WASHINGTON – “Watch what we do, not what we say.”
At the beginning of Richard Nixon’s presidency, that’s how Attorney General John Mitchell explained the way reporters could best understand what the country was about to experience.
It’s also good advice for understanding the administration of the billionaire phony populist who will assume the presidency next month. Donald Trump cast himself as the champion of a besieged American working class and a defender of its interests. His early decisions tell us something very different: This could be the most anti-worker, anti-union crowd to run our government since the Gilded Age.
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There’s an irony here, since Mitchell was trying to reassure journalists that despite Nixon’s 1968 law-and-order campaign, he would stay true to enforcing civil rights laws. In Trump’s case, we’re learning that rhetoric out of labor songbooks meant less than nothing. He was covering up an agenda focused on undercutting legal protections for workers and weakening their already beleaguered organizations.
How else to understand Trump’s decision to nominate Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive, as secretary of labor? Perhaps, in the interests of transparency, the incoming Republican Congress can rename the part of our government historically devoted to workers’ interests the “Department of Low-Wage Labor.”
The contradictions abound. One of Trump’s core promises was to restore well-paying jobs in the factories and the mines. But he’s putting at the helm of the Labor Department the CEO of the company that franchises Hardee’s and Carl Jr.’s. Their workers tend to be at the bottom end of the pay scale. Puzder’s passions have been invested in cutting wage costs. If Trump wanted a corporate type at Labor, might he at least have tried to pick someone from the manufacturing sphere?
Ah, but Trumpworld is also a land of cronies. Trump and the Republican Party could not say enough about the “corrupt” intersection of donors to the Clinton Foundation and the policies that Hillary Clinton would pursue as president. Yet here comes Puzder – joining a Cabinet of working stiffs with a net worth so far of $14.5 billion, according to NBC News – who will no doubt feel well rewarded for his own financial support of the Trump campaign.
A rule of thumb for the next four years: With Trump, everything that Republicans said about corruption and conflicts of interest where Clinton was concerned is now, to use the Nixon-era word, inoperative.
The labor secretary is responsible for enforcing laws that protect employees. But as New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman noted, “the fact that Mr. Puzder has now reportedly been selected to lead the same agency that uncovered wage theft at his restaurants is a cruel and baffling decision by President-elect Trump.” How closely will the Republican-led Senate look into this issue?
And you get a clear sense of how anti-union Trump threatens to be when you combine the Puzder pick with Trump’s attack on Chuck Jones. He’s the president of the United Steelworkers Local 1999 at the Carrier plant in Indiana where Trump claimed he saved 1,100 jobs. Jones used colorful language to say that Trump had “lied” about the number of jobs protected and had given Carrier workers “false hope.” The real jobs number was closer to 800 and layoffs are expected in 2017.
Jones was quickly assailed by Trump (on Twitter, of course) for having “done a terrible job representing workers.” Further, Trump blamed the union for the job losses. “If United Steelworkers 1999 was any good, they would have kept those jobs in Indiana.” Trump likes to talk about workers but hates it when they talk back.
Jones, tougher than Trump when it comes to absorbing criticism, shrugged off the president-elect’s tantrum, saying Trump didn’t know “what in the hell he was talking about.”
But the rest of us – and particularly workers who cast ballots for Trump in the hope of better days – ignore the Tweeter-in-Chief’s behavior at our peril.
Fake populism is an old story, and it often involves dividing workers against each other along the lines of race, religion, ethnicity or immigration status. Trump has already proved himself a master of this sort of manipulation.
Over the long run, though, workers will rely on the content of their paychecks and the quality of their living standards to help them decide whether Trump’s word to them was any better than his promises to the students he fleeced at Trump University. They won’t need John Mitchell to tell them to keep a close eye on what this man actually does.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.