Lucas Kunce: ‘Populism is about everyday people coming together’

18 days ago

Lucas Kunce: ‘Populism is about everyday people coming together’

The Guardian

Lucas Kunce thinks populism has been given a bad name. “It’s outrageous,” he says, “that people call the Josh Hawleys, the Eric Greitens, the Donald Trumps of the world populist. Populism is about everyday people coming together to have power in a system that’s not working for them. So do that, Josh Hawley. I mean, good Lord, what a charlatan.”

Kunce is running for the Democratic nomination for US Senate in Missouri, in the fight to take the state’s second seat in Washington, alongside Hawley. The primary is on Tuesday.

Kunce’s main challenger is Trudy Busch Valentine, a prominent donor from the Anheuser-Busch brewing dynasty. Kunce’s fundraising has been hugely successful but polling is tight.

Kunce has attacked Busch Valentine for representing the donor class, but in conversation he focuses more on attacking Republicans. Hawley, he says, is “always talking about masculinity – this, that, the other – meanwhile, he skitters out of the Capitol from a riot he essentially started. The guy votes for every corporate judge that comes up in front of him. He doesn’t do anything that would actually empower everyday people.

“And Donald Trump, I mean, he put the president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, in charge of our economy. That’s not populism. What they do is divide people based on race, religion, where you come from, in a way that doesn’t give everyday people power. They make sure folks are divided so that they don’t have power as a whole against the system that’s not working.

“And so I just think it’s a tragedy that we give sort of any sort of populist label to these guys because they don’t want to change the system.”

Now 39, Kunce is a Yale grad who joined the US marines, went to Iraq and Afghanistan and worked in international arms control. He’s a persuasive speaker, even over Google Meet, laptop camera on the fritz.

He is for gun control but he is running in gun country. That in part explains an ad in which Kunce holds an AR-15-style assault rifle, makes as if to fire it and then says that unlike potential Republican opponents including Mark McCloskey, the lawyer who infamously pointed such a gun at protesters for racial justice, he doesn’t need to indulge in such macho posturing.

Kunce is also for abortion rights, in a state with a post-Roe v Wade trigger law.

He grew up in Jefferson City, “in what would be considered a pro-life house and pro-life neighbourhood. That’s what I knew. And then I joined the Marine Corps. I went out and saw what it was like for these countries where they have oppressive Big Brother governments, where women have no rights. I saw what it was like to live in countries where there’s this two-tiered system of rights, where if you have wealth, access and power, the world’s literally your oyster.

“And then I see what they did in Missouri here, how these country club Republicans passed the country’s first trigger law, saying abortion is not even available in cases of rape or incest. It’s like they’re willing to do that because they know it’s not going to affect them. Because they’re gonna go out of state, they have the wealth and the means. And so I think that’s messed up. People in my old neighborhood, that’s who’s not gonna have access. We’re gonna have a two-tier system here.

“And I’ve seen people from from my life go through very hard pregnancies I don’t think they should ever have to be forced to go through. People should be able to have that right and opportunity … And so my position is that I will vote to end the [Senate] filibuster and codify Roe v Wade. I think we need to make that happen.”

The Republican primary in Missouri is certainly messy, an all-in scrap in which Greitens, a pro-Trump ex-governor who quit in disgrace and is accused of sexual and physical abuse, could yet come out on top.

Polling suggests a Missouri US Senate seat remains a stretch for any Democrat. All the same, Kunce has attracted national attention. He says that was a surprise.

“I had no expectations going into this. I was a guy nobody knew. I wanted to run a campaign where I rejected corporate Pac money, federal lobbyists’ money, big pharma executive money, big fossil fuel executive money. People basically said that wasn’t possible and that was stupid.

“And we just decided we’d do it the right way anyway. To actually stand for something and to win and to make sure you only represent people like the ones who took care of me growing up, rather than these folks who are buying off politicians and using them to strip our communities for parts.

“I’m thrilled we’ve gotten the attention that we’ve gotten for what we’re doing and how Democrats can win in the midwest again – if they take a real straightforward populist message.”

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Kunce talks of “big, bold investment” in the midwest, of spending the sort of billions previously spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on building “the next generation of energy technology right here, to build out manufacturing, research and development, we’re talking wind and solar but we’re also talking hydrogen, distributed nuclear or modular nuclear, battery technology [and] good union jobs”.

Such aims are part of the Green New Deal and Build Back Better, progressive and Democratic plans fiercely opposed by big business and the right. Kunce’s description of a “Marshall plan for the midwest”, a reference to US aid for postwar Europe under a Missourian Democratic president, Harry Truman, seems in part a repackaging. He isn’t big on progressive labels. Asked about identity politics, he prefers to talk about class.

“My focus is on top-bottom, as far as identity politics go. There are a lot of people who are being used as targets, usually the most vulnerable people in our society, by the shareholder class, these massive corporations who are funding campaigns against trans youth, against gay people, against minority communities. They do whatever they can to fund divisive campaigns in order to make it so we don’t have a top-bottom race.

“This is what I was talking about earlier with these charlatans who pretend to be populist but they’re actually dividing people as much as they can. I’m absolutely for protecting communities that are vulnerable. I just don’t want to lose sight of this top-bottom dynamic that’s really killing us and making it so everybody is fighting for crumbs underneath the table rather than actually having to sit at it.”

Kunce has been presented as a representative of progressive masculinity, a type of Democrat who might appeal away from the coasts. He connects the issue back to Republican posturing.

“It’s crazy. I mean, Mark McCloskey on his AR-15, frightening people who are walking by his house. You don’t even hold it right. He would have burned himself up with hot brass if he’d shot a round. The fakeness here is just incredible. Josh Hawley’s right there too.

“Real men aren’t a bunch of posers. They are people like my dad who sacrifice for their family, sacrifice for their community, stay in the first job they ever took out of school for their entire life, even when they’re miserable, because they needed their little girl to have health insurance so that she would survive. People that invest in their community, in their families.

Kunce in his days as a US marine.
Kunce in his days as a US marine. Photograph: Lucas Kunce for Senate

“It’s like the guy who inspired me to join the marines. This guy named Al. When I was a kid, we always volunteered at the church soup kitchen. Twice a month we’d go down there … and this guy who ran the kitchen, he was always like, ‘OK, what chores do all the kids want to do?’ And my little sister and I were always like, ‘Oh, we want to do the dishes.’ And Al was always confused about why two kids wanted to do the dishes.

“But at my house with a big family, doing the dishes, man, it was like 40 minutes of standing at the sink, hurting your back, scrubbing hard and drying. Well, the church kitchen had a dishwasher. So doing the dishes was a scam there. You just threw a bunch of stuff in and walked away. I was like, ‘This guy’s an idiot, he thinks we’re doing a chore.’ And so Al figured that out.

“And two years later, when he renovated the kitchen in his house, he took his old dishwasher, put it in his pickup truck, drove it to our house and installed it for us, because he remembered that and he wanted to do something for somebody.

“That’s what a real man does. That’s masculinity. Al was a marines officer in Vietnam. Never talked about it. Just, you know, quiet fortitude. That’s what I think being a man is and it’s why I joined the Marine Corps and it’s why I think these [Republican] guys are just a bunch of posturing peacocks.”

My last question is in part prompted by Kunce’s mention of “quiet fortitude”. Kunce is a fan of Clint Eastwood movies. Which is his favorite?

Unforgiven. Because Unforgiven was such a comeback for the western brand. It brought it back in the early 90s. And I thought that was really cool. I mean, I watch all the old ones. Pale Rider, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly … but I think Unforgiven was just, it was a real comeback story for the genre which I love.”

I’m for In the Line of Fire. If Kunce wins on Tuesday, the Republicans will be too.