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How did Trump become the working class’ hero? Eric Thayer/Reuters

How labor’s decline opened door to billionaire Trump as ‘savior’ of American workers

Out of the economic maelstrom of the last decade, Donald Trump has emerged as the improbable, and self-proclaimed, champion of American workers.

And that’s despite the fact that Trump has failed to articulate substantive policy positions regarding labor issues, other than generic railing against foreign competition and bad trade deals. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, for one, has attacked him by tweeting a number of examples in which Trump’s past behavior shows that he is no friend to working people.

Everything Trump says shows he is desperate to be working ppl’s friend but everything he does proves he is our enemy

— Richard L. Trumka (@RichardTrumka) 19 July 2016

The important question is how has Trump – a wealthy real estate mogul and reality TV star – managed to attract substantial support among white men without college degrees, a demographic that makes up the base of industrial unionism?

The answer is an interlocking set of changing economic and cultural conditions in the U.S. that has undermined middle-class incomes and values. And it starts with the steady erosion of the American labor movement.

In my recent book on labor decline, I explored the historical evolution of the movement and concluded that state right-to-work laws are instrumental in breaking down working-class solidarity. Paradoxically, it is in these states that Trump’s support is strongest.

The heyday of unions. Reuters

The decline of unionism

In 1950, Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers negotiated a landmark labor contract with General Motors known as the “Treaty of Detroit,” which set the terms for working-class prosperity over the next three decades. According to a study by economists Frank Levy and Peter Temin, the golden age of the American working class depended on a set of institutional supports that included collective bargaining and union power.

Deteriorating economic conditions and membership declines in the late ‘70’s led organized labor to mount a pivotal effort for labor law reform to reinvigorate the movement, but a proposed bill was defeated by a Republican filibuster in 1978. Subsequently, union membership fell at a faster rate than at any time since the 1920s and presently stands at 11.1 percent of workers.

The effect of union deterioration on income inequality is nicely illustrated by the relationship between membership and the income share of the top 10 percent. In 1956, membership in unions was 33.2 percent, which was slightly higher than the share of national income taken in by top earners. In 2013, the figures were 11.2 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

Bernie Sanders and his supporters tend toward the cultural position of ‘collective egalitarianism.’ Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

The role of culture

Coupled with stagnant wages, changing social conditions have inflamed the cultural divide among identity groups. A psychological theory known as “cultural cognition” argues that Americans fall primarily into two ideological camps that shape their responses to such divisive issues as guns, race, gender and public toilets.

“Hierarchical individualists” adhere to traditional social roles, such as marriage between a man and a woman, freedom from government interference with personal liberties belonging to citizens of our nation, and regard for institutions such as the church and the military. This type of person holds deep religious views and respects authority arising from legitimate sources. Trump identifies himself as a billionaire who succeeded through his own talent and who states his views without regard for “political correctness.”

The contrasting cultural position is “collective egalitarianism,” which values group action to achieve equality of opportunity, opposes race and gender discrimination, and rejects the dead weight of the historical past. This person advocates economic policies to reduce inequality, such as by increasing the minimum wage and eliminating unfair labor practices. Bernie Sanders’ economic platform embodies these ideals.

The key point of the theory is that culture takes precedence over rational thought. One study, for example, shows that white males perceive risk much differently than other groups when it challenges their cultural identities and orientation. The authors conclude that “the white male effect might derive from a congeniality between hierarchical and individualistic worldviews, on the one hand, and a posture of extreme risk skepticism, on the other.”

Consequently, Trump’s base has less apprehension about the risks of his presidency, such as his lack of experience in foreign affairs and his disastrous imbroglio with the Khan family, than do other social groups; and they remain positive about his candidacy because of who they are, not who he is.

Trump’s heartland

The two largest cohorts of union membership are aged 45 to 54 and 55 to 64.

Overall, there are 6.3 million white male union members compared with slightly more than one million black male members. Analysts predict that Trump will need to win around 67 percent of the white vote to prevail in the election.

What political strategy would enable Trump to capture key industrial states like Pennsylvania and Ohio? Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist, argues that Trump’s appeal is based on racism, writing that “Trump is an unfiltered primal scream of the fragility and fear consuming white male America.” From this perspective, Trump’s best campaign strategy is further attacks on such groups as Muslims and Mexicans.

Thomas Frank, another well-known political commentator, disagrees. He quotes a labor union official in Indiana who points out that working-class Americans are probably no more racist that any other group. Rather, Trump’s appeal to the white male without a college degree is better understood by simple economics. As Frank explains: “Ill-considered trade deals and generous bank bailouts and guaranteed profits for insurance companies but no recovery for average people, ever – these policies have taken their toll.”

In the end, both approaches are needed to grasp the Trump phenomenon and the possibility that he might become president because his political rise is a conflation of historical circumstance and cultural gridlock.

In other words, Trump achieved a Republican primary victory at the moment when unions no longer could offer economic security for middle-class workers and when dominance based on race and gender was rapidly disappearing.

A promise he can keep? Eric Thayer/Reuters

Back to the future

Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” appears to offer a restoration of power to his supporters, but that restoration will not be achieved through positive labor law policies and union growth as took place during the New Deal.

For unions, it is unlikely that Trump would promote statutory changes to make organizing easier and more efficient because Republicans have systematically sought to destroy unions by adopting right to work legislation in states like Indiana, Michigan and West Virginia, and repealing state laws that protect public sector labor organizing.

Realistically, Trump’s campaign is devoid of any substantive policy proposals to improve wages and benefits for American workers. Trump succeeds not as a legitimate political candidate but as a “cultural symbolist” who relies on emotionally charged tropes to attract followers, such as walling off our border with Mexico and banning Muslims from entering the country.

His approach for the most part has been successful and may be so in the future. A New York Times editorial warned against dismissing Trump with the comment, “He is speaking to people who disbelieve conventional politicians, who detest a Washington they think has betrayed them. He promises nothing of substance to ease their pain, but he gives voice to their rage.”

Responding to the “voices of rage” is hardly a worthwhile agenda for national prosperity or security, but it could be enough to win an election.

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