On Tuesday, President Joe Biden will travel to Michigan to support striking auto workers. Likely not coincidentally, the visit will also come the day before former president Donald Trump will hold a rally in Detroit as the two try and tout their working-class bona fides.
In the past, both men have tried to show their support for working-class voters. When Barack Obama picked Mr Biden, a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, pundits noted that he would have an appeal with “lunch pail” voters with whom Mr Obama struggled in his cage match against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.
After their election, the Obama administration took action to bail out the auto industry after the 2008 financial crisis brought the industry that powers Detroit and much of the rest of the state to its knees. During much of the 2012 campaign, Mr Biden in his role as the attack dog, often repeated the line “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” to contrast his boss with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a native of Michigan and son of a beloved governor, who called for Detroit to go bankrupt.
But during that same time, Michigan shifted rightward, electing a Republican governor who turned the state long associated with unions into a right-to-work state. Similarly, in 2016, Mr Trump largely campaigned on jobs being shipped overseas and criticised the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Mr Biden supported as a Senator and passed during the Clinton administration.
That message partly propelled Mr Trump when he shocked everyone and became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since George H W Bush in 1988, alongside heavily working-class states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Since then though, Michigan has shifted decidedly leftward, electing Democratic Gov Gretchen Whitmer in 2018 and overwhelmingly re-electing her in 2022 and flipping the Michigan state legislature. Despite her rising star, Ms Whitmer has passed on challenging Mr Biden for the Democratic nomination for president.
But Mr Trump’s visit to Michigan contrasts with that of his would-be Republican challengers. The twice-impeached, four-times-indicted former president opted to not attend the second Republican presidential debate. Mr Biden has sought to draw a contrast between himself and two of Mr Trump’s Republican opponents, highlighting in a recent ad how Sen Tim Scott (R-SC) said that if workers strike, they should be fired and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who has chided Mr Biden for “constantly saying ‘go union,’” and ultimately leading to the strikes.
Mr Biden cannot necessarily do that with Mr Trump given how - despite union leaders’ support for Democrats - many of the rank and file support Mr Trump. The former Republican president has often spoken about the “forgotten man,” a nod to Franklin D Roosevelt’s rhetoric, though it has mostly been his way to wink and nod to say that white working class people have been forgotten about at the expense of marginalised groups like immigrants and people of colour.
Similarly, Mr Trump and other more populist Republicans like Sens Josh Hawley (R-MO) and JD Vance (R-OH) have sought to try and hammer the Biden administration for pushing electric vehicles, which they say causes the plight of workers. Conversely, Democrats from heavily union states like Sen Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Sen John Fetterman (D-PA) and Gary Peters (D-MI) have picketed with workers.
At the same time, research has shown that only about 30 per cent of Mr Trump’s electoral coalition was white working class, though a majority of white working-class voters who did vote backed Mr Trump. Rather, the biggest indicator for support for Mr Trump and the GOP in recent years has been education.
Furthermore, the image of union membership as mostly white men is largely outdated, as Black workers are the racial group most likely to be part of a union.
Ultimately, while the common refrain of labour has long been “which side are you on,” the fate of the country might fall to whose side the unions are on.
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