I was struck very powerfully by the implications of just four words in President Trump's address to a joint session of Congress and the Senate last night. Speaking about his proposal to invest up to a trillion dollars in rebuilding this country's infrastructure, he said it would be guided by two core principles:
Those were probably the most important words in his speech as far as the short- to medium-term political future of the United States is concerned.
Because with them, he potentially hammered a bloody great splitting maul between the Democratic Party and its generations-old, lock-step partner, the trades union movement in the USA.
Consider this. During last year's presidential election campaign, Mr. Trump had already appealed, very successfully, to union and former union voters across the so-called 'Rust Belt', winning several states that had been solidly in the Democrat column for decades. Union leadership in general stayed loyal to the Democratic Party during the campaign, supporting Democrat candidates for office, but for the first time in a very long time, rank-and-file union members broke ranks with their elected leadership and voted with their wallets, for the man who promised to bring back American jobs.
Union leaders took note. Believe me, they took note very, very carefully - because their own (often very well-paid and lavishly-rewarded) jobs depend on their being re-elected by their membership every year, or two, or three, or whatever. Lose the confidence of their members, and they're out on the streets. That's why some union leaders, even during the election campaign, publicly said nice things about parts of Mr. Trump's platform. They did so in sheer self-defense. After all, as Alexandre Ledru-Rollin famously said, "There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."
Next, consider how much union money has flowed to the Democratic Party every year. It's a staggering amount. Just look how many unions are included in the top 50 contributors to the 2016 election campaign, and where their money went. It's astonishing. What's more, direct contributions are only part of the story. Indirect contributions are much, much larger.
Organized labor spends about four times as much on politics and lobbying as generally thought, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, a finding that shines a light on an aspect of labor's political activity that has often been overlooked.
. . .
The usual measure of unions' clout encompasses chiefly what they spend supporting federal candidates through their political-action committees, which are funded with voluntary contributions, and lobbying Washington, which is a cost borne by the unions' own coffers.
These kinds of spending, which unions report to the Federal Election Commission and to Congress, totaled $1.1 billion from 2005 through 2011, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The unions' reports to the Labor Department capture an additional $3.3 billion that unions spent over the same period on political activity.
The costs reported to the Labor Department range from polling fees, to money spent persuading union members to vote a certain way, to bratwursts to feed Wisconsin workers protesting at the state capitol last year.
There's more at the link.
Just look at the numbers cited above. They total $4.4 billion dollars between 2005 and 2011, almost all of which went directly to, or indirectly supported, Democratic Party candidates, causes and operations. That averages well over $700 million per year to union-supported politicians and their party.
That support was imperiled during last year's election by union voters who switched sides, irrespective of their leaders' instructions, and voted for Mr. Trump. Now, those same union members - as well as those who didn't vote for Mr. Trump - have heard those four words, highlighted above, loud and clear.
President Trump wants to spend one trillion dollars on US infrastructure, and he's going to make 'Buy American' (meaning goods made by union labor, among others) and 'Hire American' (meaning jobs that will be available to union members) into critical elements, signature themes, of his plan.
That splitting sound you hear is the beginning of a cleavage that may well chop away previously rock-solid union support for the Democratic Party. Union members know on which side their bread is buttered. Their leaders know that if they don't provide, and work for, and agitate in support of, that butter, their own futures are toast - unbuttered toast, at that.
What will it mean if even some - possibly, more than a little; maybe, in due time, even most - of those union well-over-$700-million-per-year political contributions go, not to the Democratic Party and its chosen causes, but to the Republican Party and ditto?
You just saw, felt and heard a metaphorical earthquake, one that may very well reshape the US political map for generations to come. All the left's favorite causes - immigration, climate change, entitlement programs, Obamacare, whatever - pale into insignificance, in the minds of union voters, before the harsh reality of "I need a well-paid job to put food on the table for my family - and President Trump is insisting that my needs be given priority - and he's got $1 trillion to do just that." If they follow the money, as I believe many of them will, the Democratic Party has just suffered a body blow from which it may not recover for decades, if at all. What's more, the Republican Party may be transformed in a very few years from the (perceived) party of wealth, privilege and neocons, to the (real) workers' party of America. Wouldn't that be a turn-up for the books?
I have a feeling this is going to get very, very interesting . . . and I wouldn't be at all surprised if, right now, a large number of Democratic Party strategists are collectively peeing vinegar and passing bloody great cinder-blocks at the very thought. I suspect a number of neocons and pseudo-intellectuals in the Republican Party, and a large part of the American establishment, are doing likewise.
EDITED TO ADD: Two days after I wrote these words, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka went a long way towards proving me right. You'll find his words and my comments here.