A postcard from CPAC.
I stood in the back of the ballroom while President Donald Trump addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday morning, so far away that I could barely see him, just a blob of colors: Dark sport coat, white dress shirt, bright red tie.
He spoke affably and with little urgency for 40 minutes, in a speech that seemed to have only a little planning to it. The first 10 minutes was largely an attack on the dishonest media; not coincidentally, it got the most media attention. During a lengthy chunk in the middle, he listed what he considers early accomplishments. And then he brought it all home with a series of promises and hints at where he planned to go.
Near the end, he said:
“The GOP, from now on, will be the party of the American worker.”
This line got only a smattering of applause from the CPAC crowd, which wasn’t too surprising. CPAC is, after all, a gathering of conservative loyalists, and being “the workers party” hasn’t recently been high on their agenda.
It got my attention, though.
Trump uses his paeans to the American worker to introduce an attack on “globalism” and its hazily described institutions. He did that at CPAC on Friday, and his follow-up line — “I’m not representing the globe, I’m representing your country” — was more warmly received.
But while his "workers" line may have been forgettable at CPAC, such appeals aren’t lost on the crowds when he’s in a gymnasium in Hershey, Pa., or Grand Rapids, Mich. Whether his policies will match his rhetoric remains to be seen, but personally intervening to salvage at least some jobs at an Indianapolis air-conditioning manufacturer is powerful imagery.
The “workers party,” within the framework of the two-party system in which American politics function, is ostensibly the designation of the Democrats. They've claimed this mantle for decades, through all kinds of well-documented ups and downs, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. That fealty to the working man was why my grandma (RIP) called FDR her favorite president.
Will they be able to hold onto that mantle with Donald Trump, a billionaire president forged in the fires of public celebrity and tabloid news, challenging for it?
That's still unclear. President Trump won election, in part, by breaking through the Democratic Blue Wall and beating rival Hillary Clinton in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. We’re four months past the election, and none of this is any secret. But it’s not clear that Democrats are ready to respond to him in these places.
At the moment, Democrats are still working through their stages of grief, sorting through a lot of Powerpoint presentations and analyses of their candidate's loss.
The worst among them are vacillating between blaming the upset on interference from the Russian government, and mocking voters in the hinterlands who abandoned them for the candidate who casually hawked name-branded steaks in a mid-campaign press conference.
The more organized among them — the actual Democrats — spent the weekend voting on who will be their next national chair (this guy won).
But when they begin to sort themselves, they’re gonna have to go back to those states — and more specifically, those communities — where the jobs vanished and Trump cleaned up.
Even if a bunch of Trump admnistration members are revealed to be Russian stooges, these abandoned places will remain. They were home to the manufacturing jobs that dried up after trade with China exploded 15 years ago; home to the people who ended up getting paid significantly less after their factory job vanished; home to the opiod epidemic that replaced those jobs.
What will the Democrats do to convince those communities that they're a better choice than the guy who settled a lawsuit after using his "Trump University" to bilk desperate people out of their savings, and has stiffed actual workers who contracted with him? You got me, but they better get in there quick because nature abhors a vacuum. And this other guy is stepping in.
As one exasperated Rust Belt Democrat told a reporter back in December, while liberal critics piled on Trump for his Carrier stunt:
"I don't care if it was a bad deal, he was fighting for someone's job. That's what we used to do, right?"