Obama says Trump is 'exploiting' worker fears. True?

The fact that such a large constituency finds Trump so appealing means no one else is effectively addressing the deep-seated grievances of an important group of US society.

David Becker/Reuters
Republican US presidential candidate and businessman Donald Trump speaks to the media in the spin room following the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.

President Obama in an interview broadcast Monday said that Donald Trump is “exploiting” economic anxiety in America, particularly the stress and worry of blue-collar men who increasingly feel good jobs are out of their reach.

Males without college degrees “have had a lot of trouble in the new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families in a single paycheck,” said Mr. Obama in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition.

“You combine those things and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear. Some of it is justified, but just misdirected,” the president added. “I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That’s what he’s exploiting during the course of his campaign.”

It may be important to emphasize here that the president was not dismissing the worries of the voters involved. He was instead questioning Trump’s motives. Is Obama right that Trump is “exploiting,” or manipulating for personal gain, a vulnerable segment of the US electorate?

It’s true that they are drawn to The Donald. Among GOP primary voters “the billionaire’s appeal is very disproportionately tilted to the blue-collar half of the electorate,” according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter.

However, this is not because he is addressing their economic concerns per se. It is not as if he is proposing big new jobs or working retraining programs, or tax policies that would redistribute income to the lower ends of the earning spectrum.

Instead, they seem to be drawn to Trump for his attitudes. One way of saying this is that they like his belligerence and anger – he doesn’t take guff from anybody. Another is that he does not appear to care when opponents profess themselves aghast at his behavior. He says what he wants, even on moral questions, and if people don’t like it, he shrugs. He is a master of what Washington Post opinion columnist Robert Samuelson labels the “politics of self-esteem.”

“What his supporters most like about Trump, even if they disagree with some of his policies (as some inevitably do), is that he defines himself – he does not let others do it for him, and this rubs off on them. It’s liberating,” writes Mr. Samuelson.

And this is the nub of the possible exploitation in Trump’s political persona. He does not just make supporters feel better about themselves and their attitudes. He also implicitly allows them to blame their problems on vague conspiracies (saying, for instance, that we have to stop Muslims from entering the US because “something is going on”) and on other groups, particularly undocumented immigrants.

Are immigrants the cause of the decline in prospects for less-educated American citizens? Some experts argue that to some extent they have indeed lowered wages and tightened the job market for unskilled workers in the US. But many others say that such effects are either small or nonexistent, and that illegal workers speak so little English and have so few job skills that they are replacing US citizens, not displacing them. In other words they are doing hard and dangerous work that Americans won’t do.

Thus, arguably Trump is stoking the fears and anger of lower-income citizens, and then directing it toward something other than a solution for a plight. If that’s not exploitation it is at least opportunistic, or, if Trump truly believes that illegal immigrants are such a yyyuuuuuge problem, simply wrong.

But the fact that such a large constituency finds Trump so appealing is itself a problem for both the big parties that govern America. It means no one else is effectively addressing the deep-seated grievances of an important group of US society.

Given that blue-collar, white workers have been a constituency of the Republicans since the realignment of Southern politics in the latter decades of last century, it may mean in particular that the GOP’s priorities have become unsatisfying to a core element of supporters.

As the Monitor’s Gail Russell Chaddock noted in a recent piece on Trump and the GOP, some conservatives who favor party reform see The Donald as someone who is channeling the anger of the white working class against the world, and the Republican Party itself.

“It would be nice to think that the way to appeal to the Trump constituency is to actually address their concerns, which is that they are losing ground under the current economic regime,” said one of these reformicons, Henry Olson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, in Chaddock’s story. “That suggests that a party that focuses on gutting entitlements and taxes for the top 1 percent is not meeting their need.

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