The populist rabble regularly spout terms such as "bankster" or "deep state" to attack dark forces they blame for all society's ills. Rarely do they exhibit much understanding of what a contradictory and flawed concept they're embraced. Trump seduced them with visions of prairie populism but what he's dishing up is Wall Street Populism.
Even Noah Millman, writing in The American Conservative, has the measure of Trump's "Pro-Wall Street Populism."
On the campaign trail, Trump did regularly attack Wall Street — and hedge funds in particular. But he also attacked the Dodd-Frank regulatory structure, and blamed it for the fact that “so many people … who have nice businesses” can’t borrow money. And indeed, it’s quite true that after the financial crisis banks got far more cautious in their lending — which led to the growth of non-traditional lenders who typically demand more aggressive financial terms than banks historically had.
Dodd-Frank regulates especially large financial institutions more heavily precisely because they pose a systemic threat that creates a moral hazard: Confident that the government couldn’t afford not to bail them out, these institutions have an incentive to run more risk than would otherwise be sensible, because if the risks pay off they keep the profits but if they don’t the government is left holding the bag. Moreover, the legislation also gives the FDIC Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) to unwind failed firms in a controlled manner.
But from a populist perspective, giving special treatment to some firms because they are “too big to fail” looks like a way of institutionalizing the problem rather than solving it. Even if that special treatment is described as greater oversight, the mere fact that such a status exists implies that finance and government are formally enmeshed in a way that a populist is bound to see as leading to favoritism — which is precisely what the Tea Party types argued when they said that OLA was a kind of “permanent bailout” and that banks that take big risks that go bad should simply be allowed to fail.
The populist alternative to growing government power to counterbalance big finance is to structurally reduce the power of big finance and enable individuals and communities to have more control over their economic circumstances. The question genuine populists need to answer is how they propose to do that without impoverishing the country. “Break up the banks” may or may not be a necessary part of the answer, but it is surely not sufficient.