Reflecting populism born of frustration

| Saturday, July 18, 2015, 8:30 p.m.

There is a disturbance in American politics. But no one in the political class seems to be pinpointing the correct source.

Donald Trump gets all of the credit for it from journalists, pundits and academics. They could not be more wrong.

They are looking only at the surface, seeing the response to his harangues as an affirmation of the man. If they looked beyond the cartoonish image of Trump, they would understand that the true disturbance is the frustration of Americans, not the bluster of one man.

The same goes for the surge by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont against Hillary Clinton on the Democrats' side. Clinton's other competitors — Virginia's Jim Webb, a former U.S. senator and Navy secretary, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley — are running deliberate campaigns, but they don't reflect the fire and unrest of voters on the center-left.

It is always remarkable to witness experts not understanding the field in which they are experts; even more remarkable, they still do not recognize the frustration of the masses, despite the unsettling wave elections of 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2014 that vividly affirmed populist movements against both political parties' establishments.

Americans are just tired of it all. Tired of no one speaking honestly to them, tired of being told they cannot speak honestly.

Think about this: For two administrations, Democrats, Republicans and independents effectively have been told to hold their tongues. During the Bush administration, you were unpatriotic if you criticized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; during the Obama administration, you're a racist if you criticize the president or his policies.

And don't even think about expressing your values if those are outside the elite's standard of everyone deserving equality and fairness (unless, of course, you disagree with that elitist viewpoint, in which case hatred and character destruction are your reward).

This column has reported endlessly on the unnamed populist movement afoot in this country, one bridging both sides of the political aisle and uniting Americans against the establishment.

People look at government with an anger and a frustration which Washington does not understand.

In a span of a few days last week, Americans witnessed Washington's glaring failure with disbelief.

First, the government admitted that Social Security numbers, fingerprints, passwords and other personal information of more than 22 million federal workers, all used to conduct background screenings, were hacked on the Obama administration's watch.

Then a whistleblower leaked an internal Department of Veterans Affairs document to the Huffington Post, showing that more than 238,000 of the 847,000 military veterans with pending applications for health care through the VA had already died.

Finally, the FBI admitted that flaws in paperwork and communications between a federal background-check worker and state law enforcement allowed Dylann Roof to buy a handgun in South Carolina, weeks before he allegedly killed black churchgoers.

No accountability, no transparency — just a pattern of bureaucratic failure that has cost lives and has fueled anger against government.

This is the tip of the iceberg. If you are “out here” — outside Washington, outside of the coastal elites — you are overwhelmed by the incompetency; if you are “inside” those, you don't understand folks' skepticism about everything related to government, including cutting a deal with Iran.

When CBS News reporter Major Garrett pressed President Obama at a news conference last week, asking why American hostages in Iran weren't addressed in the nuclear arms “deal,” the president was insulted that someone would interrupt his victory lap. Garrett's peers, supposedly all balanced, hard-nosed journalists paid to ask tough questions, retreated predictably; they failed to practice good journalism by pressing the president on that point, perhaps because they are cloistered in their polarized world.

Donald Trump is going nowhere in this election cycle; neither is Bernie Sanders. But there is nothing wrong about the nomination races being a spectacle right now, because it demonstrates the volume of unrest among people looking for leadership.

Populism is lightning in a bottle. It is always bottom-up and always about people looking for a leader, not a circus barker leading a parade of tigers and jugglers on a small-town promenade.

Trump and Sanders are reflections of the unrest, not the leaders we are seeking.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (szito@tribweb.com).

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