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Article / 24 January 2017 at 14:00 GMT

Trump's labour summit is a move to realign US politics

Head of Editorial Content / Saxo Bank

Factory workers
Donald Trump's anti-offshoring, pro-labour message has several big, traditionally Democratic unions cheering their recent meeting with the president. Photo: iStock 

By Michael McKenna

For decades now, the political left in the US has had to content itself with the neoliberalism of Democratic leaders like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton while the right has selected its champions from hawkish, market-centric politicians in the mould of Ronald Reagan.

The election of Donald Trump, as well (to a lesser degree) as the primary success of Bernie Sanders, has changed this. As the National Review – that declining bastion of Reaganite conservatism – said on January 20, Trump’s inauguration speech was not conservative in any traditional US sense. Instead, it was nationalist.

Like European politicians like France’s Marine Le Pen, Germany’s Frauke Petry, and Denmark’s Kristian Thulesen Dahl, Trump’s platform emphasises the well-being of his country’s people at the expense of would-be immigrants, rival nations, and free-market principles alike.

In September 2016, right-wing US radio host Rush Limbaugh said in September 2016, “Trump is not a conservative… conservatism lost in the primary […] we had [Ted] Cruz, we had [Marco] Rubio.” In October, former House Speaker John Boehner concurred, telling Vice News that “[Trump is] not a conservative; he’s barely a Republican”.

Already, president Trump has verbally intervened against pharmaceutical prices and told press (pre-election) that he intends to provide “[health] insurance for everybody”. He has attacked the tax breaks enjoyed by wealthy Americans as well as “sweatshops” and “pollution havens”. In certain ways, and particularly in terms of his non-interventionist foreign policy, Trump ran to Hillary Clinton’s left.

And he won.

Impassioned if inaccurate. Photo: iStock 

On Monday, Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific partnership, a trade deal that enjoyed broad bipartisan support from free-market Republicans and neoliberal Democrats alike. Later that day, the president received an assembly of trade union leaders at the White House in an effort to assure them of his intention to halt the sort of trade deals that harm the US working class.

Participants included North America's Building Trades Unions' president Sean McGarvey, Laborers' International Union of North America president Terry O'Sullivan, SMART sheet metal workers' union president Joseph Sellers, United Brotherhood of Carpenters president Doug McCarron and Mark McManus, president of the United Association that represents plumbers, pipefitters, welders, and others. The union meeting also included several local union officials and follows a gathering of 12 chief executives of large companies at the White House to discuss revitalising the U.S. manufacturing economy.”

While the vast majority of US labour unions supported the Democratic party in the 2016 election, there exists a growing disconnect between the Democrats’ labour wing and the party’s mainstream – a divide made apparent by the lack of partisan consensus on Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the TPP.

In fact, both senators Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown of Ohio praised the president’s decision while Arizona senator and 2008 Republican nominee John McCain called the move “a serious mistake”.

While Trump’s inauguration was followed by massive “Women’s March” protests in Washington and other US cities, as well as capitals across the world, the demonstrations notably lacked any economic bones of contention. 

A survey of photos from the DC event shows an enormous outpouring of support for minority and women’s rights, as well as a groundswell of opposition to Trump’s past statements and general demeanour. It does not, however, show any mass concern over trade policy, workers’ rights, Middle Eastern wars, or the offshoring of manufacturing jobs.

It would appear that the US usage of the term “liberal” is converging with the European one; where the term once connoted a leftist stance stateside, it now signifies an immense concern for identity issues and a tacit acceptance of Blair/Clinton-style “Third Way” neoliberalism.

If Monday’s union summit is any indication, this is a shift that president Trump intends to exploit.

Following the meeting, Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa issued a statement lauding Trump’s taking “the first step toward fixing 30 years of bad trade policies that have cost working Americans millions of good-paying jobs.”

Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions, was similarly bullish after the summit, stating that Trump “intends to do the work on the issues he discussed on the campaign trail;” and adding that the meeting was “by far the best” he has had in the nation’s capital.

According to Reuters, Trump carried 42% of union households compared to 51% for Clinton. Trump’s performance, however, was up from 2012 Republican contender Mitt Romney’s 35% and it appears as if the president is looking to make inroads into this voting bloc.

"The unions largely endorsed Clinton due to a tradition of supporting Democrats," says Saxo Bank head of forex strategy John J Hardy, adding that "[it was] crazy, really, but Clinton was trying to take on the anti-free trade mantle to a degree because of these voters."

Ultimately, however, Hardy says that "unions have narrow interests for their members and think that Trump’s protectionism should be celebrated because it might save jobs... but there is some cognitive dissonance at work here as well, as Trump was elected as a Republican and they haven’t historically been pro-union at all."

Whatever one’s economic or ideological beliefs concerning free trade, the disruptions of globalisation, and the post-crisis decline in breadwinner jobs (the vast majority of the jobs seen in the US’ repeated banner nonfarm payroll prints are part-time, seasonal, contract, or similar positions), the significance of this election was that it began to realign US politics.

It could be argued that both “Third Way” neoliberalism and National Review-style conservatism take significant support from voters who would honestly prefer Sanders-style democratic socialism or Trump (or le Pen et al.)-style nationalism, were it available.

The narrow and controversial victory of Hillary Clinton over Sanders (the leaked Democratic National Committee emails showed clear, high-level favouritism towards Clinton) and Trump’s victory against both his establishment Republican primary rivals and ultimately Clinton show that there is significant street-level support for a socialist/nationalist political spectrum that ignores the ideological pieties of both US-style “liberalism” and “conservatism”. 

As it happened, the conservative wing of the Republican party was defeated in 2016 while the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party was not.

Expect the Trump administration, then, to attack its opposition from both its right and its left.

Donald Trump
"Grab 'em from both sides!" Photo: iStock 

Michael McKenna is an editor at


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