Taking Trump’s Populism Seriously

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Supporters arrive at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's election night rally, Tuesday, November 8, 2016, in New York. 

In small cities and towns across the nation, working-class whites unloosed a thunderbolt on Tuesday, giving a stunning victory to Donald Trump. “A primal scream,” was how David Axelrod described it. Working-class whites were clearly angry—about stagnating incomes, shuttered factories, and a perception that Washington was rigged against them. And they largely lined up behind Donald Trump, the candidate who voiced and channeled their anger, and not behind Hillary Clinton, a far more cerebral and measured candidate.

By promising to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, to impose a 35 percent tariff on cars assembled in Mexico and to get tough on China trade, Trump came across as a raging fighter for American workers—even if the solutions he offered, such as tariffs that could spark a trade war, could plunge the nation into recession and hurt American workers more than help them. Clinton, in contrast, came across as a smart, not-at-all angry public servant with seven carefully crafted solutions to every problem.

Considering that nearly two-thirds of Americans said the nation was on the wrong track, it’s fair to say the electorate was looking for a change candidate. But Clinton—as former first lady, former senator and former secretary of state, came across as Ms. Establishment, a symbol of continuity, even if she would have been the nation’s first female president. Notwithstanding Trump’s numerous lies, misogyny, and intolerance, many working-class whites flocked to him as the change agent. He was full of bluster and toughness, he was going to push back against Mexico and China, he was going to Make America Great Again. Yes, his rhetoric was often manipulative, but many working-class voters lapped it up. Democrats are loath to admit this, but Trump’s troops were far more motivated than Clinton’s. 

Let’s not forget that Bernie Sanders, 75 years old and at first badly underfunded, came close to defeating Clinton in the Democratic primary, attracting the young and many working-class voters by crusading against increased income inequality. That should have been an alarm bell to the Clinton campaign and Democratic establishment. While Trump had a muscular message for white workers—on trade, on immigrants, on bringing the jobs back—Clinton failed to convey a robust pro-worker message. Yes, she called for a higher minimum wage, although she spun things so well I could never figure out whether she backed a $12 minimum or $15 minimum wage. She called for paid parental leave and more infrastructure spending, but her pro-worker message wasn’t loud and clear and it clearly didn’t get through to enough working-class whites—maybe because they had written her off as part of the establishment, maybe because of her Wall Street ties, maybe because her mild-mannered style didn’t excite them, while Trump’s thumping rhetoric did.

Fairly or unfairly, many working-class whites tied Clinton to Obama, while also complaining that he hadn’t done enough to turn things around for them, even though the jobless rate has dropped to 4.9 percent, 15 million jobs have been created since 2010 and median household income rose a record 5.2 percent last year. Of course it’s corporations, not Obama, not Hillary, that have shut the factories and held down wages and household incomes. And when Obama sought to raise the minimum wage or strengthen unions, Republicans rushed to stop him.

To be sure, many working-class white men weren’t ready to back a woman for president. And some working-class whites, much like the Reagan Democrats of old, resent the Democrat Party, seeing it as the party of minorities and takers. With all the talk about how African Americans and Hispanics would flock to the polls to elect Hillary and how the number of minority voters would rise in future years, many working-class whites viewed the election of macho Mr. Trump as the whites’ last stand.

Working-class whites lifted Trump to narrow victories in three presumed firewall states for Democrats: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Unions in those states were unable to turn around enough minds and turn out enough voters for Clinton. If union density in those three states were as high as four decades ago, Clinton would have won all three—and the election. In 1976, 38.7 percent of Michigan’s workers were union members, compared with 15.2 percent today. In Wisconsin 30 percent were union members (8.3 percent today) and in Pennsylvania, 35.3 percent were union members in 1976 (13.3 percent today).

Clintion did some unforgiveable damage to herself and her party. As secretary of state, she used a private email server—a serious, short-sighted mistake, even if Republicans and the news media blew it out of all proportion. Considering that she was planning to run for president, it was obtuse for her to give three speeches for $225,000 a pop to Goldman Sachs. That didn’t endear her to working-class whites who struggle to get by on $40,000 a year. Nor did it endear her to other groups she needed to win: progressives, millennials, African Americans, and Latinos. (Nor did she need to give those speeches, considering that her husband had already earned over $100 million giving speeches since leaving the White House.)

Obama and Clinton—having seen how hugely unpopular NAFTA was, especially in the Midwestern swing states—should have recognized that pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was political unwise. They should have realized that unions and workers alike would worry that TPP would mean even more factory jobs heading overseas—this time to Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan. If you want to woo Rust Belt voters, you don’t do these things. (Before reversing herself and opposing TPP, Clinton had hailed it as the “gold standard” of trade deals, even though its worker protections were only an ounce or two better than the feeble protections in NAFTA.)

In part to offset labor’s anger about TPP, the Obama administration has taken a noticeably more pro-worker stance in recent years. Pushed by Labor Secretary Tom Perez, the administration has enabled far more workers to qualify for overtime pay, required federal contractors to provide paid sick days and pay a $10.10 minimum wage, and held a White House Summit on Worker Voice. But these steps were never packaged and presented in a vigorous and concerted enough way to convince millions of working-class whites that Obama—and his hoped-for successor, Clinton—were battling for them.

For the past few decades, Democrats, as they turn increasingly to Wall Street and Hollywood for campaign money, have repeatedly let Republicans outmaneuver and out-market them in saying they’re the party of working-class whites. Al Gore faced that problem, and so did John Kerry. On Tuesday, Clinton ran headlong into the same problem. If the Democrats want to maximize their chances of winning, they will need to stop treating working-class whites and their issues as an afterthought. In 2020, the Democrats could use a younger version of Bernie Sanders, who can run as a real, worker-friendly populist against Trump, the fake populist.

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