Ron Klain, a Post contributing columnist, served as a senior White House aide to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Make no mistake: The core of Trump’s electoral strength remains unchanged — voters drawn to his divisive hatred, culture warfare and xenophobia. But among a smaller, but still significant, slice of Trump’s support — those who like his promise to stand with working people on economic issues — this will be the year when cracks in Trump’s backing finally emerge.
Trump’s economic populism was never the central force behind his election — that was his angry cleaving of America along social, cultural and racial lines. But in 2016, there were some voters who picked Trump because he espoused working-class economics: a massive infrastructure package, a minimum-wage hike, closing the “carried interest” loophole, tough action against drug companies and anti-outsourcing policies. Invoking “The Usual Suspects,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza recently called Trump’s success in courting working voters on his economic message “the greatest trick Donald Trump ever pulled.”
For his opponents, the idea that Trump was a true champion of the economic interests of working people always seemed absurd. But a combination of savvy positioning, a willingness to abandon GOP orthodoxy on trade, some tough-on-Wall-Street rhetoric and unfair (but effective) misrepresentation of Hillary Clinton’s record helped Trump claim this mantle. And his early moves after the election — such as intervening to preserve jobs at a Carrier plant in Indianapolis — reinforced this posture.
But two years into Trump’s presidency, the reality of his economic policies — massively favoring big corporations and the wealthiest Americans — is laying bare the campaign rhetoric. Trump still hasn’t sent bills to Congress to fund infrastructure, limit outsourcing or raise the minimum wage; his signature piece of legislation — the 2017 Tax Act — slashed taxes for big corporations and did virtually nothing for the middle class. His tough talk aimed at drug companies hasn’t been followed by any serious action.
This stripping away of Trump’s economic populist veneer is accelerating. He lost a midterm election when Democrats found their voice on the Affordable Care Act, arguing that Trump put the interests of insurance companies ahead of people with preexisting conditions. His last-minute, election-eve promise to cut middle-class taxes only exposed how little his vaunted “tax reform” had done for those families in the first place. Now his unpopular partial government shutdown — hurting hundreds of thousands of workers and the local businesses they patronize — is the latest straw on the camel’s back.
Even some Trump devotees are raising questions. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, normally a stalwart ally, recently admitted, “a country where a shrinking percentage of the population is taking home an ever-expanding proportion of the money is not a recipe for a stable society.” Or, as a more rank-and-file Trump supporter recently told the New York Times: “I voted for him . . . I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
More systematically, a recent poll showed that while non-collegeeducated white voters still believe Trump is trying to do “what is best for the country,” they have lost confidence that Trump’s economic policies are in their interest. These voters now believe — by nearly a two-to-one margin — that “Trump’s policies put wealthy people first rather than working and middle class people.” That is a devastating verdict from a group whose support Trump needs to keep the presidency.
Moreover, Trump is losing his grip on voters focused on economics during relatively good economic times. What happens as the effect of the Trump tax cut stimulus tapers off this year? With many experts predicting an economic cooling off for 2019 — including dips in the housing market and job market — Americans who are already dubious about who is “winning” in the Trump economy are likely to get considerably more uneasy.
The political costs of Trump’s trade wars will also come home to roost in 2019. It is true that culturally conservative farmers are standing with Trump even as his trade policy devastates their export markets. But residents of industrial towns in the Rust Belt may be a different proposition. A recent forecast from Deloitte said that the impact of Trump’s tariffs on the manufacturing sector still had not yet been felt, and that this impact “is likely to be significant by late 2019” as “pre-tariff inventor[ies] . . . will eventually be run down” and “manufacturers [forced] to decide whether to try to pass on price increases or cut back production.” That could be a gut punch to Trump’s narrow margins of victory in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Trump’s base is cultural — and unwavering. But his minuscule margin in 2016 included a critical cohort who thought he would stand up for working people on economic issues — and that support is showing signs of fracturing. Perhaps the GOPer Trump should fear the most in 2019 is not special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but Abraham Lincoln, who observed that no con artist — not even one as skilled as Donald Trump — can get away with fooling the people all of the time.