Political commentators these days are trying to explain the populist appeal of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in his new manifestation as a cultural commentator, is getting into the act. Others question whether we can really use the term "populism" to describe Trump.
George Packer thinks that Trump and Sanders are both, in their own way, channeling the spirit of populism. He explains in the September 7 issue of The New Yorker:
But the difference between Sanders and Trump is large, and more fundamental than the difference between their personal styles or their places on the political spectrum. Sanders, who has spent most of his career as an outsider on the inside, believes ardently in politics. He views the political arena as a battle of opposing classes (even more than Elizabeth Warren, he really does seem to hate the rich), but believes that their conflicts can be managed through elections and legislation. What Sanders calls a political revolution is closer to a campaign of far-reaching but plausible reforms. He proposes a financial-transactions tax and the breakup of the biggest banks; he doesn't demand the nationalization of banking. His views might appall Wall Street, but they exist within the realm of rational persuasion.
Trump (whatever he really believes) is playing the game of anti-politics. From George Wallace to Ross Perot, anti-politics has been a constant in recent American history; candidates as diverse as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama have won the Presidency by seeming to reject or rise about the unlovely business of politics and government. Trump takes it to a demagogic extreme. There's no dirtier word in the lexicon of his stump speech than "politician." He incites his audience' contempt for the very notion of solving problems through political means. China, the Islamic State, immigrants, unemployment, Wall Street: just let him handle it--he'll build the wall, deport the eleven million, rewrite the Fourteenth Amendment, create the jobs, kill terrorists. He offers no idea beyond himself, the leader who can reverse the country's decline by sheer force of personality. Speaking in Mobile, Alabama, recently, he paused to wonder whether representative government was even necessary. After ticking off his leads in various polls, Trump asked the crowd of thirty thousand, "Why do we need an election? We don't need an election." When Trump narrows his eyes and juts out his lip, he's a showman pretending to be a strongman.
There aren't many examples of the populist strongman in American history (Huey Long comes to mind). Our attachment to democracy, if not to its institutions and professionals, has been too firm for that. There are more examples of populists who, while failing to win national election, extend the parameters of discourse and ultimately bring about important reforms (think of Robert M. LaFollette, Sr.). Though populists seldom get elected President, they can...cleanse or foul the political air.
Read the entire piece here.