Of all the things candidate Trump said, nothing outraged the Democrats more than his claim that, under him, the GOP would become a workers party. The workers! The Democrats thought they had ownership of that label. And at one time they did. But that was long ago, and by appropriating it Trump was announcing a revolution in American politics.
After past economic downturns the American economy always bounced back, but after the Great Recession of 2008-09 we experienced the slowest recovery since the Great Depression, in terms of jobs and wages. That was the new normal, we were told. Those manufacturing jobs were never coming back. We also told pollsters that we no longer thought that our children would have it better than we did.
Trump said he would reverse that, and that’s why the Workers Party moniker resonated. He said he’d be the greatest jobs president we’ve ever seen, and he’s on his way to fulfilling his promise. The jobs recovery, which began in 2014, continues strongly, and in manufacturing too.
The Democrats, said Trump, had lost their way. They had traded away the meat and potatoes issues of jobs and economic growth for the more precious issues favored by the party’s elite. They told ordinary Americans they were in need of a moral reformation, which they would supply. Nonsense, said Trump. They only moral reformation people need is jobs. From that follows marriage, family, mortgages, all the things that make us moral.
Nothing better illustrates the change in our politics than the way coal miners voted. Harlan County, Ken. is sacred ground to the Left. It’s where the Harlan County Wars pitted the miners’ union against the bosses. ‘Which side are you on?’ asked Pete Seeger. In 2016, the country answered Seeger by giving Trump 85 per cent of its vote.
Some on the Right ask us to imagine Trump as the second coming of Reagan. He’s not. He didn’t begin his campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., as Reagan did. He didn’t have a Southern Strategy. He had a Workers Strategy.
That’s why the greater revolution of 2016 was against Trump’s own party, against hard right Republicans. The Trump campaign wasn’t going to go after entitlements, as Republicans are wont to do. It would leave Social Security alone. Someone told Trump that Canadian Medicare wasn’t nearly as bad as people say, and he agreed. But we can make it better, he said. He didn’t want simply to repeal Obamacare. He’d repeal it and replace it with something better. If we needed infrastructure spending to get people back to work, he was all for it. The Republicans, Trump said, weren’t the enemy of private sector unions. In our trade negotiations with other countries, he’d be on their side.
That’s how Trump captured the sweet spot in presidential politics, the place where elections are won, by appealing to socially conservative and economically middle of the road voters. The hard right Republican candidates he faced in the primaries would never have had a chance.
And now? In 2018 we’ll likely have the lowest annual unemployment rate since 1970. Through tax and regulatory reform, the jobs have come roaring back, making it unnecessary to prime the pump with infrastructure spending. If that’s all Trump did to justify the Workers Party label, it would have been enough.
And yet here we are, six weeks away from an impeachment election that the Congressional Republican leadership has largely conceded. The National Congressional Campaign Committee tells its candidates not to mention Trump. They don’t like him, and that’s been the story of the last 18 months.
The 2017 tax reform bill has brought back jobs, but the wretched carried interest perk for hedge fund managers remains. Trump had campaigned against it, but was no match for the K Street lobbyists and a complicit Republican establishment that supported it.
Most Americans think that the government should ensure that people with severe pre-existing medical conditions should have proper health care. That’s what Trump wanted, but the Congressional Republicans weren’t about to deliver.
We’re in the midst of a student loan crisis, where five million young Americans are in default. They need bankruptcy relief, which a smart political party would offer. Instead, Trump’s embarrassing Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has loosened job-reporting requirements for for-profit colleges.
If Trump wants to turn things around, he needs to remember what got him elected. He needs to remind people that 2016 was an election about jobs, and that he’s delivered. But he also needs to announce his willingness to work with members of both parties over health care reform, the student debt crisis and the tax code perks for interest groups and the ultra rich. If he doesn’t, the Democrats will.
F.H. Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School and is author of The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed.