When Donald Trump heads to suburban Detroit Wednesday to address striking auto workers, the former president will be bracketing Joe Biden’s own visit today to the UAW picket line and unofficially kicking off the general election in a battleground state. But he’ll also offer the latest datapoint in a long coming convergence between his own party and union members.
Despite long standing GOP antipathy toward organized labor, since 2016 when Trump won over more union households than any GOP president since Ronald Reagan in 1980, more Republican officials are aligning themselves with striking workers — or at least aren’t being openly hostile to them. Trump, it’s worth noting, will be speaking at Drake Enterprises, a non-union shop Wednesday. Already, a range of prominent faces in the party have visited the picket lines or expressed support for UAW members, though in ways that stop short of strengthening the power of organized labor. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri spoke to strikers at a General Motors Plant in Wentzville. Rep. John James of Michigan, who represents suburban Detroit and the Reagan Democrat bastion of Macomb County, brought hot coffee to striking workers. And Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio has said that workers “deserve to get their end of the shake.”
This new Republican attitude toward labor is borne out in new polling conducted by American Compass, the conservative think tank trying to chart a post-Reagan, populist vision for the center right that is “pro-worker.” Some 41 percent of Republicans now say “unions are a positive force that help workers and reduce corporate power,” according to a survey of 1,000 Republican voters conducted with YouGov and shared first with POLITICO Nightly. Likewise, 57 percent of respondents agreed that “Wall Street investors are getting rich doing things that weaken our economy” over one that “Wall Street investors play an important role in strengthening our economy.”
Those are eye-opening numbers considering that Democrats have been winning union households by double digits since 1988, according to presidential exit polls. Trump narrowed that gap considerably in 2016, but lost it to Biden in 2020 by a slightly bigger margin.
All of which points to a new possible direction for the GOP — one that is increasingly skeptical of free-market capitalism, said Oren Cass, American Compass’s executive director and a former economic adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. (Notably, GOP presidential candidates may not have received the memo: Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina suggested the striking auto workers should be fired, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the union asks were beyond the pale).
“There is no going back to a pre-Trump, 1980s-style conservatism,” Cass told Nightly. “It just does not have anything useful to say about the actual issues of the 2020s.” Trump, Cass said, is “primarily a symptom,” of the party’s new orientation.
“It’s actually a return to being a genuinely conservative party, as opposed to this weird sort of hyper libertarian economics, pro-capital, no matter what kind of force for, globalization and open borders and nation building and all of this stuff,” Cass told me.
Don’t expect the completion of the realignment to be complete by the 2024 presidential election, Cass said.
“Where I think the opportunity for conservatives is so large, it’s not to make unions a sort of conservative interest group, the way it’s been a progressive one,” Cass said of the unions. “There will be no better win than to move it back toward neutral as a political entity.”