“You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.”
That’s how Donald Trump described the Republican Party he imagines in five or 10 years, during an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green.
The phrase “workers’ party” is a striking one, since it conjures first and foremost the socialist parties of the 20th century. Does Comrade Trump mean to say that he intends to establish soviets and collective ownership? Of course not, although this sort of language—both the denotative reference to a “workers’ party” and the connotation of an empowered blue-collar class—go a long way to explaining why so many wealthy Republicans were slow to rally around Trump, or are still resisting. A party that has long prized lower taxes, a reduced social-safety net, and smaller government above all else is being asked to rally around a candidate willing to describe himself as leading a blue-collar workers’ movement.
Even so, the suggestion is intriguing: How much does Trumpism have in common with workers’ parties? On the big question—capitalism or collectivism?—Trump obviously stands opposed to the socialists. But move past that and there are some agreements on policy.
Domestically, for example, many of the U.S. parties that called themselves “workers’ parties” have pursued programs of strong social-safety nets; heavy infrastructure investment; protectionism for American workers; and minimum-wage laws. Moreover, they rail against a corrupt and oppressive elite class that pulls the strings.
All of this, of course, sounds familiar to anyone who’s been watching Trump. “The state or government is thus the political instrument through which the owning class exercises and maintains its power and suppresses the working class,” the Workers’ Party of the U.S. charged in 1935.
“They will do anything to maintain their power. They will do anything. They will say anything. They will spend whatever it takes because they know that if Donald Trump becomes the nominee and ultimately the president of the United States, the days of backroom deals are over. He will only be responsible to the American people,” Trump aide Corey Lewandowski says today. Trump’s talking point is dubious—he himself is an elite, with a long record of exploiting vulnerable workers—but its resonance is real.
Trump has waffled on whether he’d support a higher minimum wage, to the point where it’s impossible to tell what he’d really back (although with a Congress dominated by the Republican Party of today, rather than the one Trump envisions in a decade, any increase would likely be dead on arrival). But he’s argued strongly for infrastructure investment. “We've spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people,” Trump said in December. “If we could've spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems—our airports and all of the other problems we've had—we would've been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.”
And he’s been a strong proponent of current social-insurance programs, perhaps the point that puts him most strongly at odds with the Republican Party as it exists now. “What I want to do, I think cutting Social Security is a big mistake for the Republican Party,” Trump told Green. “And I know it’s a big part of the budget. Cutting it the wrong way is a big mistake, and even cutting it [at all].”
While Trump doesn’t espouse the radical racial equality of American workers’ parties of the past, the way he speaks about black voters is similar. “The Negroes compose the most exploited and persecuted section of the population of this country,” argued the Workers Party of the U.S., prescribing better economic circumstances as a cure. Trump echoes this, from his two-dimensional view of minorities as essentially concerned about economic well-being and employment to his (now-)archaic use of a definite article: “The African Americans want jobs. If you look at what's going on, they want jobs.”
Globally, Trumpism does not share the goal of international socialist revolution—but, once again, get past that and there are echoes. Above all, the two movements share a deep skepticism of American military involvement and entanglements overseas.
“The economy and politics of the United States depend more and more upon crises, wars and revolutions in all parts of the world,” the Workers Party of the U.S. contended. Today, Trump argues (likely implausibly, but so be it) that he would slash U.S. defense spending, even as he made the military stronger. While Trump’s claim that he opposed the Iraq war before it began has been debunked, his argument about the important of rebuilding infrastructure at home rather than rebuilding nations overseas is essentially anti-imperial. And Trump has expressed deep misgivings about American spending on military alliances like NATO or on behalf of allies, both of which would qualify as imperialist projects under the old rubric.
What else does Trump share with socialist movements of the early- to mid-20th century? While some, like the Socialist Party, demanded “absolute freedom of press,” others expressed skepticism of independent media, and socialist governments ran the press as a tool of party speech. Trump has tried to cut off unfriendly outlets from covering him, and repeatedly called for stricter libel laws as a muzzle on independent coverage. Meanwhile, Trump’s harsh attacks on rivals within the Republican Party (and even former rivals—on Wednesday, he mocked Rick Perry, who has fervently endorsed him) recall the fierce internecine factional battles of the socialist movement.
All this said, Trump’s opposition to collective ownership and global socialist revolution are significant deviations from what one expects from a true “workers’ party.” But his clever use of class grievance, decoupled from class revolution, as a tool of political gain is reminiscent of other political parties, particularly European “welfare chauvinism” movements. The connection between Trumpism and the Marine LePen-led National Front in France has been remarked upon before. Both are supported by swathes of blue-collar workers, many of whom live in rural areas. They are skeptical of foreigners and oppose immigration. They don’t like the nation being beholden to global obligations like the European Union. But they have no truck with small government, and no ideological obsession with reducing government “dependence.” Instead, they want to keep or strengthen the welfare state as it exists—simply making sure that only the right people are able to benefit from it.
One reason that these European parties have sometimes been regarded with suspicion is that continent’s troubled history of self-proclaimed workers’ parties that blend socialism and nationalism. In America, by contrast, such movements have been somewhat less common.
Nonetheless, there is one party that might fit some of these boxes: Identification as a workers’ party. Opposition to free trade. Anger at empowered elites. Against immigration. Focusing on an “America first” foreign policy. Driven, like Trumpism, by racial resentment, rather than aggressive racial equality. It’s called the Traditionalist Workers Party, and it’s relatively new. Trump might rather steer clear of the TWP, though—it’s been described as a hate or neo-Nazi group, and its invocation of “folk” certainly sets off alarm bells for many people. Perhaps not all, though. Trump has been rather coy about running white nationalists out of his camp before.