The recent visit to Michigan by President Biden, in a show of support to striking laborers, was more than a photo op. Donald Trump held a rally in Michigan just a few days later. The two are fighting over the same voters. But they’re engaged in two different wars.

Biden, now the first sitting president to join a picket line, is choosing sides in the war between labor and capital.

Trump can see only the culture war. He may speak in support of striking workers, but his record as president reflects disdain for unions. He won Michigan back in 2016 despite thin union support. That’s because the culture war has always been a way to slice through union solidarity. It’s the Achilles’ heel of the labor movement. Every laborer wants fair wages and a safe work environment, but not every laborer supports reproductive rights.

President Biden’s appearance on a picket line stakes out a position in one fight: labor versus capital. But the culture war can shatter union solidarity. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Like many conservative politicians before him, Trump relies on culture war fearmongering to undermine union efforts. And it’s been a very successful strategy, starting with the threat of racial integration being used to derail a huge union push in the South during the 1940s. “Operation Dixie” attempted to combine the workforces of the textile, oil, steel and wood industries. It fell apart because the Ku Klux Klan got involved to sabotage it.

Today, the nation’s poorest region is … where? Exactly.

That’s not to suggest labor unions haven’t contributed to their own decline in membership. Allegations of corruption within leadership date back to President John F. Kennedy. In fact, it hasn’t been a year since Ron Herrera resigned as president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor after leaked audio of a racist conversation in which he took part.


In the war between labor and capital, there are no angels. However, there are sides. And in this, I find myself in agreement with the assessment made by another former president – Abraham Lincoln.

In an 1861 address to Congress, he denounced the “effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.”

“Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed,” he said. “Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Unfortunately, our post-Lincoln history is overrun with examples of capital missing this point.

In 1911, 146 workers died in a plant fire in New York City because only one of the four elevators was operational, and owners refused to install sprinklers in case they needed to burn the building down for insurance. A century later, Walmart, one of the richest companies on the planet, was ordered to pay $275,000 for firing an employee after a cancer surgery. Jeff Bezos built a rocket ship while thousands of his employees at Amazon were relying on food stamps.

Lincoln’s remarks about labor still ring true today, but in the culture war, they never mattered. Operation Dixie could have lifted countless Southerners out of poverty, but the thought of integration brought a visceral response, just as gender-affirming care for transgender youth does for many voters today. If the dynamics in Michigan were solely about fair wages and safe working conditions, Biden’s appearance on the picket line would make him tough for Trump to defeat.


Election 2024 Trump

Former President Donald Trump speaks in Clinton Township, Mich., on Sept. 27. He and President Biden last week took very different approaches to courting voters in Michigan.  Mike Mulholland/Associated Press

That’s why Trump held his rally at a nonunion factory. He is hunting for Reagan Democrats: working-class white voters who feel disenfranchised. The ones Biden will never reach because he supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

And why doesn’t the left’s economic argument prevail? Because the right found a way to neutralize it.

Whereas Lincoln spoke of the importance of making labor the government’s top priority, Reagan convinced voters that capital should be most important. He didn’t come up with the concept of trickle-down economics, but he is certainly responsible for its implementation. Along with tax breaks for the wealthy, he fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers, decimating the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Today Reaganomics is credited with the shrinking of the middle class.

But hey, at least he stopped “welfare queens” from taking advantage of the system, right? Trump, Reagan and others always found a way to distort simple economics with culture war fearmongering. Biden is trying the Lincoln approach. That’s how the two presidential hopefuls ended up in the same state but two entirely different states of mind.

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