With a white coal worker’s hardhat shoved over his shiny mane of straw, Donald Trump pouted his lips and asked, “My hair look OK?”
“Give me a little spray,” he joked in West Virginia last Thursday in front of black-and-white signs reading “Trump Digs Coal,” written in his now ubiquitous campaign font. It was basically a victory lap for the presumptive nominee ahead of Tuesday’s primary in the state where Trump won handily.
But the moment was meant to signal that the multi-billionaire real estate mogul was actually just another coal-smeared regular Joe out there fighting for the jobs of blue-collar workers and not the fascistic, real life version of Mr. Burns.
Not one to embrace subtlety, Trump in his garish cartoon-esque display was trying to pick up some ammo to defeat Hillary Clinton in the fall.
That may begin with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a major labor union in the U.S. whose endorsement has been vitally important in every recent presidential election. And whose support could help Trump actually win crucial rust-belt states that he has promised to capture in November.
Minutes later, he specifically thanked a small coalition of members in the million-person strong union for publicly backing his candidacy.
“I am honored that the great men and women of the @Teamsters have created a movement from within called Teamsters for Trump! Thank you,” he said, referring to a few Facebook groups with mere thousands of likes.
Bringing exposure to this small subset of the highly diverse organization highlights the importance of their endorsement for Trump. And there may be no better time to prove that they should back him over Hillary Clinton, given her recent flub in which she said that she’d put coal miners out of work.
But even though some members of the massive union are bucking its Democratic-leaning tendencies, the likelihood that the leaders of the national chapter will back Trump is close to zero.
“The people that I know in the Teamsters, they’re not voting for Trump,” Michael Belzer told The Daily Beast.
The author of Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation, Belzer is a former long-haul trucker and Teamsters member who now teaches industrial relations at Wayne State University. He thinks that Trump’s penchant for offending minorities, coupled the fact that he is all over the place on many issues, will make him too risky for the Teamsters to endorse.
“I think if [the Teamsters] were to support him, they would support him based on free trade,” Belzer said, citing an issue Trump has used to differentiate himself from Clinton the NAFTA supporter.
Belzer is right that free trade is the resonant issue for many of the pro-Trump Teamsters, who are attracted by his promise to return their economic prosperity.
But that hasn’t been enough to win the support of the union’s national leadership.
In September 2015, the Teamsters announced that they had decided not to endorse any candidate despite planning on meeting with Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and, surprisingly, Trump. There was speculation that they withheld an endorsement because no consensus could be reached.
Galen Munroe, a spokesman for the national organization, told The Daily Beast that they currently “are not offering comment on any stories related to the presidential race.”
But that hasn’t stopped individual members from pressuring their fellow union members to back Trump.
Jeff Hester, one of the founders of Teamsters for Trump, told The Daily Beast that he was a lifelong Democrat in years past before swapping party allegiances.
“Until Obama came along,” Hester explained. “His questionable ties to Islam ended my affiliation with the Democratic Party, but left me with no other supportable candidates.”
A self-described veteran, Christian, hunter, gun-advocate, and proud Southerner, Hester works in Southern Appalachia, where coal is king. He is laid off after working as a railroad employee and thinks Trump is the only candidate who can restore jobs to his industry.
“My union has done nothing to protect our jobs, and area congressmen and senators have done even less,” Hester lamented. “They are all in bed together in D.C., enjoying dinners, golf games, and parties with the establishment.”
Even though the union hasn’t publicly voiced support for Trump, Hester thinks individual members of the Teamsters will nevertheless back the candidate.
“There is a new party forming, the party of Trump,” Hester explained. “His party is funded by no bank, no puppet-master, no secretive billionaires. I know he is not perfect. He is a man, and he has his faults, as do we all. But I honestly believe that he will do his dead-level best to follow through on each and every one of his promises.”
And the promise of jobs is the most important of all.
“Donald is a brash and loud man, there is no denying that,” said Joshua Clontz, a Teamster who works as a delivery distribution driver with the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. “He creates controversy anywhere he goes for his take on current events and the state of America. That said, his ideas line up with the viewpoints of many Americans who feel their jobs have been hindered and pay frozen (or worse) in the name of free trade.”
The fact that the Teamsters haven’t come out swinging for a Democrat already could be attributed to the fact that they are in the midst of a presidential election of their own—seeking a new national leader of the organization.
Nonetheless, there was no such hesitancy in 2008, the last time the Democrats had a contested primary season. As early as March 2008, the union endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, months ahead of other Democratic-leaning unions and union organizations such as the United Auto Workers and AFL-CIO, which withheld support for Obama until June.
Yet the support for Trump among some Teamsters members is as strong as the resentment for Clinton. And an official endorsement from the leadership is no promise that all members will fall in line.
“I have nothing to say about Mrs. Clinton,” said William Cummins, a retired member of Teamsters Local Union 886. “I was raised if you can't say something nice, don't say anything ... I got nothing!”
“How she is not in jail shows just how far the current poser in the White House has soiled everything in his wake,” said Pete Za, another union member. “I'm sick of the elites living under different rules than the rest of us. The Hilldabeast and Barry both have blood on their hands.”
When asked how Trump—who loses in almost every general election matchup against Clinton right now—could beat her, Za simply said “like a baby seal.”
Others offered a more thorough approach.
“Trump needs to appeal to women,” Joseph Morissette, a member of the Teamsters Local Union 295, said. “They are the largest voting body in the country. He has to attack Hillary in a way that women can see who she truly is.”
“It won’t take much effort if she can’t handily defeat a self-proclaimed socialist with crazy hair and low name recognition,” said Clontz. “Even Democrats seemingly don’t want her in several states.”
Trump wouldn’t be the first Republican to get an endorsement from the Teamsters, although the union has kept strong Democratic ties for more than a decade.
In 1988, the Teamsters became the only major union, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times, to back George H.W. Bush over his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis. Yet out of the 1.6 million members, only 21,207 voted and Bush narrowly won 50.2 percent to Dukakis’s 46.4. Similarly, Ronald Reagan, the other Republican candidate to woo the union in the last thirty-plus years, won their support by a narrow margin in 1984.
Some 53.6 percent who voted supported Reagan, according to a New York Times story from the time, while 43.6 voted for Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. It was a vitally important moment for the Reagan campaign, which was fighting against a slew of strong union endorsements for Mondale.
“'It means a lot to us that we are getting the endorsement of the only large union in the country that really has polled its entire membership,” then-Vice President Bush said.
Both Bush and Reagan went on to win.
Trump finds himself in a similar boat this year, as union workers have by and large fallen in line behind Clinton’s campaign.
“Twenty-three national unions representing millions of working people across America stand behind Hillary Clinton as the most qualified and experienced candidate for president,” said a February statement from the American Federation of Teachers.
So the small cohort of Trump-loving truck drivers and railroad workers might amount to nothing more than a blip, according to Kenneth Margolies, a senior associate of labor and unions at Cornell University.
“There’s probably Teamsters who think that UFOs are coming, too, but I don’t know anyone who thinks the Teamsters are coming out and preparing for an alien attack,” Margolies told The Daily Beast. “If it happens, I’ll be shocked.”
Still, as the Teamsters remain hushed about their endorsement plans, many are holding out hope that their organization will break convention in this truly unconventional election.
“Members now need protection from not only corporations and government, but seemingly from the unions themselves,” Hester said. “A vote for Trump solidifies our disdain for the establishment.”