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Donald Trump Is No ‘Phony’ Populist

The president is often denounced as a fake ally of the working class, but important data suggest that he's done right by them.

As made clear by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s claim that “The President can only see the world from Park Avenue,” the portrayal of Donald Trump as a phony populist is as popular among his opponents nowadays as during the 2016 presidential election. Back then, no less a critic than former President Obama charged that candidate Trump was selling “ordinary people” a bill of goods that belied his record of “never” showing “any regard for workers.”

Sincerity is always tough to measure. But with Mr. Trump having nearly completed his first term in office, does any evidence show that the everyday Americans who comprise so much of his base should be feeling buyer’s remorse? Has their lot worsened under a flim-flam man whose real priority is his fellow One-Percenters?  

Not according to one set of official figures that’s especially good at gauging the fortunes of Mr. Trump’s core supporters over time: the Labor Department’s quarterly County Employment and Wages series. The final 2019 figures are out, and reveal a striking pattern when matched with the list of counties that voted for Mr. Obama in both 2008 and 2012 and then flipped for Mr. Trump: Average annual private-sector pay in most of these flip counties rose faster during the first three years of the Trump administration than during the last three years of the Mr. Obama’s presidency.

Moreover, this improvement didn’t simply stem from a single good year dragging up harder times. For the Trump-era edge was even greater as of the end of 2018, as reported in this TAC piece.

The flip counties are good proxies for Trump’s working- and middle-class supporters because their salary levels generally trail the national average ($59,202) considerably. And due to their consistent support for Mr. Obama, their voters overall couldn’t have been attracted by whatever racist or xenophobic dogwhistles the President is often accused of issuing. Surely, most saw Mr. Trump’s populist economic message as the biggest draw.

Meanwhile, although the annual county salary data stop with 2019, and therefore say nothing about their voters’ pandemic-era circumstances, these latest available figures speak volumes about their populations’ well-being during the most recent period of national pre-virus normality. Also important—the two time periods involved were right next to each other during the same (expansionary) economic cycle phase. So the numbers are as apples-to-apples as possible.

According to the updated 2018 data, of the 194 flip counties for which statistics are available, 131 (67.53 percent) saw average annual pay in the private sector rise faster during the first two years of the Trump administration than during the last two years of the Obama administration. (Figures including public-sector pay are kept by the Labor Department, but this compensation says relatively little about a region’s economic fundamentals because the levels are set by politicians’ decisions, not market forces.)

In 2019, the Trump administration’s margin diminished—undoubtedly due in part to slower national economic growth. Even so, 59.79 percent of the flip counties (116 of 194) experienced stronger private sector pay growth during the first three Trump years than during the last three Obama years. A closer examination reveals that 22 of these counties moved from the Advantage Trump to the Advantage Obama column, while seven went in the opposite direction.

The bottom line politically of these developments is less clear for the President, even if he can still persuade most flip county voters nationally that he can restore pre-China virus prosperity. For no fewer than 108 of these counties are located in nine states identified as 2020 battlegrounds: Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And the split between those that prospered more during the first three Trump years than during the final three Obama years is just that: 50-50 (54 counties in each category) rather than the nearly 60-40 Trump margin nation-wide.

More fortunately for the president, the number of battleground-state counties that switched paycheck-wise from Advantage Trump to Advantage Obama in 2019 is small (15). And except for Minnesota—which contains seven—they could be too thinly spread to tip any of these states into the Biden column all by themselves, even in a nail-biter election.

Election 2020 politics aside, though, according to the crucial measure of income, these years worth of county data clash loudly with the Trump-as-phony-populist charge, and the common companion depiction of the last Democratic administration as a working- and middle-class champion. And they indicate that if Republicans want to keep these voters in their camp going forward, continuing a Trump-like approach to the economy will be imperative.

Alan Tonelson is the founder of RealityChek, a public policy blog focusing on economics and national security, and the author of The Race to the Bottom.



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