USA Politics

Trump says GOP is now party of the working class. Is he right?

Shift in thought

Trump, who speaks to Congress tonight, has positioned himself and the GOP as the champion of the working class. But it’s possible that in the end conservatism will change Trump, rather than the other way round.

Backers of President Trump gather at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta, on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, for a "Spirit of America" rally to show their support for his agenda and push back against the wave of anti-Trump protests.
Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
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Is the Republican Party now the political home of the American worker? That’s what President Trump said last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and he’s likely to repeat that assertion before Congress tonight.

For generation upon generation it was the Democrats who were the blue-collar party, the representatives of factory workers, plumbers, and retail clerks. Now – per Trump – this group’s long transition into the GOP may be complete.

At least, it may be complete for white workers. Minorities remain loyal to the Democratic side. College educated whites, the professional class, are increasingly ditching their historic Republican allegiance and going Democrat as well. It’s as if the two great parties that govern America decided to swap large sections of their traditional bases.

This transformation has been going on for some time. The rise of Mr. Trump was perhaps a final catalyst. Still, on the event of Trump’s first Capitol Hill star turn as president, it may be a good moment to pause and notice that the parties are not immutable and demography is not destiny. The question now is how much the switch will affect policy agendas.

“It is just so weird to watch this happening ... I find this stunning,” said New York Times reporter Helene Cooper in a discussion of the issue last Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press”.

At this point the numbers are well known. Trump won 67 percent of white voters without a college degree in November, according to exit polls. That’s about 14 percentage points better than Mitt Romney managed in 2012. Trump’s margin over Hillary Clinton in this category was better than 2-to-1.

As for college-educated whites, Trump won them as well. But his margin was narrow, at 49 percent to 45 percent for Clinton. And those numbers represent a ten-point swing to the Democrats from 2012 results.

The bottom line: at this moment in time, if there’s a white workers’ party, it’s the GOP. And “white” is a necessary qualifier. Of non-whites with no college degree, 75 percent voted for Clinton.

The question is whether this state of political affairs is permanent. Trump says it will be. At CPAC last week he boasted of his efforts to keep factory jobs in America and pull the nation out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals.

“The GOP will be, from now on, the party ... of the American worker,” he said at one point, pausing for emphasis and applause.

Democrats will contest this. They must – if they are to recover as a national force they will have to cut into Trump’s margins with white workers to pull Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan back onto the blue side.

They’ll also need blue-collar, white worker support to rebuild the party at the state level. That’s why Democratic lawmakers in some 30 states are trying to emphasize working class-oriented legislation in a sort of prebuttal of Trump’s address tonight.

To some extent it may be too early to dub Trump the candidate who capped the transformation begun under Ronald Reagan and finally turned the GOP into a (white) working class party.

After one month, President George W. Bush seemed the avatar of a new, more compassionate conservatism, points out Matt Grossmann, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University and co-author of “Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.” Then events, in the form of 9/11, intervened, and Bush’s place in history changed.

After one month Trump has touched on some Democratic themes, such as opposition to free trade. But GOP presidents often have some social legislation or worker-oriented aspect to their agendas, says Grossmann. Bush passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.

Meanwhile, Trump has also appointed a very conservative cabinet and outlined a traditionally conservative legislative agenda of Obamacare repeal, tax cuts, and rollback of regulations. It’s possible that in the end conservatism will co-opt him, rather than the other way round.

“People are overreacting to this notion that the conservative movement has become Trumpian,” Grossmann says.

Indeed, many liberals insist that Trump’s plans will hurt his loyal white working class supporters more than anyone else. As a group, these workers benefit heavily from safety net programs, including the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare.” Yet any GOP replacement for Obamacare will find it difficult to cover the same number of people, especially if low-income subsidies are cut, as seems likely.

Trump’s tax cuts will disproportionately benefit top earners. He himself will simply “monetize” the presidency via his DC hotel and other investments, charge some left-leaning pundits.

But policies may not be the most important aspect of Trump’s presidency for his working-class faithful. They thrill to Trump’s style, his forthrightness instead of political correctness, his willingness to confront media they see as liberal and elitist.

In that context his transformation of the GOP’s coalition may rest more on emotions. While workers in part support Trump due to their perceptions of economic insecurity, it is their cultural insecurity in a world shifting toward progressive values that may better explain their flight from the Democratic Party.

They feel threatened by the rise of globalism, multiculturalism, and diverse lifestyles. It is this attitude that may connect Trump’s success with the Brexit vote in Great Britain and the rise of right-wing populists on the European continent.

“Less educated and older citizens, especially white men, who were once the privileged majority culture in Western societies, resent being told that traditional values are ‘politically incorrect’ if they have come to feel that they are being marginalized within their own countries. As cultures have shifted, a tipping point appears to have occurred,” wrote Ronald F. Inglehart of the Institute for Social Reserch at the University of Michigan and Pippa Norris of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in a 2016 Harvard working paper on Trump and economic have-nots.

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