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
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
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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