The economy is going full-steam and unemployment is down. Wages have even risen since President Trump took office.
As Josh Bivens, director of research at the Economic Policy Institute, recently noted, wage growth (adjusted for inflation) steadily increased by about 2 percent in the years following the Great Recession, but then accelerated in 2018, rising from 2.8 percent to 3.3 percent, although it’s lost momentum in the past six months — down to 3.1 percent.
Still, have the fundamentals of a rising wealth gap and increased precarity at the bottom and middle of the economic ladder really changed since Trump took office? For that matter, have the fundamentals really changed at any time since the steady march of neoliberalism began with Reagan in the 1980s? The “forgotten men and women” in the working-class flank of Trump’s base, drunk on identity politics and hatred of liberals, seem to not be too bent out of shape if they’re feeling any economic pain.
For that matter, Trump is himself more focused on stoking division by questioning the patriotism of the Democratic freshman “squad” while amplifying his 2018 “invasion” theme with a vigorous Facebook ad campaign, expending minimal rhetoric on jobs and the economy in contrast.
The prospects of coal — to pick one traditional industry championed by then-candidate Trump — have played out in a less than winning fashion.
“And you watch what happens,” Trump crowed as he was sewing up the Republican nomination during a May 2016 visit to Charleston, W.Va. “If I win, we’re gonna bring those miners back. You’re gonna be so proud of your president. You’re gonna be so proud of your country.”
For the third week, coalminers in Kentucky are blocking a rail line to prevent their former employer, Blackjewel LLC, from moving their product after learning that the company had declared bankruptcy and had cut off their pay. The company cited “a combination of declining commodity prices, reduced demand for thermal and metallurgical coal, and increased oversight and costs associated with regulatory compliance” as factors in its bankruptcy filing, according to a recent report by Time. The statement continues, “The entire US mining complex has been impacted by these events. A growing number of peers have filed for bankruptcy over the course of the past 5+ years. The entire industry either has gone through, or is currently going through, a period of financial distress and reorganization.”
Responding to appeals from the coalminers in Kentucky, the Trump administration ironically turned to an Obama-era provision known as “hot goods” to ensure that the employer pays off its employees first, as Newsweek reported on Aug. 9.
While deploying a stop-gap measure to prevent the Blackjewel miners from financial hemorrhage, Trump’s labor philosophy can be seen in his choice to fill the top position at the Department of Labor. The position was vacant after the resignation of Alex Acosta, who was forced out in mid-July amid concerns that in his former position as a US attorney he approved a sweetheart deal for the multimillionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The man Trump is appointing to replace Acosta is Eugene Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. As described by Nicholas Kristof in the Sunday New York Times, Scalia “has fought unions on behalf of Walmart and other companies,” and “is a talented and experienced litigator who upon assuming office will be in a position to disembowel labor.”
And yet, for all his many faults, Trump has complicated the path for Democratic challengers in 2020 by tacking to the left on trade while veering to the hard right through white-nationalist appeals to racial, xenophobic and religious bigotry.
For decades, progressive Democratic politicians like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown have pleaded for fair trade deals to protect US workers while the party’s leadership worked across the aisle with Republican counterparts to promote corporate-led globalization. The Democratic Party’s failure after two decades to look after the interests of its working-class base opened a door that Trump walked through in 2016.
Trump’s tariff war with China, Ana Swanson reports on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, “has put Democrats in an awkward spot. They are trying to differentiate themselves from Mr. Trump — without ceding their position as the party that will do the most to defend workers against the downsides of globalization.”
The article goes on to say that Trump’s renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement is largely an update of the original pact, but does include “some provisions that Democrats have long favored, like higher requirements for using American materials to make cars and rollback of a special system of arbitration for corporations.”
The Democratic Party is still fighting a civil war between free traders — embodied by Joe Biden, who voted for the original NAFTA — and fair traders, whose banner is now held aloft by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Maybe there’s an opening for Democrats in supporting policies that limit trade agreements to countries with strong labor and environmental protections.
“Unlike the insiders,” Warren said during a recent debate, “I don’t think ‘free trade’ deals that benefit big multinational corporations and international capital at the expense of American workers are good simply because they open up markets.”