One of the great anomalies of recent political history has been the disconnect between the Republican Party’s ancient legacy as the champion of corporate America and its current electoral base, which relies heavily on support from white working-class voters. The growing contradiction was first made a major topic of debate in the 2008 manifesto Grand New Party, in which youngish conservative intellectuals Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argued that their party offered little in the way of material inducements (or even supportive rhetoric) to its emerging electoral base. Though Douthat and Salam were by no means fans of Donald Trump, the mogul’s stunningly successful 2016 campaign did follow their basic prescription of pursuing the economic and cultural instincts of white working-class voters at the expense of doctrinaire free-market and limited-government orthodoxy.
So it’s not surprising that Trump and an assortment of other Republicans have expressed varying degrees of sympathy for the unionized autoworkers who just launched a historic industry-wide strike for better wages and working conditions. But there was a conspicuous, even anachronistic exception among nationally prominent GOP politicians: South Carolina senator and presidential candidate Tim Scott. As NBC News reported:
It’s the latest of several critical comments Scott has made about the autoworkers, even as other GOP presidential candidates steer clear of criticizing them amid a strike at three plants so far …
“I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, you strike, you’re fired. Simple concept to me. To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely.”
Scott’s frank embrace of old-school union bashing wouldn’t have drawn much notice 40 or 50 years ago. And to be clear, other Republicans aren’t fans of the labor movement: For the most part, MAGA Republicans appeal to the working class via a mix of cultural conservatism, economic and foreign-policy nationalism, nativism, and producerism (i.e., pitting private-sector employers and employees against the financial sector, educational elites, and those dependent on public employment or assistance). One particularly rich lode of ostensibly pro-worker rhetoric has been to treat environmental activism as inimical to the economic growth and specific job opportunities wage earners need.
So unsurprisingly, Republican politicians who want to show some sympathy for the autoworkers have mostly focused on the alleged threat of climate-change regulations generally and electric vehicles specifically to the well-being of UAW members, as Politico reported:
“This green agenda that is using taxpayer dollars to drive our automotive economy into electric vehicles is understandably causing great anxiety among UAW members,” [Mike Pence] said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Other Republicans followed suit, with a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson calling out Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin — Democrats’ favored candidate for the state’s open Senate seat — for her Thursday vote allowing state-level limits or bans on gas-powered cars as choosing her “party over Michigan.”
More strikingly, Trump, the 2024 presidential front-runner, is planning to hold an event with Michigan workers at the very moment his GOP rivals are holding their second debate next week, notes the Washington Post:
While other Republican candidates participate in the Sept. 27 event in California, Trump instead plans to speak to more than 500 autoworkers, plumbers, electricians and pipe-fitters, the adviser said. The group is likely to include workers from the United Auto Workers union that is striking against the Big Three automakers in the country’s Rust Belt. The Trump adviser added that it is unclear whether the former president will visit the strike line.
Trump’s campaign also created a radio ad, to run on sports- and rock-themed stations in Detroit and Toledo, meant to present him as being on the side of striking autoworkers, the adviser said.
The possibility of Trump showing up on a picket line will probably give some of his corporate buddies severe heartburn, and again, there’s no evidence Trump has any understanding of, much less sympathy with, the strikers’ actual demands. But in contrast to Scott’s remarks endorsing the dismissal of striking workers, it shows that at least some Republicans are willing (rhetorically, at least) to bite the hand that feeds in the pursuit of votes.
Meanwhile, the mainstream-media types who often treat Scott as some sort of sunny, optimistic, even bipartisan breath of fresh air should pay some attention to his attitude toward workers exercising long-established labor rights he apparently would love to discard. Yes, as a self-styled champion of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize private- and homeschooling at the expense of “government schools,” Scott is constantly attacking teachers unions, just like many Republicans who draw a sharp distinction between public-sector unions (BAD!) and private-sector unions (grudgingly acceptable). But autoworkers are firmly in the private sector. Maybe it’s a South Carolina thing: Scott’s presidential rival and past political ally Nikki Haley (another media favorite with an unmerited reputation as a moderate) famously told corporate investors to stay out of her state if they intended to tolerate unions in their workplaces. For that matter, the South Carolina Republican Party was for years pretty much a wholly owned subsidiary of violently anti-union textile barons. Some old habits die hard.
One of the useful by-products of the current wave of labor activism in this country is that Republicans may be forced to extend their alleged sympathy for workers into support for policies that actually help them and don’t simply reflect cheap reactionary demagoguery aimed at foreigners, immigrants, and people of color. But Scott has flunked the most basic test threshold compatibility with the rights and interests of the working class.
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