Biden and Trump: Who’s the real populist?

The candidates fight for working-class voters in Wisconsin

MANITOWOC, WI - SEPTEMBER 21: Jill Brunscheen, a supporter of Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, attends a rally outside the Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry on September 21, 2020 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Biden spoke at the foundry during his second campaign stop in Wisconsin this month. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
MANITOWOC, WI - SEPTEMBER 21: Jill Brunscheen, a supporter of Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, attends a rally outside the Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry on September 21, 2020 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Biden spoke at the foundry during his second campaign stop in Wisconsin this month. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

It was a sharp contrast. President Donald Trump’s jammed-together, cheering crowd in Mosinee last week defied a statewide mask order and basked in the president’s taunting and provocative rants. Then, on Monday, former Vice President Joe Biden dropped into an aluminum plant in Manitowoc for a  low-key, socially distanced event. Biden himself wore a mask throughout his speech, and addressed the downbeat realities America faces, from the looming “tragic milestone” of 200,000 coronavirus deaths to the economic pain suffered by workers in the pandemic economy. Trump, by contrast, was upbeat — even triumphant.

“I don’t know if you know it, the single greatest year Wisconsin has ever had was last year,” Trump said. “The second best year that Wisconsin has ever had was the year before. And guess what the third was the year before that? And you’re going to have your best year economically next year, it’s all heading in that direction despite the pandemic given to us by China.”

Contrast that with Biden: “What worries me now is we’ve been living with this pandemic for so long, I worry we’re risking becoming numb to the toll that it has taken on us, in our country and communities like this. We can’t let that happen. You can’t lose the ability to feel the sorrow and the loss and the anger for so many lives lost.”

Both men appealed directly to white working class voters — the kind who abandoned the Democratic Party to vote for Trump in 2016 all across the Upper Midwest — and fatefully, by less than one percentage point, in Wisconsin.

Biden went over Trump’s record of failure and deceit on COVID-19, and the tens of thousands of lives lost because the federal government failed to act. Not only did Trump deliberately mislead the public about the dangers of the pandemic, staving off “panic” in the financial markets by letting people sicken and die, he withheld healthcare and financial assistance from frontline workers, Biden pointed out.

He contrasted the view from “hardscrabble” towns like Scranton, where he grew up, and Manitowoc with Trump’s “view from Park Avenue” that sees the stock market and Wall Street as all that matter. He promoted unions, the Affordable Care Act, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and contrasted these with Trump’s “$101.5 trillion dollar tax giveaway, primarily for large corporations and wealthy qualifiers” and his elimination of overtime pay for millions of workers and his efforts to roll back healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act. 

Trump, aiming for the same voter demographic, came out swinging at Biden in his speech in Mosinee, focusing on job-killing trade deals. 

“Biden’s supported every disastrous global sellout for half a century,” Trump declared, “including NAFTA, China. You take a look at China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and TPP. He supported them all. Biden surrendered your jobs to China and you know that. I probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that.”

In a populist rant that segued from China and trade to patriotism, with a bracing shot of racism, Trump connected Biden to a liberal elite that looks down on the white working class as well as to the rioters and looters that elite supposedly coddles.

“Now Biden wants to surrender our country to the violent left-wing mob,” Trump said. “You see what’s happening. If Biden wins, very simple, China wins. If Biden wins, the mob wins. If Biden wins, the rioters, anarchists, arsonists, and flag burners, they win and we’re not into flag burners. We don’t like flag burners.

As incoherent as it is, that line of thinking more or less lines up with the thinking of a lot of disaffected workers and farmers who feel left behind in the global economy and highly distrustful of politicians and coastal elites. In Wisconsin, the politics of resentment still resonates.

And part of what Trump says is true: Biden did, in fact, support global trade deals that hurt American manufacturing and the farm economy. 

The fact that Trump has not brought back manufacturing, that he has not created more stable markets for U.S. agricultural products, and that his chaotic trade wars have caused more pain and uncertainty hasn’t led to any great comeuppance among the voters who liked his tough talk in 2016. He still seems like an outsider, is still throwing a rock at the system on behalf of the belittled, the struggling, the “forgotten men and women of America,” as he put it.

He’s still a vehicle for catharsis. 

Biden, making a pitch that he is the true representative of those “forgotten men and women,” pointed out to his audience at the Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry in Manitowoc that he would be the first president in a long time who hadn’t attended an Ivy League school. He took umbrage at the way that fact had been reported, “Like, somehow, man, I didn’t belong” as “a guy who went to a state school.”

Biden’s long career in the Senate and his cozy relationship with bankers headquartered in Delaware might not be Park Avenue and Ivy League, like Trump, but it’s hardly down and out. He did, after all, help eliminate bankruptcy protections for people who defaulted on their student loans or racked up credit card debt, on behalf of his constituents in the financial industry.

Neither Trump, the rich kid demagogue, nor Biden, the Senator from Citibank, is a perfect populist.

The vision Biden is offering, with the endorsement of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, was summed up nicely by the owner of Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry, Sachin Shivaram, who, introducing Biden, described management’s enlightened self-interest in working with unions.

“Our company is living, breathing proof that unions and businesses can be a partnership for success,” Shivaram said.  “We support unions and Joe supports unions. We have tough negotiations with our unions [the company settled a strike at the plant with its workers back in 2010] , just like we do with our customers and suppliers,” Shivaram added, saying he went “toe-to-toe and heart-to-heart” with his union reps, whom he called out by name. 

“In the end, what makes me feel good, even when we disagree, is that unions help make sure workers get their fair share. …  I want my kids to grow up in a society that is less unequal by creating and protecting good paying manufacturing jobs.”

That vision of a decent, more-equal society for everyone looks a lot more appealing than the hellscape described by Trump, who is stirring up violent confrontations in the streets even as he promises a “law and order” crackdown.

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

Wisconsinites, of all people, are by now familiar with what Trump is offering: not stronger unions and better paying jobs, but a big pot of resentment, an airing of grievances, and a promise to make life harder for people perceived to have a little more than his base does. This was union-busting Gov. Scott Walker’s formula for success — not building the middle class, but tearing it apart, exploiting division and resentment to build power, to everyone’s disadvantage, except for the very rich.

Borrowing a page from Bernie Sanders, Biden is offering progressive policies. He speaks winningly about the unfairness of an economy that takes workers for granted, squeezes them for all they’re worth, and concentrates the profits they help generate in the hands of investors and CEOs. He did grow up in a working class family and makes a genuine connection with people who have a similar background. In Manitowoc, he landed a few punches on Trump, who got his start with his daddy’s money and has a long record of stiffing contractors and electricians, as Biden pointed out.

But the most powerful part of Biden’s speech in Manitowoc was the contrast he drew with Trump’s rally in Wisconsin last week, and the way it embodied the president’s contempt for thousands of his own supporters, who lined up for blocks to see him in Mosinee.  

“We just watched him hold an indoor rally with thousands of people, many of whom weren’t wearing masks despite the clear evidence that we’re putting every one of those people’s lives at risk,” Biden said.

“The truth is that he never really respected us very much,” Biden added, identifying himself, once again, with working class voters who were taken in by the president’s false populism in 2016. 

“Oh, he loves his rallies,” Biden added. “The next time he holds one, look closely, Trump keeps his distance from anyone in the rally. The folks who come are tight as they can be, risking disease, mostly without masks. But not Trump.”

When a reporter tried to get close to him, Biden said, Trump told him  “No no, you got to keep your distance. I don’t get close to these people.” 

And he quoted a former White House employee, who said that Trump calls his own supporters “disgusting” and said it was “one of the benefits” of this pandemic that “he doesn’t have to shake their hands.”

That’s pretty visceral and concrete.

Will it expose Trump, prompting voters to make a rational choice based on reality instead of throwing another rock, egged on by the ranting of their reality TV show president?

Stay tuned to find out.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.