Opinion

The Great Exacerbation: Trump’s Pipeline Politics Will Cripple the Democratic Party

The end of the Democratic Party is near.

The Democrats cannot compete nationally without workers’ votes.  And yet, Democrats have been squeezing workers out of their coalition. This is because the political demand of the working class for more jobs and higher wages has been ignored by a political party increasingly defined by identity politics and environmentalism.

Enter Donald Trump, whose strategy might be described as The Great Exacerbation.  President Trump’s alignment with worker demands for more jobs and higher wages could cripple the Democratic Party indefinitely. “Pipeline politics,” combined with “America First” manufacturing policies, are poised to trigger a mass and irreversible exodus of workers from the Democratic coalition.

At his recent campaign-style rally in Melbourne, Florida, President Trump reminded his audience that within “a few days of taking the oath of office, I’ve taken steps to begin the construction of the Keystone and the Dakota Access Pipelines.”  Those pipelines, Trump stressed, will create “anywhere from 30-40,000 jobs.”

The contrast of Trump’s pipeline politics with those of the Obama administration could hardly be starker to American workers.

Obama killed the Keystone Pipeline in 2015.  Then-Secretary of State John Kerry justified the administration’s sacrifice of jobs for working Americans in blunt terms: “The critical factor in my determination,” said Kerry, “was this: moving forward with this project [the Keystone Pipeline] would significantly undermine our ability to continue leading the world in combating climate change.”

The general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, Terry O’Sullivan, expressed the workers’ devastation with these words: “President Obama today demonstrated that he cares more about kowtowing to green-collar elitists than he does about creating desperately needed, family-supporting, blue-collar jobs.”  Meanwhile, Senator Barbara Boxer, then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, thanked Obama for protecting “the health of the planet” by preventing “the filthiest oil known to humankind” from entering the country.  For Democrats even before Trump’s ascension, abstract environmental needs took priority over jobs today.  And workers noticed.

The cleavage between environmentalists and workers grew more entrenched as Trump got closer to the Oval Office.  Before Obama decided to nix the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, for example—which at the time was in mid-construction and producing real paychecks for real workers—five labor unions that collectively represent 3.5 million workers pleaded with Obama to “stand up for American workers” and allow construction of the pipeline to continue.  The labor unions sent that message to Obama as a “direct rebuke” of 19 Democratic members of Congress, who openly opposed the pipeline in the name of “the environment, public health, and tribal and human rights.”   After Obama declined the unions’ call to stand up for American workers and killed their jobs instead, one prominent labor union called Obama “gutless” and accused him of “appeasing environmental extremists.”

In contrast, after President Trump resurrected the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines, the coalition group North America’s Building Trades Unions thanked Trump for giving “continued hope to thousands of skilled craft construction professionals in America’s heartland,” and further described Trump’s pipeline order as “an economic lifeline” for working families.  “Hope” and “economic lifeline” in connection with Trump are the key terms here.  Workers in America, like President Trump, are very aware that under Obama, sacrificing paying jobs for workers at the altar of glamorous progressive values became an act of honor for Democrats.  Trump’s strategy, of course, is to exacerbate this glaring rift in the Democratic coalition.

But the genius of Trump’s strategy isn’t to visibly act on behalf of workers at every turn, though the strategy certainly includes that.  Rather, the brilliance of the Great Exacerbation is that Trump repeatedly needles the environmentalist and identity politics wings of the Democratic coalition to very publicly act in such a way that the Democratic Party is branded as thoroughly as possible in America’s subconscious as a fusion of environmentalist with identity politics.

The Democratic Party’s reliably reflexive outrage at everything Trump says, does, and stands for compels its members to take very public, very visible stances.  Because identity politics and environmentalism sacrifice workers’ immediate and very concrete economic interests to the most en vogue abstractions of the day’s progressivism, Trump repeatedly and deliberately baits Democrats on progressive issues, compelling Democrats to stake out public positions that are tacit gut-punches to workers.  Trump’s real coup is that Democrats take themselves to be righteously “resisting” Trump and fighting for progressive glory, when in political reality they’re fortifying the political alienation of their own working class constituents.

Immediately following President Trump’s election victory, for example, environmentalists vowed to fight the Trump administration at every turn.  The environmental group the Sierra Club plainly declared at a press conference after the election that “Coal is not coming back.”  When President Trump after his inauguration signed legislation undoing an Obama-era coal mining rule, which Trump described as a “threat to your jobs and we’re going to get rid of this threat,” the environmentalists were furious, and Democrats in Congress jeered.

After Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, a state legislator from Western Kentucky, who represents workers damaged by Obama-era EPA policies, couched his public support for Pruitt in working-class terms: “I’ve seen mines close down, processing plants shutter their doors, and heard stories of heartbreak from families who no longer have steady work,” all as a result of the EPA’s “anti-worker regulations [that] had severe consequences for working families.”  “This is an ugly stain on the legacy of President Obama,” the legislator lamented.

Meanwhile, following the Senate’s confirmation of Pruitt, environmental groups announced they “have already begun hiring additional lawyers to stymie as much of Pruitt’s agenda as possible in court.”  The president of the Natural Resources Defense Council aggressively promised to “use every tool in the kit to stop him [Pruitt] from harming our air and water, endangering our communities and surrendering our kids to climate catastrophe.”  Democrats perceive themselves as a righteous resistance to Trump, but have they thought through how their messaging is experienced emotionally by the workers who are counting on a rollback of EPA regulations so they can start working again?

Trump’s Great Exacerbation exploits the divide inside the conventional Democratic coalition between progressives and workers.  He deliberately exploits the divide in a way that forces Democrats to side with environmentalists and other progressive groups against workers.  Democrats may perceive their opposition as righteous resistance, but the truth is they are branding themselves as political villains in the minds of workers.

This is not a long term survival strategy for the Democratic Party.

Anthony Tsontakis is an attorney based in Phoenix, Arizona.

Nick Dranias is writing in a personal capacity but currently serves as the President of Compact for America Educational Foundation. Dranias previously led the Goldwater Institute’s successful challenge to Arizona’s system of government campaign financing to the U.S. Supreme Court.