DETROIT — Any candidate who can win evangelicals in the deep South and working-class members of the fabled Reagan-Democrat coalition in the upper Midwest should be a Republican consultant’s dream.
That’s what Donald Trump achieved Tuesday night, with lopsided victories over his rivals in Mississippi and Michigan. But his surreal self-promotional march to the nomination has the Republican establishment quaking in their loafers.
As Trump preened before the cameras Tuesday night and showed off his extensive wares—Trump steaks, water, and wine—the establishment’s favorite candidate, Marco Rubio, was suffering the indignity of coming in dead last, taking just 5 percent of the vote in Mississippi and 9.2 percent in Michigan. At press time, he hadn’t gotten enough support to win any delegates.
Rubio’s strategy of racking up enough endorsements to campaign as the most electable Republican isn’t working. Trump’s combination of free-range fury and insult-comedy has made the billionaire populist the unlikely hero of the white working class. And over the next week, he will put that reputation to the test, trying to win crucial delegate-rich contests in the Midwest.
Trump won’t be the only candidate trying to convince blue-collar workers that he is their best friend with a private jet. As the presidential race shifts to the Midwest, union workers will be getting a lot of love—and a lot of nonsense.
While Republican candidates often demonize organized labor, Donald Trump has promised to solve every last problem that union members have faced over the past decades. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also make grand promises to labor a central part of their pitches. And as Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio gear up for primaries on March 15, the pandering will hit overdrive.
After all, Trump won the union-heavy state of Michigan on Tuesday, clocking in with 37 percent of the vote as of press time. This may have been in part to his promise that as president he will radically change realities of global trade and migration in such a way that will magically transport Detroit back to its 1960s pre-12th Street Riot glory days.
That ain’t happening. But Trump supporters won’t stop believing.
In the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck, which elected the country’s first majority Muslim city council, local mechanic and Navy vet Denny Gajowiak proudly cast his vote Trump.
“He doesn’t dress like a politician, he doesn’t act like a politician,” Gajowiak told The Daily Beast. “Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe we need someone who is a little rough around the edges to go in there and kick some ass.”
That promised ass-kicking isn’t just central to Trump’s appeal. Clinton’s outreach to organized casino workers played a significant role in her Nevada win. And Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown—a favorite of organized labor—endorsed Clinton’s campaign in October, praising her for “opposing unfair trade deals.”
It’s another example of union-friendly rhetoric that has only the most tenuous connection to reality. Though Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement after Sanders denounced it, she expended considerable effort as secretary of state to praise it.
Trump loves to talk up his support from unions as well, even though he backs right-to-work laws that hobble private-sector unions and is at war with workers in one of his casinos who are trying to organize.
Despite all that, Trump’s opponents are increasingly worried that his appeal to white working-class voters could give him a leg up in states where country-club Republicans have historically stumbled. A story on the front page of The Wall Street Journal made the case this week, and Tuesday night’s results should prove sobering for his foes.
But Trump’s signature politics-of-resentment is working.
Michigan is a case in point. When people face decades of job losses, stagnant wages, and shuttered factories, those economic anxieties outweigh other concerns. And placing blame for those anxieties on an abstracted “other”—whether it’s urban Wisconsinites in their fancy trains or rapist-Mexicans stealing our jobs—can be politically powerful.
Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Trump’s rhetorical strategy has a lot in common with that of Gov. Scott Walker.
In the Badger State, Walker won three statewide races in four years by tapping into a rich vein of resentment, mobilizing rural and working-class voters. Walker argued that taking federal money for light rail would benefit urban communities at the expense of rural residents. By pitting the two groups against each other, Walker got out the vote among the voters he needed. “Anger’s so mobilizing,” Cramer explained.
Trump has spent eight months telling a story millions of Americans believe: that our country has fallen from greatness and into disrepair because of greedy corporations pushing corrupt politicians to pass bad trade deals and allow in dangerous immigrants.
Sen. Bernie Sanders is the only other candidate trying to tap into the vein of populist anger at corrupt elites.
“He’s got a lot radical ideas… and I want to have that debate,” said Sanders supporter Rebecca Savage, a historic preservationist in Michigan. But even as she hopes the senator can bring manufacturing back to Detroit, she’s unsure he could follow through on his promises.
A few miles down the road, there used to be a manufacturer called American Axle. In 2013, the company shipped its operations abroad and eliminated its last 300 employees. Then it demolished the manufacturing complex.
“They demolished the factory building. So there’s no chance of them ever returning here… Would it really happen, where you can get those manufacturing jobs back? I don’t think so,” Savage said with a sigh. “They are campaign promises. There are certain things that can be done, but you can’t bring back what’s been taken away.”
Trump is fond of boasting that he has “tremendous support with unions.” As with all things Donald, this requires a fact-check. In Wisconsin—which votes early next month—Charles Franklin, who directs the highly respected Marquette Law School Poll, said there isn’t evidence that union voters back Trump more than any other Republican. “I don’t see any additional draw among union members or union households,” he added.
But in the next Super Tuesday prize of Ohio, The [Youngstown] Vindicator reported this month that in Mahoning County, 1,000 Democratic voters switched their registration to the GOP.
“We are seeing something this election cycle I’ve never seen before to this degree,” county Republican chairman Mark Munroe told the paper. “Every day I take phone calls or get voice messages from people saying they’ve been Democrats all their life and they’ve had it. They want to vote for Donald Trump. I’m surprised at the volume of inquiries we’re getting. It’s remarkable.”
Not all union workers are so quick to get on the gilded Trump bandwagon. In neighboring Minnesota, the head of AFSCME Minnesota Council 5— which represents public-sector employees—said his members don’t have anything nice to say about Trump.
“Workers in Minnesota are too smart to vote for Trump—he’s a bad boss who fires people on a game show,” said Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Minnesota Council 5. “America needs a real president, not a celebrity apprentice who preaches the politics of hate, fear, and division.”
From his balmy victory party in West Palm Beach, Trump seemed to try to answer Seide’s concerns. “I can be more presidential than anybody,” he assured the crowd. “Other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential.” Arrogance, after all, can be a real turn-off to union voters.