Whatever happened to the interests of the working class? Weren’t they supposed to be front and center in the Trump administration?
Here’s one clue: When a policy that helps some corporate sector can be repackaged to make it look like a pro-worker move, President Donald Trump will always hide his real purpose behind a phalanx of workers. Thus did he surround himself with coal miners on Tuesday when he signed a shamefully shortsighted executive order nullifying President Barack Obama’s climate-change efforts.
“Come on, fellas,” Trump said. “You know what this is? You know what it says, right? You’re going back to work.”
Actually, Trump’s promise to the “fellas” is no more believable than any of his other promises. As Clifford Krauss and Diane Cardwell reported in The New York Times, the biggest challenges to coal come from market forces – cheap natural gas and the increasing competitiveness of wind and solar power, for example. So don’t count on those jobs.
And workers and consumers are nowhere to be seen or heard when it comes to the rest of Trump’s corporate priorities. The president, for example, is expected to sign a bill passed on a party-line House vote this week that eliminates Obama-era online privacy protections. This is good for Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and other providers who, as The Washington Post’s Brian Fung noted, “will be able to monitor their customers’ behavior online and, without their permission, use their personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ads.” Not exactly empowering to the average American.
Trump already signaled his indifference to the lives of his working-class supporters by backing the failed House Republican health care bill. It would have deprived 24 million Americans of health insurance. And the administration’s next big priority is corporate tax cuts, not an issue high on voters’ wish lists in Erie, Pennsylvania, or Bay County, Michigan.
Then again, not many proletarians hang around at the Trump resorts and golf courses where our commander in chief has already spent nearly a third of his time in office.
Almost entirely lost in the Trumpian world of high-profile scandals and tweets is a great national tragedy involving what Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton called “deaths of despair” among white Americans with a high school degree or less.
In a paper released last week by the Brookings Institution (with which I am associated), they show that the rising death rates among less well-off whites aged 45-54 contrast sharply with the falling death rates among comparably placed citizens in Europe.
“Mortality declines from the two biggest killers in middle age – cancer and heart disease – were offset by marked increases in drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol-related liver mortality,” they write.
We are living in a society where the long-standing injustices of racial discrimination against African-Americans and Latinos are compounded by the injuries of class. These afflict all lower income groups, but they are currently hitting white Americans particularly hard.
A well-functioning political system and bold leaders would bring us together to build a more just and socially healthy country across the board. But we find ourselves in the Trump Era, where distraction, delusion and division define public life.
If moral imperatives won’t inspire our politicians, perhaps political interest might lead them to take the costs of class inequality to heart. The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study released at the beginning of the month suggested that Trump’s victories (particularly in the swing Midwestern states and Pennsylvania) were driven by white voters without a college degree who either didn’t vote in 2012 or had supported Obama.
My reading of this survey and other post-election analyses so far is that while Trump’s core supporters were largely moved by issues related to race, culture, religion and immigration, the decisive swing voters were motivated by economic anxiety.
Trump has no coherent approach to lifting up working-class Americans. But Democrats need to do more than just embarrass him about the tilt of his policies toward the best-off. They need to put serious thought and energy into pushing a comprehensive program to relieve economic insecurity across racial lines.
Alas, there will be no getting away from the Trump follies, including the administration’s obsessive maneuvers to bury the questions that eventually will have to be answered about his campaign’s relationship with Russia.
But it would be a national service for at least some politicians to point out that in Washington’s angry noise, the voices being drowned out are those of Americans whose despair should be commanding our attention.
E.J. Dionne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.