Champion of the working class? Candidate’s record suggests otherwise

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected].

By Eric Mink

The idea of Donald Trump as a crusading standard bearer for ordinary Americans — working class and middle class folks justifiably fed up with getting the short end of America’s economic stick — has always struck me as odd, almost to the point of absurdity.

It’s not just that Trump came to this unlikely position as a beneficiary of family money that greased his way into the privileged ranks of elite wealth, although — in the absence of independent verification — perhaps not quite at the elite-iest levels of which he boasts.

It’s not even that wealth has backstopped this New-York-based member of the economic elite from the worst consequences of the kinds of bad business decisions and just plain bad luck that ruin thousands of enterprising and hard-working American families every year.

No, the puzzling peculiarity of Trump as an enthusiastic champion of the working man (and the working woman, so long as she’s pretty enough and not too overweight) is that it seems to have materialized only as a function of his candidacy for president.

There’s no indication that decades of increasing disparity between Americans at the top and bottom of the wealth and income scales was an issue Trump worried about or worked to change.

There’s no indication of concern that the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2008 (almost a Great Depression) saw wealthy Americans recover much of the value of their investments relatively quickly, even as ordinary Americans are still struggling to benefit from broadly improved economic conditions. Indeed, in the most extreme cases, working-class and middle-class families saw what little wealth they had scraped together over a lifetime of work wiped out, while a frayed safety net left them unprotected from the ravages of debt, the disappearance of job security, the terrifying possibility of serious illness with insufficient health insurance and much much more.

And although various Trump business ventures naturally took advantage of the benefits of the international trade deals and globalization to make goods overseas with cheaper labor, it’s difficult to find any regrets expressed by Trump prior to his political run.

It’s true that trade deals have produced undeniable benefits for American consumers, workers and corporate entities in some economic sectors. But they also have killed off other domestic industries and the jobs they provided, while still enriching managements and shareholders. The shortage of meaningful help for workers displaced by these deals — including financial support, education opportunities and re-training programs — has only exacerbated the damage.

Both Trump and Hillary Clinton have vowed to work to correct these problems if elected, but the issues go well beyond the trade deals.

The disappearance of American manufacturing jobs, for example, also is a result of sophisticated computerized processes that are not going to be un-invented. The interests of workers also have been pushed aside by corporations, industry trade groups, highly specialized law firms and conservative elected officials who have been waging a systematic and often successful war against organized labor and its ability to protect the workforce.

Figuring out how to deal with these and other factors to improve the lives of working class and middle-class Americans is a complex challenge with scads of interconnecting pieces. Simplistic slogans notwithstanding, talk is cheap, and Americans have had enough of it.

We can judge career public servants by their track records. They can explain what and why they did or didn’t do and detail how they succeeded or failed and what they learned from their mistakes. Clinton, for example, has been working in public service for most of her adult life, both in government and in the private sector, and has plenty to explain and, in some cases, plenty to answer for.

But Trump is an alien to service, public or private, with no record to judge. On top of that, Trump doesn’t really do complexity. He can coin a nasty nickname and a coded racial, ethnic or gender slur with the best of them, but he knows very little about almost everything and has shown little interest in or curiosity about learning more.

What Trump does have, though, is a record of business dealings of sorts with ordinary people in the working-and-middle classes, people often in moments of financial crisis and desperation who became convinced that Trump had something to offer that might help them. The record isn’t pretty. 

Trump University, for example — now out of business — was actually a for-profit, real-estate seminar series. Trump, who owned 93 percent of the company, did promotional videos touting its services.

But former students and managers have filed class-action lawsuits against Trump in California, charging that the venture defrauded them and that managers were trained to exploit emotional vulnerabilities to get students to pay $35,000 and up for seminars they couldn’t afford. They were urged to get into debt and, according to testimony, were pressured to file positive evaluations of instructors who had no real estate experience at all.

New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, has filed a similar lawsuit, calling Trump University a “sham for-profit college” that “defrauded more than 5,000 students out of millions of dollars.” Trump lawyers deny the accusations in both states.

Trump Institute, a similar venture that Trump did not own but to which he licensed the use his name, was run by Irene and Mike Milin, whose projects had run afoul of consumer protection regulations and fraud statutes in states all across the country. According to an investigation by the New York Times, the attorneys general of 33 states went to the Federal Trade Commission in 2007 and accused the Milins of deceptive trade practices.

And as Trump’s Atlantic City casino businesses were headed for bankruptcy in the 1990s and 2000s, he extracted millions of dollars in personal payments while investors eventually suffered a $1.5 billon loss and, according to Associated Press reporting, small area contracting businesses were left holding the bag for millions of dollars’ worth of work they’d done for Trump. Some lost so much money that they were forced out of business, while others and their workers received pennies on the dollar for the work they’d done. Trump still brags about how much money he made in Atlantic City.

Some working-class and middle-class Americans may see Trump as their champion. But Trump University and Trump Institute, among other ventures, targeted these very people: ordinary folks, working class and middle class, who were seeking to better themselves. And the colossal mismanagement of his Atlantic City holdings hurt small local businesses and their workers, sometimes severely.

American voters can decide for themselves how likely it is, based on his track record, that Trump will have their financial interests at heart.