It’s easy to get carried away with populist rhetoric.
It feels good.
The aim of populist rhetoric is to give “red meat” to your supporters. In effect, that means to tell them what they want to hear.
For Trump, the adulation of the crowd is intoxicating. He doesn’t care whether what he says is true, whether what he says conflicts with what he said just minutes ago, or whether he even knows what he’s talking about. All he cares about is the reaction of the crowd. He enjoyed campaigning — certainly much more than he enjoys governing. That is why he is the first President in recent memory to repeatedly hold campaign-style rallies even after the election was over.
Much has been made about the populist rhetoric on the right. It’s easy to point to his claim that we will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it. Or that he will repeal Obamacare and replace it with something much better and cheaper. Or that he will pay off the federal debt in ten years. Of course he can do none of those. Those promises are completely impractical. They ignore the difficult part of making policy, the part that involves making choices. If we are to pay off the debt, for example, we will have to get the money from somewhere. That involves either raising taxes or cutting benefits, something that rarely results in applause lines. As a result, Trump promises the cure without discussing the medicine.
The right is not the only ones who engage in such pie in the sky rhetoric, however. Democrats are promising health care for all and free college education, all paid for by just increasing taxes on the rich. There is nothing wrong with any of these promises. It is just that taxes on the rich will be unlikely to pay for such lofty programs without cuts elsewhere or additional taxes on the middle class. Again, promising the cure without mentioning the medicine.
It is not only in making promises that rhetoric can lose touch with reality. In placing the blame of many of our problems on immigrants, Trump is clearly making baseless claims. Same for his allegation that Canada and the European Union have high trade tariffs. Same for his claim that the crime rate was going up. Etc…etc…etc…
Similarly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently called to task for her baseless claim that the reason the unemployment rate is so low is because everyone has two jobs. The well-respected journalists at Politifact rated her claims “pants on fire.” There is no arguing that the unemployment rate is low. One may point out that real wages have not risen, and that as a result purchasing power for most households has actually declined. But her claim that everyone has two jobs was simply baseless, much like many of Trump’s claims.
Does this matter? Some may say “no.” After all, Trump is such a consistent liar, we must fight fire with fire. However, as Paul Krugman pointed out, “facts have a well-known liberal bias.” We don’t need to lie to win the argument against Trump. In fact, if we stretch the truth as he does, we risk opening ourselves up to claims that we are no better than he is. While that may not be true, it sure becomes harder to argue with if our statements don’t stand up to more scrutiny than his do.
It may be frustrating that Trump can lie with seeming impunity while we must struggle to always tell the truth. But at a certain point, liberals want to be better than Trump. We need to offer something different, and solutions based upon reality rather than lies is a pretty big difference.
There is an old saying by people arguing against Democrats moving to the right that “in a race between a Republican and a Republican, the Republican always wins.” Similarly, that argument may also be used to push Democrats to be truthful in contrast to Republicans’ mendacity. Politics is about choices. If we do not give voters a clear one, we have no chance of winning their support.