Can Trump give disaffected Americans more than anger and fear?

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Donald Trump at GOP convention can show what he has to offer to struggling Americans
  • The key to his campaign has been appealing to voters frustrated with both parties, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The Republican National Convention in Cleveland will be the moment that the nation will learn whether Donald Trump has anything to promise the millions of disaffected voters he has appealed to, other than anger and fear.

The key to Trump's insurgent campaign against a massive field of Republicans was to appeal to voters who have become frustrated with both parties. He has blasted Republicans for entering into unnecessary wars and pursuing free trade programs that leave millions of Americans without economic security. He has attacked Democrats as a party that fundamentally does not care about the economic well-being of white working and middle class voters who struggle to get by while their party caters to left-wing activists focused on being "politically correct" rather than economically secure.
    Winning over these votes will be absolutely essential to a general election victory. Given that the Electoral College favors Democrats, Trump needs to win more swing states than does Clinton. At the heart of his game plan is to win states such Pennsylvania and Ohio with the conservative populism that has defined him.
    Trump has harkened back to the famous acceptance speech delivered by Richard Nixon at his party convention in 1968. Nixon appealed to the "forgotten Americans" who were not part of the protests and the turmoil.
    "As we look at America," Nixon said, "we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish. Did we come all the way for this?"
    Nixon urged his supporters to listen to "another voice. It is the quiet voice in the tumult and the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans -- the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators ... they give steel to the backbone of America."
    Like Nixon in 1968, Trump has not offered much in terms of what he will actually do to help the forgotten American. He has offered some vague promises about being tougher in dealing with trade, though economists, including those who understand the problems with the free trade agreements, concur that most of his threats against countries such as China would probably only make the situation even more dire for working Americans.
    Many of the specifics have pivoted away from economic policy and turned instead to the politics of fear, another Nixonian move. Trump's campaign started with the promise to erect a massive wall on the Mexican border that would theoretically prevent any more immigrants from entering into the country. This, he says, will save jobs and keep the streets safe. He has called for a ban on Muslims from entering the country (later narrowing down which Muslims he was speaking of). This, he says, will bring back the kind of security that would allow the nation to function effectively once again.
    And in the wake of the killing of five officers in Dallas, Trump has brought back with a vengeance Nixon's "law and order" promises. While Democrats and many fellow Republicans are concerned about criminal justice reform, his tone, calling himself the "law and order candidate," suggests he would expand and strengthen the existing system rather than making any reforms.
    The problem with all of this is that it would do nothing to alleviate the economic challenges that middle class Americans have faced. American workers confront some pretty basic issues: Many secure, well-paying jobs have gone overseas; education and job training have become more expensive and out of reach for many families; the social safety net that prevented the worst-case scenario from happening is no longer as robust; the nation's infrastructure is in need of repair; social mobility is increasingly out of reach.
    The reason that Trump has succeeded against the GOP establishment is that when Nixon invited disaffected Democrats into his party, the Republicans didn't actually solve this basic dilemma either. Over the coming decades Republicans pursued regressive economic policies that often hit working Americans the hardest. The GOP kept those voters in their coalition, as commentators have shown, by talking about cultural and racial issues that papered over the fundamental tension in their coalition. As the conservatives Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam noted, "the Republican Party increasingly depended on mostly white working-class support, even as its policy agenda was increasingly unresponsive to working-class voters' problems and concerns."
    In a recent piece, two New York Times reporters spent some time at a bar in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Dukey's, to understand better the basis of Trump's support. They found workers who were frustrated and anxious about the economic future of their families. Trump's rhetoric resonated with them, as he seemed to be the only candidate listening to their frustration. But the reporters also discovered that immigration and trade actually had nothing to do with the vanishing jobs that were the source of their concern.
    Trump's personal history likewise raises many questions about what he would do once in power. Reporters have uncovered a long trail of unhappy workers -- plumbers, bartenders, waiters, real estate brokers -- and small business owners who reported that Trump hadn't paid them. He has been involved in many lawsuits from people who claim he has stiffed them. (Trump told USA Today that his organization would not pay in full in cases where workers or companies "do a job that's not good, or a job that they didn't finish, or a job that was way late.")
    His selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a practitioner of trickle-down economics and acolyte of the Koch Brothers, should not give American workers much more hope that help is on the way. Pence signed legislation repealing a law that established a prevailing wage for the state's construction projects while defending his predecessor's success at making Indiana a right-to-work state. Pence, who has not been a friend of unions, supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
    Now that Trump has grabbed hold of the GOP, the nation will tune in to see what he has to say about what he will do for them. Voters should listen carefully. Above all else, Trump is a salesman, and his record shows that many of the goods he has peddled have not turned out to be so satisfactory for his customers.