How labor’s decline opened door to billionaire Trump as ‘savior’ of American workers

By Raymond Hogler | (The Conversation) | – –

Out of the economic maelstrom of the last decade, Donald Trump has emerged as the improbable, and self-proclaimed, champion of American workers.

And that’s despite the fact that Trump has failed to articulate substantive policy positions regarding labor issues, other than generic railing against foreign competition and bad trade deals. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, for one, has attacked him by tweeting a number of examples in which Trump’s past behavior shows that he is no friend to working people.

Everything Trump says shows he is desperate to be working ppl’s friend but everything he does proves he is our enemy

— Richard L. Trumka (@RichardTrumka) 19 July 2016

The important question is how has Trump – a wealthy real estate mogul and reality TV star – managed to attract substantial support among white men without college degrees, a demographic that makes up the base of industrial unionism?

The answer is an interlocking set of changing economic and cultural conditions in the U.S. that has undermined middle-class incomes and values. And it starts with the steady erosion of the American labor movement.

In my recent book on labor decline, I explored the historical evolution of the movement and concluded that state right-to-work laws are instrumental in breaking down working-class solidarity. Paradoxically, it is in these states that Trump’s support is strongest.

The decline of unionism

In 1950, Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers negotiated a landmark labor contract with General Motors known as the “Treaty of Detroit,” which set the terms for working-class prosperity over the next three decades. According to a study by economists Frank Levy and Peter Temin, the golden age of the American working class depended on a set of institutional supports that included collective bargaining and union power.

Deteriorating economic conditions and membership declines in the late ‘70’s led organized labor to mount a pivotal effort for labor law reform to reinvigorate the movement, but a proposed bill was defeated by a Republican filibuster in 1978. Subsequently, union membership fell at a faster rate than at any time since the 1920s and presently stands at 11.1 percent of workers.

The effect of union deterioration on income inequality is nicely illustrated by the relationship between membership and the income share of the top 10 percent. In 1956, membership in unions was 33.2 percent, which was slightly higher than the share of national income taken in by top earners. In 2013, the figures were 11.2 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

The role of culture

Coupled with stagnant wages, changing social conditions have inflamed the cultural divide among identity groups. A psychological theory known as “cultural cognition” argues that Americans fall primarily into two ideological camps that shape their responses to such divisive issues as guns, race, gender and public toilets.

“Hierarchical individualists” adhere to traditional social roles, such as marriage between a man and a woman, freedom from government interference with personal liberties belonging to citizens of our nation, and regard for institutions such as the church and the military. This type of person holds deep religious views and respects authority arising from legitimate sources. Trump identifies himself as a billionaire who succeeded through his own talent and who states his views without regard for “political correctness.”

The contrasting cultural position is “collective egalitarianism,” which values group action to achieve equality of opportunity, opposes race and gender discrimination, and rejects the dead weight of the historical past. This person advocates economic policies to reduce inequality, such as by increasing the minimum wage and eliminating unfair labor practices. Bernie Sanders’ economic platform embodies these ideals.

The key point of the theory is that culture takes precedence over rational thought. One study, for example, shows that white males perceive risk much differently than other groups when it challenges their cultural identities and orientation. The authors conclude that “the white male effect might derive from a congeniality between hierarchical and individualistic worldviews, on the one hand, and a posture of extreme risk skepticism, on the other.”

Consequently, Trump’s base has less apprehension about the risks of his presidency, such as his lack of experience in foreign affairs and his disastrous imbroglio with the Khan family, than do other social groups; and they remain positive about his candidacy because of who they are, not who he is.

Trump’s heartland

The two largest cohorts of union membership are aged 45 to 54 and 55 to 64.

Overall, there are 6.3 million white male union members compared with slightly more than one million black male members. Analysts predict that Trump will need to win around 67 percent of the white vote to prevail in the election.

What political strategy would enable Trump to capture key industrial states like Pennsylvania and Ohio? Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist, argues that Trump’s appeal is based on racism, writing that “Trump is an unfiltered primal scream of the fragility and fear consuming white male America.” From this perspective, Trump’s best campaign strategy is further attacks on such groups as Muslims and Mexicans.

Thomas Frank, another well-known political commentator, disagrees. He quotes a labor union official in Indiana who points out that working-class Americans are probably no more racist that any other group. Rather, Trump’s appeal to the white male without a college degree is better understood by simple economics. As Frank explains: “Ill-considered trade deals and generous bank bailouts and guaranteed profits for insurance companies but no recovery for average people, ever – these policies have taken their toll.”

In the end, both approaches are needed to grasp the Trump phenomenon and the possibility that he might become president because his political rise is a conflation of historical circumstance and cultural gridlock.

In other words, Trump achieved a Republican primary victory at the moment when unions no longer could offer economic security for middle-class workers and when dominance based on race and gender was rapidly disappearing.

Back to the future

Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” appears to offer a restoration of power to his supporters, but that restoration will not be achieved through positive labor law policies and union growth as took place during the New Deal.

For unions, it is unlikely that Trump would promote statutory changes to make organizing easier and more efficient because Republicans have systematically sought to destroy unions by adopting right to work legislation in states like Indiana, Michigan and West Virginia, and repealing state laws that protect public sector labor organizing.

Realistically, Trump’s campaign is devoid of any substantive policy proposals to improve wages and benefits for American workers. Trump succeeds not as a legitimate political candidate but as a “cultural symbolist” who relies on emotionally charged tropes to attract followers, such as walling off our border with Mexico and banning Muslims from entering the country.

His approach for the most part has been successful and may be so in the future. A New York Times editorial warned against dismissing Trump with the comment, “He is speaking to people who disbelieve conventional politicians, who detest a Washington they think has betrayed them. He promises nothing of substance to ease their pain, but he gives voice to their rage.”

Responding to the “voices of rage” is hardly a worthwhile agenda for national prosperity or security, but it could be enough to win an election.

The Conversation

Raymond Hogler, Professor of Management, Colorado State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Democracy Now!: ” Meet Jacqui Maxwell, the UAW Autoworker Who Interrupted Trump’s Economic Speech in Detroit”

4 Responses

  1. NOTHING trump (vaguely) proposes will create a single job, let alone thousands nor will trump be able to reverse or even slow down the loss of power of white males.

    The people of the “rust belt” and the “bible belt” south have two very real problems:

    – Loss of power

    – Loss of economic stability.

    Unfortunately, even though trump waves his magic wand and hypnotizes them with meaningless phrases, the REALITY is, if trump gets elected he can do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to fix the problem. In fact after trump is done, the people that voted for him as their “white knight” will be WORSE OFF.

    – Power – sociological power is never static, but constantly changing. No single group of humans can retain power for very long and it is just human nature to resent the inevitable loss of power. BUT . . . 10000 years of recorded history shows that power can not be retained for very long. For most of the USA history, white males had a majority of the power, but as the inevitable demographic changes happen (women, non-whites, aging, etc.), this power is being diffused throughout the population groupings and it will NEVER return to the white males. Sure they are angry about the loss of power, but there is NOTHING they can do about it and fighting the change will just make things worse for the white males. The lessons of history are perfectly clear, the white males will eventually have to just accept the loss of power. The can not win, so should just have a graceful loss. Of course, humans don’t do that, so we should expect more anger and fighting until the older generation dies off.

    – Economics – While the job loses are real, their cause is much more related to technology than transfer to lower wage locations. As I noted in another post, when technology can deliver high quality products and services 24 hours a day for less than US$25/day, why employ any humans?

    link to

    Because technology labor replacement has been subtle and silent, few realize just how much it has changed the way everything used by humans is produced. Sure, unions have tried to limit technology, but the economics are so compelling, the unions have no real defense.

    Strikes (withholding of human labor) no longer works for two reasons (1) there are an excessive number of human workers so strikers can easily be replaced and (2) striking workers can usually be replaced by even less costly technology and once jobs are eliminated by technology there is zero economic incentive to hire any humans.

    One of the symptoms of this, is the fact most USA companies are floating on a sea of cash and selling lots of products and services, but they have no need to hire more humans (USA or non-USA) because their current level of technology is adequate to meet all their customer needs. In fact the trend is to more technology and fewer workers, not the other way.

    So even if trump were to put up huge trade barriers, there will NOT be any additional jobs. Companies will simply buy more technology (made by robots, not humans).

    Technology change is exponential, NOT linear which means humans can never catch up once they are surpassed. Right now technology functionality is increasing exponentially and technology costs are decreasing exponentially. As a technologist that has helped invent some of this stuff, I am all too aware of just how far technology has changed over just the last 50 year.

    Basically, trump is a bald faced liar that can NEVER “fix” any of the problems the “rust belt” and the “bible belt” have, but the people in those areas are so damaged emotionally, they will grasp at any con-job coming their way.

    What these people should be doing is developing new skills that are needed in the real world, abandoning their childhood areas and moving to where the few remaining jobs are because the old jobs are PERMANENTLY GONE and their childhood areas have no resources to tempt a company to move there. Basically they have to completely re-start their lives and walk away from their past. Few humans are emotionally capable of doing that. I did six start-ups and in the process saw lots of people that could not adapt to the new world. To me, start-ups are exciting and intellectually challenging, but to many humans that type of environment is emotionally devastating.

    I wish the people in the “rust belt” and “bible belt” well, but KNOW that their way of life is OVER and can NEVER return, so they need to either accept that and build new lives or suffer the rest of their lives. Life as a human is often cruel and trump is deliberately torturing them for his personal gain.

    • Well, there is a sequence of methods that Hitler used to create jobs for his followers. Since his economic theory was ultimately theft, it could only be a series of stopgaps. First order the firing of Jews and leftists and the handing of their jobs to his followers. Then round up the Jews and leftists and draft more of his followers to guard them in camps. Then begin an arms buildup and hire more followers to oversee the factories. Then use the arms to seize neighbors’ resources, convert those into more arms and jobs. Then use the prisoners and conquered as slave labor to support more followers in combat. After that? Well, who cares, it’s the end of the world.

      As Hunter Thompson said before his death, “Of COURSE political consultants study the methods of the 3rd Reich. They worked – for a while.” We should consider the possibility that Trump’s followers know his methods won’t create jobs for workers in general, just jobs for themselves at the expense of those they consider beneath them. All that I’ve seen of them indicates that they genuinely want life to get worse for non-Whites, that this sadism is the point of their sense of well-being far more than creating more jobs for everyone. Maybe the media needs to ask them tougher questions about their real priorities.

  2. The psychological study referenced in this story may explain a mystery that I keep running up against: why so many American men on the Internet, presumably White, are so psychotically threatened by alternative energy, as if the preservation of oil and coal had some greater significance than real costs. From the article’s abstract:

    “Putting work on the cultural theory of risk together with work on motivated cognition in social psychology suggests that individuals selectively credit and dismiss asserted dangers in a manner supportive of their preferred form of social organization. This dynamic, it is hypothesized, drives the white male effect, which reflects the risk skepticism that hierarchical and individualistic white males display when activities integral to their cultural identities are challenged as harmful.”

    In other words, having grown up in a world where oil and coal-based economics put White men on top, White men who prize being on top above all other values refuse to see oil and coal as being capable of causing harm. To them risk is anything that is “different”, not “familiar but lethal”, because the only real risk is any shakeup in the status quo hierarchy endangering their positions.

    Now if that shakeup has already happened, as in many industries, you’ve got men self-servingly filled with conviction that everyone is now in danger unless the world is forced back into a mold with their place on top baked in. They’ll make up the craziest stories about the new order to fill that need to see danger. How else do we explain people convinced that solar cells must be dangerous to people around them based on the idea that they’re sucking up energy? It’s voodoo under another name.

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