Politics / September 28, 2023

Trump Just Showed How Little He Actually Cares About the Working Class

The former president traveled to a non-union plant in Michigan to tell autoworkers that their struggle for fair wages and a better future was essentially worthless.

John Nichols
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Drake Enterprises in Clinton Township, Michigan, US, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023.

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Drake Enterprises in Clinton Township, Mich., on Wednesday, September 27, 2023.

(Emily Elconin / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Donald Trump has no interest in solidarity with the working class. The alleged billionaire, who made a name for himself as a self-promoting property developer, New York playboy, and reality-TV star before taking over the Republican Party and devoting his one-term presidency to enacting massive tax cuts for the rich, has never cared about the greater good. As the 91 criminal indictments he now faces make clear, he’s got a record of cutting corners, scheming, and lying in order to benefit himself—and his wealthy associates—rather than working Americans.

So it came as no surprise that the appeal Trump made to Michigan workers on Wednesday night—one that was hyped beforehand as a big pitch for the blue-collar vote—was little more than a surreal exercise in cynicism.

On the day after President Biden walked a picket line with striking United Auto Workers members and endorsed their struggle against the Big Three auto companies—telling UAW strikers, “You deserve what you earned, and you deserve a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now”—Trump flew his private jet to suburban Detroit, appeared at a non-union plant, and dismissed the fight by America’s autoworkers for fair wages, better benefits, and a say in shaping the future of their industry as more or less fruitless.

Directly addressing UAW members, despite the fact that few of them were in the room, Trump announced, “You’re all on the picket lines and everything, but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what you get, because in two years you’re all going to be out of business.”

Why? Because, Trump claimed, the transition to electric vehicle production that the Biden administration, auto-industry executives, the union, and its members are already engaged in will lead to the end of American vehicle manufacturing. “I don’t care what you get in the next two weeks or three weeks or five weeks,” the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination said to striking union members. “They’re going to be closing up [American factories] and they’re going to be building those cars in China and other places. It’s a hit job on Michigan and on Detroit.”

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That’s a wildly absurd claim, which, as the Detroit Free Press explained, Trump made “despite the fact that sales of U.S. EVs reached 9% of new car sales in the second quarter and billions being invested in dozens of new or planned battery and other EV plants across the country in recent months, in part because of subsidies provided by the Biden administration.”

But Trump was betting that he could get away with peddling nonsense because much of the media continues to amplify his false assertions and conspiracy theories. He had some success on Wednesday night.

Fox News’ “Live Now” cable channel aired the speech in full, with an image of Trump and a UAW logo in the corner of the screen. The small crowd of several hundred Trump backers that gathered on the shop floor of the Drake Enterprises auto parts factory in Clinton Township, Mich., waved generic “Union Members for Trump” signs in an effort to create the impression, which many media outlets accepted, that the president was speaking “to striking United Auto Workers (UAW) members.” It fell to the intrepid local Detroit Free Press reporters to point out that “it wasn’t immediately clear how many of the people in attendance were union autoworkers.” And, in post-rally interviews with the Detroit News, several of the people who were holding those “Union Members for Trump” and “Autoworkers for Trump” signs revealed that they weren’t members of the UAW—or, for that matter, any other union.

But Trump wasn’t worried about authenticity. He was spinning a fantasy.

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At the heart of that fantasy was the patently false claim that the UAW strike, which enjoys the support of 75 percent of Americans, is a fool’s mission that will yield no long-term benefits for UAW members.

Trump’s strategy was self-evident. Like the charter member of the billionaire class that he is, Trump was telling workers not to trust their union but rather to trust him as their only hope to preserve their livelihoods. Instead of embracing the UAW’s carefully developed demands, as Biden did on Tuesday, the former president instead called for the union to endorse him. “Do me a favor. Just get your union guys, your leaders to endorse me,” Trump said at one point. “I’ll take care of the rest.”

This is the classic Trump line, the “I alone can fix it” argument that he has relied on since he entered the 2016 presidential race. At the heart of that argument is the fantasy that a billionaire—even one who is unlikely to have ever been as rich as he claimed, even one who has frequently gone bankrupt, even one who is currently charged with fraud—is the last best hope for the American working class.

It’s a gambit that has gotten Trump pretty far in politics—and that is likely to get him the 2024 GOP nomination against a field of challengers that haplessly debated Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif. But it wasn’t getting much traction with the UAW.

On the eve of the former president’s appearance in Michigan, union president Shawn Fain declined to meet with him. “I see no point in meeting with him because I don’t think the man has any bit of care about what our workers stand for, what the working class stands for. He serves a billionaire class and that’s what’s wrong with this country,” said Fain. “I find a pathetic irony that the former president is going to hold a rally for union members at a nonunion business.”

It was, argued Fain, only the latest in a long line of slights to the union and its members.

When UAW members struck General Motors in 2019, during Trump’s first term, there was no presidential visit to the picket line. When GM’s massive Lordstown plant in northeast Ohio closed that same year—as part of a broader set of plant closures and layoffs that shed 14,700 jobs—Trump’s campaign promise to save the plant was broken. And, of course, before the Obama-Biden administration saved the auto industry during the Great Recession, Fain recalled, “[Trump] blamed UAW members. He blamed our contracts for everything that was wrong with these companies. That’s a complete lie.”

“His track record,” added Fain, “speaks for itself.”

And it has never, ever, been a record of solidarity with UAW members in particular, or the American working class in general.

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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