The GOP Says It’s a Working-Class Party. Last Night’s Debate Exposed That Charade.

Last night’s Republican presidential debate made a mockery of the idea that the GOP is anything other than the party of the boss.

At last night's Republican presidential debate, no one was even pretending to be on the side of workers. (David Crane / Los Angeles Daily News / SCNG via Getty Images)

Three years ago, “populist” Republican senator Josh Hawley tweeted, “We are a working class party now. That’s the future.” The next year, his colleague Ted Cruz announced that the future had arrived. “The Republican Party,” he said, “is not the party of country clubs” but “the party of hard-working, blue-collar men and women.”

In the real world, neither Haley nor Cruz is even a cosponsor of the PRO Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize unions. Nor are any of their Republican colleagues. Marco Rubio, another senator who likes to preen as an economic populist, actually introduced a bill last year to legalize company unions.

So the “party of the working class” schtick has always rung pretty hollow. But it’s striking that on stage at last night’s Republican debate, no one was even going through the motions.

Harsh Words for “Union Bosses,” None for Real Bosses

South Carolina senator Tim Scott got the first question. He’d previously commented on the autoworkers strike by bringing up the “great example” set by Ronald Reagan in firing striking air traffic controllers. “You strike, you’re fired.”

Scott was asked if that meant he’d fire the thousands of striking autoworkers. He admitted that as president he wouldn’t have the power to fire striking workers in the private sector — but immediately went on to say that he found it absurd that the autoworkers “want more benefits working fewer hours.” Rather than visiting a United Auto Workers picket line, Scott said, Joe Biden should be “on our southern border, working to close our southern border, because it is unsafe, wide open, and insecure.”

If you take the rhetoric of Hawley and Cruz seriously, you’d expect the rest of the Republicans on stage to jump on that with denunciations of Scott for siding with bosses against workers. Instead, everyone seemed to have come with the kind of sound bites that would get standing ovations at the Chamber of Commerce. Former vice president Mike Pence said that, instead of being on “a picket line,” Biden should be on “an unemployment line.” Disenfranchisement enthusiast Vivek Ramaswamy said the workers should switch to “picket[ing] in front of the White House in Washington, DC” — not, mind you, to demand government intervention on behalf of their strike but to advocate deregulation of the energy industry.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s advisors didn’t seem to have gotten the memo to prepare a line like this about the autoworkers, but later in the debate, he did have one on teachers’ unions. When he got a question about education, he managed to work in a line about how the “stranglehold” of political influence supposedly exercised by these unions wasn’t going to go away as long as “you have the president of the United Stated sleeping with a member of the teachers’ union.” As Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara writes, the reference to First Lady Jill Biden “had all the crassness of a Trump line, but none of the political acumen.”

Polls show that a crushingly large majority of the American public sides with the striking UAW workers. The closest anyone on stage came to reflecting popular opinion was Vivek Ramaswamy, vaguely expressing “a lot of sympathy” with rank-and-file workers — but even that comment was prefaced by saying that he and Tim Scott had “a common view” in not having much patience for “the union bosses.”

Reality check: Workers don’t get to elect real bosses, but UAW “boss” Shawn Fain was directly elected by the membership. He was a reformer who ousted the leadership that had been running the union for decades. And the vote to authorize the strike against the Big Three automakers carried a margin of 97 percent to 3 percent. Trying to situate yourself as a friend of “the workers” while badmouthing the democratically elected “union boss” carrying out the will of 97 percent of the membership is absurd on its face.

Still Reagan’s Party

The debate opened with a video featuring Ronald Reagan, adoringly referred to as one of America’s “most beloved presidents.” It included a clip of the Gipper saying that the “nine most terrifying words in the English language” are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

No one terrified by those words would be even slightly alarmed by anything they heard last night. No government help was promised for struggling working-class people — not on education, not on health care, not on wage levels, and not on much of anything else.

In fact, in the alternate dimension that many GOP candidates seem to inhabit, the government has already done too much to help, and it needs to be rolled back. Mike Pence promised to “repeal” the Green New Deal — which would have created many millions of good, unionized jobs to implement a rapid energy transition. Of course, the Green New Deal was never passed. In the real world it never came close to passing.

Not to be outdone, Tim Scott said that he was going to “restore capitalism.” In Tim Scott’s version of reality, has the United States nationalized the means of production? I’m not so sure about that.

What I am sure of is that none of the GOP candidates onstage at last night’s debate would do a single thing in the White House that would upset the 1 percent. It’s clarifying, at least, that they’re not even pretending.

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Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

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