“Biden’s policies contrast with Trump’s on nearly every issue,” David Lauter recently wrote in The Los Angeles Times, “but the language both presidents embraced—their emphasis on the fears and concerns of blue-collar Americans—shows how a populist approach to politics has taken hold in the aftermath of economic and political shocks that have hit the U.S. since the start of the century.” Donald Trump’s right-wing populism appealed overwhelmingly to white voters and stoked anxiety about cultural change, but his successful 2016 campaign also spoke to “forgotten men and women” left behind by a changing economy and disillusioned with the political elite. Left-wing populist candidates lost in last year’s Democratic presidential primary, but the relatively moderate Biden ended up representing a populism of his own, with ambitious plans for economic recovery and renewal amid the COVID crisis. Many progressives are now working collaboratively with his administration—even inside it—and winning significant victories. As Trump returns to the public stage ahead of next year’s midterm elections, and Republicans continue to replicate his political style, what’s at stake between the competing visions of populism in U.S. politics today?

David Kusnet, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter, and worked also for the Democratic presidential nominees Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, says that Democrats increasingly talk about economics in ways that reflect a diverse American workforce—so that “the working person in your mind’s eye isn’t only the white, blue-collar worker.” Up-and-coming Republicans are attempting to find a new synthesis of economic and cultural populism in their rhetoric, but the effort may be irrelevant: Trump remains the dominant voice in their party and, in Kusnet’s view, Trump has moved away from the language that worked for him in the first place. “They’re trying recreate 2016,” Kusnet says, “and Trump is trying to re-litigate 2020.”


Graham Vyse: What’s going on in American political rhetoric right now?

David Kusnet: Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” and over the past 15 months the most important fact has been that relatively few political figures addressed large audiences in person, with the exception of Trump on some occasions. You’re no longer talking about “applause lines” if there isn’t an in-person crowd applauding. Speakers try to be more conversational and less oratorical. Biden has been in politics since 1972, and as a younger man he sought the affect of someone like Robert Kennedy, who could give inspiring, rousing talks in person. But Biden was able to transition to being a more low-key, conversational speaker. Now that people are gradually returning to in-person events, meetings, and—eventually—rallies, we don’t know how most public figures are going to speak and how most audiences are going to receive it.

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