Champion of the ‘Little Guy’? Trump’s Actions Tell Another Story
Posted December 17, 2017 6:40 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump rarely misses a chance to offer himself up as the champion of “forgotten” Americans, men and women who feel ignored or derided by elites and believe, as he frequently says, that the “system is rigged” against them.
“You will never be ignored again,” he said this month at a campaign-style rally in Pensacola, Florida, a phrase that became the banner headline the next morning in the local newspaper.
But this week, the president hopes to sign with great fanfare a tax bill that would deliver its largest benefits, not only in dollar terms but also as a percentage increase in income, to corporations and the wealthiest Americans. His own family stands to gain from tax breaks maintained or extended for corporate real estate ventures, and his heirs have reason to celebrate the doubling of the exemption from estate taxes: Under the bill, the Trump children and grandchildren could inherit $22 million tax free, though they would have benefited more from a cut in the estate tax rate or an abolition of the tax altogether.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission, led by Trump’s pick as chairman, Ajit Pai, reversed the Obama-era policy known as net neutrality, over the objections of consumer groups and owners of small internet businesses, who fear that without the protection, giant internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon will charge internet companies for offering “fast-lane” speeds, slow down the content of companies that do not pay or even block them. Consumers could be charged variable rates for internet access, depending on which websites they visit. In the coming weeks, the Education Department plans to roll back protections for college graduates saddled with student debt from sham for-profit universities. And in the opening months of his presidency, Trump signed congressional resolutions permanently reversing rules that would have required companies seeking significant federal contracts to disclose violations of labor standards, and would have required oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments in exchange for access to drilling or mining rights.
By reversing one rule, the administration impeded states from establishing retirement programsfor private-sector workers whose employers do not offer a retirement plan. Another rule that was eliminated would have required retirement planners to agree that financial advice had the client’s best interest at heart, not the investment company’s.
“If you want to call yourself a populist, you better be ready to stick up for the little guy, whether she punches a time sheet or swipes a badge, makes a salary or earns tips, whether he works behind a desk, on a factory floor, or behind a restaurant counter,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “Because populism is for the people — not these people, or those people, but all people.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, pushed back on the criticism, pointing to economic gains in the last year as evidence that Trump had helped ordinary Americans.
“It’s been a great year for the American economy and the American labor that powers it, with pensions up 39 percent and nearly 160,000 manufacturing jobs added since the president took office,” she said.
“President Trump has been focused on the American worker since the very first days of his administration, during which he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed an executive order promoting domestic manufacturing in pipeline construction and stopped the previous administration’s job-killing regulatory overreach in its tracks.”
And the views of Trump among his stalwart supporters are not likely to be altered by in-the-weeds regulatory rollbacks, or even tax breaks that benefit the wealthy. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that while “elites” in places like Washington might find dissonance between what Trump says and does, his supporters are most likely viewing him primarily through the lens of a steadily improving economy.
“There’s a difference between the world that elites live in, the world in which they pay close attention to news and are highly attuned to the political discussion, and the rest of the country,” she said. “The Trump voter is going to be saying: ‘When I see my paycheck, am I going to see more money or less money in it? Are my neighbors employed or unemployed? Are my children getting jobs?'”
They will not, she said, be debating the nuances of net neutrality or the arcana of the tax code.
The tax bill could ultimately make a political difference. Millions of middle-class taxpayers are likely to see their taxes go up, though the typical middle-class taxpayer would see a tax cut next year. And the structure of the tax cut tends to favor owners of businesses over drawers of paychecks. While the tax cuts for corporations would be permanent, those for individuals carry an expiration date. Special interests preserved numerous tax breaks and carved out new ones.
Trump continues to say that the bill would hurt the wealthy and offer an enormous lift to ordinary Americans, saying on Twitter Sunday: “As a candidate, I promised we would pass a massive TAX CUT for the everyday working American families who are the backbone and the heartbeat of our country. Now, we are just days away.”
If economic growth, buoyed by the corporate tax cut, does show up in workers’ paychecks, he could be vindicated. If not, a tax cut that polling indicates is already unpopular might become even more so. Other elements of Trump’s economic message may also be subject to reality checks. The president has often talked of how he loves “clean, beautiful coal” and the miners who unearth it, pointing to them as a ready exemplar of his working-class sympathies. “I’m going to put the miners back to work,” he said last year in Charleston, West Virginia, before donning a hard hat.
Trump said this year that his effort to revive the industry by clearing away regulations had helped produce 45,000 mining jobs. But the Labor Department reported in November that the country had gained just 1,500 coal mining jobs over the previous year, after losing tens of thousands in recent years.
Just a week ago, an official for the United Mine Workers union said 260 workers would lose their jobs at a mine in northern West Virginia.
On Thursday, Trump congratulated billionaire Rupert Murdoch on his deal to sell most of 21st Century Fox to the Walt Disney Co. While it will be a financial boon to Murdoch, analysts say the deal could lead to hundreds of job losses.
The same day, the president showcased what he called the “most far-reaching regulatory reform” in U.S. history. His deregulatory efforts have been cheered by businesses, and economic indicators have shown increased business confidence, but environmental groups and consumer advocates say the rollback has left Americans with fewer protections.
Being the champion of the “little guy” is a staple of presidential rhetoric, and wealthy occupants of the Oval Office like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy have used it to great effect. But Trump has taken it to a new level, and Democrats have been quick to note that there is little in his background to suggest any basis for empathy for those who live paycheck to paycheck.
“Unfortunately, all too often the president has broken the promises he made to Ohio workers on the campaign and thrown in with Mitch McConnell to cut backroom deals for Washington special interests,” Brown, the senator, said in an emailed response to questions. Jamieson said such criticism might not stick — no matter what happens to the economy.
“When he doesn’t succeed, he has what I call universal rebuttal,” Jamieson said. “It works everywhere: ‘I tried. The rigged system did me in.'”
“The core of the Trump appeal was to say to people who didn’t have a voice, ‘I am voicing your anger,'” she added. “And to those who didn’t know who to blame, ‘here’s who to blame, and in a rigged system I will take on your enemies.'”
Trump’s campaign-style rallies, like the one in Pensacola, are packed with supporters who sign up for tickets in advance, and he rarely hears dissident voices. He knows his audience, and he almost always returns to the theme of being the guardian of the working class.
But others see a yawning gap between the emerging list of winners in the Trump era and the little guy he pledged to help.
Mike Walden, a retired Teamster from Ohio who drove a truck for more than 30 years, visited Washington this past week to try to lobby for pension security. He did not vote for Trump, but has voted for Republicans like his home-state senator Rob Portman. The president, he said, has done little to help the workers in his union.
“He got elected to the office of president because he talked about the issues of the working man and labor,” Walden said. “We have not heard one word from him about that.
“Where is this ‘I am for the working man’? I don’t see anything there,” Walden said, adding: “What has he done for the working man? I am not totally against him. He’s president of the United States. But on the same hand, you don’t get elected by the working class and then throw them under the bus.”