Zero-Sum Us-Against-Them Populism

Frank S. Robinson
3 min readMar 11, 2024

March 11, 2024

In the “good old days” (they weren’t) economic progress was nonexistent. Most people lived in extreme poverty, generation after generation. You could only get ahead at someone else’s expense: a zero-sum world.

Gradually a better one emerged. Capitalism, market economics, division of labor, and trade all enabled us to escape the zero-sum trap. If I provide something you need or want, in exchange for something I need or want, we’re both better off.

Thus “the good of others multiplies my own good,” David Brooks wrote in a recent column. This is what sent economic advancement into overdrive, especially with the modern era of globalization applying it the world over. Multiplying real incomes dramatically, raising living standards, and almost eliminating extreme deprivation.

But too many people still don’t get it. “Socialists” imagine all good somehow comes (or should come) from government rather than enterprising individuals; even thinking it immoral to profit from one’s efforts, seen as exploiting others and causing inequality.

Brooks counters with the example of Steve Jobs, who did get very rich, but not by “taking” anything from anyone. Rather, by providing products that improved others’ lives, giving them value exceeding what they paid. But isn’t that the case with any free market transaction? Win-win, not zero-sum.

Yet nowadays even trade itself, commerce itself, is misunderstood as some people benefiting at others’ expense. China is actually demonized for selling us products at low prices! Such nonsensicality is a Trump campaign staple. The whole global trade structure is under assault and crumbling, throwing away opportunities for making us all richer. Trump promises a big expansion of tariffs — which will make everyone poorer.

Such “populism,” is on the rise almost everywhere, thriving, as Brooks explains, on a zero-sum mentality. And it makes the world not just poorer, but nastier. Because if it’s indeed a zero-sum world, then it’s us-against-them. And populist demagogues like Trump specialize in targeting “thems” — they “invariably enflame ethnic bigotry,” Brooks says, “to mobilize their own supporters.”

India’s Modi another example. Actively provoking the Hindu majority to hate the nation’s two hundred million Muslim citizens. Even questioning their citizenship. How insane in a country that’s already seen too much inter-communal bloodshed.

For Trump, it’s mainly immigrants, who “poison our blood.” Actually asserting that other nations empty mental hospitals and jails to send us their inmates. What deranged, vicious nonsense.

Reality: America’s economy is doing so much better than elsewhere, like in Europe, in good part because we take more immigrants. Offsetting population and workforce shrinkage, reinvigorating our society with go-getters who are net contributors and assets to America.

In the dark, zero-sum past, Brooks notes, grabbing territory was how despots sought self-aggrandizement. This is recrudescing with Russia’s attempt to grab Ukraine; while China is poised to try to grab Taiwan.

Israel’s conflict with Palestinians too reflects a zero-sum mentality, as if they’re both fighting over something only one can have, blind to how both could benefit from cooperating together.

But alas, says Brooks, “the thugs [Russia, China, Trump] are winning.” Will we come to our senses in time?