Against the Grain

Donald Trump’s Huge Debate Blunder

By embracing lower wages, Trump risks losing some support from his rock-solid working-class base.

Donald Trump speaks during the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, November 11, 2015.
AP Photo/Morry Gash
Nov. 11, 2015, 9:45 a.m.

One of the most overlooked moments in Tuesday night’s Republican debate came at the very beginning. Donald Trump, asked whether he’d support a hike in the minimum wage, instead digressed into saying, “Wages [are] too high,” in making the case for corporate competitiveness. And he repeated the same keep-wages-low talking point Wednesday morning on Morning Joe, apparently not recognizing the potential backlash he created. Even though he was answering a question about the minimum wage, his remarks (in both cases) sounded like he was talking broadly about the economy.

Trump, for those not paying attention, has been advancing a campaign message that he’s a traitor to his class. One of his most effective lines is that he knows that politicians are controlled by wealthy donors because he was once one of those wealthy donors. He supports tax hikes on the most wealthy and argues, “The hedge fund guys have been getting away with murder.” He has been an outspoken critic of free-trade deals and promises to act tougher with China (on “stealing” American jobs) and Mexico (over immigration), further establishing his populist bona fides. His central appeal is that he’s promising to bring the skills that made him wealthy to enrich the broader public.

Which is why Trump’s flub could be so consequential. Trump’s political base is dominated by working-class voters who have been devastated by the recession and subsequent slow recovery. Many of them are drawn to Trump because they believe his tough persona and negotiating prowess will reverse America’s economic decline—and with it, raise their own wages. Trump is running against the Wall Street wing of the Republican Party, but with his affinity for low corporate wages, he pitted himself against many of the populists he’s wooing.

“If you find somebody who can move the Trump image, from billionaire mogul with swagger and morph him into a heartless CEO jerk, this is a different race,” said Republican media consultant Rick Wilson. “But are his voters going to be more receptive to his argument on immigration than they are on wages. That’s the big question.”

It’s very possible that, like many other Trump comments that are initially seen as damaging gaffes, this latest off-message comment will do him little damage. Recent polls have shown Trump’s supporters as more loyal to their candidate than those of other candidates. But what makes this line different is it goes against his own supporters’ interests. They may not care if Trump is rude to Megyn Kelly, or mocks John McCain’s military service, but when his comments directly impact their own bottom line, the reaction could be different.

One defining feature of the Republican presidential primary so far is that many Republicans have been hesitant to go after Trump, fearing the backlash they’ll inevitably get by taking on a candidate who lashes out against anyone who goes after him. But he just gifted a sound bite for an enterprising Republican challenger to use against him—and cut into his overwhelming support among blue-collar voters.

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