As votes continue to be tabulated in the days since the presidential election, Donald Trump’s deficit continues to grow (now at 2.7 million votes, or 2 percent of the total), while the imagined scale of his triumph continues to swell. He is no longer the ever-so-narrow beneficiary of Hillary Clinton’s deep unpopularity but the authentic tribune of the people, imbued with a “mandate for leadership,” as Mike Pence boasted. The alchemy at work here uses the usual Republican tactic of emphasizing the “coastal” nature of the Democratic coalition, which — in combination with the Republican strongholds in low-density counties, and perhaps even jacked up with fake maps — can make Trump’s minority at least look like a majority.
But Trump’s election has added to the usual outpourings of contempt for coastal America a touch of class — not the Trumpian pink-marble version of class but the Marxian sort. Trump’s surprise victory in a handful of previously blue states with high levels of white working-class voters, combined with the postelection political theater of a visit to a Carrier plant in Indianapolis, where he helped broker a deal to preserve some jobs, has lent him a sudden allure as the guardian of the toiling masses. Conservative columnist Salena Zito attributed Trump’s victory to Democrats’ “ignoring the workingman and -woman bloc.” National Review editor Rich Lowry marveled that the GOP had become “the Party of Workers.” “What amazes a lot of people is that I’m sitting in an apartment the likes of which nobody’s ever seen,” the president-elect told a Time reporter summoned to his palatial suite. “And yet I represent the workers of the world.” Not just the country, the world. The candidate who had won a mere 46 percent of the vote now spoke with the legitimacy of an authentic representative of the proletariat.
There are wisps of truth to this. Trump performed dramatically better with white voters who lack a college degree than he did with white voters who have one. His campaign placed more emphasis on wages and work, and on cultural-populist themes, than Mitt Romney’s did, with its “We built that” paeans to the heroism of business owners. Still, Trump, like traditional Republican candidates before him, performed best among the rich and worst among the poor. He narrowly won voters earning more than $100,000 a year and more definitively lost among those earning less than $50,000 a year. Other than his promise to create blue-collar jobs through deficit-financed spending projects, Trump has advocated an almost completely orthodox right-wing economic program. (And even his deficit-spending plan harks back to George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, who combined higher spending with lower taxes to heat up the economy; Republicans traditionally only oppose economic stimulus when a Democratic president stands to benefit.)
Trump perhaps benefited from his opponent’s campaign decision not to highlight his right-wing economic program, out of the plausible calculation that Americans might be more alarmed by his bullying, manifest ignorance, racism, and confessed habit of sexual predation. And so the campaign has left few Americans prepared for the plutocratic cast of his appointments. His choice for secretary of Labor, Andy Puzder, has railed against the minimum wage and other government interventions that raise the cost of labor and has preached the superiority of automating low-wage work. (Machines, he said, are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”) His Environmental Protection Agency will be run by a director who questions climate science and has literally signed his name to a letter written by oil and gas lobbyists. Veterans of Goldman Sachs have claimed a number of high-profile roles. Trump has placed the government at the disposal of business interests that oppose its core functions on purely acquisitive grounds. There is no view of the economy represented save that of the boss.
Trump’s dramatic intervention in the Carrier contract negotiations was so marginal to his agenda that, by his own admission, he forgot about it until he saw one of the employees mention it on television. When the union’s president pointed out that Trump misstated the number of jobs saved, the president-elect savaged him. If Trump’s plan to raise wages does work, it will be because the magic of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich somehow succeeds for Trump where it failed for George W. Bush.
What Trump adds to the classic trickle-down formula is his reality-show persona. Here he is in Indiana, doling out jobs to his grateful subjects. And there he is on Twitter, threatening Boeing’s CEO (who had the temerity to criticize Trump’s anti-trade rants against China) with cancellation of the contract for Air Force One. Wittingly or not, Trump was reprising a political tactic used by Vladimir Putin, who often shows up on television berating managers for their inefficiency. It is an authoritarian brand of populism in which workers have a voice not through a union, nor through redistributive public policy, but through the personal beneficence of the leader. Also like Putin, Trump sees the presidency as a tool not only of power but of enormous self-enrichment.
During the campaign, Trump’s bullying qualities, along with his general unfitness for public office, made business leaders nervous about his candidacy — a hesitancy that redounded to his benefit by branding Trump as a populist outsider. But the source of their nervousness was not that Trump would favor policies geared toward workers or consumers but that he might threaten the rule of law and the stability of the economic system. Trump’s early moves indicate a regime friendly to the rich and the business elite in general so long as they stay on Trump’s good side. His posturing against big business serves the dual purpose of performing egalitarianism while ensuring monolithic corporate support for his agenda.
Most significantly, equating Trump with the interests of the workers is a propaganda device meant to legitimize his power. Every government of every kind needs some sort of legitimizing principle upon which to base its authority. Trump cannot simply say the rules are the rules, or the Electoral College has spoken. He needs some larger justification for how the American people have chosen him to carry out his sweeping and radical agenda on their behalf. Majoritarianism, a democratic idea with intuitive appeal, is an inconvenient principle for the incoming administration. Representing the “workers of the world” helps solve the problem. He may have received fewer votes in some narrow, technical sense, but real America is for Trump. And if that real America constitutes only 46 percent of the country, well, some animals are more equal than others.
Trump’s boast of a mandate is an expression not of confidence but insecurity. His popular-vote loss is approaching 3 million. He enjoys far less support than any other recent president-elect. The last three presidents-elect had favorable ratings in their honeymoon period ranging from 60 to 79 percent. Trump’s stands at 37 percent. Support for their Cabinet and other high-level appointees has ranged from 58 to 71 percent. Trump’s selections have 40 percent. Trump now has the opportunity to enact sweeping changes to the social contract, not because he has obtained the collective assent of the people but because the system enables minority rule.
*This article appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.