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Trump and American Populism

Old Whine, New Bottles

A man of the people? Trump at a rally in North Carolina, September 2016. MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS

Donald Trump is an unlikely populist. The Republican nominee for U.S. president inherited a fortune, boasts about his wealth and his many properties, shuttles between his exclusive resorts and luxury hotels, and has adopted an economic plan that would, among other things, slash tax rates for rich people like himself. But a politician does not have to live among people of modest means, or even tout policies that would boost their incomes, to articulate their grievances and gain their support. Win or lose, Trump has tapped into a deep vein of distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans.

Trump is hardly the first politician to bash elites and champion the interests of ordinary people. Two different, often competing populist traditions have long thrived in the United States. Pundits often speak of “left-wing” and “right-wing” populists. But those labels don’t capture the most meaningful distinction.

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