This week, one of Donald Trump’s favorite writers, Salena Zito, plowed a very familiar furrow in arguing that the global real-estate and resort mogul has a unique understanding of working people and their pride in making things right here in America:
For the past 50 years, automation, lopsided trade deals, and punishing environmental regulations drove much of what we did with our hands out of our hands and created ghost towns and depressed areas all across this state [Pennsylvania]. That resulted in a disjointed supply chain and significant job losses.
A significant part of Trump’s appeal as a candidate was his blunt talk on our multigenerational failure to make things here. That appeal continued into his presidency in his strident negotiations with China, Mexico, and Canada on trade.
Warming to her effort, Zito then described Trump’s opponents as people hostile or indifferent to the folk virtues of real Americans:
Trump’s brashness and unorthodox dealings also made members of his own party and the Washington political class cringe and recoil to their enclaves. But it made people who are not just good at making things but are proud to do so feel championed — even if the deals weren’t perfect, even if they got shortchanged, even if they didn’t like his style.
The problem with the people who cringed is that they’ve never worked with their hands, known anyone who works with their hands, or known anyone who likes working with their hands. If they did know what that’s like before they moved to the wealthiest counties in the country, they’ve left those memories behind.
Their attitudes lack the depth of understanding of the dignity and pride someone feels when they do make something such as a mask, a ventilator, a part for your car, or the cartons that hold your brown organic, farm-fresh, cage-free eggs that goes from their labor to your front door.
There’s so much to unpack here. For starters, even though Trump did impose mercantilist trade policies on the GOP, he’s also championed — to use Zito’s phrase — the economic interests of the globalists and plutocrats of his party in his tax, banking, labor, and regulatory policies. If he’s a friend of the sons and daughters of toil when it comes to fighting off foreign competition for their employers, and maybe protecting them at the expense of the environment we all share, then he’s been unfriendly in more ways than you can begin to count.
In addition, while I’m no economist, I am reasonably sure that Trump didn’t succeed in freezing a long-term globalization trend at some ideal point for Americans, and he didn’t repeal the basic fact that some places produce some things more efficiently than others (e.g., the principle of comparative advantage). If that were all a myth, Americans would mostly still live on farms with perhaps a scattering of people working in mines or textile mills. There’s not enough pride of craftmanship in the whole wide world to make that kind of economy a prosperous one, particularly if it is governed by Republican social and labor policies.
But I have to say, Zito’s cheap demagoguery is all but self-refuting if you think about it for even a moment. Among Trump’s most strident enemies are virtually every labor union in the country, including the AFL-CIO, which endorsed Joe Biden this week. Do they know less about the joys of making things with their hands than Donald Trump?
Zito’s rant was all too much for conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru:
We don’t have data on the political attitudes of people who work with their hands. We do know that Trump got around 51 percent of the votes of Americans without college degrees in 2016, a four-point improvement over Mitt Romney’s performance in 2012, and that he got around 41 percent of those voters making less than $50,000 a year, a three-point improvement over Romney. Huge numbers of Americans without college degrees and with low incomes voted for Hillary Clinton; huge numbers of affluent Americans voted for Donald Trump; and the changes from previous elections, while very important, were on the margin …
We can safely infer that the vast majority of African Americans who work with their hands do not feel championed by Trump.
Zito might protest that she’s not defending the Republican Party, but only Trump, who has defied its globalists and elitists. But Wall Street and corporate America are firmly in Trump’s corner now, along with all but a smattering of the Republican pols and operatives who opposed him initially. To suggest it is Biden who is exclusively the candidate of elites is to ignore much of what both parties stand for, particularly during a pandemic that is crushing working people even as corporate America lobbies its way to still more privileges. And the president who prefers appointees with Ivy League educations and CEO backgrounds is the unlikeliest working-class hero of all.