One hears no end of media hand-wringing over the dreaded populist wave threatening to engulf our venerable liberal democracies. If I had a nickle for every time I read some pearl-clutching article in a major newspaper speaking in hushed, fearful tones of some “populist” political candidate, movement or wave, I would quit my job tomorrow. And if I had a nickle for every time some naïve Manhattan journalist began crying into her organic artichoke dip about the supposedly bigoted overtones of “populism,” I'd be filthy rich. But it still begs the question: why the term, “populism?”
Let us begin our dissection of this term by noting that in the United States political initiatives are not conceived of by voters. Movements are largely birthed in places saturated by the ruling class; establishments like Ivy League universities, think tanks, government offices, and media and technology megacorporations. The current “populist” wave is not a unified front in any sense, except for one: it originates outside of the places just listed. The present groundswell of class discontent did not arise from Ivy League schools or any think tanks, although many in the media point the finger at the Koch brothers, accusing them of being, as it were, traitors to the ruling class. But the Koch brothers are not traitors and did not get Trump elected. Trump himself is, incidentally, a member of the ruling class, but he is viewed within that milieu as a traitor in a similar manner. No, the present “populist” wave did not originate in a think whatsoever, it originated in the conversations of middle class office workers by the water cooler or industrial workers over the assembly line. The “populist” wave originated outside of the ruling class and that's why it's called “populist,” pure and simple.
Now, the word “populist” means, in its strict definition, something related to the concerns of ordinary people. The choice of this word to describe the current grassroots political movements exposes the disdainful attitude of the ruling class toward those they deem to have partaken in the “populist” wave. This goes along with the idea that Trump voters in particular, and “populists” more generally, are a bunch of uneducated brutes. However, even established newspapers have come to realize over the past year that this is not true. The Washington Post noted that, “… a March 2016 NBC survey that we analyze showed that only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites… Far from being a magnet for the less educated, Trump seemed to have about as many people without college degrees in his camp as we would expect any successful Republican candidate to have.” Trump, and, by extension, the rest of the populist wave, are primarily the result of middle-class discontent.
So, whenever you see the word “populist” in a major publication, just remember that it's not some kind of objective description. It is, rather, a term of derision employed by the privileged American elite to describe the sudden discontent of ordinary people. If this seems to be too harsh an assessment, the reader is invited to review Priya Jain's angry screed, “The 'White Working Class' Can Kiss My Brown Ass, in which her take on the people of Middle America is clear. She says, quite simply, “F—k the white working class.” She continues with, “I am sick of being told, as I have my whole life, that middle America is the “real” America, and we “urban” elites just don’t get it because we don’t live there. As if that were our choice. As if we could just live our brown lives, our black lives, our queer lives, in the middle of Trump country. As if that were a safe thing to do.” The reader must note the irony here: Jain, who describes herself as economically privileged, acts as if Middle America is so racist and bigoted that anyone who isn't white is in mortal danger every second that they spend there, and then claims she's not out of touch. To hear her talk, you'd think that the black couple who live across the hall in my apartment building have to sneak out at night to avoid being lynched by the three white guys who occupy the other three apartments in the building. Spoiler alert: they don't. They pay the same rent we do and have the same kind of apartment with the same floor plan. The baffling part is that, as far as I can tell, Jain really believes this, revealing just how separated she is from most of the country, along with most other people working in the media. She really believes that, if she were to stray into flyover country for more than a few hours, she'd be decapitated and burned at the stake or something. It’s almost like the dirt people in flyover country are the inbred mutants from "The Hills Have Eyes".
Jain's rant is a little over-the-top, owing to the fact that it was written shortly after Trump's election, but it's not some kind of fluke. It is, rather, a clear example of what people working in the media are like, once the mask comes off. Jain's piece is a quick look into the minds of the sorts of people who came up with the “populist” designation, and it's not pretty.