Like most American liberals, I’m still shell-shocked by the outcome of the presidential election. Republicans now control Congress, the presidency, and a majority of state governorships. How did we get here? That’s probably too big of a question for this post. Instead, I want to comment on how Donald Trump managed to con a large fraction of the voters who helped secure his presidential victory: America’s white working class (WWC).
Who, exactly, is the WWC? Broadly speaking, the WWC is a group of white, mostly rural, blue-collar workers. They tend to resent professional elites, but admire the rich, and are fed up with the political establishment. According to Joan C. Williams, they also typically value “straight talk”, manly dignity, and breadwinner status:
“Manly dignity is a big deal for working-class men, and they’re not feeling that they have it. Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place…Many still measure masculinity by the size of a paycheck. White working-class men’s wages hit the skids in the 1970s and took another body blow during the Great Recession…For many blue-collar men, all they’re asking for is basic human dignity (male varietal). Trump promises to deliver it.”To be clear, the WWC isn’t the only voting bloc responsible for electing Mr. Trump. The so-called “alt-right”, which Breitbart News defines as a “smarter group” of “racist skinheads”, also played a major role. But to the extent that the WWC and alt-right are mutually exclusive, Mr. Trump is conning the former, just as he conned thousands of people who attended his “university.” How do I know this? There are two main reasons.
First, Mr. Trump isn’t really anti-establishment. Perhaps that’s surprising since part of Mr. Trump’s appeal to the WWC was that he was a political outsider who would stand up to establishment Republicans. He even promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington elites.
So how’s that going?
The New York Times’ Eric Lipton reports that, “President-elect Donald J. Trump, who campaigned against the corrupt power of special interests, is filling his transition team with some of the very sort of people who he has complained have too much clout in Washington.”
The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman adds, “Look at the people Trump is considering for his Cabinet, and you won’t find any outside-the-box thinkers burning to work for the little guy. It’s a collection of Republican politicians and corporate plutocrats — not much different from who you’d find in any Republican administration.”
Second, Mr. Trump’s policy proposals won’t actually help the WWC. This may seem like an obvious point to make. After all, liberals have argued for decades that conservative economics hurts the WWC. Yet many of Mr. Trump’s supporters cited economic concerns as a major reason for supporting him.
So for the gazillionth time, Mr. Trump will not be a champion of WWC interests. Start with manufacturing jobs: the combination of automation and globalization has made it so that these jobs are simply not coming back—or if they do, the wages paid for such work are unlikely to be high. The future is in the service sector, but nobody one wants to hear it. There’s very little Mr. Trump can do about this.
Indeed, there’s no indication that Mr. Trump intends to do much for the WWC at all. For example, he has shown no support for programs such as job training, entrepreneurship programs, or raising the minimum wage, and there's little chance he'll renegotiate any free trade agreements. Instead, House Republicans are going forward with traditional conservative priorities such as tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulating Wall Street, reducing social spending, and privatizing Medicare. Sound familiar?
Oh, and if you think Mr. Trump can bring the coal industry roaring back, keep dreaming: low natural gas prices will continue to keep coal jobs at a minimum. In fact, Mr. Trump is likely to make coal jobs disappear faster if his pledge to limit regulations on oil and natural gas fracking becomes a reality.
How can Mr. Trump make all of these promises to the WWC, only to break them once elected? The short answer is, that’s what Republicans have been doing for years.
The long answer is that Mr. Trump has tapped into a new alliance with alt-right conservatives, who, while they tend to be less obsessed with traditional conservative priorities, do not actively oppose them. Establishment Republicans may not be thrilled at the prospect of working with racists, but if that’s what it takes to gut the welfare state, then so be it. Mr. Trump doesn’t need to fulfill promises to the WWC to satiate the alt-right.
It’s unfortunate, though unsurprising, that America’s WWC has allowed itself to be taken advantage of for so long. Perhaps someday the realization that they’re all being conned will set in. Someday.