views are the views of a markets skeptic. But Trump, too, is a market skeptic. He is an opponent of global free trade regimes and believes generally in the virtue of limited autarky. He spent the 2016 campaign vilifying firms like Ford Motor Co. and United Technologies for shipping capital overseas, and intervened on the behalf of UT’s subsidiary, Carrier, in order to prevent them from seeking cheaper labor costs in Mexico. (In the end, however, the taxpayer-provided subsidies the incoming Trump administration wrangled for Carrier subsidized only the further automation of their most inefficient factories, and only briefly stalled the offshoring its labor costs.)

Trump also attacked the prospective merger of Time Warner and AT&T “because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” which was not dissimilar from the logic he used in opposing Comcast’s purchase of NBC in 2013. Trump’s position in all of these cases wasn’t the principled position of a free market conservative, but they were most certainly popular views. They also align with the view of populist Democrats, including Warren, who opposed the Comcast merger.

The Trumpified GOP of today is not a party of deficit hawks, if it ever was. As a candidate, Trump dismissed the importance of the national debt. He claimed, in fact, that interest rates are low enough today to justify borrowing massive sums to finance public sector spending, even while passing legislation that would reduce revenues from income taxes. Though liberals objected to Trump’s tax policy, many supported Trump’s implied assertion that budget deficits don’t matter.

Warren, too, adheres to this view. “I worry about the deficit,” she told CNBC. “But I also worry about how we build a future.” She specifically cited the increasing cost of health insurance for American families — a problem that she has in the past recommended addressing by pursuing a single-payer health insurance program that is estimated to cost the government anywhere from $14 to $32 trillion dollars over a decade.

Where else does Warren want to “invest” American revenue? Infrastructure, of course. For Warren, federally-supported construction projects are first and foremost a jobs program. Trump spent the better part of the first 18 months in office promising an exorbitant infrastructure spending package to “prime the pump,” a Keynesian reference to using public funds to inject liquidity into a market experiencing a credit crunch. Like deficit financing, the prospect of an infrastructure bill excited Trump’s liberal critics, but his vision was as wrongheaded in 2016 as it is today.

There was no credit crunch in 2016 and there is no need for a federal jobs program today. With the official unemployment rate below 4 percent and unemployment at or approaching record lows for American minorities, Democrats may find their various make-work government jobs programs a tough sell. Moreover, the kind of infrastructure that demands our attention isn’t the glittering new roads, bridges, and airports that politicians imagine but underground wiring, water and gas lines, rolling stock and other mundanities.

But it isn’t just in policy terms that Elizabeth Warren appears as a reflection of Donald Trump in a funhouse mirror. A profile of the likely presidential candidate by New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister reveals, sometimes inadvertently, other similarities between Warren and her nemesis in the Oval Office. Traister describes the Massachusetts senator as “so proud of her Twitter takedowns of our president” that she published them in her book. She’s deemed a true “outsider,” despite her role as a Harvard University professor, best-selling author and fixture in Washington for over a decade. Warren is also poised to run against her party’s veteran congressional leadership — whereas many Americans look back fondly on the 1990s, populist progressives remember it more as a time when Democrats were too accommodating towards financiers and capitalists.

Warren is even described as leaning into the kind of divisive identity politics Trump loves so much. “Warren has in these past two years stoked and fed off grassroots rage, especially that of resistance women,” Traister wrote. The purely economic message that was once Warren’s comfort zone is out of fashion on the activist left. That’s why, the author wrote with a perceptible note of incredulity, “she’s been shocked into a new relationship with feminism.”

Even more noteworthy was how Warren chose to illustrate her feminist credentials for Traister: by citing examples of discrimination she says she’s experienced as a woman. Trump, too, is a victim; of the press, of incompetent politicians, of the FBI and the CIA. The coalition he cobbled together are also victims. Foreign labor, free trade, elite condescension; all of it is designed to reinforce a persecution complex within a particular demographic.

It is a safe bet that the narcissism of small differences will ensure that the modest demographic, temperamental and policy distinctions between Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent will be wildly inflated. Rationalization is powerful stuff. But in terms of substance, both progressive and nationalist brands of populism often share more similarities than distinctions. If Warren’s vision of progressive populism triumphs in her party’s primaries, the 2020 race will look a lot like the 2016 race: a choice between radically different styles, not visions.

Noah Rothman is the associate editor of Commentary Magazine.