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.
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.
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.
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.
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.