Domestic Affairs

Gamestop and the Populist Dilemma

In his inaugural address, President Biden called for Americans to embrace “unity” amidst a “rise in political extremism, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism.” Nearly a week later, he got exactly what he asked for.

As a short squeeze by Redditors against Wall Street resulted in trading restrictions on the Robinhood app, people from across the political aisle leaped to defend the small investors. On the left, Alexandria Occasio-Cortez tweeted statements criticizing Wall Street and Robinhood. Her voice was echoed by none other than Donald Trump Jr., who lambasted “big tech, big government, and the corporate media” for rigging the “system.”

This same cross-political alignment could be found amongst non-politicians as well. YouTuber and commentator Vaush, a left-wing anarchist, initially expressed support for the short squeeze (he later walked his statements back). Right-winger Alex Jones, in his own unique style, defended the “rebellion” as well. While #GameStop trended on Twitter and leftists expressed support, Trump supporters on celebrated the short squeeze as a fight against the Mainstream Media (MSM) and the establishment. 

For several days, it appeared that the country was unified in a near-unanimous condemnation of hedge funds and in fervent support of the perceived underdog. Yet, only a week before the GME short squeeze, Americans seemed ready to tear each other apart. In the wake of the Capitol Riot and Big Tech censorship, it seemed America was irreparably bifurcated — a country whose population lived in two separate realities, hence Biden’s “unity” address. 

In spite of hyper-polarization, the core of populism — a promotion of “the people’s” interests against the elites — appeals to both the MAGA movement and progressives who see themselves as fighting against the political machine. Overall, the fact that the simplistic narrative of scrappy Redditors vs. greedy Wall Street — of a humble David vs. an arrogant Goliath — appealed to people on the left and the right shows the potential of populism as a unifying force in this country. 

To be clear, the “Gamestop Rebellion” narrative was far more complex than initially reported. It is unclear the short squeeze was a victory for the little guys over Wall Street. Indeed, while some Redditors made large gains from GME, others lost money. Moreover, while certain hedge funds, such as Melvin capital, suffered the brunt of the short squeeze, other hedge funds like Citadel benefitted. Additionally, the true motivation behind Robinhood’s controversial trade restriction was to meet SEC clearinghouse requirements rather than to protect the hedge funds. Overall, the fact that many people eschewed this information in favor of a populist narrative reveals the allure of such a story.

As Cenk Uygur points out, there are three competing viewpoints in America — those of the populist left, populist right, and the establishment. The populist left, characterized by politicians such as Bernie Sanders and AOC, promotes progressive values and opposes the inequality of the status quo and the nationalist tendencies of the populist right. The populist right, led by Donald Trump, supports an “America-First” agenda, opposes the corrupt “swamp” of establishment politicians, and clashes with the populist left on immigration and political correctness. The surge of populism on the right and left in recent years is no accident and largely stems from anger towards entities seen as the establishment — the wealthy, the media, and the politicians.

For the past couple of decades, the gap between the haves and have-nots has only widened — as a result, average Americans feel shunned by the rich and powerful. In 2020, the socioeconomic schism was further exposed as small businesses were shuttered by lockdowns while massive corporations turned profits. Overall, the pandemic and subsequent government responses have only made clearer the divide between the “one percent” and everyone else. In an increasingly unequal society, it’s no mystery that populism holds sway over people who justifiably feel cheated out of economic prosperity.

Moreover, the failures of mainstream media to report the truth have also led people down the populist path. 

From a conservative perspective, the media ran inaccurate stories about “Russiagate” in the aftermath of the 2016 elections. In the 2020 elections, news organizations initially refused to cover the Hunter Biden scandal only to report on it after the elections concluded. Given documented examples of the mainstream media’s failure to report objective news and Trump’s broad-stroke attacks on the institution, right-wing populists consider CNN, MSNBC, and other corporate media to be “the enemy of the people.

While Democrats largely trust mass-media, populists and radicalists within the party do not. For example, there is a feeling among Bernie Sanders’ supporters that corporate media was unfair to the senator in their reporting of the 2016 and 2020 primaries. The perceived negative treatment of progressive candidates by the media coupled with a general distrust of corporations has inspired hatred of corporate media in some left-wing populists similar to that of the right.

Lastly, disillusionment with “establishment” politicians has driven the surge in American populism.

The reality is that neither the populist right nor left approves of people in “the swamp” — long-standing politicians who have seemingly failed to improve peoples’ lives but benefited from their positions.

President Biden himself is an example of such a politician: he has been in politics for the past 47 years and his family has faced allegations of profiting off his name. Moreover, Biden raised more than 70 million dollars from Wall Street in 2020, far outpacing the funds raised by populist Trump. Given the particular divisiveness of the 2020 election and the media’s handling of the Hunter Biden story, populist right-wingers will especially feel antagonistic towards a president who received significant support from institutional players. 

Meanwhile, the left is far from unified on the POTUS. While Biden won the most votes in American history, the election was much closer than the polls predicted. Moreover, it seems that many on the left voted against Trump’s divisive and brutish nature rather than for Biden’s policy agenda.

The dissatisfaction with President Biden was made clear the morning of the inauguration when an Antifa group protested Biden and vandalized a Democratic Party office in Seattle. For some left-wing populists, Biden is emblematic of a crooked Democratic establishment that rejected Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 and is not the person needed to make desired progressive changes.

Overall, people across the political aisle feel alienated, left behind, and even stomped on by current elites, media, and politicians. As shown by the Gamestop short squeeze, Americans can unite against a common enemy who is perceived to be in control of a broken, unjust system. 

The cost, however, of such populism is often the truth. Blind rage at mainstream media and hedge funds can mean ignoring the misinformation of alt-media or the foibles of populist figureheads. With the justifiable decline of trust in institutions among Americans, there is a danger that alternative narratives may become as untrue or damaging as those of the mainstream. Therein lies the populist dilemma — even with the current misery of the status quo, is it right for Americans to demand populist change? Will a unified front of right-wing and left-wing politics make inequality, the media, and politicians better? 

The answer remains to be seen. Perhaps the establishment will make meaningful political changes and regain trust among the populace. Perhaps a right-left populist union will temporarily improve our republic only to fall to infighting after slaying the establishment dragon. The only thing we can be sure of is this: if Biden wants unity based on the status quo, he has a mountain of public distrust to overcome.

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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