For a few minutes yesterday I watched the President defend international trade from protectionists at the side of the German chancellor. On this subject Barack Obama, supposedly a flaming liberal and definitely a Democrat, is hardly any different from most conservative Republicans. You can hear the same argument from either party: individuals suffer but the nation benefits. For Republicans (and libertarians) it's a strangely collectivist argument to make, and for the GOP in particular it's arguably an even greater betrayal of the party's founding principles than its infamous Southern strategy. Donald Trump is made out to be a heretic (or an ignoramus) for seeking the Republican presidential nomination on a protectionist platform, while Senator Sanders is seen by many Democrats as nearly as heretical on the subject. Their common failing, the free-traders say, is their assumption that in global competition American companies and employees lose unfairly. The free-traders argue that we can't have the benefits or foreign markets opened to our products without accepting the reciprocal risk of competition with foreign products in our stores. In such an argument the "we" is the nation, but the cost-risk balance breaks down when we think in individual terms.
In what way, after all, does an American worker who suffers from foreign competition benefit from another American company selling more stuff abroad? For some, this is the wrong question to ask, the point of free trade being that every American benefits as a consumer from the lower prices and better quality of goods resulting from the widest possible competition. In other words, that unemployment check will last longer thanks to cheaper imports. It's all sophistry, of course, to cover up the true feeling of free-traders that economic competition means survival of the fittest, and that patriotism that protects the unfit is misplaced if not scoundrelous. I could almost buy this as long as price isn't a factor in fitness, but the most dogmatic free-traders seem determined to make it the primary factor. They definitely seem determined to make it appear oppressive to have to pay more than you might, when people are working cheaper than others say they should. They're also unbecomingly quick to decide when Americans deserve to lose.
Free-traders make a sophistic distinction between free trade and "trade war," while populist protectionists, from Trump on the right to Sanders on the left, may be more inclined to see trade itself as a form of war that Americans should win, victory meaning that Americans keep their jobs. Left protectionists like Sanders may be more inclined to wage a war of liberation, so to speak, by pressuring other countries to increase wages, while right protectionists like Trump, also recognizing low wages as a form of foreign cheating, are less interested in leveling that playing field than in defending the homeland with tariffs. Either way, the populist protectionist simply isn't as willing to write off the worker who loses to foreign competition as the free-trader appears to be -- and that resistance may help us a little more toward getting at the essence of populism.
While individual populists remain maddeningly selective about whom they include in their zone of solidarity -- "populism" and "humanism" are never quite synonymous -- they're still defined to some extent by that unwillingness to write off those toward whom they feel solidarity as losers in the game of life, whether through their own fault or through the breaks of the game. For the sake of analogy, Black Lives Matter is a populist movement because members refuse to write off anyone to whom they feel solidarity -- not even those who, to others, seem self-evidently deserving of death. Populism and its motivating solidarity don't seem to come as naturally to white people, given how readily they'll write off people of their own race or culture for "losing" in many facets of life. But white populism roars to life when whites perceive, as blacks arguably do more often, that shit doesn't just happen, that not all bad things are simply breaks of the game. Populism is a reaction to perceived unfairness, a perception that things are rigged by malicious or indifferent powers against the average person of populist self-regard. It assumes that it's not the loser's fault when he loses a rigged game, nor his responsibility, as the free-trader claims, to adapt to its rigged rules. The rules seem most obviously rigged in the labor market these days, so that's where populism makes its stand, whether by opposing the "race to the bottom" that results from global competition with unequal wages or by opposing the immigration of competitors for the dwindling labor market. By comparison, free-traders, be they ideological Republicans or progressive Clinton/Obama-style technocrats, insist that nothing is rigged, that the global market is an irresistible force of nature, its voice the voice of God. That might be hyperbole on my part, but they do seem to demand that we all accept the global market and its discipline on faith, while populism appears when faith is broken and appeals to faith ring hollow. Populism's opponents argue that the Trump and Sanders campaigns are also appeals to faith in their respective champions' ability to do the apparently impossible. While there may be cults of personality in play in these campaigns, they also seem to be, for good or ill, appeals to people's own power to change the rules that everyone says are immutable, including the rules of global trade. At least on that subject there's been a real debate this year.