A perception abides that the white working class, particularly white working-class males as a group, constituted a strong pillar of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, indeed that they were pivotal in his victory.
While this perception that support among a white working class was key to Trump’s 2016 victory has been largely disproved, what is not disputable is that Trump and the Republican Party have in fact put great effort into branding themselves in terms of this myth that they are the party of working-class America.
Trump, of course, claimed in his 2016 campaign to represent the “forgotten American,” lavishing workers with promises to bring back coal mining jobs and to stop the corporate relocation of jobs outside the United States, promises quickly proven false just shortly after his election.
On election night in 2020, Republican Senator Josh Hawley tweeted, “We are a working class party now. That is the future,” signaling a political direction echoed in a March 2020 Republican strategy memo titled “Cementing GOP as the Working Class Party.”
Of course, Trump’s own businesses practices and treatment of his own employees make abundantly clear that one would be hard-pressed to find a more anti-union and anti-worker president in U.S. history than Trump.
And just as his anti-worker policies and practices fit well within the historical trajectory of Ronald Reagan’s defining political stroke of breaking the Air Traffic Controllers Union (PATCO) in 1981, so did his signature $2 trillion tax cut continue the long-term Republican transfer of wealth from the mass of Americans to the wealthiest individuals and corporations. Indeed, not only did Trump’s tax cut balloon the deficit, it did not stop those corporations whose pockets were lined from laying off tens of thousands of workers.
In short, the policies of Trump’s presidency were by and large characterized by disinvestment in the American people, particularly the American working class.
It would be hard to find a Republican policy over the past four years, not to mention the past four decades, that sought to empower and enrich the American worker.
The Republican Party has appealed to the white working class on the limited and racist basis of their ideological “whiteness,” not on the basis of their experience of class inequality and exploitation. Indeed, these racist appeals only work to reinforce that exploitation, seeking to turn white Americans not against those truly exploiting them and hoarding the wealth workers produce, but against also-exploited and oppressed people of color and immigrants.
Despite what seems like it should be glaring obvious, challenging the powerful Republican branding that casts the Republican Party as somehow concerned with working-class interests (what Thomas Frank calls “a species of derangement” in his 2004 classic What’s the matter with Kansas?) and the Democrats as coastal elites hopelessly distant from the lives of ordinary Americans, has proven remarkably difficult.
Maybe Senator Joe Manchin’s recent betrayal of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda, interestingly enough, provides the opening for Democrats to draw attention in much more pronounced and direct ways to the ways they are addressing the ills of American class society and seeking to support the American working class, thus perhaps shifting working-class Americans’ understanding of which party best represents their interests.
Recently, of course, the United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, speaking on behalf of West Virginia’s coal miners, urged Manchin to revisit his withdrawal of support from the Build Back Better legislation that had been in the works, pointing to several key elements of the proposal that directly supported West Virginia’s workers and would facilitate workers’ ability to organize and unionize.
In short, Roberts’ plea highlighted Manchin’s apparent abdication of his responsibility to represent the interests of West Virginia workers, certainly raising questions as to whether his financial ties to the coal industry, from which he has amassed millions of dollars, are influencing his decision-making and corrupting his ability to govern on behalf of his people instead of his own bank account.
Coal miners’ recognizing and calling out Manchin’s failure to represent them perhaps signals the possibility that West Virginia’s workers, and maybe even voters across the nation, will start to reflect on and question more generally, and pointedly, which party, which policies, and which political candidates are in fact genuinely representing their interests.
Indeed, as a state West Virginia painted itself deep red in 2016 and 2020, overwhelmingly supporting Donald Trump, despite the facts that poverty dramatically increased in the state during Trump’s presidency and that it would be hard to point to any way, beyond empty rhetoric, that Trump and his administration lifted a finger to address, improve, or empower the lives of West Virginian workers.
Republicans have only worked against, not for, American workers, while Democrats have worked far too quietly on their behalf.
Democrats must not be afraid to validate the experience of exploitation, marginalization, and disempowerment white people of the working class have endured historically in America—doing so on the basis of their class identity and experience.
Democrats must seize this moment to amplify in loud, pronounced, and specific language how its policies and overall agenda empower and support American workers of all colors, genders, and sexual identities and orientations and their families. Biden has already voiced unprecedented support for Amazon workers seeking to unionize and for Kellogg’s workers who were threatened with replacement, advocating for the importance of collective bargaining and workers’ rights within that process. And, of course, the coal miners themselves seem to recognize that Biden’s agenda advances their interest. Democrats need to make clear as well that Trump and the Republicans have never had their interests at heart.
Manchin’s betrayal has created an opening, an opportunity for Democrats to spur a much broader profound and urgent reflection on which party is seeking to serve to their interests and which is failing them, but they have to lead the conversation.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.