When White House counselor Kellyanne Conway tried Tuesday to respond to the news that General Motors will eliminate thousands of jobs, her usual talent for effortlessly shameless spinning seemed to have deserted her.
Conway said President Trump has created a “record number of manufacturing jobs,” adding that he has prioritized those jobs because they are done by “the forgotten man or forgotten women,” reprising Trump’s campaign talking point. But she also broadcast the following to those who will now be jobless: “The message to them is that this president has created an economy where their skill sets can thrive.”
In other words, this isn’t really Trump’s fault, and they’ll be just fine, due to Trump’s greatness.
It is largely true that Trump himself is not directly responsible for the layoffs, which will impact 14,000 workers in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland and Canada, and reflect complicated decisions that appear rooted in lagging sales. But the problem for Trump, as Steve Benen points out, is that Trump has constantly asserted that such industrial job losses won’t occur on his watch. In 2017, for instance, Trump held an event in Ohio not far from one of the GM plants that is closing, and boasted: “They’re all coming back. Don’t move, don’t sell your house.”
What’s more, recall that Trump has repeatedly cited his own hands-on role in preventing specific job losses as proof of his economic prowess, such as when he boasted far and wide about having saved jobs at a Carrier plant. At the time, Trump let it be known that he had threatened the chief executive of Carrier’s parent company with the wrath of his administration, and declared: “This is the way it’s going to be. Corporate America is going to have to understand that we have to take care of our workers also.”
The point Trump stressed there was that his personal and individualized pressure on corporate executives who had been coddled for far too long by politicians, in addition to his presidency’s general impact on the economy, was responsible for saving manufacturing jobs. Never mind that Carrier subsequently laid off workers; this browbeating of corporate executives has long been central to Trump’s political mystique as a kind of avenging angel for working-class whites sold out by elites — in his own telling.
Thus it is that Trump’s own response to GM’s layoffs seems to signal potential political danger for Trump. The president told the Wall Street Journal that GM “better damn well open up a new plant” in Ohio “very quickly,” adding that he told the company brass: “You’re playing around with the wrong person.”
Today Trump increased the volume on the threats:
Putting aside the substance of these threats for another post, the crucial point here is that this raises the possibility that they could end up failing.
The president, of course, shouldn’t be threatening private companies in the first place. Trump may be channeling the legitimate anger of workers who feel betrayed by the company, and more broadly of workers who generally feel left behind by decades-long shifts in corporate culture that have led corporations to disconnect their own well-being from that of communities and the country, and have led to corporate profits dramatically outpacing wages. As Christopher Ingraham explains, the layoffs constitute yet another victory for capital over labor, one that again confirms that “what’s good for corporate profits isn’t necessarily good for labor.”
It’s sometimes argued that such efforts to shift corporate behavior are a worthy goal, even if the use of government pressure in this regard seems incredibly irresponsible and reckless. But even if you were to grant that to be the case, Trump’s threats and anger seem particularly hollow — and seem unlikely to carry the political weight he appears to hope they will — when you consider that he recently signed a tax bill that cut taxes deeply for corporations, while promising that it would spur investments that would help workers.
When Trump first took office and started threatening companies such as Carrier, you could squint and see the possibility that he might expand this approach to governing. But Trump has since thrown in his lot with the economic orthodoxy that holds that what’s good for corporate profits is indeed good for labor. Trump’s latest round of threats and anger may bear fruit, of course, but if anything, right now they seem more like a reminder of the president that Trump promised to be and then immediately abandoned once in office. I don’t know if that’s enough to weaken Trump’s bond with working-class whites, but if there’s anything that can begin to loosen that bond, you’d think this is it.