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This article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Many analysts, and leading Democrats, have attributed Donald Trump’s impressive 2016 vote margin among white working-class voters to his embrace of economic populism. In the wake of Trump’s victory, Senator Bernie Sanders suggested that “millions of Americans registered a protest vote on Tuesday, expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own. … Donald J. Trump won the White House because his campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger, an anger that many traditional Democrats feel.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren also identified possible common ground on economic issues: “When President-elect Trump wants to take on these issues, when his goal is to increase the economic security of middle-class families, then count me in.”
Democrats can take obvious comfort in a story about Trump winning in large measure because he stole our ideas. And there may be strategic value in this argument for Democratic leaders, who hope either to nudge Trump in a progressive direction or—more plausibly—lay the groundwork for accusing him of breaking promises when he fails to do so. When Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer says, “President Trump ran as a populist and still talks like one, but his first month has been a boon for corporations, the wealthy, and elite in America,” he is trying to box Trump in and to start developing a 2018 campaign message.
However, as an analysis of why so many white non-college voters pulled the lever for Trump, this assessment misses the mark in important ways. In order to develop strategies for winning back these voters, it’s important to get the story right. Trump’s populism surely played a role in the surge of white working-class voters to the GOP ticket in 2016. But Trump’s brand of populism—and more importantly, that of working-class whites—differs in important ways from the populism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I don’t mean only that Trump’s populism incorporates racial grievance and crude nationalism, though that is clearly a critical distinction both morally and politically. Even setting aside Trump’s ethnonationalism, these two populisms have less in common than it may appear.
Sanders and Warren are the champions of what we can call economic populism, a worldview centered on contrasting the interests of working people with those of economic elites. In Warren’s now famous formulation, the system is rigged:
People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: They’re right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them.
For economic populists, the bad guys are the wealthy, corporations, and CEOs—with a special place in hell reserved for Wall Street. Trump, however, tells a fundamentally different story about how the world works, and who has been winning and losing. Here is Trump’s rendering of populism, as expressed in his inaugural address:
For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished—but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered—but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
Warren speaks of the power of economic elites to further enrich themselves at the expense of average people. But in Trump’s tale, it is political elites who wear the black hats. This is political populism: The people have been betrayed by their government.
Progressives mock Trump for claiming he wants to “drain the swamp” while promising to deliver deregulation, regressive tax cuts, and other goodies to special interests. But in Trump’s view, the “swamp” is inhabited by bureaucrats, not billionaires. His answer to “corruption” is to rescind civil-service protections for federal workers, not limit political spending. His political reform agenda consists almost entirely of telling politicians what they cannot do—banning lobbying by former members of Congress and executive branch officials—rather than restricting powerful interests.
It is true that Trump has embraced some economic ideas that depart from traditional Republican free-market orthodoxy, most obviously his hostility toward free trade agreements. But even on the trade issue, where the two populisms converge most closely, they offer distinct narratives. Compare Sanders and Trump:
Sanders: I voted against NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China. I think they have been a disaster for the American worker. A lot of corporations that shut down here move abroad. … TPP was written by corporate America and the pharmaceutical industry and Wall Street. That's what this trade agreement is about.
Trump: For too long, Americans have been forced to accept trade deals that put the interests of insiders and the Washington elite over the hard-working men and women of this country. As a result, blue-collar towns and cities have watched their factories close and good-paying jobs move overseas, while Americans face a mounting trade deficit and a devastated manufacturing base.
Bernie Sanders greets supporters in Portland, Maine, on April 17, 2017.
Trump does tap into blue-collar whites’ worries about job loss and stagnation in declining manufacturing communities, but note who benefits: not multinational corporations or their CEOs, but the “Washington elite.” Sanders speaks of corporations moving overseas, but in Trump’s account it is the “jobs” that move, and the bad actors once again are politicians (and the foreign countries that take advantage of their incompetence). In political populism, corporate interests and the wealthy remain invisible. Indeed, one might even say that is its primary purpose.
Trump’s political populism is, fundamentally, a story about the failure of government. And unfortunately, there is good reason to believe it deeply resonates with white working-class voters. Just 20 percent of them believe they can trust the federal government more than half of the time (a rather low bar). While 61 percent of white working-class voters have an unfavorable view of corporations, a stratospheric 93 percent have an unfavorable view of politicians. Given a choice between positive and negative statements about government’s capacity and performance, white non-college voters consistently pick the negative view in a recent poll conducted by my firm:
38 percent chose “We need a government that does more to solve problems and help people.”
62 percent chose “We need a government that is smaller, less expensive, and interferes less in people’s lives.”
32 percent chose “When government tries to solve a problem, it usually does more good than harm.”
68 percent chose “When government tries to solve a problem, it usually does more harm than good.”
27 percent chose “Government has helped me achieve my goals.”
73 percent chose “Government has made it harder for me to achieve my goals.”
This anti-government sentiment is mainly driven by antipathy toward political leaders, rather than governmental agencies and departments. When white non-college voters think about the government in Washington, 83 percent say they think first about elected officials, while just 17 percent say that programs and agencies are what first come to mind. In focus groups I conducted with white working-class voters last year for Americans for a Fair Deal, it was clear that confidence in politicians and the political system was virtually nonexistent. Among the comments:
They put their political career first. It seems like it’s all self-interest in government. It’s [that] they’re never agree[ing] on anything. It’s always … about them.
Everybody that’s in the government is a lawyer. They’re from a very well-to-do family. They’ve always had everyone doing things for them, and they’re like the silver-spoon-in-their-mouth kind of scenario. So they've never struggled. They don't really understand the little people like the average American, because they're not average Americans.
We asked our focus group participants what they want from their political leaders, and the answers are revealing. They did not talk about jobs, or trade deals, or any other policy goal. Again and again, they told us they just want leaders who care about the people and not just themselves.
Focus on the needs of the people, not special interests.
Care more about the people they represent and less about the office they hold.
Have the best interests of the common American in mind.
Care about the people of the country instead of making their wallets bigger.
This distrust of government is, by far, the least-appreciated factor underlying Trump’s 2016 victory. Much of the post-election analysis has debated whether Trump’s appeal was three parts economic populism to two parts racism, or 70–30 the other way, when hostility to politicians and government was likely just as important as either of these other two factors.
Political distrust has developed over decades, and has many causes. But let us give the devil his due, and acknowledge that Senator Mitch McConnell, more than any other single person, is the father of Trumpism. By grinding Washington to a virtual halt for years, his blanket opposition to Obama helped ratchet up public disgust with the federal government to previously unseen heights. Even while the economy was recovering, confidence in Washington fell steadily, an impressive if perverse feat.
United Auto Workers member Harry Van Uden attends an Election Day rally on November 6, 2012, at the UAW Region 1 technical training center in Warren, Michigan.
In such a climate, the appeal of an outsider like Donald Trump is readily apparent, as is the enormous handicap imposed on Hillary Clinton, who was perceived by much of the public as the nearly perfect embodiment of “career politician.” White working-class voters did not fear electing someone with no political experience, because those with experience had so clearly failed. Warnings of Trump’s unfitness for office from institutions that historically play a vetting role in our political system, such as newspaper editorial boards, were largely disregarded because the “experts” had gotten so much else wrong.
WHILE PARTICULARLY WELL-SUITED to the conditions of 2016, the threat posed by Trump’s political populism continues. As a means of winning white working-class votes, it represents a quantum leap forward for Republicans. The small government vision of Paul Ryan had limited appeal to these voters, and that remains true even while their anger at government has grown. Non-college whites believe government has let them down, but most have no principled or ideological objections to government playing a strong role in the economy. Although just 20 percent trust the federal government, 50 percent also say it should take a more active role in solving the nation’s economic and social problems. Indeed, two-thirds (68 percent) say the federal government should do more to create jobs and improve wages, and majorities also say it should do more to improve K–12 education, to make college affordable, and to regulate banks and the financial sector.
Trump’s political populism is more compelling to these voters than Ryan’s small government message because it is less abstract and ideological. It speaks to their economic concerns in a powerful way and provides a plausible explanatory narrative: Americans are struggling because they have been betrayed by their political leaders, and taken advantage of by foreign nations. Of course, Trump is also careful not to threaten their Social Security and Medicare benefits, no small thing.
While the anti-government sentiment that Trump exploits and encourages may differ in important respects from Ryan’s vision, functionally it poses many of the same challenges for progressives. White working-class voters’ negative view of government spending undermines their potential support for many progressive economic policies. While they want something done about jobs, wages, education, and health care, they are also fiscally conservative and deeply skeptical of government’s ability to make positive change. So political populism not only differs from economic populism, but also serves as a powerful barrier to it.
Looking forward, progressives must find ways to puncture the belief of working-class whites that Trump’s government is “controlled by the people.” Many Democrats hope that Trump’s cabinet of billionaires has undermined his populist credentials, and each successive appointment has been met with howls that he is betraying his promises to the working class. But if billionaires were anathema to Trump’s white working-class supporters, they probably wouldn’t have elected one to the presidency. They wanted to kick out the career politicians and try something different, and Trump’s reliance on CEOs and military generals has largely honored that wish. The lack of government experience in Trump’s administration may frighten many Democrats, but in the eyes of his followers, it’s the best recommendation imaginable.
My guess is that Trump will lose ground if and when white working-class voters see that he is not delivering for them, and is in fact serving others. Democrats must aggressively contest Trump’s core promise to the white working class: that he is putting the government to work for them. Much of Trump’s actual agenda is of course devoted to helping millionaires and large corporations. Our job is to make it impossible for working-class Americans to miss, or deny, that reality.
We don’t know yet which specific issues will provide the best openings for accomplishing that task. Republicans’ as-yet unsuccessful assaults on Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, and their ongoing attacks on food stamps, workplace safety, financial regulation, and many other protections for working people all represent policy catastrophes, but also potential political opportunities.
One issue that particularly engages the working class is also at the top of Republicans’ agenda: taxes. Working-class voters are passionate in their insistence that wealthy individuals and large corporations are not paying their fair share, and efforts to give new tax cuts to those at the top will meet with strong resistance. In a recent poll my firm conducted for the Center for American Progress, in 2018 Senate battleground states, 54 percent of white working-class voters had an unfavorable reaction to GOP plans to pass across-the-board cuts in tax rates that would give a large tax cut to millionaires, and 52 percent objected to large rate cuts for corporations. If Trump delivers huge tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, he will shake the faith of many of his blue-collar supporters.
In terms of a broader message, Democrats’ traditional economic populism offers a starting point, but we need to also borrow a bit from Trump’s playbook. We must speak not only about inequality and unfairness in our economy, but also about politicians who use their political power on behalf of corporations and the wealthy. White working-class voters are less interested in cutting down the size of government (38 percent) than in taking back their government so that it works for all Americans (62 percent). In another survey we conducted for CAP, we identified a particularly powerful way of articulating that idea from a progressive perspective:
We need to take back our government so that it works for all Americans, not just billionaires and special interests. The size of government is less important than who it works for. Instead of giving tax breaks and subsidies to big corporations, we should create jobs, improve education, lift wages, and help people retire with dignity. And we should get big money out of politics, so that our government is accountable to the people.
By 64 percent to 36 percent, our white working-class respondents reported they would vote for a candidate with this message over a conservative candidate promising to cut government waste and “revive the American dream by curbing big government.”
Trump and his team will work hard to keep his political outsider brand alive. Ongoing wars with the mainstream media and the federal bureaucracy will give the story some plausibility, and they will enjoy plenty of air cover from the Fox/Breitbart propaganda machine. Still, it will become increasingly hard for Trump, now that he’s president, to pose as the slayer of “political elites.” He runs the government now, and campaigning against Washington will increasingly seem more like ducking responsibility than brave truth-telling.
Moreover, Democrats can assign clear responsibility for every shortcoming of the federal government to what Paul Ryan helpfully calls our “unified Republican government.” Republicans control every branch of the government, and they will own what they break. The message task for Democrats is to identify the underlying problem not as “politicians” generically, but those politicians who rule on behalf of millionaires and corporate titans. We now have a tremendous opportunity to leverage public disgust with government, while focusing it on its proper target: Republicans’ determination to use government power to enrich the rich and empower the powerful.
The focus group research described in this article was conducted for Americans for a Fair Deal and the surveys were conducted for the Center for American Progress; however, the views expressed here are solely those of the author, not the organization's. Click here to read the rest of our series on the White Working Class and the Democrats.