“Five, 10 years from now—different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party.” That was Donald Trump’s promise, shortly after he captured the Republican nomination for president. During his campaign, Trump made a habit of attacking traditional Republican positions on social insurance, promising to speak for “people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.”
One year after Trump’s inauguration, not only is the Republican Party not a “worker’s party,” but it has done more than any administration in recent history to undermine public goods, support entrenched wealth, and allow businesses to operate untrammeled by accountability or regulation. The past week has shown just how Trump and his administration are working in favor of capital and property and against those who lack both.
Under acting director Mick Mulvaney, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has ceased active monitoring of the financial services industry for fraud and misbehavior. Last month, in keeping with his call for “humility” from the agency, Mulvaney, who also heads the Office of Management and Budget, requested zero funding for the second quarter of 2018. Last week, he stripped the CFPB’s fair-lending office of its enforcement powers, a move he says will enhance efficiency but one that critics like Sen. Elizabeth Warren say could leave “neighborhoods and consumers across the country more vulnerable to bias.”
Mulvaney has also pulled back from an investigation into the Equifax breach that exposed the personal information of tens of millions of Americans, and he has loosened rules on payday lenders, whose usurious terms can trap customers in an endless loop of debt. (Incidentally, or not, payday loan firms are holding their annual retreat at Trump’s Doral Golf Club just outside of Miami, putting cash directly into the president’s pockets.)
Over at the Department of Labor, Trump officials are contemplating a new rule that would allow employers to pocket tips as long as they pay their workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The agency says this rule is about “tip pooling,” which allows employers to distribute tips from servers and hosts to “back of the house” employees like cooks and dishwashers. But the proposed rule doesn’t require owners to do that distribution—they are free to use that cash as they please.
If the proposed rule goes on the books, it would put some of the most vulnerable workers in the country at the mercy of dishonest and unscrupulous employers. As a result, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, tipped workers stand to lose $5.8 billion a year—more than 16 percent of the estimated $36.4 billion in tips they earn each year, or an average loss of $1,000 per year per worker.
Another drafted rule, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would impose work requirements and raise rents for recipients of housing aid. This would be a further extension of work requirements into social services; the White House has already allowed states to impose them for Medicaid recipients. Critics of work requirements for Medicaid say that they are likely to reduce access to health care and force potential recipients into even more precarious financial and health situations.
The same is true for work requirements and housing assistance. “More than half—57 percent—of the 4.6 million households receiving HUD rental assistance have a head or spouse who is an elderly adult or person with disabilities,” notes the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. And 29 percent of said households have a head or spouse who is attached to the labor force. Only a small number of recipients are working-age adults without disabilities who do not work, and some of those, notes the CBPP, are homeless veterans who have been targeted for housing vouchers. In other words, if put into effect, work requirements would do little more than burden people who are already on the margins of society.
These moves aren’t a surprise. From the start, the Trump administration has been solicitous of employers and business interests and indifferent to the concerns of workers and other ordinary Americans. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t note the extreme discrepancy between the president’s rhetoric on the trail and his actions in office. If populism in the American sense means an interest in the well-being of the public at large, then the Republican Party under Trump isn’t a populist party. It is a party of upward redistribution, further concentrating wealth and power into the hands of a small minority.
Whatever “populism” exists in the Trump era has been cultural—the racist resentment of the people considered his “base,” stoked by the president’s attacks on Hispanic immigrants and black celebrities. The question, for those who seek to dislodge Trump, is whether that base is satisfied with resentment or if it will require material gains to stay committed.