Whatever Happened to the Populist Left?
Against the surreal backdrop of sometimes violent nationwide protests, one alarming story as reported by The New York Times seems to have slipped under the radar. Law enforcement arrested a 21-year-old Idaho man on suspicion of firing a semi-automatic rifle at the White House. Several days prior to the arrest, the Secret Service had responded to reports of shots fired near the National Mall and pursued a vehicle departing the area on Constitution Avenue. They found the vehicle abandoned with an AK-47 and spent casings inside, and soon afterward extracted several bullets that had struck the White House. The suspect’s relatives told investigators he appeared to have a “fixation” on the White House and the president.
This really did happen, but it wasn’t during the chaotic “Stop the Steal” rally earlier this month, or even any of the fiery demonstrations across the country last summer. It was on Wednesday, November 16, 2011, during the Occupy Wall Street protests.
As the media and the incoming Biden administration froth at the mouth over Trump’s failed “insurrection,” it is fashionable for conservatives to point out the obvious double standard the media employs when comparing the events of last week and the BLM and Antifa riots of the past year, the latter of which were many orders more violent and destructive. Axios reports that the insurance claims for the riots could approach $2 billion, and that an estimated 30 people, many of whom were African Americans, have lost their lives.
Yet what’s also interesting—and alarming—is the fate of the progressive-powered Occupy Wall Street movement and the left-leaning populist movement it helped ignite. If the bailouts of 2008 were their spark, where are they now amid the pandemic, when corporate profits have soared and middle-to-low-income workers have been crushed?
The answer is that they themselves have been occupied—transformed, rebranded, and redirected by corporations and the media. As Vladimir Lenin once said, “The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.”
The government’s response to the financial crisis of 2008 was unique in that it drew the condemnation of both the left and the right. Take, for example, the response it evoked from President Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman: “A decisive tipping point in the evolution of American capitalism and democracy—the triumph of crony capitalism—took place on October 3, 2008.” On that day, the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was passed to bail out Wall Street. Stockman’s book, The Great Deformation, is a 768-page moral outrage manifesto, accusing the state and its central bank of becoming disciples of misguided “Keynesianism, monetarism, and supply-side-ism.”
Despite promises of change, President Obama disappointed many of his optimistic voters. As reported by Politico in December 2011, Obama had secured more funding from the financial elite than all other GOP candidates combined. Simmering resentment and the let-down of the Obama presidency led to the birth of Occupy Wall Street, which launched in September 2011 and called for increases to the minimum wage, protections for the environment, and student debt relief. Their slogan was “We are the 99%” and their enemy was the other 1 percent: the corporate elites.
The message from Occupy Wall Street was generally devoid of any mention of race, creed, or ancestry. It was Marxist in tone to be sure: the haves versus the have-nots, the oppressors versus the oppressed, the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. Yet while their solutions might have been wrong and unrealistic, their prognosis wasn’t exactly inaccurate. Wealth inequality had skyrocketed. The nefarious actions of Wall Street firms should have been punished, not rewarded. The bailout of AIG had dwarfed all combined expenditures of the food stamp program since its inception in the 1960s.
Faced with seething anger, the corporate media soon went to bat to reprogram their attackers. Thanks to the meticulous research of political scientist Zach Goldberg, we know that the actions of the press following the Occupy movement didn’t fit a coherent, organized pattern. In an article for Tablet magazine in August 2020, Goldberg presents a graph that clearly shows that the media’s use of racial terms in its opinion and reporting skyrocketed around 2012. Goldberg points out that “wokeness”—what he defines as “sensibilities of highly educated and hyperliberal white professionals with elements of Black nationalism and academic critical race theory”—was present in our political discourse well before the BLM- and Antifa-led riots of the past year.
As noted in his graphs, from 2011 to 2018, the use of the words “racist/racists/racism” increased in The New York Times and The Washington Post by about 700 percent and 1,000 percent, respectively. His conclusion is that the media was crafting a narrative that explained disparities in our society not due to talent or work ethic, or even the crony capitalists of Wall Street and the 1 percent, but bias—specifically racial bias.
But was this reporting effective at reprogramming the left? Goldberg seems to think so: “Specifically, I find that the causal effects of race-related media coverage are strongest for white Democrats and liberals, weaker for nonwhite Democrats and liberals, and are largely nonexistent for white Republicans and conservatives.”
Whether it is left-leaning or right-leaning, populism is the enemy of the current American regime. By enlisting left-leaning populists in the fight against “white supremacy,” that regime has managed to stave off a two-front war—and, in fact, to pit one of its enemies against the other. Corporate powers simply absorbed the left-leaning populist movement, pretending to lead it while launching an attack on right-wing populists in conjunction with the press and its government allies.
The election of Donald Trump clearly shook the American regime to its core. Populism, left- or right-leaning, never bodes well for the elites, but during the Trump era, left- and right-leaning populists started sounding dangerously alike. The looming convergence posed the threat of a substantial, effective, anti-elite political movement.
How the media crafted a corporate-friendly narrative to diffuse and then redirect this anger is quite remarkable. The metamorphosis of Bernie Sanders in 2016 to his candidacy in 2020 serves as an instructive case study. In 2015, Sanders attacked open borders as a Koch brothers proposal, essentially tying corporate interests in lowering wages and maximizing profit to increased illegal immigration. Sanders’ populist message was devoid of race or religion, focusing only on class.
Yet using their control of the moral narrative in the political space, the media and corporations reframed the fight for justice as one centered on race and oppression instead of populism and cronyism. The whole left, including its populist wing and the Bernie camp, was subsumed into the race narrative. It was no longer about economic oppression or injustice; it was about racial oppression and injustice. The problem we faced was not rule by the elites but the enduring reign of white supremacy.
What the average person doesn’t understand is that when the modern, post-1619 Project left refers to “white supremacy,” they don’t mean David Duke or Nathan Bedford Forrest. They mean the Founding Fathers and the nation that was born following the Revolution. Just as the sin of Adam was passed down to all of mankind, so too were the sins of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson passed down to all white Americans.
Ironic, isn’t it, that those same left-leaning protesters who a few years ago were calling for the prosecution and incarceration of bankers were this year calling for (and attempting) the removal of a statue of President Andrew Jackson? Called the first populist president by many historians, Jackson actually fought the bankers, whom he called a “brood of vipers.” It was his stubborn resolve against Treasury Secretary Nicolas Biddle that ended the Second Bank of the United States in 1836, ensuring the absence of a central bank until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1914. But Jackson’s sins against the Native Americans deny him any place in a new narrative focused on race. One of the great heroes of American populism becomes not just forgotten but demonized. Jackson gets a reckoning, and the bankers he condemned get off scot-free.
Talk about misdirecting your enemies’ firepower.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.