Donald Trump: The Billionaire for Blue-Collars

Donald Trump announced his 2016 presidential bid for the Republican party nomination during a press conference at the Trump Tower in New York on June 16, 2015. Written off as a joke after the announcement by many, Trump's message may resonate with some members of the GOP who fear other candidates are moving too far to the center. Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

Updated | When Donald Trump announced his presidential bid earlier this month in front of a crowd of supporters and hired actors, he gave it The Full Donald. There was his escalator-to-podium descent at the midtown Manhattan Trump Tower, with Melania, his model wife. There was his trademark braggadocio: "I will be greatest jobs president that God ever created." And there was his truculent talk on trade that's at the center of his campaign: "When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let's say, China in a trade deal?" Trump said. "I beat China all the time."

With his preternatural self-confidence and king-size comb-over, it would be easy to dismiss Trump as a showman (which he is). But the bloviating billionaire could be an important player in the Republican presidential primaries even if he never wins a single contest.

For starters, he has plenty of money—maybe not the $8.5 billion net worth he claims on the one-page statement of assets and liabilities he recently released. But the 69-year-old certainly has enough to complicate the race. He can deliver a fusillade of negative ads, crippling others while promoting his agenda.

In two months, he's also likely to make the cut for the first Republican presidential debate. (The Fox News broadcast in August will have the 10 candidates who poll highest nationwide.) Just by being on that stage, Trump could scuttle the presidential hopes of more established politicians like former Texas Governor Rick Perry or Ohio Governor John Kasich simply by keeping them off it. And while onstage, he could make the other candidates squirm and cringe, berating them as "losers," one of his frequent barbs, and remaining unfazed by their retorts. What are you going to call The Donald that he hasn't already heard? An egotist? Wrong?

But the most important reason Trump matters has to do with a significant shift in the Republican Party: the influx of white working-class voters. Many of them have been devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs, and they could be receptive to Trump's anti-free-trade message.

The decline of white blue-collar support for Democrats isn't new, but it has accelerated. It began during the late 1960s, with the backlash to the rise of the counterculture, and was perhaps best captured by All in the Family, the popular 1970s TV show about a conservative, white working stiff. In the 1980s, the rift expanded as so-called Reagan Democrats abandoned the New Deal coalition. In the 1990s, it slowed as Bill Clinton won back many of these voters, thanks in part to his ability to seem tough on welfare, crime and the death penalty.

But since 2000, driven by issues like gun control and coal regulation, white working-class voters have abandoned the Democrats in greater numbers. Only 33 percent of noncollege-educated white voters—the best proxy pollsters have for the white working class—supported Barack Obama in 2012. In the 2014 midterms, 64 percent of noncollege-educated white voters favored Republicans. "You are talking about people who are deeply alienated from American life, both culturally and economically," says Ronald Brownstein, a political analyst who has written extensively on the subject.

These new blue-collar Republicans are more skeptical of free trade than the right's traditional base is. And that's created a major shift in the party. A Pew Research Center study in May found that Republicans, more than Democrats, believe free trade agreements cost them jobs, which bodes well for Trump since the leading Republican candidates largely support free-trade agreements. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz voted for fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership—an essential step for ratifying the agreement—although on Tuesday, Cruz said he wouldn't back fast-track, insisting he wanted, among other things, amendments that would limit immigration in future trade deals. And Jeb Bush and Scott Walker support it. Others oppose the deal, mainly due to the secrecy involved in the negotiations. But none are as vocally opposed as Trump.

His free trade position isn't Trump's only appeal to Republican voters; he's also in line with most of the GOP's base on entitlements. A majority of voters in both parties oppose reducing programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Not surprisingly, whites who haven't gone to college tend to be adamantly opposed to slashing the safety net.

Still, Trump is vulnerable on a key GOP issue: taxes. He threatens to raise taxes repeatedly—not income tax rates but tariffs on products from countries he believes aren't playing fairly with the U.S. If Ford built an automotive plant in Mexico rather than the States, he said at his announcement, he would slap a 35 percent tax on cars from that facility. The threat, he said, would make the automaker keep jobs in the U.S.

Raising tariffs isn't the same as raising income tax rates, which Trump and all of the GOP candidates oppose. But it's still a tax. If there's anything that unites the diverse strains of Republican voters, it's opposition to higher taxes, even import duties. And the dreaded T-word could easily prove to be a distraction for The Donald and diminish the allure of his more popular policies. Supporting quotas on imported goods, as opposed to tariffs, is one easy way for Trump to get around this dilemma.

Many noncollege-educated whites are also evangelicals, and it's hard to see Trump's family story playing well in small-town, fundamentalist churches. In 1990, the New York Post ran a headline saying The Donald's then-girlfriend boasted that Trump gave her the "Best Sex I Ever Had." In some settings, that might be cause to boast, but probably not at the Iowa caucus. Then again, Trump has declared his support for traditional marriage, and he's had three of them.

The billionaire real estate mogul clearly isn't a perfect Republican candidate, but he doesn't have to win to be important. In 1992, Ross Perot took 19 percent of the vote in the general election. His platform was simple—and similar to Trump's. Perot adamantly opposed free trade and claimed his business acumen would turn the economy around. His eccentricity and penchant for conspiracies was also part of his appeal; much like Trump's obsession with Barack Obama's birth certificate, the Texan claimed George H.W. Bush tried to ruin his daughter's wedding.

If Perot could win 19 percent of the vote in a general election, who's to say The Donald can't get 5 to 10 percent in critical Republican primaries, perhaps dimming the chances of other anti-establishment candidates such as Cruz or hurting a tough-on-immigration front-runner like Walker? Thanks to his anti-free-trade message, Trump doesn't need his name on the White House to play a role in deciding who lives there next.

This article has been updated to note that Ted Cruz has withdrawn his support for fast-track trade authority. He made the reversal after this article was published online.