By Paul Street
President Trump’s Cabinet and inner circle are populated mostly with people whose interests are distant from those of the American working class. (Paul Sancya / AP)
The notion that Donald Trump rode into the White House on a giant wave of white working-class rage has been oversold. But make no mistake. The right-wing billionaire won a significant majority of the white “heartland” working class vote. He bested Hillary Clinton among whites without college degrees by more than 2 to 1 (66 percent to 29 percent), and his triumph with that part of the electorate was central to his widely unexpected victory.
But just how much of Trump’s success with the white working class (WWC) was achieved through his populist-sounding rhetoric on behalf of the nation’s “forgotten working people” and against the corporate and financial elite and its “free trade” agenda?
The Wedge We Need to Build
Two things are clear going forward. First, progressives hoping to defeat Trump and Trumpism will need to drive a class wedge between the new administration’s big basket of deplorable, super-wealthy plutocrats and the president’s conservative WWC base. Second, Trump is going to provide a lot of ammunition for that wedge-building task with policies that mock his posture as some kind of great white working-class hero.
It is distressing that candidate Trump got away with taking that populist pose in the first place. Born to significant real estate wealth, Trump owed his rise to hyper-opulence “to his relentless manipulation of the corporate-controlled media market … to increase the market value of his name, which he then licensed to be sold. … The result,” author Mike Lofgren notes, “was Trump resorts, Trump steaks, even Trump dietary supplements retailed through multilevel marketing, the polite biz school euphemism for a pyramid scheme. As for Trump University, the principal lesson it imparted … was how to avoid being victimized by such scams in the future. … Such is Donald Trump, friend of the working class.” Adding to the dark irony, Trump has an ugly record of cheating contractors and workers as well as bankers, consumers and taxpayers.
The Corporate Welfare Carrier Stunt
As president-elect, Trump made a great populist show of intervening to “save 1,000 jobs” at a Carrier/United Technologies furnace factory in Indiana. Upon close examination, however, his Carrier deal was a state-capitalist scam rooted in the nation’s long, bipartisan tradition of masking regressive corporate welfare as progressive “pro-jobs” policy. In exchange for agreeing not to outsource 800 jobs at its Indianapolis factory, Carrier is slated to receive $7 million in tax credits from the state of Indiana. It’s a standard neoliberal, state-capitalist practice that costs local and state taxpayers more than $80 billion a year: big business shaking down taxpayers with the threat of moving jobs. As the labor journalist and historian Toni Gilpin reports in Labor Notes, “What’s dubbed ‘economic development’ is often simple extortion. … CEOs deftly exploit the desperate desire to create (or merely retain) jobs, reaping the windfall as governors and mayors compete to offer up the best bribes. These payouts are enormous. … In this bipartisan bonanza, the big winner is big business … the uber-profitable corporate 1 [percent].”
There is every reason to think that Trump will continue scamming the WWC as president. Loaded with anti-union billionaires and multimillionaires, his administration is one of the most business-heavy and corporate-friendly in American history. Take, for example, Trump’s treasury secretary and longtime Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin. Mnuchin profited from working-class losses during the Great Recession. At the peak of the Wall Street catastrophe that caused the Great Recession, he purchased failed banks and savings and loans and foreclosed on tens of thousands of working and middle-class families. When Trump tapped him for his team, Mnuchin proclaimed that cutting corporate taxes would be his top priority. The notion that Mnuchin and the other uber-plutocrats in the Trump regime might act on behalf of American workers—even white ones—is absurd.
Is Trump really going to bully or bribe corporate America into keeping jobs inside the U.S. to “make America great again”? A recent front-page Wall Street Journal article reports that Rexnord Corp. is going ahead with a plan to shift 300 factory jobs from Indiana to Mexico despite Trump’s denunciation of the move last December. Caterpillar is proceeding with a transfer of jobs from its Joliet, Ill., factory to Monterey, Mexico. Other top U.S. firms—including Nucor, General Motors, Ford, Manitowoc Foodservice and CTS Corp. (an electronic component maker)—are going ahead with planned removals of jobs and production from the U.S. to Mexico. The managers of these firms must know that a presidency loaded with globalist financiers from Goldman Sachs is not a serious threat to punish transnational corporations for trying to maximize profits by shifting production to lower-wage zones of the world capitalist system.
Even when or if Trump replicates his Carrier deal with other companies, such interventions are better understood as fake-populist public relations stunts than as serious efforts to keep or create American blue-collar jobs. The number of jobs “saved” through corporate-welfarist bribery is tiny compared with the much larger quantity of manufacturing positions lost to globalization and automation/technological displacement each month.
Free Trader Trump
What about Trump’s much-ballyhooed opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his threat to impose steep tariffs on goods imported from Mexico and China? Trump has sold all this as part of his plan to bring back manufacturing jobs stolen, he says, by other countries (primarily China and Mexico) under the rules of “free trade.”
This, too, is a scam. Protectionist bluster will not magically recreate jobs that were evaporated long ago by technological change and globalization. At the same time, Trump is no protectionist trade warrior. He is “a dedicated free trader.” As left economist Jack Rasmus explains:
“He just rejects multilateral, multi-country free trade deals … [but] wants even stronger, pro-U.S. business free trade deals and intends to renegotiate the existing multilateral treaties—to the benefit of U.S. multinational corporations and at the expense of the U.S. trading partners. Trump’s threats of protectionist measures … are primarily tactical and aimed at conditioning U.S. trading partners to make major concessions once U.S. renegotiation of past deals and agreements begin[s]. … What Trump trade policies represent is a major shift by U.S. economic elites and Trump toward bilateral free trade, country to country. Trump believes he and the U.S. have stronger negotiating leverage ‘one on one’ with these countries and that prior U.S. policies of multilateral free trade only weakened U.S. positions and gains.”
But “free trade,” Rasmus reminds us, “is free trade, whether multi or bilateral. Workers, consumers and the environment pay for the profits of corporations on both sides of the trade deals, regardless how the profits are re-distributed between the companies benefiting from free trade.” The benefits of Trump’s bilateralism will redound to the super-wealthy few—the 0.1 percent that is so heavily represented in his administration and owns more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Tax Cuts and Deregulation: A Regressive Wrecking Ball
Then there’s Trump’s promise to slash taxes on the rich and their corporations along with regulations on finance and industry. Nearly half (47 percent) of Trump’s proposed tax cuts will go to the top 1 percent while his plan will increase levies on 26 million low-income Americans.
Trump’s proposed rollbacks of workplace and environmental regulations promise to assault the health and safety of working people on and off the job. And, as left financial commentator Mike Whitney observes, Trump thinks that the benefits of scrapping financial rules meant to temper reckless and predatory Wall Street conduct “exceed the risks, which, of course, will be shouldered exclusively by the blue collar working stiffs who naively supported Trump’s bid for president thinking he had their best interests at heart.” By Whitney’s calculation, the coming “deregulatory rampage” of “President Wreckingball” will “turn Wall Street into a financial Fukushima that reduces the sputtering US economy to a toxic waste-dump incapable of supporting the nearly-extinct middle class.” The money master’s expectation is that Joe and Jane Six Pack and the rest of the so-called 99 percent will pick up the taxpayer tab.
Pro-Worker Measures and Messages Missing
Meanwhile, if Trump was remotely serious about boosting the income and status of American working class—white and nonwhite—he’d be pushing for the re-legalization of union organizing to rebuild the American labor movement, the greatest anti-poverty program in American history. He’d advocate for a higher minimum wage, a hike of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level and the expansion of its social safety net. He’d also be pushing back (tweeting, perhaps) against the Republican-led assault on the public sector unions’ collective bargaining rights and political power. (An especially vicious attack along those lines just occurred in Iowa.)
No such initiatives are remotely imaginable in Trump’s White House. The president’s embattled nominee for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, an anti-union, billionaire, fast-food CEO who is opposed to any increase in the minimum wage beyond a paltry $9 an hour, had to withdraw his nomination. We can only guess whom the next plutocrat Trump puts up for this position will be. [Editor’s note: On Thursday, Trump selected R. Alexander Acosta, a Florida law school dean and former assistant attorney general, for the post.] Perhaps Trump should rename the Department of Labor as the “Ministry of Worker Exploitation.” Trump’s education secretary (“minister of public schools destruction”?), Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire married into the Amway fortune and a dedicated enemy of teacher unions, along with public schools.
We Are Not the 99 Percent
Is Steve Bannon, Trump’s quasi-fascist political Svengali and veteran propaganda master, worried that Trump could lose the allegiance of the WWC as they realize they’ve been scammed by the latest new president to manipulate populist-sounding rhetoric and racial and ethnic identity politics on behalf the capitalist “elite”? Probably not. Bannon is likely calculating that his right-wing, arch-capitalist regime can keep its WWC base on board by claiming to save and create blue-collar jobs with Carrier-like deals, protectionism, energy (fossil fuels) deregulation (the Trump project depends critically on expanded oil and gas extraction), and infrastructure expansion—while directing working-class anger at immigrants, Muslims, environmentalists, black civil rights activists, liberals, intellectuals, China, Mexico, Iran and/or Europe.
Bannon likely also understands something that distinguished law professor Joan C. Williams (herself the product of a WWC family) put her finger on two days after the 2016 election in a Harvard Business Review essay titled “What So Many People Don’t Get About the Working Class.” As Williams wrote, in a passage that merits extended quotation:
“For months, the only thing that’s surprised me about Donald Trump is my [academic and liberal] friends’ astonishment at his success. What’s driving it is the class culture gap. … One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that ‘professional people were generally suspect’ [in their families of origin] and that managers are college kids ‘who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,’ said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. … Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men also found resentment of professionals—but not of the rich. … Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. … That’s another part of Trump’s appeal. …
“Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. ‘Directness is a working-class norm,’ notes Lubrano. As one blue-collar guy told him, ‘If you have a problem with me, come talk to me. … I don’t like people who play these two-faced games.’ Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being ‘a total wuss and a wimp.’ … Of course Trump appeals. [Hillary] Clinton’s clunky admission that she talks one way in public and another in private? Further proof she’s a two-faced phony.”
Middle- and upper-middle-class, college-educated liberals, progressives and leftists who cluck about how “foolish” Caucasian proles don’t know who their real 1-percent enemy is don’t get it. The WWC experience perceives the professional “elite” as their main class oppressor on a day-to-day basis. “We are the 99 percent.” Except we’re not really. Trump may not necessarily lose that many points with WWC voters for serving his fellow billionaires. He scores points with the WWC by horrifying the smug, arrogant and disrespectful, two-faced and overly “politically correct” professional class.
Progressives who want to connect with WWC people in coming months and years—an urgent task if “President Wreckingball” is going to be stopped from blowing up the world—should drop their smug condescension toward today’s blue-collar white Republicans. The WWC may not be as dumb as many professional class people seem to think. As Williams notes, it is not wrong to see the dismal dollar Democrats as any better than the GOP when it comes to protecting workers against the ravages of international capitalism:
“ ‘The white working class is just so stupid. Don’t they realize Republicans just use them every four years, and then screw them?’ I have heard some version of this over and over again, and it’s actually a sentiment the WWC agrees with, which is why they rejected the Republican establishment this year. But to them, the Democrats are no better. … Both parties have supported free-trade deals because of the net positive GDP gains, overlooking the blue-collar workers who lost work as jobs left for Mexico or Vietnam. These are precisely the voters in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that Democrats have so long ignored. Excuse me. Who’s stupid?”
Resist the disastrous temptation to write off all WWC anger and resentment as little more than white-nationalist racism, nativism and/or sexism. Contrary to what many white middle-class professionals seem to think, the Caucasian proletariat is not a big monolithic mass of frothing racists, nativists, sexists, gay-bashers, ecocidalists, arch-militarists and incipient fascists. Many, if not most, white working-class folks would back a seriously fighting and populist social-democratic party if such a thing could have a meaningful presence in American political life. If Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic Party candidate instead of the neoliberal Clinton, Sanders might well have denied Trump his winning WWC margin.
If you really want to connect with the WWC, try joining it. Nothing educates like experience. Take a blue-collar or other kind of working-class job, preferably in a more rural red region, and see what it’s like to be bossed around by professionals all day long. Take a close look at the misery you can find all around the white flyover zones, where farm decline and job loss have bred an epidemic of opiate addiction and alcoholism that have helped generate a shocking decrease in white working-class lifespans in recent years.
The WWC can be engaged and learned from—not just spoken to. And here’s a hint: It doesn’t do much good to lecture folks on their “white privilege” when they are barely making it in shitty jobs that don’t match the ever-rising costs of health care, housing, food, and clothing and more. Appeal rather to their material and political interests in working-class solidarity across (real) differences (and identities) of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, age and sexual orientation.
Keep a healthy focus on the lunch-pail issues that the ever-more corporatized Democratic Party has pushed to the margins across the ongoing neoliberal era. As Williams reflects, “[B]oth parties need an economic program that can deliver middle-class jobs. Republicans have one: Unleash American business. Democrats? They remain obsessed with cultural issues. I fully understand why transgender bathrooms are important, but I also understand why progressives’ obsession with prioritizing cultural issues infuriates many Americans whose chief concerns are economic.”
Progressives must, of course, work with and through particularities of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality and sexual orientation. But there are socialist, democratic and working-class solidarity-building ways of doing that, and there are hateful, neoliberal and top-down “divide-and-rule” ways of dealing with those particularities. A real, progressive activist must strive for the former. The all-too “two-faced” Hillary Clinton represented the latter and a toxic, bourgeois variant of identity politics—a version that disastrously tossed many of the everyday people who repair cars, maintain city parks, build pallets, drive trucks, clean sewers, work construction, take patients’ blood pressure, stock warehouses and do countless other low-pay and low-status jobs into “a basket of deplorables.” Within or beyond the two-party system and electoral politics (I am a fan of neither, to say the least), we can and must do much better than that on the progressive left.