Much of the liberal commentary on Donald Trump’s State of the Union address a few days ago has focused on the outright lies he made, especially his saying that his administration was promoting the interest of people with pre-existing conditions from the medical insurance companies seeking to disqualify them. Yes, he lied, and he lied about undocumented immigrants being mainly “criminal aliens” and sanctuary cities as harboring criminals.
But where it counted for him, he told the truth. He began his speech with the state of the economy, and here he engaged in the usual exaggeration. But amidst those exaggerations were truths directed at the people who made him president, the white working class in the Rust Belt who accounted for the 79,000-plus votes that put him over the top against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
He said during the 2016 campaign that he would take the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He did. He said he would scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He renegotiated it to brazenly benefit the United States. He said he would stand up to China, which he said was stealing American jobs and technology. He could point to his initiating a trade war with Beijing as a fulfilment of that promise.
Whether or not those acts will actually benefit the Rust Belt will long be a subject of debate. Neoliberals will continue to hold that, according to their theory, “on balance” or “in the long run,” the “aggregate data” will indicate a “loss” for the United States. But that is not what matters for those workers who deserted to Trump or stayed at home on election day in 2016.
What matters is that Trump stuck to his promises on reversing those policies that they felt were responsible for their loss of jobs or income. And to remind them that he kept the faith and that he expected them to keep the faith in return, he even mentioned some of the states by name in the course of the speech: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
There’s much theorizing out there that Trump’s social media disinformation machine brought him victory in 2016 and will bring him victory again in 2020. Sure, the machine blasted out and is blasting out the lies non-stop. But hey, people are not stupid. The workers in those states will probably take the rest of the speech with a grain of salt, but their key takeaway will be Trump’s reminding them he kept the faith on the TPP, NAFTA, jobs, and China.
In the coming elections, the Democrats will again win the popular vote, perhaps by an even wider margin this time, despite the Trump disinformation machine. But the final outcome will again hinge on the Electoral College vote. With the blue state/red state divide remaining firm when it comes to most states, the 2020 elections will again turn on the swing states of the Mid-West, on the white working class in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other Rust Belt states.
They’ve had four years to work on it, but Democrats still have absolutely no strategy to counter Trump’s triumphalist message to the workers in those states that deserted their traditional party of choice in 2016. They have to get their act together, or it’s four more years of Trump insanity.