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This election is a battle between competing brands of populism. Whose is the most believable?

June 1, 2016

Which presidential candidate said this: “The economy is rigged in favor of those at the top.”

Or this: “The banking system is rigged… and that’s why a lot of you haven’t had an effective wage increase in 20 years.”

It wasn’t Bernie Sanders. The first quote is from Hillary Clinton; the second is from Donald Trump.

This campaign has turned into the Year of the Populist — or, at least, candidates who want to sound like populists. It’s not hard to see why. After decades of stagnant incomes for workers and  bonuses for Wall Street financiers, people have concluded that “the deck is stacked” (another quote from Clinton). A Pew poll last year found that two-thirds of Americans, including most Republicans, believe the economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests.”

Who says politicians aren’t responsive to the people they hope to serve?

But simply calling all the candidates “populists,” a catchall term for politicians who champion the common people against a privileged elite, doesn’t explain much. Sanders, Trump and Clinton are offering three distinct brands of populism — “democratic revolution,” conservative and liberal populism.

Sanders’s variety is the easiest to define. It’s old-fashioned economic progressivism, driven by anger at Clinton and the Democratic Party for their Faustian bargain with Wall Street donors. “The business model of Wall Street is fraud,” Sanders says. He wins high marks for clarity and passion — but he still isn’t going to win the Democratic nomination.

Trump’s conservative populism is strikingly different: one part nationalism, one part nativism, one part protectionism, all wrapped in a promise to make America rich again.

Like Sanders, Trump says he’s fighting for the common people against a moneyed elite that doesn’t have their interests at heart. He rejects the GOP orthodoxy of seeking cuts for Social Security and Medicare to help balance the federal budget.

In a remarkable interview published last week by Bloomberg Business Week, he even said he wants to transform the GOP into “a workers’ party.”

“Five, 10 years from now: different party,” he said. “You’re going to have a workers’ party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.”

But on close examination, Trump’s commitment to the proletariat looks pretty thin. He has proposed a big tax cut for the wealthy. He opposes an increase in the federal minimum wage. (“Our wages are too high,” he said in January.) He wants to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.

And, in the Business Week article, an unnamed source suggested that Trump’s commitment to Social Security was merely tactical.

“From a moral standpoint, I believe in [cutting] it. But you also have to get elected,” the source quoted Trump as saying. “There’s no way a Republican is going to beat a Democrat when the Republican is saying we’re going to cut your Social Security.”

Trump is also raising millions in campaign donations from Wall Street — or, at least, trying to. His chief fundraiser, Steven Mnuchin, is a second-generation financier: a former Goldman Sachs partner whose father was a Goldman Sachs partner.

So there’s not much common ground between Trump and Sanders, despite the shared label of populism. A Bernie Bro who switches to Trump must be very angry indeed.

That brings us to Clinton, the overlooked populist in the race.

Like Sanders, she’s proposed tougher Wall Street regulations, more spending on infrastructure, a higher minimum wage and tax increases on the rich.

Her proposals are wonky, complex and often incremental. Her minimum wage target is $12 an hour, not Sanders’ $15.

She has proposed tax incentives for companies that share profits with employees, and a “clawback” plan to take back tax incentives from companies that send jobs overseas.

She can sound plenty populist when she wants to. Asked where she’d get the money to pay for new programs, she said: “We’re going to get it from the wealthy… from the people who’ve done very well in this economy, even during the Great Recession.”

Clinton didn’t always sound that zealous. When she launched her campaign last June, she talked about “an inclusive economy,” about sharing profits between managers and employees. She didn’t use the word “rigged” until February, after Sanders beat her in New Hampshire.

She may not be offering enough populism for the most fervent Sanderistas, but she’s offering far more substance — and more progressivism — than Trump.

Unless Sanders can pull off a miracle in the next week, we’re heading for a general election between two distinct versions of populism: Republican and Democratic, nativist and technocratic, visceral and wonky.

Can Trump make his populist promises make sense — and will they sound convincing if he takes Wall Street money and offers tax cuts for the rich?

Can Clinton persuade voters to take her soft populism seriously while she seeks Wall Street money as well? Will she find that her proposals are too timid for the left, but too tough for moderate voters?

Whatever happens, at least these are important issues, the right focus for a serious debate — unlike, say, the size of Trump’s hands.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @doylemcmanus

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