For months, pundits have called Trump a populist, but his policies have been about giveaways to the rich

Several media outlets are suggesting that President Donald Trump’s August 30 speech calling for tax reform was a “populist pitch,” and dozens of media figures and outlets have been calling the president a “populist” since his inauguration. A closer examination of Trump’s policies, however, show a pattern of decisions that will create devastating impacts on Americans, particularly low-income residents, while providing handouts to corporations and the wealthiest citizens.

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Media highlight “populism” in Trump's speech on tax reform, even though the proposal was directed at the wealthy

Several media outlets referred to Trump’s speech as “populist.” Several media outlets described President Donald Trump’s August 30 speech in Springfield, MO, in which he called on Congress to pass a tax reform plan, as “populist.” A headline from The Associated Press said that Trump made a “populist pitch,” even though the proposal is “expected to heavily benefit corporate America.” The Dallas Morning News wrote that Trump “struck a populist tone” in his speech. Axios and The Los Angeles Times both wrote that Trump’s speech was “heavy on populism.” [The Associated Press, 8/30/17; The Dallas Morning News, 8/30/17; Axios, 8/30/17; Los Angeles Times, 8/30/17]

Media figures have repeatedly referred to Trump as a “populist” since his inauguration

CNN’s Ana Cabrera: Both Trump and Marine Le Pen “are populist” and “claim to reject the establishment.” During the French presidential campaign, CNN anchor Ana Cabrera compared Marine Le Pen of the National Front to Trump, saying, “Both are populist. Both claim to reject the establishment.” From the April 23 edition of CNN Newsroom:

ANA CABRERA (HOST): People point out the similar philosophies of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. Both are populist. Both claim to reject the establishment. Le Pen calls them elites. [CNN, CNN Newsroom, 4/23/17]

Foreign Policy’s Max Boot: Withdrawing from the Paris climate accord shows Trump “is following this nationalist, populist philosophy.” Following Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, Foreign Policy columnist Max Boot said the decision “shows that he is following this nationalist, populist philosophy and attacking globalism.” From the June 2 edition of MSNBC’s The Last Word:

MAX BOOT: The fact that it alienates the rest of the world is actually a benefit from his standpoint, because it shows that he is following this nationalist, populist philosophy and attacking globalism, which is not what is in America’s true interest because we have prospered because of this American global system that we helped create in 1945 and have underwritten ever since. And Trump is destroying it. [MSNBC, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, 6/2/17]

NY Times’ Jonathan Martin: Trump “tends to be more of a kind of populist, nationalist-type figure.” New York Times correspondent Jonathan Martin claimed that Trump “tends to be more of a kind of populist, nationalist-type figure.” From the April 4 edition of CNN’s The Lead:

JONATHAN MARTIN: The president wears the mantle of being consistent pretty lightly. But, I think more broadly, what's striking here is that if you look at Trump's instincts on a variety of issues, he's a very unconventional political figure, whether it’s health care, whether it’s interventionism. He tends to be more of a kind of populist, nationalist-type figure, as we all know. [CNN, The Lead with Jake Tapper, 4/4/17]

CNN’s Don Lemon: “Donald Trump is not a political animal. He’s a populist.” During a discussion comparing Trump to former President Richard Nixon, CNN host Don Lemon argued that Trump is “not a political animal” like Nixon, but rather, “a populist.” From the June 26 edition of CNN Tonight:

DON LEMON (HOST): That's why I'm so curious as to why you think they will have the same fate because Nixon was a political animal. Donald Trump’s not a political animal. He is populist. The people may be with him longer than they were with Nixon. [CNN, CNN Tonight, 6/26/17]

Fox’s Jesse Watters: Trump’s “an independent” and “a populist.” Fox host Jesse Watters claimed that “if you can get along with any Republican, it’s probably Trump,” because the president is “an independent” and “a populist.” From the August 30 edition of Fox News’ The Five:

JESSE WATTERS (CO-HOST): If you can get along with any Republican, it’s probably Trump. He’s transactional, he’s a deal maker. He’s not a doctrinaire ideologue --

GREG GUTFELD (CO-HOST): He’s a centrist, basically.

WATTERS: Yeah, he’s an independent. He’s a populist. [Fox News, The Five, 8/30/17]

Politico’s David Siders: “Trump is the populist.” Following the dismissal of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Politico senior report David Siders claimed that while Bannon “definitely influenced Trump’s thinking in the most populist ways, … Trump is the populist.” From the August 19 edition of CNN Newsroom:

DAVID SIDERS: Who in America really beyond you and me know who Steve Bannon is? And I'm not sure that as far as the puppet master -- he definitely influenced Trump's thinking in the most populist ways, in the most populist vein of Trump's thinking. But Trump is the populist. And we've seen time and time again that no matter who the advisers are around him, he is going to take the action in the way that he's -- the kind of odd ways I think we've seen in the last week -- that he sees fit. [CNN, CNN Newsroom, 8/19/17]

Conservative radio host Mark Steyn: “There is a substantial chunk of people in the Senate and the House who … concluded they have no interest in seeing Trump-style populism succeed.” Amid Trump’s feud with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), conservative talk radio host Mark Steyn argued on Fox News that “there is a substantial chunk of people in the Senate and the House who ... concluded they have no interest in seeing Trump-style populism succeed.” From the August 11 edition of The Fox News Specialists:

MARK STEYN: I do think there is a substantial chunk of people in the Senate and the House who actually have no reason to see Trump -- they've concluded they have no interest in seeing Trump-style populism succeed. [Fox News, The Fox News Specialists, 8/11/17]

Fox’s Laura Ingraham: “Trump is now really the leader of” the “populist movement.” During an interview with White House adviser Stephen Miller, Fox contributor and guest host Laura Ingraham claimed that Trump “is now really the leader of” the “populist movement.” From the August 8 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight:

LAURA INGRAHAM (HOST): The populist movement, which, of course, Donald Trump is now really the leader of, is, I think, taking hold in communities across the country in different ways. So, I don't think these polls necessarily reflect it. [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 8/8/17]

Fox’s Kat Timpf: “Trump is a populist candidate.” During a discussion of a rumored proposal to raise tax rates for the wealthiest Americans, Fox host Kat Timpf said, “I know Trump is a populist candidate.” From the July 3 edition of The Fox News Specialists:

KAT TIMPF (CO-HOST): Yeah, I'm not for redistribution of wealth regardless of what party label a person places on themselves. I know that Trump is a populist candidate, but I don't think this would have a chance getting through Congress anyway. Or I hope not. [Fox News, The Fox News Specialists, 7/3/17]

Right-wing radio host Larry Elder: “Donald Trump is a populist.” Conservative radio host Larry Elder claimed on Fox that “Donald Trump is a populist,” adding, “he’s pretty much a centrist.” From the June 30 edition of Fox News’ Hannity:

LARRY ELDER: Kimberly, what’s so wild about it is Donald Trump is a populist. He’s pretty much a centrist. [Fox News, Hannity, 6/30/17]

Wash. Examiner’s Sarah Westwood: “Trump represents this populist wave in America.” Washington Examiner White House correspondent Sarah Westwood remarked on ongoing tensions between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming that Trump “represents this populist wave in America.” From the May 30 edition of CNN’s New Day:

SARAH WESTWOOD: These tensions have clearly been simmering for some time now. President Trump represents this populist wave in America that has also affected support for the E.U. in Europe. And obviously, he’s cheered openly Euro-skeptics like Nigel Farage, while Chancellor Merkel is someone who is the face of the E.U. in a lot of ways and preserving it through this populist wave. [CNN, New Day, 5/30/17]

Wash. Times’ Charles Hurt: Trump is “not a conservative ideologue. He is a populist.” Washington Times Opinion Editor Charles Hurt suggested that Trump is “not a conservative ideologue,” but rather, “he is a populist,” pointing to Trump’s campaign to get rid of the legislative filibuster in the Senate. From the May 30 edition of Fox News’ Special Report:

CHARLES HURT: This effort by Trump -- he’s not a conservative ideologue. He is a populist. And the idea that he is recommending to the Senate that they need to move -- get rid of the filibuster is a very populist sort of message to play. [Fox News, Special Report with Bret Baier, 5/30/17]

Fox’s Tucker Carlson: Trump has “a very populist view of economics.” Fox host Tucker Carlson alleged that Trump has “a very populist view of economics” because “he’s in favor of middle-class economics.” From the March 15 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight:

TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): What’s interesting, Daniel Halper, is that when you listen to the president speak -- when he gives speeches, when you talk to him one-on-one, or on camera like right there -- he's got a very populist view of economics. He’s in favor of middle-class economics. And, by the way, that's why he got elected. [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 3/15/17]

NY Times: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Trump “are populist leaders.” Following Trump’s phone call to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, The New York Times wrote that the two presidents “are viewed as ideological bedfellows” because they “are populist leaders with little patience for the courts or other checks on their power.” [The New York Times, 4/17/17]

Bloomberg View's Francis Wilkinson:

The Economist:

The Associated Press:

Financial Times:

Trump's policies are not populist


Trump’s Education Department rolled back rules to protect people who took out student loans. Trump’s Education Department rolled back two rules from former President Barack Obama’s administration that, as CNN wrote, “would have protected student borrowers and held for-profit colleges accountable.” One rule, according to CNN, “required for-profit colleges and certificate programs at non-profit colleges to show that the education their students receive leads to ‘gainful employment,’” or risk losing federal aid. The other rule in question “clarified how student borrowers who were defrauded or misled by their college can apply for loan forgiveness.” [CNN, 6/14/17]

Under Trump, the Education Department allowed debt collectors to charge students high rates on overdue payments. Trump’s Education Department revoked a guideline from the Obama administration “that barred student debt collectors from charging high fees on past-due loans,” according to The Washington Post. The guidelines, according to the Post, “forbid the agencies from charging fees for up to 16 percent of the principal and accrued interest owed on the loans, if the borrower entered the government’s loan rehabilitation program within 60 days of default.” [The Washington Post, 3/17/17]

Trump’s Education Department offered contracts to private debt collection agencies who defrauded student borrowers. In May, The Washington Post reported, Trump’s Education Department offered “new contracts” to companies “whose contracts the government cancelled in 2015 after an audit showed them giving inaccurate information to people trying to get their student loans out of default.” [The Washington Post, 5/3/17]

Health care

Trump backed health care bills that would cut coverage for millions and raise premiums. Trump endorsed the House and Senate bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that the House bill would have left 23 million more people uninsured by 2026 and, according to The New York Times, “some of the nation’s sickest would pay much more for health care” under the law. The CBO found that the Senate bill “would increase the number of uninsured people by 15 million in 2018 and by 22 million over the next decade,” according to The Atlantic. Additionally, the law would cause low-income and elderly people to “face deductibles that exceed current yearly maximums for out-of-pocket spending.” [The New York Times, 5/24/17; The Atlantic, 7/20/17]

Trump signed a bill allowing states to defund Planned Parenthood through Medicaid, leaving many low-income women without health care. Trump signed a bill on April 13 “aimed at cutting off federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other groups that perform abortions,” according to The New York Times. The Times reported that the law “nullifies a rule completed in the last days of the Obama administration that effectively barred state and local governments from withholding federal funding for family planning services related to contraception, sexually transmitted infections, fertility, pregnancy care, and breast and cervical cancer screening from qualified health providers — regardless of whether they also performed abortions.” As Jezebel had previously written, defunding Planned Parenthood through Medicaid would “affect thousands of poor women who depend on the clinics for Well Woman checkups, cancer screenings, birth control and various other forms of preventive care.” Additionally, as FiveThirtyEight had explained, losing low-income patients and subsequent Medicaid reimbursements “would be a huge blow to [Planned Parenthood], which would likely have to close clinics or scale back services — affecting all of its patients, regardless of income.” [The New York Times, 4/13/17; Jezebel, 12/20/16; FiveThirtyEight, 3/9/17]

Trump’s administration used funds meant to promote the ACA to launch a PR campaign against the law. The Daily Beast reported that Trump’s administration “spent taxpayer money meant to encourage enrollment in the Affordable Care Act on a public relations campaign aimed at methodically strangling it.” According to The Daily Beast, the sabotage included “a multi-pronged social media push as well as video testimonials designed at damaging public opinion of President Obama’s health care law.” [The Daily Beast, 7/20/17]

The Trump administration ended online health insurance marketplaces for small businesses. The Trump administration announced on May 15 that it “will dismantle part of the Affordable Care Act that created online insurance marketplaces for small businesses and tried to foster a greater choice of health plans for their workers,” The Washington Post reported. According to the Post, “nearly 230,000 people were covered” through these plans. [The Washington Post, 5/15/17]

Workplace protections

Trump’s Labor Department delayed enforcing a rule requiring businesses to keep records on worker injuries and illnesses. Trump’s Labor Department announced in May that it would “hold off on enforcing a new rule” that would have required employers to give the government “records of job-related injuries and illnesses” for the government to post online, according to HuffPost. HuffPost explained that “safety advocates had hoped the public disclosures would shed light on dangerous employers and help [the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration] target its limited resources where they’re most needed.” [HuffPost, 5/17/17]

The Trump administration made it harder for independent contractors to collect benefits. In June, the Trump administration withdrew “Obama-era legal interpretations that said millions of American workers, from McDonalds (sic) cooks to Uber drivers, should be treated as employees of the corporations they work for,” BuzzFeed reported. According to BuzzFeed, the Trump administration’s move “will almost certainly affect the outcome of cases … which concern whether parent companies like McDonald’s are responsible for labor conditions at franchise locations, and what rights and benefits companies like Uber owe their drivers.” [BuzzFeed, 6/7/17]

Trump’s Labor Department revoked a rule designed to protect employees from union-busting. As The Washington Post reported in June, Trump’s Labor Department announced “that it was taking steps to reverse an Obama-era rule requiring companies to disclose their initial contacts with outside consultants on how to respond to unionizing efforts.” As HuffPost noted, “union-busting” is often “done in the shadows,” and with the new guidelines, “the Trump administration is looking to keep it that way.” [The Washington Post, 6/9/17; HuffPost, 6/12/17]

Trump sided with an employer in a dispute over class-action lawsuits. The Trump administration in June filed an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case to side with employers “over the rights of workers to bring class action lawsuits against companies,” according to Reuters. In doing so, the Trump administration backed employers who force employees into arbitration agreements, which do not allow them to bring up class-action lawsuits against the corporations. As HuffPost noted, “arbitration agreements … require workers to waive their rights to sue as a group,” which leaves them with “much less power.” [Reuters, 6/16/17, HuffPost, 6/16/17]

Consumer protections

Trump revoked a rule that would have made it easier for nursing home patients to sue facilities for harmful conditions. On August 21, the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era rule that would have “made it easier for nursing home residents to sue for negligence or abuse,” according to NPR. As NPR noted, the Trump administration replaced the rule with a new one that “could make it almost impossible for nursing home residents to get their day in court.” [NPR, 8/21/17]

Trump ended a program encouraging people to save for retirement. Trump’s administration announced on July 28 that it was ending the myRA program, which, according to USA Today, encouraged “low- and moderate-income households to save for retirement.” [USA Today, 7/28/17]

Trump’s Labor Department is seeking to delay a rule requiring brokers to put customers’ needs before their own. The Trump administration on August 9 proposed delaying implementation of a rule from the Obama administration “to require brokers who offer retirement advice to put their customers’ interests ahead of their own,” Bloomberg reported. [Bloomberg, 8/9/17]

Trump signed a law allowing internet providers to sell data without a consumer’s consent. Trump signed a law in April that allowed internet service providers to “share or sell your web browsing history and other sensitive information” without getting “explicit consent” from customers, NBC News reported. [NBC News, 4/3/17]

Economic issues

Immediately after taking office, Trump signed an executive order to suspend a plan to cut mortgage insurance premiums. Hours after his inauguration, Reuters reported, Trump “suspended a plan to cut mortgage insurance premiums on federally insured home loans.” The plan, Reuters noted, was estimated to “save eligible homeowners an average of $500 a year.” [Reuters, 1/20/17]

Trump’s FCC blocked companies from providing affordable online access to poor people. In February, Trump’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) blocked nine companies from participating “in a federal program meant to help them provide affordable Internet access to low-income consumers,” according to The Washington Post. [The Washington Post, 2/3/17]

Public safety

Despite scientific recommendations, Trump’s EPA refused to ban a pesticide linked to learning disabilities. Trump’s EPA went against the recommendations from scientists in the agency, according to HuffPost, by refusing “to ban a widely used pesticide that’s been linked to learning disabilities in children.” [HuffPost, 3/31/17]

Trump cut a program to protect cities from floods. On August 15, Trump signed an executive order that, according to Slate, included a provision “eliminating an Obama-era rule called the federal flood risk management standard that asked agencies to account for climate change projections when they approved projects.” As Fortune noted, the Obama administration rule “added caution when building structures in flood-prone areas.” [Slate, 8/28/17; Fortune, 8/30/17]

Others have called out Trump's “populism” as a sham

USC political science professor Robert Shrum:  “Trump is a populist in the same sense that the Democratic People's Republic of [North] Korea is democratic.”  University of Southern California political science professor Robert Shrum wrote in Politico that Trump “is a populist in the same sense that the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea is democratic,” adding, Trump “is a demagogue who, under the cover of a contrived populism that traffics in resentment of 'the other,' pursues a plutocratic course that betrays the very people he tricked into voting against themselves.” From the August 29 Politico piece:

Donald J. Trump is a populist in the same sense that the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea is democratic.

He is a demagogue who, under the cover of a contrived populism that traffics in resentment of “the other,” pursues a plutocratic course that betrays the very people he tricked into voting against themselves. After an election in which he played on their economic insecurities, he now proposes to cut taxes mostly for corporations and the top 1 percent, not for them; to strip away their health coverage; to dismember protections for workers on the job; to let the highest bidders poison our water and pollute our air. The list goes on and on—from opposing an increase in the minimum wage to calling for draconian cutbacks in college loan programs for hard-pressed middle and working-class students.


Trump’s politics is infected with racial antagonism and anti-Semitism, especially when he says there were “some very fine people on both sides” after counterprotesters stood against white supremacists in Charlottesville who were chanting: “Jews will not replace us.” Such immoral equivalence may not reflect personal bias; as with Watson, at least early in his pivot away from tolerance, the likeliest reason is political calculation. Trump offers psychic satisfaction to the worst of his constricted base, with very little or nothing at all in the way of an economic program genuinely on the side of the Rust Belt voters who (barely) put him over the top. [Politico, 8/29/17]

CNN’s Julian Zelizer: “Trump will put on the greatest show on Earth to preserve" his “image as a populist.” CNN contributor and Princeton public policy professor Julian Zelizer described Trump as a “master showman” who will “govern like a conservative Republican” with the compliance of a Republican Congress “which has been ramping up for eight years.” “Trump will put on the greatest show on Earth to preserve his … image as a populist,” Zelizer wrote, even if it contradicts “his policy record and his own personal history”:

Donald Trump has unleashed a fierce war against organized labor. Anyone who bought into his populist rhetoric on the campaign trail may be questioning this fallacy now.

After appointing the vulture investor Wilbur Ross to be Secretary of Commerce and Goldman Sachs executive Steve Mnuchin -- who made profits on foreclosures during the 2008 housing crisis -- to be Secretary of Treasury, he unloaded a Twitter storm against union leader Chuck Jones for criticizing claims he made about the number of jobs he has saved.

Trump went so far as to blame workers for the loss of jobs. They now seem to be part of the global economic elite he liked to talk about on the campaign trail.

Most dramatic of all, he is appointing Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive who has spent much of his life railing against labor and the policies that benefit workers, to be Secretary of Labor.

This is shaping up to be an administration that is as hostile to organized labor as any we have seen in recent history.


While Wall Street seems to be in a euphoria about the new administration, conjuring up images from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” America's labor force might be feeling serious trepidation about what they are seeing. Make no mistake: The President-elect is going to govern like a conservative Republican, and the House GOP -- which has been ramping up for eight years -- is ready to stand by his side.

Despite this new reality Trump will put on the greatest show on earth to preserve his campaign image as a populist, even if it defies his policy record and his own personal history. If we have learned anything from the campaign, it is that this master showman has the power to pull this off. He has an uncanny ability to get Americans to look at what he says -- not what he does. [CNN, 12/12/16]