If you want to find somebody to blame for the current rise of populism, which is fueling the rise of unorthodox candidates who appeal to voters by defying the ruling consensus, don’t just blame former President Donald Trump. Blame Barack Obama as well.

If that seems counterintuitive, remember that while Obama may not have been much of a populist, he wasn’t much of an insider, either. In fact, to many Democrats who loathed Hillary Clinton, he was in some ways both an outsider and an insider.

Obama built much of his campaign on being more progressive than Clinton (even if he wouldn’t be considered particularly progressive today), organizing the grassroots, being less corrupt and being willing to oppose the war in Iraq early on, defying the Washington consensus in both parties. He was an insider in that he was – at least, partially – recruited to run for president by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Yet, he was also an outsider, in that he was just a first-term senator with little governmental experience and none in an executive role. It’s astonishing to remember, but before Barack Obama, the most recent commander in chief who wasn’t a governor or a vice president was John F. Kennedy.

In the first two decades of the 21st century, we’ve had two presidents who weren’t governors or vice presidents, and had little to no governmental experience before running for president: Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Now, depending on your party, you’re probably already registering a couple objections here. If you’re a Democrat, you’ll probably argue that Obama had already been a state senator and a United States senator before running for president. That’s a fair point, but he hadn’t served in either position for long: He first ran for public office in 1996, and ran for president in 2008. His entire political career was just 12 years long.

Meanwhile, other than flirting with a run for president before and being a donor, Donald Trump had no political career at all. He’d never as much as run for selectman or school board in his hometown, never mind the state legislature. Now, it’s easy to say that he was able to skip over those earlier steps because he was the CEO of a big corporation, but the last guy who got a sniff at the presidency on the basis of business experience alone was Ross Perot, who never really got close to victory. America has had plenty of celebrity CEOs over the centuries – Lee Iacocca, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs – but none made a presidential bid from the cozy confines of a corner office. Trump is unique in that. Like Obama, he tapped into populist anger on a number of issues that defied the Washington consensus in both parties: trade and immigration.

All of this helps to explain why so many counties swung from Obama to Trump in 2016, and it counters the simple explanation that people voted for Trump because they were racist. Instead, they were rebelling against insiders, even though one had gone to Harvard and been anointed by the Beltway elite, while the other had been successful in business and was from New York City, the center of the world’s wealth. Neither had exactly started a small business from scratch or worked themselves up from nothing, yet they appealed to people who aspired to do both.


Obama and Trump shared at least one other commonality, apart from their mutual distrust of their respective party’s insiders: An opponent. Both of them built the bulk of their short-lived political careers running against Hillary Clinton, the consummate political insider who was widely loathed by huge segments of the population in both political parties. While Obama managed to win reelection, neither did quite as well when they weren’t running against her: Under Obama, Democrats immediately lost huge majorities down-ballot nationwide, while Trump simply lost.

The real question here is whether populism, from the left or the right, is truly its own sustainable political movement in the United States or merely a convenient foil to one person, Hillary Clinton: a single uniquely flawed major-party candidate.

These midterm elections will be the first step in answering that question, and in determining whether the presidencies of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump were truly transformational, ushering in a new era, or merely momentary aberrations, with Joe Biden representing a return to the norm.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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