“I love the poorly educated.” So declared President Donald Trump back in February 2016, after a decisive win in the Nevada primary. And the poorly educated love him back: Whites without a college degree are pretty much the only group among whom Trump has more than 50% approval.

But in that case, why has Trump been unwilling to do anything, and I mean anything, to help the people who installed him in the White House?

News media often describe Trump as a “populist” and lump him in with politicians in other countries, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who have also gained power by exploiting white resentment against immigrants and global elites. And there are indeed strong and scary parallels: Orban has effectively turned Hungary into an authoritarian state, retaining the forms of democracy but rigging the system in such a way that his party has a permanent lock on power.

It’s alarmingly easy to envision the U.S. going the same way, and very soon: If Trump is reelected next year, that could mark the end of America’s democratic experiment.

But Orban’s success has depended in part on throwing his base at least a few bones. Hungary has instituted a public jobs program for rural areas; offered debt relief, free schoolbooks and lunches; and so on, paid for in part by a significant rise in taxes.

True, those public jobs pay very low wages, and Orban has also practiced crony capitalism on a grand scale, enriching a new class of oligarchs. But there’s at least a bit of actual populism — that is, policies that actually do offer some benefits to the little guy — in the mix.


In 2016, on the campaign trail, Trump sounded as if he might be a European-style populist, blending racism with support for social programs that benefit white people. He even promised to raise taxes on the rich, himself included.

Since taking office, however, he has relentlessly favored the wealthy over members of the working class, whatever their skin color. His only major legislative success, the 2017 tax cut, was a huge break for corporations and business owners; the handful of crumbs thrown at ordinary families was so small that most people believe they got nothing at all.

At the same time, he keeps trying to destroy key provisions of Obamacare — protection for preexisting conditions, premium subsidies and the expansion of Medicaid — even though these provisions are highly popular and have been of enormous benefit to states like Kentucky and West Virginia that favored him by huge margins.

As if to symbolize who he’s really working for, Trump on Wednesday will give a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Art Laffer, best known for insisting that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves. This is a classic zombie idea, one that has been repeatedly killed by evidence, but keeps shambling along, eating our brains, basically because it’s in plutocrats’ interest to keep the idea in circulation.

And here’s the thing: White working-class voters seem to have noticed that Trump isn’t working for them. A new Fox News poll finds that only 5% of whites without a college degree believe that Trump’s economic policies benefit “people like me,” compared with 45% who believe that the benefits go to “people with more money.”

Trump may believe that he can make up for his pro-plutocrat tax and health policies with tariffs, his one significant deviation from GOP orthodoxy. But despite Trump’s insistence that foreigners will pay the tariffs, an overwhelming majority of noncollege whites believe that they will end up paying more for the things they buy.


Oh, and remember Trump’s promises to bring back coal? His own Energy Department projects that coal production next year will be 17% lower than in 2017.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there will necessarily be large-scale defections on the part of Trump’s beloved “poorly educated.” On the other hand, health care — where his betrayal of past promises was especially obvious — seems to have played a big role in Democrats’ midterm victory. And he is certainly more vulnerable than he would be if he engaged in even a smidgen of actual populism. Why won’t he?

Part of the answer may be personal: Trump’s whole career shows him to be the kind of man who, if anything, takes pleasure in taking advantage of people who trusted him.

Beyond that, however, for all the talk about how “it’s Trump’s party now,” he still needs the support of the GOP’s big-money interests. For now, the party establishment is happy to provide cover for the administration’s corruption, closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin and all that.

Do you have something to say?

Share your opinion by sending a Letter to the Editor. Email letters@seattletimes.com and please include your full name, address and telephone number for verification only. Letters are limited to 200 words.

But that could change. If Trump ever did anything that might hurt the rich or help the poor, many Republicans might suddenly discover that self-dealing and accepting help from hostile foreign powers are actually bad.

Whatever the reasons, the simple fact is that Trump isn’t a populist, unless we redefine populism as nothing but a synonym for racism. At least some in the white working class seem to have realized that he’s not on their side. And Democrats would be foolish not to make the most of this opening.