June 30, 2016
President Obama challenged the contention Wednesday that Donald Trump is a populist and got an assist from Mexico’s president, who warned darkly that Hitler and Mussolini used rhetoric similar to Trump’s with tragic results.
In a screed that he himself described as a “rant,” the president said that a populist must fight for the working class and “ordinary people,” which he charged Trump has never done, and not simply criticize the downside of the global economy or denigrate immigrants.
“That’s not the measure of populism,” Obama said. “That’s nativism. Or xenophobia. Or worse.”
Without naming Trump, Obama said people “don’t suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes.”
Obama insisted that he himself has earned the label, though, citing his work as a community organizer early in his career up through the decision he made to bail out the failing auto industry during the heart of the financial crisis at the beginning of his presidency.
It wasn’t a “popular” decision for him to push for the bailout in 2009, Obama recalled. Now, though, union members and workers see it differently, he said, because the policy saved their jobs and their communities.
“The last time I visited an auto plant,” he said, “they were pretty happy.
Obama was assisted in his dress-down of Trump by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who, during a news conference alongside Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, criticized leaders who “use demagoguery” to impede progress — name-checking Mussolini and Hitler.
Some leaders want to “go back to problems of the past” by “destroying what has been built.”
“Hitler and Mussolini did that,” Peña Nieto said, leading to a “tragedy for mankind.”
Peña Nieto acknowledged that the North American leaders talked about Trump and his policies, especially on immigration, during their closed-door sessions.
As the trio emerged to discuss their day of meetings, they focused on the importance of trade and integration among their countries and with the rest of the world, implicitly arguing against some of the doctrines Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton are preaching on the campaign trail. Though Trump has come out much more harshly against globalization and existing pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement, Clinton, too, has said she’s against the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being negotiated among a dozen nations, including the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Unions and others in her base are deeply concerned about its implications for U.S. workers.
Trump has blasted Obama’s pending Asia trade deal and threatened to renegotiate NAFTA.
Obama, Trudeau and Peña Nieto all argued the merits of trade and of embracing the opportunities of the global economy.
“Always, there will be people trying to get us to turn inwards,” Trudeau said. “It is much better that we engage.”
Failure to do so leads to “isolation and destruction,” Peña Nieto said.
The Mexican and Canadian leaders both said they would respect the U.S. political process and try to work with whoever is elected to succeed Obama.
When a reporter asked the Mexican and Canadian leaders to weigh in further on the election, Obama stepped in to give them an out. He said that he wouldn’t answer such a question about domestic politics if he were asked while abroad.
But almost as an afterthought, he then veered off into his mini-lecture on the meaning of the word “populism,” which many political analysts have used to describe Trump.
“I’m not prepared to concede the notion that some of the rhetoric that’s been popping up is populist,” he said.
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