The Plum Line | Opinion

How long before the white working class realizes Trump was just scamming them?

By Paul Waldman

November 23, 2016 at 1:34 PM

(Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

While we’re still analyzing the election results and debating the importance of different factors to the final outcome, everyone agrees that white working class voters played a key part in Donald Trump’s victory, in some cases by switching their votes and in some cases by turning out when they had been nonvoters before.

And now that he’s about to take office, he’s ready to deliver on what he promised them, right? Well, maybe not so much:

President-elect Donald Trump abruptly abandoned some of his most tendentious campaign promises Tuesday, saying he does not plan to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email system or the dealings of her family foundation, has an “open mind” about a climate-change accord from which he vowed to withdraw the United States and is no longer certain that torturing terrorism suspects is a good idea.

The billionaire real estate developer also dismissed any need to disentangle himself from his financial holdings, despite rising questions about how his global business dealings might affect his decision-making as the nation’s chief executive.

Related: Trump’s new interview with the New York Times isn’t reassuring. It’s deeply alarming.

And it’s not just that; at the same time, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are getting ready to move on their highest priorities, cutting taxes for the wealthy, scrapping oversight on Wall Street, and lightening regulations on big corporations.

Imagine you’re one of those folks who went to Trump rallies and thrilled to his promises to take America back from the establishment, who felt your heart stir as he promised to torture prisoners, who got your “Trump That Bitch” T-shirt, who was overjoyed to finally have a candidate who tells it like it is. What are you thinking as you watch this?

If you have any sense, you’re coming to the realization that it was all a scam. You got played. While you were chanting “Lock her up!” he was laughing at you for being so gullible. While you were dreaming about how you’d have an advocate in the Oval Office, he was dreaming about how he could use it to make himself richer. He hasn’t even taken office yet and everything he told you is already being revealed as a lie.

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President-elect Donald Trump's supporters often chanted "lock her up" when he discussed his opponent, Hillary Clinton, at campaign rallies. But despite repeatedly promising to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her, it looks like Trump might not pursue Clinton after all. (The Washington Post)

During the campaign, Trump made two kinds of promises to those white working class voters. One was very practical, focused on economics. In coal country, he said he’d bring back all the coal jobs that have been lost to cheap natural gas (even as he promotes more fracking of natural gas; figure that one out). In the industrial Midwest, he said he’d bring back all the labor-intensive factory jobs that were mostly lost to automation, not trade deals. These promises were utterly ludicrous, but most of the target voters seemed not to care.

The second kind of promise was emotional and expressive. It was about turning back the clock to a time when immigrants hadn’t come to your town, when women weren’t so uppity, when you could say whatever you wanted and you didn’t feel like the culture and the economy were leaving you behind. So Trump said he’d toss Hillary Clinton in jail, force everyone to say “Merry Christmas” again, and sue those dastardly liberal news organizations into submission.

And of course, there were promises — like building a wall on the southern border and making Mexico pay for it just so they know who’s boss — that claimed to serve a practical purpose but also had an important expressive purpose. And now one by one Trump is casting them all off.

President-elect Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, visit the Lincoln Memorial before the Make America Great Again concert. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Melania arrive for the concert. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, center, along with his family, waves to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks to the crowd at the end of the concert. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Trump waves after speaking at the concert. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, center, and his family stand at the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the concert. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
The Trump family stands on the memorials steps as fireworks go off after the concert. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and the vice president-elect, Mike Pence, place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Pence pause after placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Virginia. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President-elect Donald Trump disembarks from his plane at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Donald Trumps motorcade makes its way through Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
People watch as the Trump motorcade arrives at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence shake hands on the stage at the Chairmans Global Dinner in D.C. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks at the dinner. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump arrives at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Martin Luther King III leaves an elevator at Trump Tower in New York after a meeting with Trump on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Mark Abramson/for The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by comedian Steve Harvey, right, and Greg Calhoun, speaks to reporters in the lobby at Trump Tower. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during a news conference at Trump Tower. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump walks with Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma after a meeting at Trump Tower. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Trump leaves One World Trade Center in New York after a meeting with editors at the media company Cond Nast. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump departs after the meeting at Cond Nasts offices. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, accompanied by his wife, Melania, answers questions from reporters at a New Years Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
Actor Sylvester Stallone, center, and his wife, Jennifer Flavin, arrive for the party at Mar-a-Lago. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Guests arrive at Mar-a-Lago. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Actor and model Fabio, right, talks with Sean Spicer, center, Trumps choice for White House press secretary, at Mar-a-Lago. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Susan Combs, a former Texas comptroller, leaves after meeting with Trump at the Mar-a-Lago Club. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Texas Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller waves as he and his wife, Debra, arrive to meet with Trump during transition team meetings at the Mar-a-Lago Club. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Escorted by a Trump staffer, former Texas congressman Henry Bonilla arrives to meet with Trump during transition team meetings. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump and fight promoter Don King address the media during a party at the Mar-a-Lago Club. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump with Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, after a meeting. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump makes a statement to the media after a day of transition team meetings at Mar-a-Lago Club. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump with chief-of-staff designate Reince Priebus, left, and Isaac Ike Perlmutter, chief executive of Marvel Entertainment. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
A motorcade carrying Trump arrives at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
Trump waves to members of the media after a meeting with admirals and generals from the Pentagon at Mar-a-Lago. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
Trump listens during a meeting at the Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump walks around the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence hold a meeting with technology executives at Trump Tower. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, left, and Apple chief executive Tim Cook listen during the meeting. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Pence and Thiel listen as Trump speaks. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos, left, Alphabet chief executive Larry Page and Facebooks chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, listen during the meeting. Bezos also owns The Washington Post. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump gestures while speaking in West Allis, Wis. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump disembarks his plane as he makes his way to the Army-Navy football game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump watches the Army-Navy game from a box at M&T Bank Stadium. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump is interviewed by Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday at Trump Tower in Manhattan. (Richard Drew/AP)
Trump waves to the crowd as he speaks in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Supporters cheer as Trump walks out to speak at a thank you tour event at the DeltaPlex Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump disembarks his plane in Raleigh, N.C., for another leg of his thank you tour. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump welcomes retired Gen. James N. Mattis at the event in Fayetteville, N.C. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump stands with SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son in the lobby of Trump Tower as he speaks to members of the media. SoftBank has agreed to invest $50 billion in businesses and job creation in the United States. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump waves after speaking to the media with Masayoshi Son, chief executive and founder of SoftBank. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump disembarks from his plane in Hebron, Ky. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during a tour stop to thank supporters at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump gives a thumbs-up to supporters during his tour stop in Cincinnati. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump talks to members of the media as he tours the Carrier plant in Indianapolis. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
A U.S. Coast Guard boat passes the Mar-a-Lago resort, where Trump was spending Thanksgiving. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)
Trump speaks at a meeting with New York Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.,right, editors and reporters at the Times office in Manhattan. (Hiroko Masuike/New York Times via AP)
Trump gives a thumbs-up as he leaves the New York Times building. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)
Trump is greeted at the front steps of Lamington Presbyterian Church in Bedminster, N.J. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Trump continues to meet with possible transition team members at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump greets New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) at the clubhouse. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani arrives for a meeting. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump walks out with Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) walks to her vehicle after a meeting. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, Pence and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney walk out of the clubhouse. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Pence arrive for lunch at the clubhouse at Trumps golf club in Bedminster. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Pence arrive at the clubhouse in Bedminster. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Romney shake hands. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
People watch from a clubhouse window as Romney leaves. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Pence greet former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and her husband, Kevin Johnson, then the mayor of Sacramento. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Pence greet retired Gen. James Mattis at the Trump National Golf Club. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes interviews Trump and his family wife, Melania, center; daughter Ivanka, seated right; daughter Tiffany; and sons Donald Jr., second row center, and Eric. (Chris Albert/CBS News/60 Minutes via AP)
Trump walks through the U.S. Capitol for a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center left. Accompanying him are his wife, Melania, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. (Bill OLeary/The Washington Post)
Trump and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) pose for photographs after a meeting in the House speakers office. (Alex Brandon/AP)
President Obama and Trump talk to members of the media during a meeting in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: Here’s what President-elect Donald Trump has been doing since the election

So what are we left with? What remains is Trump’s erratic whims, his boundless greed, and the core of Republican policies Congress will pursue, which are most definitely not geared toward the interests of working class whites. He can gut environmental regulations, but that doesn’t mean millions of people are going to head back to the coal mines — it was market forces more than anything else that led to coal’s decline. He can renegotiate trade deals, but that doesn’t mean that the labor-intensive factory jobs are coming back. And by the way, the high wages, good benefits, and job security those jobs used to offer? That was thanks to labor unions, which Republicans are now going to try to destroy once and for all.

Related: Trump isn’t draining the swamp. He’s deepening it.

Had Hillary Clinton won the election, the white working class might have gotten some tangible benefits — a higher minimum wage, overtime pay, paid family and medical leave, more secure health insurance, and so on. Trump and the Republicans oppose all that. So what did the white working class actually get? They got the election itself. They got to give a big middle finger to the establishment, to the coastal elites, to immigrants, to feminists, to college students, to popular culture, to political correctness, to every person and impersonal force they see arrayed against them. And that was it.

So what happens in two years when there’s a congressional election and two years after that when Trump runs for a second term? Those voters may look around and say, Hey wait a minute. That paradise of infinite winning Trump promised? It didn’t happen. My community still faces the same problems it did before. There’s no new factory in town with thousands of jobs paying great salaries. Everybody doesn’t have great health insurance with no cost-sharing for incredibly low premiums. I still hear people speaking Spanish from time to time. Women and minorities are still demanding that I treat them with respect. Music and movies and TV still make me feel like I’m being left behind. When Trump told me he’d wipe all that away, he was conning me. In fact, in many ways he was the fullest expression of the caricature of politicians (everything they say is a lie, they’re only out for themselves) I thought I was striking back against when I supported him.

Those voters may decide to vote for a Democrat next time. Or they may be demobilized, deciding that there isn’t much point to voting at all. The nearly all-white areas where turnout shot up in 2016 might settle right back down to where they used to be.

Or maybe Trump will find a way to actually improve the lives of working class voters. That’s theoretically possible, but absolutely nothing he has done or said so far suggests that he has any idea how to do it, or even the inclination. So he may try to keep the fires of hatred, resentment, and fear burning, in the hopes that people forget that he hasn’t given them the practical things he said he would.


Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.

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