clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

We missed what was so effective about Donald Trump’s campaign speeches

Donald Trump speaking in Virginia Beach in September. Alex Wong/Getty

I’ve started to rewatch Trump rallies from the month before he was elected president. I’ve seen some of them before, but that was always with the presumption he was unlikely to win. Now I watch them trying to figure out how he did it, and how the Democrats can rebuild their economic message out of this mess.

His speeches are full of virulent ethnic nationalism, to be sure — that’s what I noticed during the campaign — but he also has a way of approaching the economy that sabotages Democratic positions effectively, even when those positions are strong.

There was a time I assumed if the Democrats “moved left” they could win over the working class, even those who don’t usually vote. Now I realize that this move is far more complicated than simply getting past neoliberalism. With Trump at the helm of the conservative movement for the foreseeable future, creating effective agendas and messages that hit home will be even harder.

Watching Trump with fresh eyes shows that we need to think more clearly about how Democratic proposals assume people will accede to changing social norms, how to convey to voters that the policies pursued by the rich are a problem, how to have clear messaging, how to deal with trade, and how to deal with questions involving wages and power. I don’t have the answers, certainly not here and now; but getting the questions right is the first step.

Talk about jobs, jobs, and more jobs

Trump talked about jobs. All the time. This gets lost in the coverage, which focused on the inflammatory scandals. Listen:

When I win on November 8, I am going to bring back your jobs. The long nightmare of jobs leaving Michigan will be coming to an end. We will make Michigan the economic envy of the world once again. The political class in Washington has betrayed you. They’ve uprooted your jobs, and your communities, and shipped your wealth all over the world. They put new skyscrapers up in Beijing while your factories in Michigan crumbled. I will end the theft of American prosperity. I will fight for every last Michigan job. Trump, Michigan, October 31, 2016

It’s the first and most consistent thing he discusses. It’s implied that he’s speaking of a specific kind of job, a white, male, breadwinning manufacturing job. He doesn’t discuss “the economy” and how it could work for all, he doesn’t talk about inequality, he doesn’t talk about automation and service work. He just declares that you will have a high-paying manufacturing job when he is president.

So what? Much of the Democratic platform is based on the assumption that most Americans understand that the kind of political economy he’s talking about, a country filled with high-paying manufacturing positions, has been anachronistic for decades. Family leave, child allowances, and universal pre-K acknowledge that we need to look beyond male breadwinners as the core economic unit. Fight for $15 is about turning service work into a decent, secure, working-class life. Efforts to try to disentangle commodities like health care and retirement from employment start from the premise that many people won’t get such benefits from their jobs. Many voters don’t want to hear this.

Lots of voters don’t dislike the rich

Trump never blames the rich for people’s problems. He doesn’t mention corporations, or anything relating to class struggle. His economic enemies are Washington elites, media, other countries, and immigrants. Even when financial elites and corporations do something, they are a combination of pawns and partners of DC elites.

It’s important to watch that trick, it conceals who has agency under runaway inequality. From a June speech in western Pennsylvania: “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization, moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.” The rich buy politicians (and Trump, of course, can’t be bought!) but he doesn’t turn around and denigrate those rich people.

Trump was smart to take this approach. As the University of California Hastings law professor Joan C. Williams noted in an important essay, “the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich.” The WWC doesn’t encounter rich people, but “professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money.”

donald trump on a gold elevator.
The working class is more suspicious of “professionals” and “elites” than the flat-out rich.
Tom Briglia/FilmMagic

Now even if the WWC doesn’t resent the rich, Trump is likely to test that by appointing billionaires and Goldman Sachs alumni to his administration. But there’s a reason his appointments aren’t sounding alarm bells right away, and it has to do with that logic of aspiration. The media could have done a better job of explaining how Trump’s tax plan worked — hint: it’s not populist — but both the media and Democratic establishment failed to appreciate this deeper, consistent message.

We’ll need to do better putting populist energy against the bosses and owners. The mechanical, bloodless algebra of Piketty and income statistics won’t be enough by themselves. We need a story of owners and investment to go with it. We need to talk about monopoly power, and the harms it causes, especially as Trump doesn’t take it up.

Meanwhile, we should feel out our own case against professionals. Tying professionals to commodification, the people who get in the way of needed goods — especially with whatever TrumpCare ends up looking like — might be one way to go.

Policy, policy everywhere, nor any drop to drink

Trump and his team were a mess on campaign discipline. But when it came to the economic platform in his speeches he remained disciplined and clear: He’s going to crush undocumented workers, roll back globalization, and cut taxes and regulations in DC. He has catch phrases and symbols for each (the wall, rip up trade deals, drain the swamp), and it’s easy for his (white) voters to imagine how those line up with a better economic situation for themselves. As I’ve emphasized, this is what policy is, and Trump was fantastic at it.

What were Clinton’s three things to benefit workers? There was policy everywhere, but none of it was clear to voters. An infrastructure deal — though would that even happen and didn’t Obama already try that? Anyway, Trump promised to do it twice as big. After that it wasn’t clear what was a priority.

Stuff that actually would affect workers’ lives was presented in a technocratic and vague way. Clinton spoke of “short-termism” instead of bosses who would rather give money to shareholders than invest in their companies and workers. “Shadow banking” instead of “Wells Fargo was ripping you off and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau stopped it.” I use these terms too — they are useful when talking to other economists — but I’m not running a political campaign.

The sheer volume of Clinton’s small-bore policy proposals blurred out potentially useful items. When a really important fact sheet on fighting monopoly power was released, it got a paragraph 4,000 words into one speech (“As president, I will appoint tough, independent authorities to strengthen anti-trust enforcement and really scrutinize mergers and acquisitions, so the big don’t keep getting bigger and bigger”). It disappeared into a list of her policies, rather than becoming a rallying cry. We need to remember that a narrative of what has happened to workers and how we are going to fix it is more important than covering every potential policy base.

The economists’ way of talking about trade does not translate

Trump is unapologetically against trade that harms American workers. I would have assumed he was fighting a straw man here, but one thing I’ve learned is that a certain class of liberal doesn’t approach job loss from trade with a regrettable sense of the trade-offs, but instead a more absolutist belief that Americans don’t have any claim on the jobs that go away anyway. It’s all for the best, in the long run.

The brilliant economist David Card gave me a useful point here during an interview: The divide among economists on trade is driven by the fact that labor economists study the real effects of unemployment on real people, where trade and macroeconomists treat people as just another commodity. (One of the people who broke the consensus on the effects of trade with China — who highlighted some of the negative effects — was David Autor, a leading labor economist.)

I’d phrase it this way: Are people just like a barrel of oil? In the abstract models of trade economists, commodities like oil will always get sold at some price, they will get to where they need to get to do so, and they’re largely indifferent on the process. Even when commodity markets are off, oil can sit in tankers floating in the ocean waiting out price moves, and it makes no difference to the oil.

Oil doesn’t experience unemployment as the most traumatic thing that can happen to it. Oil moves magically to new opportunities, unlike people who don’t often move at all. A barrel of oil doesn’t beat their kids, abuse drugs, commit suicide, or experiencing declining life expectancy from being battered around in the global marketplace. But people do, and they have, the consequences persist and last, and now they’ve made their voices heard. It’s the dark side of the political theorist Karl Polanyi’s warning against viewing human being as commodities.

For the life of me I don’t know why President Obama spent the summer of 2016 fighting hard for TPP when it was clear it was hurting Hillary Clinton, making her promise to pause trade deals not credible, and giving Trump live ammo. But he did. I don’t know if Trump or the people around him will be smart enough to use trade to split workers away from the Democrats much harder than they have, or if Democrats can come up with a better answer on trade and industrial policy that what they’ve done. But this is a live issue.

Jobs and wages are easier to talk about than transfers and the safety net — for better and worse

Trump also never mentions poverty. And while he talks a lot about reducing taxes, he never talks about increasing transfers, redistribution, or access to core goods. He talks about wages, full stop. He also talks about places. Dying towns that need revitalizing.

Democratic policy centers on poverty and transfers. There are a lot of reasons for this. Obviously, people in poverty are worse off than others, and there are philosophical reasons to want a market system that allows for inequality as long as it benefits the worst-off in society.

But another reason is that you can measure transfers. I’m part of a group that wants to focus on getting wages up (a goal that can be described using the ugly term “predistribution”) as a distinct yet complementary program to redistribution and also something that builds broader power for people. One obstacle I hit is that while getting wages up is a hazy and complicated process, redistribution can be done and measured with clinical precision.

It can also be taken away with that same precision. Trying to reduce “post-tax-and-transfer” inequality, the tactic that the left has been cheering as the way forward, is going to be a major casualty in the next four years — probably the next 10 months even. It will lose out conceptually, since the Trump administration doesn’t think that way at all, and it will lose out practically, as the conservatives destroy transfers and progressive taxation. Getting a clearer strategy and narrative around pushing wages up, and getting a fuller agenda around places left behind, needs to be central to Democratic policy.

Where to go from here?

There are a lot of reasons Clinton lost. There was some made-up wishful thinking in retrospect: Her unfavorables were “priced-in,” I heard, which isn’t a thing. What I haven’t seen an answer for is that for all the money and tech, the pollsters in Brooklyn HQ failed to see that the blue wall was much less safe than projected. Something broke down there and it’s urgent to understand why.

But even without that loss there would have been a need to reboot. As the reporter Ezekiel Kweku writes in an excellent article for MTV News, “The lesson we should draw from Clinton’s loss is not that white supremacy is unbeatable at the polls, but that it’s not going to beat itself.… If the Democratic Party would like to keep more Donald Trumps from winning in the future, they are going to have to take the extraordinary step of doing politics.” Politics is informed by analysis and policy, and though it is clear we need policy to move beyond neoliberalism, that is only the first step. The journey to find this new path is just beginning.

Mike Konczal is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. He blogs at Rortybomb, and his Twitter handle is @rortybomb. A version of this piece appeared on Medium.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.