Foon Rhee

Donald Trump is no ‘blue-collar billionaire’

Blue-collar workers fill Donald Trump’s rallies but wealthy supporters are invited to his election night events, like this one on March 15, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla.
Blue-collar workers fill Donald Trump’s rallies but wealthy supporters are invited to his election night events, like this one on March 15, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. Associated Press

The angry white men filling Donald Trump’s rallies are getting plenty of attention, most of it unflattering.

Truth is, however, that the blue-collar workers in the crowds have good reason to be upset. America has been losing the factory jobs that during past decades helped put their families into the middle class.

The problem is the candidate they’re backing isn’t going to help them. I don’t blame the workers, really. I blame Trump for taking advantage of their anger and bamboozling his way to the brink of the Republican presidential nomination.

His tough talk – saying our officials are stupid and being outsmarted by the Chinese, and boasting he’ll negotiate the best deals ever – is no substitute for a real policy or strategy. (On his campaign website, there’s a position paper on trade with China, but only 30-second videos on jobs and the economy.) That’s the thing about Trump: He claims he’ll fix most everything about America but never says how exactly.

And our industrial base certainly needs major repairs.

Even as the economy recuperates from the worst downturn since the Great Depression, manufacturing isn’t coming back. Among all the states, only Alaska has rebounded to pre-recession employment in manufacturing, according to a study out this month from the Economic Policy Institute. Nationally, we’ve lost more than 1.4 million manufacturing jobs since the recession started in December 2007, a 10 percent drop.

Generally, these jobs pay well more than those in the fast-growing service sector. So the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector is helping to increase our income inequality. At its extreme, the struggle for blue-collar workers is reflected in the startling study that death rates for middle-aged, working-class whites have been rising since the turn of the century, unlike every other demographic group.

Democrat Bernie Sanders has also tapped into discontent with this “rigged economy.” By blaming 1990s trade deals backed by Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for crushing job losses in manufacturing, he kept close in last week’s primaries in the Midwestern industrial states of Illinois and Missouri and pulled a huge upset in Michigan the week before.

To counter Sanders, Clinton is appealing more to economic anxiety and has adopted some of his proposals. In her victory speech last week, she specifically called for creating more good manufacturing jobs.

The manufacturing sector, in particular, is vulnerable to unfair trade and currency manipulation, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute says. It calculates that trade with the 11 other nations in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership cost 2 million jobs in the U.S. last year.

Trump, Sanders and Clinton all oppose the TPP, which President Barack Obama is trying to push through Congress before his term is up. The Pacific trade deal is a big deal for California, whose exports totaled more than $165 billion last year, about 11 percent of the U.S. total.

For California, the demise of manufacturing – aerospace, defense and a range of other industries – is also a big issue. Since the Great Recession started in December 2007, California’s overall job base has grown by 7.5 percent. Silicon Valley is booming again, and the state is getting a boost from clean energy.

But the Golden State has lost 165,500 manufacturing jobs since December 2007, an 11 percent decline. Looking further back, to 2001, the loss is 578,000 jobs, a 31 percent drop.

According to the latest state numbers out Friday, California added nearly 452,000 non-farm jobs between February 2015 and February 2016. But manufacturing jobs declined by another 2,400.

One big hope is that as old-line factories close, employees can be retrained to work at higher-tech plants, such as the bustling Siemens light-rail plant in south Sacramento that employs more than 800 and hopes to build California’s high-speed rail cars. West Sacramento is carving out a niche in food production, and in the Central Valley, officials are working to grow food and beverage manufacturing, with help from a federal grant.

But there’s no guarantee any of these initiatives will work, at least not quickly. The presidential campaign is landing smack dab into all that uncertainty and fear – and Trump is feeding on it better than anyone else.

If he keeps winning among blue-collar men – including in the Tuesday primary in Arizona and the June primary in California – it’s unlikely the Republican establishment will be able to stop him from the nomination. And if he’s the nominee, he’s counting on these same voters to swing battleground states in the Rust Belt in November.

Trump’s son calls him a “blue-collar billionaire.” But if he does make it to the White House, Trump will care much more about how to protect his own fortune – and those of the well-coiffed wealthy invited to his victory events at his luxury club in Palm Beach – than how to help working people make theirs.

I’m really glad that their concerns are getting the spotlight during the campaign. I just wish that their righteous cause hadn’t been hijacked by Trump.