Senator Elizabeth Warren stood beneath a marble arch in New York City, telling a crowd of thousands that she would lead a movement to purge the government of corruption. Not far from the site of a historic industrial disaster, Ms. Warren described Washington as utterly compromised by the influence of corporations and the extremely wealthy, and laid out a detailed plan for cleansing it.
“Corruption has put our planet at risk, corruption has broken our economy and corruption is breaking our democracy,” Ms. Warren said Monday evening. “I know what’s broken, I’ve got a plan to fix it and that’s why I’m running for president of the United States.”
Only a few hours later, on a stage outside Albuquerque, President Trump took aim at a different phenomenon that he also described as corruption. Before his own roaring crowd, Mr. Trump cast himself as a bulwark against the power not of corporations but of a “failed liberal establishment” that he described as attacking the country’s sovereignty and cultural heritage.
“We’re battling against the corrupt establishment of the past,” Mr. Trump said, warning in grim language: “They want to erase American history, crush religious liberty, indoctrinate our students with left-wing ideology.”
These divergent strains of populism are far from new in American politics: for much of the country’s modern history, mass social movements channeling grievances with government or big business have competed with other forces directing outrage at racial and cultural minorities, immigrants and foreign countries.
To some Democrats, the task of delivering a credible message of changing a broken system in Washington is a defining challenge of the 2020 election. Tiffany Muller, head of the influential clean-government group End Citizens United, said her organization’s research showed that many swing voters still see Mr. Trump as a political outsider with what Ms. Muller called an undeserved veneer of ethical independence.
“What we’ve seen is that Trump actually maintains strength on this issue — that, frankly, voters don’t know who to trust on the issue of corruption and cleaning up Washington,” Ms. Muller said in an interview on Monday afternoon. “We have got to go after his strength on this issue and win back some of the voters we lost in 2016.”