According to a mainstream media myth long believed by intellectuals who ought to know better, Donald Trump rode into the White House on a great upsurge of support from poor, white, working-class voters drawn to the Republican candidate’s populist anti-Wall Street pitch in key deindustrialized battleground states. This conventional Rust Belt rebellion wisdom was proclaimed on the front page of the nation’s newspaper of record, The New York Times, a day after the 2016 election. The Times called Trump’s victory “a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters.” That same day, Times political writer Nate Cohn wrote that “Donald J. Trump won the presidency by riding an enormous wave of support among working-class whites.”
This storyline — repeated ad nauseam and taken for granted in the mainstream media and even in much of the progressive left—is flatly contradicted by credible data. There was no mass white working-class outpouring for Trump in 2016. Slate writers Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr noted weeks after the election: “Donald Trump didn’t flip working-class white voters,” they wrote. “Hillary Clinton lost them. … Relative to the 2012 election, Democratic support in the key Rust Belt states [Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin] collapsed as a huge number of Democrats stayed home or (to a lesser extent) voted for a third party.”
According to the sources cited in Slate’s analysis, the decline in numbers of working-class Democratic voters between 2012 and 2016 was much bigger than the increase of working-class Republican voters in the “Rust Belt Five.” Among those earning less than $50,000 a year in those states, the drop in Democratic voting was 3.5 times greater than the uptick in Republican voting. The party’s long tilt to the corporatist and Wall Street-friendly right, evident under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, explains in part why 45% of the U.S. electorate didn’t bother to vote in 2016. Trump was elected by just a little more than a quarter of the U.S. voting-age population.
Unheeded by leftist and liberal intellectuals who still insist that Trump’s base comprised lower- and working-class white people, Lehigh University political scientist Anthony DiMaggio (an all-too-rare intellectual from the left with a strong grasp of statistics) has been trying for years to tell us that Trump’s 2016 backers weren’t really all that proletarian. While the president’s voters were less formally educated and more likely to work in blue-collar jobs than backers of the arch-corporatist Hillary Clinton, they earned higher household incomes. They were no more likely to face labor market competition through immigration or trade. They were no more likely to be economically disadvantaged and insecure. Areas hit hardest by manufacturing job losses actually were less likely to back Trump.
Yes, Trump opportunistically ripped on “free trade,” Goldman Sachs, Clinton’s six-figure Wall Street speaking honorariums, finance capital’s cherished carried-interest tax break, and even (indirectly) the Koch brothers. In an appeal to the “forgotten working people of our great heartland,” he bemoaned shuttered factories and mills whose closings he blamed on globalist trade agreements.
But as political sociologists David Norton Smith and Eric Hanley argued two years ago, the disproportionately white Trump base was not differentiated from white non-Trump voters by class, other demographic factors (such as income, age, gender and the alleged class identifier of education) or by economic grievances against the wealthy. What set the largely petit-bourgeois Trump supporters apart, Smith and Hanley showed, was their shared allegiance to eight core values and identities: identification as “conservative”; support for “domineering leaders”; Christian fundamentalism; prejudice against immigrants; prejudice against blacks; prejudice against Muslims; prejudice against women; and a sense of pessimism about the economy.
If it’s wrong to see Trump as the product of the white working class and its populist-proletarian rage, it’s equally incorrect to think that Trump rose to power without significant and essential backing from the lords of capital. Trump got a big, indirect capitalist boost from elite corporate and financial Democratic election investors who helped Clinton defeat the populist-progressive Bernie Sanders — who by many indicators stood a better chance against Trump than she did. Those same investors then helped convince Clinton to run a campaign that stayed fatally silent on policy matters of critical significance to working-class voters.
Trump also was backed directly by the ruling class. In the 2016 Republican primaries, Trump was able to leapfrog over the heads of his less wealthy Republican rivals, thanks to disproportionate media attention and to his own fortune — worth $2 billion by The New York Times’ estimation in mid-March of 2016. (A Republican candidate dependent on the usual elite bankrollers would never have been able to get away with Trump’s crowd-pleasing and rating-boosting antics.)
After Trump won the Republican nomination, however, he could no longer go it alone. During the Republican National Convention and in the late summer of 2016, Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen have shown, Trump’s flagging, formerly solo campaign was “rescued by major industries plainly hoping for tariff relief, waves of other billionaires from the far, far right of the already far right Republican Party, and the most disruption-exalting corners of Wall Street.”
The Trump general election campaign relied on “a giant wave of dark money — one that towered over anything in 2016 or even Mitt Romney’s munificently financed 2012 effort — to say nothing of any Russian Facebook experiments.” Along with colossal contributions from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife ($11 million), Sands Casino employees ($20 million) and Silicon Valley executives, Trump garnered a campaign finance torrent from big hedge funds and “large private equity firms, the part of Wall Street which had long championed hostile takeovers.” This critical surge of right-wing cash came after Trump moved to rescue his flagging campaign by handing its direction from the Russia-tainted Paul Manafort to the far more effective white-nationalist Breitbart executive Steve Bannon. Bannon was strongly connected to the eccentric, right-wing, hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who poured a vast sum – $26 million (making him Trump’s third-largest backer) – into the Trump campaign.
Along with the racist voter suppression carried out by Koch-backed Republican state governments and the geographic advantage afforded Republican candidates by the Electoral College, this late-season influx of hard-right election investing tilted the election Trump’s way.
Another key source of support was, of course, Fox News, a critical hard-right, capitalist, propaganda asset owned by right-wing Australian multibillionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
It wasn’t for nothing that David Koch stood, in author Jane Mayer’s words, “with a jubilant smile amid the throngs of revelers at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan” on the night of Trump’s election. Adelson, Mercer, Murdoch and other right-wing oligarchs, including the Koch brothers, appreciated how Trump’s faux-populist campaign promoted a hard-right variant of the extreme neoliberal nostrums they’d long advanced in the name of the “free market.” Trump’s economic plan to “make America great again” and “create 25 million new jobs” was simple and straightforward: massive tax cuts, a simplification of the tax code, a vast reduction in government spending, a rollback of “excessive regulation,” the scrapping of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and expanded oil and gas drilling. With the exceptions of his tariff-mongering and immigrant-bashing (which the Kochs and Mercer likely expected to fade once they placed their people in the new administration), Trump’s economic platform was lifted right out of the neoliberal playbook. While candidate Trump might have promised to smite elites, his proposals, in Mayer’s words, “threatened instead to enshrine a permanent aristocracy in America … [the Kochs] … stood to benefit to an extent that dwarfed earlier administrations, as did many other billionaires.”
Trump has shown that he understands who his real and most powerful base is—the billionaire class—ever since his election. His transition team and inaugural committee swarmed with right-wing oligarchs and their lobbyists. The president spends evening hours conferring by telephone not with MAGA hat-wearing proles but with fellow right-wing billionaires and multimillionaires—the only class of people he really respects. As he rips up regulations, lets key federal agencies wither and staffs top government posts with right-wing oligarchs and their toadies—consistent with Bannon’s call for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” — the real winners under Trump have been the economic elite. These are the leading beneficiaries of Trump’s effort to introduce what leftist economist Jack Rasmus calls “a more virulent form of neoliberalism,” replete with a pronounced assault on democracy and a drift toward tyranny. Journalist Thomas Meaney notes that Trump as president has “fed the richest in society in the currency they prefer — dollars — and fed his fans lower down with a temporarily effective substitute — recognition.” As David Masciotra writes at Salon, “The acknowledgement and solace Trump provides for the insecurities and prejudices of the little-red-hat boys conceals the true beneficiaries of his presidency. … [Trump’s] socialistic giveaway [tax cut] to the wealthy has cost America $1.9 trillion. For that same staggering sum of money, the Trump administration could have forgiven all outstanding student debt, created a system of affordable child care for working parents, and eliminated tuition at community colleges. … Corporations that profit in the hundreds of million, including FedEx, General Electric and Netflix, pay no taxes under Trump’s plan, while 10 million Americans of average means … saw their tax bills increase.”
Like Trump or not, many in the upper bourgeoisie are contributing to his record-setting campaign finance take (up to a Darth Vader-like $253 million by end of January, more than half from large donors). Trump’s war chest is stocked by big money super-PACS —America First Action, Future45, Great America PAC, Rebuild America Now and The Committee to Defend the President—funneling cash to the grand cause of keeping “the most dangerous criminal in human history” in the world’s most powerful position.
If the lords of capital were seriously concerned by the demented president’s fascistic conduct—replete with regular racist hate rallies, open flirtation with political violence, not-so-veiled threats to resist a 2020 electoral outcome that doesn’t go his way, and the granting of pardons to sociopathic war criminals—they could collapse his presidency with ruling-class weapons they will employ with zeal should Sanders somehow defy the odds and attain the presidency: capital strike and a constant propaganda war claiming that the administration was crippling prosperity.
Expressing sentiments common across the commanding heights of the investor class, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, a lifelong Democrat, has voiced preference for the neofascist Trump over Sanders, a moderate social democrat advancing policies that qualify as centrist in capitalist western and northern Europe. The corporate-captive Democratic Party’s openly authoritarian, Wall Street-friendly superdelegates are ready to hand Trump a second term by “super”-voting in the Democratic National Convention’s second ballot to deny Sanders their party’s nomination, even if he comes to the convention with a large plurality of primary delegates. Deep-sixing the highly popular, progressive senator at the convention will likely wreck the party, crippling it for the general election—a risk the superdelegates are perfectly willing to take.
So what if Trump is, in Chomsky’s words, “dedicated with fervor to destroying the prospects of organized human life on Earth in the not-distant future (along with millions of other species)”?
And so what if another corporate-neoliberal Democratic presidency in the Clinton-Obama-Biden-Buttigieg-Bloomberg-Council on Foreign Relations-Center for American Progress mode would (if Biden or Bloomberg could somehow defeat a possibly recession-plagued Trump) birth a 2025 Republican presidency even more fascistic than Trump’s? The oligarchs don’t care. They’ll work out a comfortable accommodation with that monster, too.