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Trump’s Sham Populism

One year ago, he was celebrating saving more than 1,000 Carrier plant jobs. How quickly things change.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

It was Donald Trump’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. Trump had been elected on the back of a right-wing populist surge, and he arrived at the Carrier plant on November 30, 2016, to declare victory for the 1,100 workers at the Indianapolis furnace manufacturer. Their jobs would not be going to Mexico, he told them. They were saved.

“A lot of people took him at his word,” said Quinton Franklin, who worked at the Carrier plant until his layoff this summer. He was one of more than 600 Carrier workers who lost their jobs despite Trump’s deal with United Technologies to keep the plant open in exchange for millions of dollars in tax breaks. “President Trump came in and made our pain into his presidential stump speech,” Franklin said.

In retrospect, Trump’s “Mission Accomplished” moment looks as premature as George W. Bush’s appearance on that aircraft carrier. What appeared to be a genuine, if deeply flawed, shift in direction for Republican Party politics has been entirely abandoned. On the anniversary of the Carrier deal, Trump’s party was scrambling to put together a $6 trillion tax cut for the rich paid for by $4.5 trillion in tax increases for everyone else. And all of Trump’s promises to stop outsourcing have had no effect. Instead, according to a new report by Good Jobs Nation, 93,449 jobs have been certified by the Department of Labor as lost to trade competition or corporate outsourcing—higher than the average rate of loss for the preceding five years.

The Carrier deal worked not because of the state tax breaks handed to the company, as Chuck Jones of United Steelworkers Local 1999 and other union members stressed to me last March in Indianapolis. It worked because Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies, is a major government contractor. The state tax breaks given by then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence could have been handed out earlier, Jones said. Instead, when the news first broke that Carrier was closing its plant and moving production of the furnaces made there to Mexico, Pence argued that there was nothing he could do: The company had had its hand forced by the Obama administration’s “regulations.”

But as a recipient of over $5 billion in federal contracts—by CEO Greg Hayes’s own admission, some 10 percent of the company’s revenue—United Technologies had to consider things a little bit differently when dealing with the federal government. It was inclined to give the president a win, even if, as Jones acidly noted, the deal wasn’t what it was promised to be.

Good Jobs Nation, a union-backed labor organization, has centered its campaign on those federal contractors for just this reason. One of its biggest successes was an executive order from President Obama in 2014 requiring businesses seeking federal contract dollars to disclose their previous safety, wage, and discrimination violations. Trump could stop paying tax dollars to companies that slash jobs, Good Jobs Nation argues, with a similar stroke of his pen. But Trump cheerily signed the repeal of Obama’s executive order—notably, fast-tracked through Congress via the Congressional Review Act, designed to overturn regulations from late in the previous presidential administration.

Despite campaign promises to be different from the rest of the Republican Party, despite threats to use every power he had to keep jobs in the United States and “make America great again,” Trump has proved to be perfectly in line with Republican orthodoxy on this front and uninterested in the realities of the workers facing layoffs. And federal contractors are outsourcing more than ever—over 10,000 of the 93,000 jobs outsourced have been from federal contractors, and nearly 7,000 of them from just three: General Motors, Boeing, and United Technologies.

This is the point when some readers are probably sneering that Trump’s supporters should have known better. But when you’re facing an hourly wage cut of $6 or more, as Quinton Franklin did, you would be glad that anyone was paying attention at all. The feeling that went through the Carrier workers after hearing that hundreds of them would still be laid off was betrayal.

Workers like Franklin have been told over and over that they need to move on, that they are going to have to learn new skills, to adapt. But most of the workers I spoke with this year aren’t longing for long days standing at machines in a plant that is freezing in winter and boiling hot in the summer. It’s the wages, bluntly, that matter. I asked workers at Carrier and Rexnord (the plant down the street that closed down without a peep from Trump—or, as Rexnord worker Gary Canter put it, a tweet) what they would like to do for a living if money wasn’t an object. The answers varied, but they always circled around to the same conclusion: Money is, in fact, the issue.

A year after the Carrier deal, there is a national outcry over a tax bill that slashes the corporate tax rate for companies like United Technologies from 35 percent to 20 percent, that cuts taxes for multimillionaires like Greg Hayes, and that incentivizes, according to economist Jared Bernstein and others, more outsourcing. The bill pays for some of its giveaways with an increase on working people here, a tweak there. But it also simply cuts, leaving space for Republicans, later, to throw up their hands and insist they have no choice but to cut Social Security and Medicare. This has been, of course, the plan all along for most of the party, Trump’s campaign-trail promises notwithstanding.

On the Good Jobs Nation call to reporters, Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota warned that the corporations getting tax cuts are already flush with cash, and that Trump has already been crowing about the stock market’s record highs. There is no indication that with just a little bit more tax money in their pockets these companies will create jobs or pay their workers more. In fact there’s every indication that they’ll simply pocket the profits or pay out shareholders. This should be the moment that Democratic elected officials are shouting from the rooftops that Trump is stealing from the poor to give to the rich, that all of his pretenses to be a different kind of Republican were lies.

We’ve seen some of that, but we’ve also seen Democrats praising Ronald Reagan, the archetypal tax-slasher, and bemoaning the lack of bipartisan compromise. Too many Democrats are hemming and hawing about process, perhaps worried that a full-throated outcry will hurt them with their beloved suburban voters even as their constituents chain themselves to office doors in outrage.

Good Jobs Nation is calling for an executive order to halt offshoring by federal contractors. But since Trump repealed the last order tightening requirements on companies that get federal funds, it’s unlikely that he’ll have a change of heart now. As they head toward the 2018 midterms, politicians should be thinking long and hard about their response to the GOP’s tax cuts, continuing job losses, and the accelerating shift of wealth upward. The Quinton Franklins of this world, looking for new jobs that pay a fraction of what the old ones did, want some material change in the conditions of their lives. That means wage increases, not Reaganesque trickle-down tax cuts, and it means thinking about policies that really protect people if their jobs disappear. It means understanding the anger and betrayal that many people feel right now, and figuring out how to put it not just into words, but into law.