Has Trump Captured the Working Class?

Even though the media has paid far too much attention to Donald Trump, it has paid little attention to the support he has attracted. Disturbingly, reporters only started paying attention to the crowds at Trump rallies when they turned violent and attacked mostly African-American protestors.

That means there has been little or no analysis of Trump’s backers, except for the general observations that they appear to be mostly white and largely blue collar. Only a handful of pundits have asked what motivates them and why they are there. One exception is commentator Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and other tomes of leftwing social criticism. Frank recently made a very important observation about Trump in a Guardian op-ed piece that has attracted a lot of attention recently.

What’s the Matter with Michigan?

“A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America,” Frank wrote. Primary results seem to prove Frank’s thesis: Trump won the rustbelt state of Michigan and the manufacturing center of South Carolina easily, yet he lost Texas with its robust economy that added 166,900 jobs last year.

According to Frank, the reason for Trump’s popularity is his vocal opposition to free trade and promotion of tariffs. That may be so, although another reason could be the fact that Trump is the only Republican candidate actually talking about the economic issues facing ordinary Americans. None of the others, including Rubio, Kasich, or Cruz, even seems to pay attention to the economy or trade.

The abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit.
The abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit.

Trump is the only Republican candidate offering a solution to economic woes – a very bad solution, but at least he has a plan. It is no coincidence that the only other candidate talking about the economy, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, also won his state’s Michigan primary. Indeed, Bernie achieved a surprise upset there, trouncing Hillary and winning even a third of the African-American vote.

Like Trump, Sanders is an outspoken critic of free trade, but he treats it as one of a number of stock economic issues to be discussed. On the campaign trail, Sanders actually spends a lot more time talking about Social Security, free college, big banks, and single payer healthcare than trade.

Is Trump a Single Issue Candidate?

Trump, on the other hand, only seems to talk about free trade. Even though Trump’s statements on immigration have attracted far more attention, as Frank points out, most of Donald’s speeches are about trade. Trump seems to be a single-issue candidate, although it is an issue with wide appeal.

One reason why the issue has such wide appeal is that it is the only economic narrative coming out of the Republican Party right now. The other GOP contenders remind me of Democrats about 30 years ago who were afraid to admit they were liberals, afraid to discuss issues, or admit they are conservatives or free market advocates.

Trump’s tariff proposals are stupid, simplistic, and dangerous, and they would do great harm to his working class supporters. Unfortunately, nobody in the GOP field has had the balls to point that out. Billionaire Donald would raise prices on many of the goods average Americans buy by 20% to 45%; he actually told the editorial board of The New York Times that he favors a 45% tariff on Chinese-made goods.

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As I pointed out elsewhere, those policies could send America into recession because they would substantially reduce consumer spending. Since consumer spending is the engine that drives the economy, that would mean less spending, less money in circulation, and fewer jobs.

Unfortunately, they are the only prescription for economic woes being offered. The blue-collared crowd is listening to Trump because he’s the only game in town. Trump’s strategy of harping on trade seems to be paying off, largely because it goes unchallenged.

What is Trump’s Strategy and will it Work?

The trade obsession appears to be part of what might be called a blue-collar strategy, the idea being to mobilize largely working class whites who have no real sympathy for the leadership of either party. This has been done before, most effectively by Richard Nixon in 1972, when he appealed to the Silent Majority. Bill Clinton adapted a similar course of action in 1992 and 1996 when he appealed to working class whites with tough stances on crime and opposition to welfare.

Trump has also adopted the Nixon and Clinton strategy of making subtle appeals to white racism and class hatred. Something to remember is that Trump’s “birther” accusations against Barack Obama, claiming that the president was not born in the U.S. and is not a “real American”, originated with the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008.

Much of Bill Clinton’s success in 1992 and 1996 was based upon his strong appeal to working-class whites, particularly in the South. That might not work today because America’s demographics have changed; around 38% of the population (or more than one in three Americans) is not white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Trump would need to get 70% of the non-Hispanic white men in the country to vote for him, Politico Writer David S. Bernstein pointed out. It seems unlikely that 70% of white men share Trump’s  views on free trade.

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How Trade could Backfire on Trump

Something that Frank seems to forget is that a lot of working-class Americans actually benefit from free trade. Many people are employed because of free trade; for example, UPS drivers who deliver Chinese-made goods ordered through Amazon to middle class customers.

Many working families enjoy a better lifestyle and more spending money because all the stuff from China costs a lot less. One has to wonder how many Trump supporters will throw away their Make America Great Again hats when they realize that their new X-Box or TV set will cost 45% more under Donald’s trade scheme. If they do not know, Hillary will certainly point it out to them at some point.

This should certainly concern Republicans because Donald is largely a one-issue candidate and that issue could drive away more voters than it attracts. Trade could really backfire on Donald if large companies like Apple or Amazon become worried about his plans and start contributing to his opponents.

Frank is right, opposition to free trade is the basis of Trump’s success. It could also be the Donald’s Achilles heel, because trade might be an issue that lacks popular appeal.