Wake up: Trump isn't a real populist

Working-class whites give Trump the White House
Working-class whites give Trump the White House

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Story highlights

  • This week Trump appointed Andrew Puzder, a fast food executive who has railed against workers, to be Secretary of Labor
  • Julian Zelizer: Despite campaigning as a populist, Trump shows he is friendly to big business and hostile to blue-collar workers
  • But as a great showman, Trump will manipulate those workers to believe he is actually acting on their behalf, writes Zelizer

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." He also is the co-host of the podcast Politics & Polls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Donald Trump has unleashed a fierce war against organized labor. Anyone who bought into his populist rhetoric on the campaign trail may be questioning this fallacy now.

After appointing the vulture investor Wilbur Ross to be Secretary of Commerce and Goldman Sachs executive Steve Mnuchin -- who made profits on foreclosures during the 2008 housing crisis -- to be Secretary of Treasury, he unloaded a Twitter storm against union leader Chuck Jones for criticizing claims he made about the number of jobs he has saved.
Trump went so far as to blame workers for the loss of jobs. They now seem to be part of the global economic elite he liked to talk about on the campaign trail.
Julian Zelizer
Most dramatic of all, he is appointing Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive who has spent much of his life railing against labor and the policies that benefit workers, to be Secretary of Labor.
This is shaping up to be an administration that is as hostile to organized labor as any we have seen in recent history. Given Trump's well-documented checkered record with the workers who have been part of his own real estate projects, this should not come as much of a surprise. He has been the kind of boss that likes to walk around with his kids, schmoozing with workers, and then go back to the board room with instructions to pay them as little as possible.
During the fall, there were numerous accounts in the media of small businesses that struggled to get paid what he owed them and workers who faced horrendous conditions in places like his failed Atlantic City casinos. It should be clear by this point that his conservative populist rhetoric was just that -- words of a showman -- rather than reflective of a leader intent on transforming the relationship between the Republican Party and blue-collar workers.
Andrew Puzder surrounded by controversy
Andrew Puzder surrounded by controversy

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This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the history of American politics. Since the New Deal, Democrats have been the party of organized labor; Republicans have been the party of big business and wealth. These reflect two fundamental differences in the basic outlook of party leaders about the kinds of policies that are better for the nation.
And when it comes to public policy, the differences have been and remain clear, even if Republicans have made deeper inroads into the electorate through appeals to cultural conservatism and by playing on the backlash to civil rights and immigration.
Some on the left, such as Jill Stein, complain that the differences between the Democrats and Republicans are like those between Tweedledee and Tweedledumb. But this is a mistake. Even if Democrats have paid more attention to issues like gender and racial equality, and even though President Bill Clinton moved the party toward the center on economics, the party continues to be more supportive of protecting unions, raising the minimum wage, defending progressive taxation and championing family leave and public education, as well as guaranteeing a social safety net.
Republicans have been much more hostile toward the policy needs of unions and believe that regressive policies, such as supply-side economics, are better for the economy. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson documented in their book, "Winner-Take-All Politics," the GOP from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush has increasingly gone to the mat attacking New Deal and Great Society policies that benefit unions and provide federal relief to blue collar and middle-class workers.
In fact, from the moment in 1981 that President Reagan summarily fired the striking air traffic control workers who had endorsed his campaign against Jimmy Carter, the Republican Party made its anti-labor intentions clear. And the situation has only gotten worse. Under President George W. Bush, the National Labor Relations Board found itself to be an emasculated government body unable to protect unions from corporate attack while the administration's homeland security programs continually tried to avoid using workers shielded by civil service protections.
Biden on why Clinton lost working-class whites
Biden on why Clinton lost working-class whites

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Biden on why Clinton lost working-class whites 01:31
Fast forward to today and American workers might be about to bear the brunt of this election. While Wall Street seems to be in a euphoria about the new administration, conjuring up images from "The Wolf of Wall Street," America's labor force might be feeling serious trepidation about what they are seeing. Make no mistake: The President-elect is going to govern like a conservative Republican, and the House GOP -- which has been ramping up for eight years -- is ready to stand by his side.
Despite this new reality Trump will put on the greatest show on earth to preserve his campaign image as a populist, even if it defies his policy record and his own personal history. If we have learned anything from the campaign, it is that this master showman has the power to pull this off. He has an uncanny ability to get Americans to look at what he says -- not what he does.
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The big political puzzle is why Democrats have failed to make this distinction clear to voters. While Republicans are extraordinarily good at portraying their opponents as latte-loving, panini-eating, politically correct coastal snobs who know nothing about "real America," Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, have done an extraordinarily poor job of depicting the history of the Republican Party as one that offers little support to workers.
This is the challenge that Democrats will face in the coming years. This is the challenge that will need to be front and center if the party hopes to rebuild from the political wreckage of November and win back the voters who bought into Trump's campaign appeal although it went against their own economic self-interests.