I still maintain with as much vigor as I did in 2016 that part of the reason Trump won is that white working class people saw in him someone who might fight for their dying industrial jobs, or at least represented their anger that those jobs were gone. That was far from the whole reason–of course–and the debate about whether Trump’s election was ultimately about race or class has long been decided for the former. Still, in communities such as Erie and Scranton and Youngstown–i.e. industrial zones in critical states, it was a piece of the equation.
Now, four long endless horrible years later, Trump hasn’t hemmoraged a whole lot of support in those communities. Obviously, this is now an appeal based primarily on racial resentment. But even that can’t be completely cleaved from class. In other words, some white unemployed steel worker sees in Trump a guy who fights the Chinese, who stole his job.
But let’s also be clear–Donald Trump has zero class message in 2020. That’s totally fallen away from his message. He might make a few vague statements about China and jobs, but his appeal is 100% now about racial resentment, as we all know. I talked to a reporter recently about this for an article on the white working class and the presidential race.
Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who has focused on the history of labor relations in the United States, said such rhetoric is clearly aimed at appealing to American workers.
“If you are talking to voters in Erie, Pennsylvania or Youngstown, Ohio, these are effective talking points because manufacturing jobs have not come back to those places under Trump,” Loomis said.
So effective are the talking points, that the Trump campaign has repeatedly accused Biden of plagiarizing elements of Trump’s “America First” agenda and its focus on restoring American manufacturing prowess.
“He plagiarized from me, but he could never pull it off,” Trump told reporters at the White House In July. “He likes plagiarizing. It’s a plan that is very radical left. But he said the right things because he’s copying what I’ve done, but the difference is he can’t do it.”
Trump spent much of his campaign in 2016 focusing on working-class issues like trade deals and keeping factories in America and the rhetorical outreach to the working class persisted through his presidency, with a focus on trade deals, derisive tweets lobbed towards companies that planned to move factories overseas and events at the White House for truck drivers and other blue-collar sectors. The economy performed well during the president’s first three years in office with unemployment at record lows before the coronavirus hit.
Since then, the president has been playing defense on the economy and has shifted messaging away from the working class and more toward the culture wars, law and order, and an increase in anti-China messaging.
“Right now, it’s less about class and more about race with Trump,” said Loomis. “He is going to try and appeal to the working class, the whites at any rate, by demonizing China. He is not making the same kind of explicitly working-class appeal.”
But there are a number of reasons to be skeptical that voters like Morrison will shun Trump and vote for Biden based on economic policies like infrastructure investment and taxing the rich to help fund workers’ programs.
“Social historians often point to the rise of the suburbs as creating a fundamental shift in the Democratic Party away from economic issues and toward social issues, thereby alienating the working class,” Loomis said.
Timothy Lombardo, professor of history at the University of Southern Alabama, agrees that both parties have leaned more on social issues and cultural wedge issues in the elections of the recent past.
“Since the era of Reagan Democrats, if you take out issues like abortion, gay rights, affirmative action and the like and the parties are not that different when it comes to economic models,” Lombardo said.
But there is daylight between the economic policies offered by Biden and Trump.
Trump’s major legislative accomplishment in office was tax cuts for all Americans and corporations, which Trump and his GOP backers claim supercharged the U.S. economy until the arrival of the coronavirus. Trump’s team says his brand of low taxation, a rollback of regulations, environmental and otherwise and a focus on trade deals is the true path to economic prosperity.
Biden’s plans, on the other hand, advocate heavy public investment and a more active role for the government in creating jobs.
Loomis is skeptical that voters are going to contrast specifics in each economic plan, noting that Hillary Clinton had detailed plans for infrastructure investment that were largely ignored by voters.
“Donald Trump is beatable in November and some of the very same voters that helped put him in the White House can help kick him out,” said BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Jason Walsh. “But, Joe Biden has to prove to these voters that he stands with him to earn their votes.”
Loomis thinks he can.
“He’s from Scranton, Pennsylvania and he’s been a moderate candidate his whole career,” Loomis said. “So he can talk to these kinds of communities effectively.”
However, with the coronavirus pandemic still raging Biden might not get the opportunity to talk to these communities in person.
For Loomis, this is not so much a setback.
“This election is not as much about Biden as it is about Trump,” he said. “The fundamental question is do you want four more years of this or not.”
For whatever anyone wants to say about the election, the last statement is really the most important. The only thing that matters here is whether you want four more years of this shitstorm.
As for the comment on the suburbs, I think that’s a bit out of context (a natural issue with interviews of course), but there is plenty of historical evidence that Democrats’ focus on suburbs have led to a different kind of politics that is less class-based and more focused on other forms of identity politics. That may not in itself be a bad thing, as I’d argue that the fight for gay marriage or abortion rights is as important as that for economic justice, though not more important. They are all moral imperatives. However, this may now be changing based around what we are seeing in the last few years in polling and from elected officials in the newly Democratic suburbs. But we will have to wait and see what the larger impact is.