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The Coronavirus Could Create a New Populist Backlash

The public has a new appetite for challenging China and freezing immigration. Now Washington must respond.

(By Brandi Lyon Photography/Shutterstock)

The political establishment thought they could breathe a sigh of relief in 2020. Left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders had seen their political revolutions fail. They had successfully marginalized progressives after Democrats united behind former vice president Joe Biden. On the right, Donald Trump’s administration had been co-opted by establishment figures who have made sure it remains business as usual, except for the occasional tariff on China and reduction to illegal immigration to appease the base.

The establishment believed they had finally halted the rising tide of populism and nationalism. Now the coronavirus could reverse all of that.

As the pandemic leaves a path of death, illness, and economic collapse in its wake, Americans are re-evaluating their positions on globalization, immigration, and the economy. They are taking a long hard look at why these supposed panaceas aren’t benefiting the working class.

The public has awoken to the downsides of globalization and trade, especially in the context of China. According to Pew Research, the portion of Americans with an unfavorable view of China rose from 47 percent in 2017 to 66 percent in 2020, the highest number on record. For the first time, a majority of younger Americans also shared this opinion of the communist nation. The poll also found that 85 percent of Americans see the trade deficit with China as either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” concern. A similar percentage had similar feelings on the loss of jobs to China and the growing military and technological threat they pose.

The shift is most noticeable even among conventional free traders like Senator Marco Rubio. Back in 2016, he attacked then-candidate Trump for even mentioning the prospect of tariffs on China. Now he has become one of the biggest China hawks in Congress. In a recent Fox News interview, he stated that China must pay “diplomatically, economically, and beyond” for their role in the coronavirus. However, Congress has yet to act in any forceful way.

Immigration is another issue where Americans have turned against the globalist consensus. Polls by The Washington Post and USA Today have found that 65 percent and 79 percent, respectively, want a temporary freeze on all legal immigration during the coronavirus outbreak. That’s a position more populist and nationalist than anything that Trump has implemented.

At the same time, there’s been a renewed understanding of the class divide in the United States. The economic toll of the virus and the subsequent shutdown is predominately felt by young and working-class Americans, a majority of whom say they’ve experienced some job upheaval. Loopholes in the Paycheck Protection Program that were supposed to prevent small business layoffs have allowed funds to go to billion-dollar businesses, like Harvard, the LA Lakers, and Shake Shack. (Those three did later reject the money after being publicly shamed.)

As Main Street shuttered and over 30 million Americans headed for the unemployment line, America’s billionaires added $238 billion to their fortunes. 

The contrasting experiences between the working class and the upper class has all the ingredients of a populist backlash. Washington has thus far proven incapable of acting on voters’ demands to punish China and halt immigration. While millions of Americans are going to bed uncertain as to whether they’ll be able to feed their families, Speaker Nancy Pelosi showcases her $25,000 freezer full of ice cream to late-night TV hosts.

The reality is that the Washington political class is more concerned with protecting its donors’ supply of cheap labor and products than with helping everyday Americans.

The coronavirus crisis has left neoliberals on both sides of the aisle scrambling to defend the institutions that have failed Americans and the world during this crisis. The managing director of the George W. Bush Institute published an article condemning tariffs and “manipulating the market” to bring American manufacturing back to its shores. Likewise, former President Jimmy Carter attacked President Trump for defunding the World Health Organization. Media outlets have also published stories sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Americans are desperate for a government that can react to the current crisis and respond to their needs. If politicians fail, the populists of the future will look a lot more compelling to voters than Bernie Sanders—and a lot more dangerous to the current political establishment than Donald Trump.

Ryan Girdusky is the author of They’re Not Listening: How the Elites Created the National Populist Revolution. He is a contributing editor to TAC and a host of Right Now.

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