Opinion

Trump’s not the first wealthy New Yorker to ride into the White House on a populist wave

By Nick Powell |  

January 16, 2017 |  

The verbal jab was played on a loop for months – the perfect illustration of the anti-elitist political narrative that dominated the discourse of the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

Here was Ted Cruz, the sanctimonious U.S. senator from Texas, taking the bait dangled by renowned carnival barker Donald Trump in the form of Trump’s decision to play “Born in the USA” at his campaign rallies – a blatant slight to Cruz’s Canadian birth, which Trump had roundly mocked.

"I think he may shift in his new rallies to playing ‘New York, New York’ because Donald comes from New York and he embodies New York values," Cruz told a Boston radio station last January.

”New York values” was a thinly-veiled attempt by Cruz to paint the Empire State as the hedonistic, materialistic birthplace of liberalism-gone-wild – a state that, in the past five years alone, had legalized gay marriage, raised the minimum wage and passed gun control legislation – and Trump as the benefactor of those policies, via a long record of campaign contributions to Democratic politicians. But rather than compartmentalize his own political philosophy from the state’s progressive reputation, Trump turned the phrase into a show of strength.

Months later, Trump asked supporters at a rally in Long Island, “Do you remember during the debate when (Cruz) started lecturing me on New York values like we're no good? And I started talking to him about the World Trade Center ... I looked at him and started talking to him about our incredible police, our incredible firefighters, our incredible people, our unbelievable construction workers. Who could have done that? Who could have rebuilt that hole? There was never anything like it in this country – the worst attack in the history of the United States. The bravery that we showed was incredible, we all lived through it, we all know people that died, and I’ve got this guy standing over there looking at me, talking about New York values with scorn in his face, with hatred of New York.”

It was a deft pivot from Trump, and a rare honest moment from a man who has had a consistently difficult relationship with the truth. The foundation of Trump’s New York values is not built from strong moral fiber or a desire for social progress, but financial and military might and brick, concrete and mortar (or more accurately, given his tastes, dark marble with gaudy gold accents).

Trump is the first New Yorker to call the White House home since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

At noon on Jan. 20, New York values will again take center stage. For the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt placed his hand on the Bible on March 4, 1933, and took the oath of office, an Empire State native will occupy the Oval Office.

At first blush, Trump – an inarticulate real estate magnate and television celebrity from Queens – would appear to have little in common with the last New Yorker turned commander-in-chief. Roosevelt, a Hudson Valley denizen born to an elite family whose lineage can be traced to the American Revolution, is widely regarded as one of our nation’s greatest statesmen and the standard bearer for modern progressive politics.

However, if Roosevelt and Trump had been born in the same era, they might have grown up in similar social circles. Like Trump, Roosevelt’s paternal family figured prominently not only in real estate, but also foreign trade. Both men attended boarding schools and matriculated to Ivy League colleges – Roosevelt from the Groton School to Harvard University, Trump from the New York Military Academy to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (where he transferred after two years at Fordham).

Trump, of course, wasted no time getting set up in the family real estate business, working for his father during college and rising to president of the company soon after graduating. There is scarce evidence in these early years of Trump’s “New York values,”as Cruz defined them. In fact, Trump and his father were sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for discriminating against black tenants who wanted to rent their apartments – not exactly the hallmark of a politician working to advance liberalism.

Roosevelt’s commitment to public service is where their paths diverge, but for a time he, too, dabbled in the elite private sector, taking a job as a corporate lawyer on Wall Street after passing the New York state bar exam. From there, Roosevelt began his climb up the political ladder, relying on optics and messaging that should sound familiar. A self-financed “outsider” for state Senate, in which Roosevelt ran as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican Dutchess County district, and won. As a state senator, Roosevelt led an insurgency against the Tammany Hall machine that controlled New York City and state politics – the precursor to Trump’s (so far, unfulfilled) promise to “drain the swamp” of lobbyists and special interests in Washington, D.C. Roosevelt further burnished those reform credentials as governor, urging the courts to launch a grand jury investigation into the sale of judicial offices, and pressuring corrupt New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker – a creature of Tammany – to resign.

The funny thing about populism or any political ideology that claims to appeal to the common man or woman – as both Trump and Roosevelt did – is that it can be pretty easily tailored to the left or right of the political spectrum. Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who studies political extremism and populism in Europe, wrote in The Guardian in 2015, “While left-wing populism is often less exclusionary than right-wing populism, the main difference between them is not whether they exclude, but whom they exclude, which is largely determined by their accompanying ideology (e.g. nationalism or socialism).”

Trump’s populism has a distinctly nationalist, borderline nativist bent, and seemingly excludes every demographic that isn’t white. Over the course of a toxic 15-month campaign, Trump managed to offend women, blacks, Latinos, Muslims and disabled people, the demographic groups that benefit from progressive “New York values.” Meanwhile, Trump’s championing of a trillion-dollar jobs and infrastructure program that would benefit a white working class left behind by globalization, the collapse of U.S. manufacturing and the influx of cheap labor is the type of policy that resonates particularly well with voters in upstate New York (who voted in large numbers for Trump). Ever shameless, Trump even tried to tailor this message to black voters – under Roosevelt’s New Deal banner, no less.

Ironically, one could reasonably argue that the greatness Trump references through his Make America Great Again slogan is an implicit nod to Roosevelt’s New Deal. A vast public works program, the GI Bill, the Social Security Act, economic reforms that increased wages and bargaining power for workers all led to the longest period of economic prosperity in the last 100 years and a marked decrease in poverty. Of course, Trump’s policy platform largely eschews the social and labor advances made under Roosevelt, while co-opting the idea of rebuilding America’s roads, bridges and airports – although likely relying less on Keynesian government spending (gotta keep those deficit hawks at bay) than on classic trickle-down economics: tax cuts, privatization and deregulation.

That Trump crafted this Make America Great Again message at a time when the U.S. economy is in relatively good shape – the lowest unemployment rate in a decade and over 15 million private sector jobs created in the last six years – speaks to his gifts as a communicator. Not as an orator in the classic tradition, mind you – don’t expect an inauguration speech as iconic as Roosevelt’s “nothing to fear but fear itself” – but in his ability to distill his talking points through social media, albeit with blatant disregard for facts. In the same way that Roosevelt revolutionized mass communication through his “fireside chats” over the radio, explaining his sweeping economic policies in layman’s terms, Trump is doing the same via Twitter.Whether it’s decrying “fake news,” blasting his political opponents or reiterating plans to build a wall across the Mexican border, Trump is at his most effective when he’s limited to 140 characters or less, rather than rambling incoherently at a press conference.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two men is summed up in an excerpt from Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address:

“Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.”

That might as well have been addressed to Trump himself, but mainly it’s a reflection of the values that Cruz’s insult targeted, not Trump’s brand of politics. Cruz later claimed to be referencing “social liberalism,” an abstract political term that includes any politician who fundamentally believes in using the power of the federal government to provide opportunity – be it education, health care or poverty – rather than the advancement of wealth and self-interest. A succession of American presidents from Roosevelt to Eisenhower to Johnson to Clinton to Obama have, in some form, subscribed to this notion – “New York values” in practice, if not in their geographic roots. Don’t expect Trump, a bona fide New Yorker entering the White House, to continue that tradition.

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