Home / General / Donald Trump’s economic populism doesn’t exist, so it must be invented

Donald Trump’s economic populism doesn’t exist, so it must be invented


As Adam Serwer observes, what happened in Michigan this week is unambiguous: Biden supported striking UAW workers, and Trump expressed support for a non-union shop while telling workers that striking was futile:

The United Auto Workers union is striking for a better contract. The combination of a tight labor market and President Joe Biden’s pro-labor appointees to the National Labor Relations Board has given workers new leverage, leading workers in writers’ rooms, kitchens, and factories to demand more from their employers. This has been broadly beneficial, because many of the gains made by union workers benefit other workers.

Over the past few weeks, there have been whispers that former President Donald Trump would visit the striking UAW workers, with consequent fretting from Democrats in the press that Biden’s overall pro-union record would be overshadowed by photos of Trump on the picket line.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, it was Biden who went to support the striking autoworkers, joining a union picket line—something not even his most pro-union predecessors in the White House had ever done. “You saved the automobile industry back in 2008 and before. You made a lot of sacrifices. You gave up a lot. And the companies were in trouble,” Biden told the striking workers Tuesday. “But now they’re doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well too. It’s a simple proposition.”

But that wasn’t as interesting for many in the political press as the hypothetical story, the one that didn’t happen: a Republican presidential candidate winning over striking autoworkers by supporting their struggle for a better contract. Trump didn’t do that. In fact, Trump, who governed as a viciously anti-union president even by Republican standards, chose to visit a nonunion shop to give a campaign speech in which he said, “I don’t think you’re picketing for the right thing,” and told them it wouldn’t make “a damn bit of difference” what they got in their contract, because the growth in electric-vehicle manufacturing would put them out of work.

Telling striking workers that they should give up trying to get a better deal is not supporting workers or supporting unions; it is textbook union-busting rhetoric that anyone who has ever been in a union or tried to organize one would recognize. In other words, Trump did not go to Michigan to support striking workers at all. He did what cheap rich guys do every day: He told people who work for a living to be afraid of losing what little they have instead of trying to get what they deserve. This is not comparable to, nor is it even in the same galaxy as, supporting workers on a picket line. It is a poignant metaphor for the emptiness of right-wing populism when it comes to supporting workers—a cosplay populism of superficial “working class” aesthetics that ends up backing the bosses instead of the workers.

But when the reality conflicts with a Beloved Media Script, such as “Donald Trump is an economic populist,” the script often prevails in the face of any facts:

Some narratives, though, are too fun to let go of. So The New York Times reported that Trump was set to “Woo Striking Union Members,” without mentioning that he is appearing at a nonunion shop; The Wall Street Journal likewise left that out. Politico announced that Trump was going to “address striking auto workers,” acknowledging only later in the story that his appearance would be at “a non-union shop.” Many major news outlets did something similar, writing up a Trump campaign event in a way that left the impression that Trump was going to speak with striking autoworkers.

Many reports led with the suggestion that “current and former union members” would be in the audience, but that’s irrelevant. You could go anywhere in Detroit and find a crowd composed of “current and former union members”—it’s Detroit! The relevant fact is that Trump is not supporting the autoworkers’ efforts to win a contract that allows them their fair share of the wealth they create. What the Trump campaign wanted was ambiguous headlines that might suggest he was supporting workers he was not in fact supporting, so that he could get credit for something he didn’t actually do. And the political press largely obliged, repeatedly muddying the distinction between supporting union workers on strike and having a campaign rally.

The Trump campaign is very good at manipulating the media, because it understands that liberal ideological bias is not the primary factor in shaping media coverage. The press, instead, is biased toward having a spectacular or interesting story that people want to read or watch or hear about. If you’re clever, you can manipulate the press into telling the story you want by making it seem fun and exciting, even if the story is incorrect or misleading. Given how easily the Trump campaign got the political press to take the bait here, there’s little question we’re in for a long campaign season in which it does it over and over again.

After 4 years in which Trump governed as a more orthodox anti-labor Reaganite than Reagan, it’s hard to say that reporters are making a “mistake” when they write stories about how Trump is the pro-labor candidate that contradict all the facts on the ground. They’re the equivalent of anti-aboriton pundits who pretend to believe that Republicans are going to expand access to healthcare now that they can ban abortion — it’s unambiguously false, but telling the truth isn’t as fun or interesting or self-serving.

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