What the left can learn from Donald Trump: Winning the working class means fixing your sales pitch

Trump's policies are a nightmare, and his message is full of hate. But the Left must learn to connect like he does

Published May 4, 2016 9:57AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
Donald Trump (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Since the financial crisis of 2008-09, as economic inequality has steadily increased to historic levels and the divide between the richest and poorest Americans has become more and more apparent, class-based politics have made a not-so-surprising comeback in the United States. After decades of shifting to the right of the political spectrum, embracing neoliberal policies and shunning any politics that may be deemed “class warfare” by the other side, the Democratic party now seems to be regaining something of a spine — though whether the left can really find a home there is still something of an uncertainty.

The clearest manifestation of class politics in 2016 has obviously been the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, who has run on egalitarian ideals — railing against economic inequality and the billionaire class, while promoting bold Social democratic policies like universal healthcare and free public college tuition. But the left-wing revival goes beyond Sanders, as seen with popular movements like the Fight for 15, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Verizon strikes, as well as an intellectual resurgence, evinced by the popular Jacobin magazine and the enormous success of Thomas Piketty’s book on inequality, "Capital In the Twenty-First Century."

As the left restores class and economic inequality to the political discourse, however, it would do well to recognize how the Republican party’s own populist candidate has attracted such broad support among working-class Americans. (It can’t all be explained by bigotry, as some liberals like to imagine.) While it may sound absurd to say that a billionaire plutocrat like Donald Trump has succeeded in large part because of class politics, it’s not that far from the truth.

Of course, Trump hasn’t run as an economic populist denouncing his own oligarchic class, but as a common man denouncing America’s social elite (i.e. snobby liberals). In Trump’s variety of class politics, economic divisions are mostly ignored. (How else could a billionaire who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth became a man of the disillusioned people?) Trump has made a campaign out of trashing liberal elites, especially the so-called biased media and their obsession with "political correctness." He has run as an authentic and unsophisticated populist, denouncing the Washington establishment that is so disconnected from “real Americans,” as Sarah Palin likes to call those who vote for Tea Party candidates.

In one of the most acclaimed books about the modern populist right, "What’s the Matter with Kansas?,"   Thomas Frank investigates the cultural “class politics” that Trump has run on in 2016, and it is worth quoting at length:

“Class, conservatives insist, is not really about money or birth or even occupation. It is primarily a matter of authenticity, that most valuable cultural commodity… What makes one a member of the noble proletariat is not work per se, but unpretentiousness, humility, and the rest of the qualities that our punditry claims to spy in the red states that voted for George W. Bush. The nation’s producers don’t care about unemployment or a dead-end life or a boss who makes five hundred times as much as they do. No. In red land both workers and their bosses are supposed to be united in disgust with those affected college boys at the next table, prattling on about French cheese and villas in Tuscany and the big ideas for running things that they need in books...We see it in its most ordinary, run-of-the-mill variety every time we hear a conservative pundit or politician deplore “class warfare” — meaning any talk about the failures of free-market capitalism — and then, seconds later, hear them rail against the “media elite” or the haughty, Volvo-driving “eastern establishment.”

(Frank’s book was published in 2004, but is even more relevant today in a post-Tea Party America.)

While Trump has frequently assailed free trade deals like NAFTA, his campaign has mainly been focused on non-economic issues, and the few economic policies that he has provided — such as his tax plan, which slashes top rates for the wealthy — align him perfectly with the ultra-conservative economics that has destroyed states like Kansas. (Anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist endorsed his plan, which tells you all you need to know.) Trump has directed most of his wrath at liberals who are destroying America (is it any wonder Ann Coulter loves him?), and has managed to blame almost everything on the societal scourge that is political correctness.

Now, none of this means that plain-old racism, sexism and xenophobia haven’t been central to Trump’s success — after all, political correctness has been used by Trump to excuse many of his more inflammatory comments. But his campaign has been just as much about targeting the social elites — including the Republican establishment, but more so the eggheaded, latte liberals who believe they’re morally superior and want to take away Joe the Plumber’s freedom to shoot his gun or drive a gas-guzzling SUV or speak his mind without being accused of sexism, racism or any other kind of -ism.

In Vox’s widely shared article, "The Smug Style in American Liberalism," Emmett Rensin targets what he describes as “a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason.” Whether you agree with Rensin’s thesis, there can be little doubt that Trump’s stand against this perceived snobbery has secured him an army of dedicated supporters who would have once voted Democrat — the so-called party of the people. Of course, the right wing’s “class warfare” against liberal elitism is ultimately a ploy used to shift populist anger away from America’s real power elite — e.g. the billionaires who buy elections; the Wall Street executives and hedge fund managers who get a slap on the wrist for committing fraud or insider trading; the corporate shareholders and CEOs who mingle with Washington’s political class.

The so-called liberal elites — the left-leaning college professors in Massachusetts, the environmentalists in San Francisco, the journalists in New York City — have very little real political influence (and those professionals who do tend to be more centrist than leftist). But it’s easy to see why many middle Americans believe liberalism dominates the country. The cultural capitals are on both coasts, where liberal social values reign supreme.

Nevertheless, as Frank writes in his aforementioned book: “The culture business exists primarily to advance its own fortunes, not those of the Democratic party… Encouraging demographic self-recognition and self-expression through products is...the bread and butter not of leftist ideology but of consumerism.” It is one of the most glaring contradictions of the modern populist right that the liberal media and entertainment industry that they loathe so much operate in the free-market that they love so dearly.

As the left wing continues to make a comeback in American politics, it is important to try to fully understand why so many working people vote for a party that very clearly serves the interests of the economic elite. One standard liberal response is that they’re all bigots or religious wing-nuts who want to return to the good ‘ole days when women stayed in the kitchen and gay people stayed in the closet — and in many cases, this is true enough. But to make this kind of generalization about millions of people across the country, and smugly dismiss working poor who vote Republican as halfwits who deserve what they get, is a sure way to reaffirm the liberal elite stereotype that has served Trump so well.

To challenge the billionaire class and American plutocracy, the left must at least try to reach out to working people across the country — even those who may have some different values — as Bernie Sanders did at his Liberty University speech in September. The right has made use of class rhetoric for decades, while the left (if you can call Democrats that) abandoned class language for fear of being labeled socialist. If progressives hope to restore democracy and economic justice in America, they must rail against the economic elite as forcefully as Trump has railed against the liberal elite.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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