In the middle of the political food fight that was the ninth Republican presidential debate, the front-runner suddenly abandoned the petty politics of the moment and delivered a message that mattered less to the scramble for South Carolina primary votes and more to the November fight for the battleground states that ring the Great Lakes.
“This country is dying. And our workers are losing their jobs,” Donald Trump declared. Noting the announcement of plans by the air-conditioner company Carrier to transfer production (and 1,400 union jobs) from Indianapolis to Mexico, the billionaire said, “Carrier is moving. And if you saw the [workers]…. They were crying.” Promising a no-more-tears presidency, Trump said he’d renegotiate “trade pacts that are no good for us and no good for our workers” and tell corporations to keep production in the United States or “we’re going to tax you.”
The pundits and political insiders who have missed every other warning sign from the 2016 race missed that one as well. But Trump’s recognition of shuttered plants and crying workers struck Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. “I heard him. I heard exactly what he was saying, and so did the people of Indianapolis and Indiana,” Kaptur said. “So did everyone else who has lost a job to offshoring and outsourcing, or who knows they are just one more trade deal away from losing a job.”
Kaptur, a Democrat who represents a multiethnic, multiracial district stretching from Toledo to Cleveland, has decried Trump’s divisive remarks as shameful deviations from the American promise of “unity, not hatred.” But she cautions Democrats against assuming that the revulsion to Trump’s hateful language and crude politics will immediately disqualify him in the eyes of scared and angry voters in states that have been essential building blocks for Democratic wins in presidential races of recent decades. Kaptur’s not alone in this view.
Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry warns that Trump could win a good many union votes—and perhaps the presidency—if he secures the Republican nod. “I think this is a very dangerous political moment in our country,” said the head of the SEIU, which has endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, during a January discussion of Trump’s appeal. “I think he’s touching this vein of terrible anxiety that working-class people feel about their current status, but more importantly, how terrified they are for their kids not being able to do as well as they have, never mind doing better.” Henry noted that internal polls of union members across the country reveal a “broken sense of the future” and raise the prospect of an emotion-driven election in which it is “easier [to] appeal to fear than to what’s possible.”