Trump's pandering to working-class voters has a long and ugly history: My family fell for it

I saw family members get ground down on the factory floor. Promising imaginary industrial jobs is cruel and empty

By Jared Yates Sexton

Published June 7, 2018 1:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Mark Lyons)
(Getty/Mark Lyons)

When President Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 into law this past December, the country was divided on just what effect the cuts would have on the American economy. Critics called it a “blatant scam” and a “corporate handout” that would further the wealth gap while enriching corporations and the wealthy. Republicans argued the bill would reinvigorate the economy and, in the process, create a plethora of new jobs.

Five months later and the results seem to favor the detractors. Just as some argued, corporations used their savings to buy back shares from investors, which accounted for 60 percent of the funds, while only 15 percent went to employees. These buybacks are of historic levels, and recent analysis shows that only 4.3 percent of workers for Fortune 500 businesses are receiving any bonus at all.

The bill was a gamble for Republicans, who were able to reward their wealthy donor base with sizable tax cuts but needed desperately for the public to buy into the narrative that the bill’s personal benefits outweighed increasing the national debt by $2.2 trillion over the next decade and ballooning the 2018 budget alone by nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars.

Recent surveys suggest that the narrative isn’t necessarily taking hold. A March CNBC survey found that 52 percent of Americans hadn’t seen an increase in their paychecks resulting from the bill. Another by Politico/Morning Consult discovered that only 25 percent of respondents had actually noticed a positive difference.

It’s quite possible that perception is due to other factors, including higher prices at the gas pump, which analyst Ellen Zentner believes could eliminate up to one-third of the tax cut’s benefit for working Americans, but those higher gas prices are just another way Donald Trump’s policies hurt the working class and middle class. Tensions with Iran have led to a volatile fuel market, and with Trump’s numerous trade wars, consumers are likely to see an increase in the prices of products from trade partners like China, which produces most of the low-priced goods shoppers rely on.

In retrospect, it’s bewildering that Trump ran and won on a faux-populist platform promising to return power to the working people. As he focused on the issue in his inauguration, he said, “Washington flourished, but the people did not share its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed.” Just as on the campaign trail, Trump was attempting to ensconce himself as a populist hero of sorts, a new kind of president who would level the balance of power and return America to a past that treated its voters better.

The messenger was new in that a billionaire who flew in his own planes and lived in gaudy skyscrapers had never before promised working-class people a return to their old lives. But the promise itself was one they’ve heard for decades.

*  *  *

I was 12 years old when I sat down with my grandma to watch Vice President Al Gore debate Texas businessman Ross Perot on CNN’s "Larry King Live." For the entirety of my childhood I’d been surrounded by talk of politics, most of it centering around the schemes Republicans cooked up to help themselves and their rich friends. That’s how Grandma told the story anyway, and the two most important lessons she’d never let you forget were to call your loved ones and never, ever, under any circumstance, to pull the lever for a Republican.

My family was based in southern Indiana and mostly consisted of poor men and women who worked in factories. On the wall in the kitchen hung three commemorative plates, one of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper and, at his side like modern-day disciples, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. In that household, the names of the Democratic presidents were nearly as sacrosanct as the Christian messiah, and Grandma expected the party to serve as shepherds to the meek just as Christ had in the New Testament.

The debate between Gore and Perot challenged Grandma’s faith, and soon she was warning the family about the North American Free Trade Agreement, a treaty that would lead, in Perot’s words, to a “giant sucking sound” from “jobs being pulled out of this country.” The agreement was a portent of doom for my family, a sign of oncoming strife and struggle apocalyptic in scope. Grandma worried over Perot’s pictures of Mexican citizens struggling to survive while working brutal hours because she’d seen American unions fight for reasonable workplace conditions and livable wages. NAFTA felt like a threat to all that progress and the modest lives our family had chiseled out.

This perception of NAFTA has been at the heart of the Republican strategy to win over working- and middle-class Americans since it was signed by President Bill Clinton in December of 1993. But the North American Free Trade Agreement’s roots lie all the way back in 1979, with Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the presidency. In his announcement message Reagan argued, “We live on a continent whose three countries possess the assets to make it the strongest, most prosperous, and self-sufficient area on Earth.” Reagan then teased a new “closeness” and even minted a phrase for the potential agreement – a “North American Accord.”

Reagan would not achieve his proposed accord, but his vice-president would spearhead the initiative upon winning the presidency. In fact, it was George H.W. Bush who signed the initial agreement, along with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. After losing his bid for re-election, Bush’s initiative fell to his successor, Bill Clinton, and in this effort his opposition party provided the muscle. When the treaty was sent to Congress, the House vote was 234-200, with 132 Republicans and 102 Democrats supporting, and in the Senate the tally came to 61-38, with 34 Republicans and 27 Democrats voting aye.

Despite overwhelming support from Republicans both in developing and ratifying the treaty, NAFTA has been largely credited to Clinton, and with that credit has come the totality of the blame. Many have faulted the agreement for the rise of globalization and the decline of American manufacturing, the latter hitting families like my own exceptionally hard.

My relatives who have been laid off, let go and had their bodies exploited for little to no reward trace their frustrations back to NAFTA. They are angry with both the country and the Democratic Party, an anger they can trace back to the day Clinton signed the treaty into effect. After all these years, though, their anger and frustration have been largely, and intentionally, misallocated as one candidate after another has deceived them by promising the past and denying them the future.

*  *  *

Since the passing of NAFTA, the Republican Party has continually sought to position itself as the Party of the People, the political force most concerned with “Real Americans.” This phrase has its own problems, both racially and socially, but the rhetoric behind it has always meant to signal to the base that Republicans support hardworking people, particularly those found in the American heartland, a group they have tirelessly courted by using tested phrases and borrowing their characteristics, including wielding shotguns, driving motorcycles and, as Donald Trump did in West Virginia, donning a coal miner’s helmet.

The ideological underpinnings of the Republican Party have always been in opposition to this appeal, since the party has long favored foreign interventionism and trickle-down economics, both of which disproportionately affect the working poor. After 1993, however, Republicans saw an opportunity to rebrand their image in order to win over disillusioned Democrats who felt betrayed by their party.

This appeal holds sway primarily due to fear, most notably Fear of the Unknown and Fear of the Other, a potent combination that has persuaded many families, including my own, to leave the Democratic Party and vote against their own interests. Instead of representation, my family is continually voting to embolden their identity, that of the aggrieved “Real Americans,” the ones who have been left behind but remain proud.

The argument pitched to these people in the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” is centered in sleight of hand. What Trump is saying when he spouts his catchphrase is that it’s better to return the country to something it’s been in the past rather than chancing what the future holds. Though he ran as a disrupter, this is one of the most tried and true of all Republican tactics. Since NAFTA changed the markets forever, Republicans have seduced working- and middle-class Americans with the false promise that, with enough power and enough time, they will return the country to its existence before the perceived decline.

Unfortunately, the factory jobs aren’t coming back. They’ve been replaced by automation or else moved to other countries to exploit reprehensibly cheap labor. But the truth is, what made America great in the first place wasn’t these jobs: It was people like my family’s determination to survive them. These are backbreaking vocations that chew people up and spit them out the second they aren’t useful anymore. I’ve watched so many of my relatives get ground down by years on the factory floor until they could barely walk and then unceremoniously dumped to the unemployment line.

To those people, Republicans and Donald Trump are telling a particularly cruel lie. Their jobs are gone, and instead of investing in careers of the future, careers that would be safer and more fulfilling, they’re telling my family and others like them that now is all there is. They’ve vilified educators and made education a target of scorn to those who would most benefit from joining the new and more humane economy. To solidify that base’s approval, they’ve appealed to people’s identities as workers, an identity they hold inviolable, and assured them that if they aren’t a factory worker, if they aren’t a laborer, then they are essentially nothing.

But no persuasion would be complete without a villain, and the Other in this case is whoever the Republican Party needs to scapegoat for the current struggles. Never is the base allowed to question the restricted economy they’re part of or to discuss the ways Republican policies benefit the rich or corporations, because they’re continually warned they could lose what they do have to a group other than themselves. Right now, that other group is immigrants, who Donald Trump singled out in his initial speech as a presidential candidate as rapists and drug dealers, and women and minorities, who are more competitive economically than ever before, now that systems of oppression are being challenged.

This tactic is as old as America itself, and the passage of NAFTA has led to several instances in which those who suffer are manipulated into blaming others rather than questioning their own circumstances. As soon as the treaty was passed, businesses around the country began threatening workforces considering unionizing with moves to Mexico, where the labor would be cheap and collectivism a non-issue. This disincentivized unions and, in one fell swoop, vilified union laborers whom many workers felt had it better than they did.

Rhetorically, Republicans have succeeded by portraying union members as entitled and lazy, a tactic that has also worked with people on welfare. By reminding working Americans that some people take advantage of the dole while they kill themselves at work, Republicans are intentionally shrinking the perspective away from what might be possible and back to what could be lost.

Instead of questioning how things could improve for all, the issue becomes “How do I keep what’s mine?”

For generations now, laborers have tried and failed to achieve the American Dream, and as a result, they’ve had little in the way of pride in anything besides the pursuit. My family is no exception. They are proud of their hard work, despite how miserable it makes them. For their troubles they’ve been exploited and pandered to by a political party that continues to sell them a lie, a sham reality that doesn’t exist anymore and, for their own sakes, shouldn’t exist anyway.

Instead of unrealistic manipulation centered on the imaginary return of backbreaking jobs, perhaps we could chance the future and work toward safer workplaces with better pay, training for those left behind and affordable education that prepares the workers of tomorrow instead of continuing to fund and reward the very corporations that have abused their trust.

For years, my family and people like them have fallen for these fabrications, but, despite stereotypes, they are intelligent enough to understand the complexities of the new economy if only they weren't being sold a convenient lie.

I have no doubt my family can handle the unpleasant reality. They’ve endured worse.

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Jared Yates Sexton

Jared Yates Sexton is the author of "American Rule: How A Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People," to be published in September by Dutton Books. Currently is an associate professor of writing at Georgia Southern University.

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