How the Democrats are becoming more like Trump

In America nowadays, we hear a lot about partisan polarisation. Republicans and Democrats couldn’t be more different, it is argued, with the former moving to the right, the latter to the left. This is certainly borne out on Twitter, where Trump’s dominance is matched only by self-described ‘socialist’ congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. However, in three crucial aspects, the Democrats are actually becoming more like Trump:

  1. An embrace of a realist, non-interventionist foreign policy. Between the Second World War and the election of Obama in 2008, there was a broad bipartisan consensus regarding America’s relationship with the world. The United States had a moral responsibility to be a superpower, intervening abroad to uphold democracy and maintain world peace. During the Cold War, the country saw itself as the protector of the free world against Communism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, America would use its status as the world’s only superpower for humanitarian purposes. But with Obama elected in no small part due to his scepticism of the Iraq War, America began to retreat from the world. The desire to uphold liberal values internationally had come at the expense of the country’s security and economic health. Realist international relations theory rose to prominence, advocating a security policy based on interests and power politics, not values. Trump may be openly isolationist in a way Obama wasn’t, but both men have contributed to this long-term trend. This is why Democrats’ critique of Trump’s Syria policy seems so hollow; no one believes the Democrats have the political will to invade Syria and defeat Assad.
  2. A scepticism of free trade. A significant part of Trump’s appeal in the Rust Belt was his criticisms of NAFTA and American trade policy more generally. Trump argued free trade deals allow companies to ship American jobs overseas, then import their goods back to the country at a very low cost. Free trade benefits the Democrat-voting coastal cities, by lowering the cost of imported goods. But it comes at the expense of good manufacturing jobs in the American heartland, as well as a healthy trade balance. Democrats are confused as to how to respond to Trump’s trade policy, partly because they need the white non-college educated voters who instinctively approve of protectionism. Centrist Democrats are quick to defend NAFTA and the TPP, arguing raising the cost of living for consumers isn’t progressive. Progressives have taken a different stance, framing free trade deals as part of a war on Middle America by greedy, unaccountable corporations. With the progressive wing of the Democrats ascendant, the party’s descent into protectionism looks set to continue.
  3. A wholesale embrace of populism. Despite being a billionaire New Yorker, Trump contrasts himself with the elites. He attacks the media, judges, the intelligence agencies and the universities for all being a part of the ‘Deep State’- a conspiratorial notion of a liberal establishment trying to thwart the will of the people. Hypocritical as it may be in most cases, the appropriation of populist rhetoric is necessary in an age of disillusionment and dissatisfaction. Trump is to a large extent, simply a product of his time. The Democrats are also increasingly populist, railing against the elites just like Trump. But Democrats define the establishment differently. While Trump defines the establishment exclusively by their liberal values, Democrats define the establishment by their economic interests. The wealthy few may have benefited from the free-market policies enacted by Washington since the 1980s, but ordinary Americans have suffered. Democrats have gone from critiquing exploitative business practices to condemning business itself, particularly big business, as being inherently exploitative. Democrats also have a values dimension to their populism: they are enraged by an establishment based on ‘privilege’, where some people have treated far better than others based on uncontrollable characteristics- race, gender, sexuality etc.

None of this is to deny the polarised nature of American politics. In most respects, the country’s two parties are more different than ever. But it is important to note the underlying trends that have affected both parties. Both Democrats and Republicans will be profoundly reformed by realism, protectionism and populism for the foreseeable future.


  1. A very perceptive comment, Owen, thank you. Democrats and Republicans still differ greatly about healthcare, in particular. It was a major reason for winning back the House . The Republicans still cling to the ridiculous notion that if you extend Medicare to people other than the elderly it is rabid socialism. Republicans also nowadays favour high deficits, monopolies and currying favour with the super rich ( they didn’t used to!) all for money- raising reasons. While they follow this course it makes them vulnerable. But I agree that populism is not confined to Trump.

  2. You’re absolutely right Robert, particularly about the bipartisan disregard for the deficit. Personally I don’t think running the deficit is the end of the world, provided the stimulus is boosting productivity and not just consumption. Trump’s tax cuts may increase the wealthy’s spending power, but they will not help the economy grow its productive capacity.

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