How class resentment is fueling Donald Trump's run

The fabulously rich candidate becomes the hero of working-class people by identifying with their economic distress. That formula worked for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Today, Donald Trump's campaign benefits from a similar populist appeal to beleaguered, white, blue-collar voters -- his key constituency.

Trump's thumping victory in Tuesday's New York primary renews his momentum as he struggles to overcome the GOP establishment's efforts to block him from seizing the party's presidential nomination. If he continues to win as big as he did in his home state, he may have the delegates needed to prevail in the party convention in Cleveland in July.

How can someone born to wealth so ably channel what frankly is class resentment to become his party's front-runner and very likely its nominee? By depicting himself as a rebel among his plutocratic peers, showing a common touch and promising to bestow financial manna on the working stiff. The psychological enticement is powerful, and very crafty.

Certainly, his populist views differ from those of Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat who fathered the New Deal, and whose closest spiritual heir is Bernie Sanders. For one thing, Trump's brand of populism is to the right of center, although many conservatives say he isn't a true conservative. His disparagement of Mexicans, Muslims and women makes the moneyed elite cringe, regardless of party affiliation.

It's significant that in the New York primary, Trump lost in his own congressional district, the 12th, encompassing Manhattan's Upper East Side. This is one of the richest and best-educated districts in the nation. Ohio Gov. John Kasich won the 12th with his best showing in the state, capturing 44.4 percent. (To be fair, Trump wasn't far behind, at 44 percent.)

Nowhere else in Trump's New York blowout was the margin so tight. He handily won every other district, sweeping economically hammered upstate.

As many commentators have noted, people are understandably upset when they're cast out of manufacturing jobs as production gets shipped to China or when they lost out on construction work to illegal immigrants. And when they see no relief from their duly elected officials, many succumb to Trump's allure. The establishment, from Wall Street to the corporate suite to Washington, makes an easy target for the billionaire developer.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray wrote that "the central truth of Trumpism as a phenomenon is that the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class. During the past half-century of economic growth, virtually none of the rewards have gone to the working class."

Tellingly, a CBS News Poll finds that 56 percent of Republican primary voters think Trump is best equipped among the candidates to deal with the economy and unemployment. As Trump said in his New York victory speech: "Our jobs are being sucked out of our states. They're being taken out of our country, and we're not going to let it happen anymore. We're going to stop it."

Three parts of Trump's class-based call taps into this resentment and economic unease:

He's a rebel against other rich types.How often have you heard: "Trump tells it like it is"? His insult-peppered behavior at party debates -- chief rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became "Lyin' Ted," for instance -- are foreign to polite society. Trump is a disruptive force in the stodgy GOP, sort of like the Marx Brothers in "Duck Soup." Some expect that Trump, who recently hired seasoned political operative Paul Manafort to professionalize his campaign, will lighten his tone up ahead. If so, let's see how often his old self sneaks out.

Lately, with the Never Trump movement out to thwart him, the real estate mogul has the perfect foils. Roosevelt's fellow toffs used to say he was "a traitor to his class." Trump's detractors show the world how, despite his money, he is not one of them.

Top Republican donors now have joined in the effort to stop him. The Ricketts family (it founded brokerage T.D. Ameritrade and owns the Chicago Cubs), for example, has given more than $2 million to Our Principles PAC, a group bent on exposing Trump's past liberal views. In response, Trump tweeted: "They better be careful. They have a lot to hide."

Corporate leaders, who customarily keep a low political profile, are joining in the fray. Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently slammed Trump, although not by name, for fomenting ire against immigrants. "I hear fearful voices talking about building walls," he told a tech conference, referring to Trump's plan to erect a huge wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Trump previously had criticized Zuckerberg's call for more open immigration.

Trump is hardly breaking up with old friends. Indeed, he never has fit in with New York's grand old real estate families, who regard him as gauche. They disdain his glitzy buildings with their brass and marble, as well as his nonstop promotional patter, where all his projects are "amazing" and "the best."

He has the common touch.Historian John Lukas, in his 2005 book, "Democracy and Populism," wrote that "populists in every country respected and supported millionaires of their own kind." When former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed Trump, she said "he has spent his life looking up and respecting the hard hats and steel-toed boots and the work ethic that you all have within you."

In addition to stoking his supporters' fears, Trump comes across as one of them. He lacks the polish and erudition of the Republican candidates that the elite have backed. Plus, he presents himself as a self-made man (conveniently omitting how his father's money and influence launched him in the 1970s).

Trump grew up in the unpretentious New York borough of Queens, albeit in a fancy section. His father, Fred, made a fortune constructing apartment blocks in Queens and Brooklyn. When Donald Trump bought the Mar-a-Lago estate of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and in 1995 turned it into a private club, the old money neighbors in elegant Palm Beach were upset at the loud music and raucous partying. The club didn't cater to Joe Sixpack, but it did to newer wealth.

Trump has fought several legal battles in the tony Florida resort -- one sought to overturn town restrictions on how many people could attend club events. To the Palm Beach set, such fracases simply are not acceptable.

He pledges to make people rich.The core of Trump's message to his followers is that he'll restore prosperity to those left behind in the wake of a globalized economy that offshores jobs. But if you listen closely, what's apparent is that Trump is promising not merely a return to middle-class financial stability, but actual wealth.

His pitches are reminiscent of another populist, Louisiana's Huey Long in the 1930s, who pledged to make "every man a king." At a rally in Rothschild, Wisconsin, Trump told the crowd, "I am so good at business. You people are going to be so rich, so fast."

The theme of his books, like "The Art of the Deal," and some of his ventures, like the ill-fated Trump University, is that ordinary people can get rich through pluck and stamina. His TV show, "The Apprentice," was all about how run-of-the-mill Joes and Janes could make it big.

As a business promoter, Trump has used this get-rich-with-Donald lure for a long time. No wonder he was a casino operator, hawking dreams of instant wealth. Back in the 1990s, when he crossed the floor of one of his Atlantic City casinos, gamblers would touch him for luck. His gamblers tended to be day-trippers in on a bus, feeding coins into slot machines, not tuxedoed swells at the baccarat table. In other words, his constituency.

Wage stagnation and rampant layoffs have made millions of them disgruntled -- and open to Trump's diagnosis that they've been cheated. As historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," such aggrieved believers in their own powerlessness and victimization "find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed."

To these people, Trump is their well-heeled savior, the guy who knows how to work the system and will do it for them.

  • Larry Light

    Larry Light is a veteran financial editor and reporter who has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, Money, AdviceIQ and Newsday.