One of the surprises of the 2020 election was seeing President Trump, a man demonized as the embodiment of America’s enduring white supremacy, double his support among Black men. The man who promised a Muslim immigration ban also made inroads with Muslims, getting as much as 35% of their votes, according to some exit polls. And the man who called Mexicans rapists and ripped apart families at the southern border went on to secure 40% of the Latino vote. While exit polls are not always accurate, Trump seems to have won the most non-white votes of any Republican since 1960 — despite his sometimes openly racist rhetoric.
Opinion | 5 major (progressive) Trump achievements for Biden to build on
A more complete picture of the Trump presidency might help explain these surprising exit polls. For Trump’s gains with minorities were not the only way in which the President has scrambled the categories we have long believed were the bedrock of American political life. Think of how Florida went to Trump, but also voted on a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, or how blue California voted against labor laws to protect Uber and Lyft drivers and against affirmative action. Beyond the electorate’s shifting values, the Trump administration presided over some real achievements that in any other age we would have thought of as progressive.
Why Trump pursued these policies is hard to say; he himself was certainly too distracted trolling his political rivals and sowing discord to create deep-seated change. But more important than Trump’s motivations is how willing Republicans were to entertain these achievements. A Biden administration would do well to build on them, especially given the Senate’s likelihood to stay in Republican control and Democrats’ losses in the House.
Here are five progressive Trump achievements for Democrats to build on.
The First Step Act
One of the great ironies of this election is that 5,000 people, 91% of them Black men, were released from prison and many regained their right to vote thanks to Trump’s First Step Act — while Biden was among those who had helped put them there in the first place. Biden was an early and eager proponent of the 1994 Crime Bill that resulted in mandatory-minimum sentencing, greatly expanded the list of what constituted a federal crime, and introduced the three-strike rule. The bill led to the mass incarceration of disproportionately Black and Latino men, a stain on the American justice system ever since.
Biden has apologized for the Crime Bill, and sought to downplay his role in it. But he himself crafted the legislation that would treat crack differently from cocaine, ratifying a system that punished Black men more heavily than whites for similar crimes.
Many of these Black and Latino men are the ones who were released from prison under Trump’s First Step Act, which shortened mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and reduced the term for the three-strike rule. It also gave judges back their discretion, essentially eliminating mandatory sentencing. To pass the act, Trump barreled through opposition from conservative Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, leaning instead on Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas, to easily pass the bill.
This legislation reflects a larger misconception in where the energy for criminal justice lies. Red states like Oklahoma, Georgia and Idaho have been quietly releasing prisoners and reforming their criminal justice systems for the better part of a decade. And Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has consistently sided with the liberal justices in criminal justice cases.
Democrats eager to take some big swings at criminal-justice reform in the coming years with a likely Republican-controlled Senate will find many willing to join them on this crucial issue.
The Real Trumpism
Criminal justice is just one of the areas that Trump took on that would have been considered a more liberal, even left-wing cause just a few years ago. He’s done so on the economic front, too, taking a Republican Party devoted to cutting spending, small government, and free trade, and reversing its priorities on all fronts.
It’s true that one of Trump’s first acts as president was passing the 2017 tax cut, which hugely benefited American corporations and secured a lower tax rate for America’s richest families. But much as some Scandinavian countries couple a low corporate-tax rate with a strong welfare state, Trump also implemented elements of what Steve Bannon called “economic nationalism” during the campaign, taking protectionist measures on the economic front which were effective in securing an economy that worked for working-class Americans, too.
For starters, Trump got rid of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Negotiated in 1994 and voted for by then-Senator Biden as well as 26 other Democrats, NAFTA eliminated most tariffs on products traded among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It was an example par excellence of the kind of free-trade policies that Republicans and Democrats have agreed upon in recent decades and that have undeniably hurt manufacturing across the United States.
With trade free and easy and little to no tariffs to worry about, companies moved their factories en masse to Mexico, where labor was cheaper and environmental regulations looser, leaving devastated American communities in their wake. And while economists believe that overall GDP rose thanks to NAFTA, they don’t always ask for whom – certainly not for the auto workers who lost their jobs; some economists estimate that more than 600,000 U.S. jobs were lost over the past 20 years. The U.S. auto sector alone has lost 350,000 jobs since 1994, while the Mexican auto sector grew to 550,000 workers from 120,000.
During President Obama’s tenure, NAFTA was a frequent target of pro-labor Democrats, and both Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and President Trump campaigned against it in 2016, the first sign that we were in for a big scrambling. In 2019, Trump made good on his promise to end NAFTA by replacing it with the United States Mexico Canada Agreement.
Under this new agreement, to qualify for zero tariffs, 75% of every car would have to be made in the member countries, up from 62.5% under NAFTA, giving automakers a huge incentive to increase the amount of parts produced in North America. And under the USMCA, 40% of each car sold with zero tariffs has to be made in a factory where workers are earning at least $16 an hour, eliminating the major incentive for outsourcing manufacturing to Mexico. It also included new environmental standards and intellectual property protections. (Sanders voted against it on environmental grounds.)
The coronavirus pandemic hit before the jury was in over whether the USMCA had its desired effect, though early signs indicated growth. But Trumpism’s growth over the last four years was not limited to the auto industry. In 2019, American workers in the bottom quarter of income saw their wages grow 4.5% while those in the top quarter saw incomes rise 2.9%. Average hourly earnings for production work in the private sector were up 3.7% in November of 2019 as compared to the year before, according to the Labor Department, with nonsupervisory workers earning an average of $23.83 an hour. It’s just not true that Trump’s economy was only working for the rich.
If you put aside the partisan divide, it’s clear that leveraging tariffs to create jobs, as Trump did with the USMCA, should appeal to progressives; indeed, it once did, before it was Trump who was pushing it. That Trump was able to muster up enough votes from Republicans suggests a sea-change that Democrats should jump on.
It’s possible that the Republicans would be less eager to agree to these kinds of measures without Trump’s name branded across them. But there’s evidence that’s not the case; just two Republicans voted against the USMCA, though Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania called it “a complete departure from the free trade agreements we’ve pursued through our history” and urged Republicans to vote it down.
The departure should excite progressives, especially if it’s here to stay. People like Sen.Josh Hawley of Missouri, a Republican rising star who is explicitly trying to wean the party off of free market principles, suggest it might be.
Hawley embraces trade unions, and speaks cuttingly about income inequality. “Defending the vulnerable, protecting the weak,” was how Hawley put it in 2019, decrying the impact of elites on the working class and sounding more like a progressive than like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
There is much for a progressive Democrat to make common cause there, should she choose to.
Investing in HBCUs
Another major Trump achievement that flew under the radar was signing into law a bill that will permanently provide more than $250 million a year to America’s historically Black colleges and universities, as well as other institutions aimed at helping minority students.
The law was the result of bipartisan efforts in the Senate that reveal another crack in the narrative that casts everyone on the Republican side as racist. The law also simplifies the efforts students have to make to qualify for financial aid, eliminating a fifth of the questions they are asked to answer. The money is designed to expand science, technology, engineering and math programming in HBCUs, and represents a major investment in the next generation of Black students.
Another Trump achievement that Democrats should support was the administration’s aggressive push to get generic drugs to market, where they could compete with more expensive brand-name drugs and drive down prices. Since 2017, the Food and Drug Administration approved more than 1,600 generic-drug applications – one third more than it did in the previous two years under President Obama (and Vice President Biden).
The latest round, which concluded in 2019, included the approval of 125 first-time generics. There was an opioid overdose drug, treatment for breast cancer, and treatments for hypertension. And just before the election, Trump signed an executive order to lower prescription drug prices, breaking with both parties’ alignment with Big Pharma.
The Abraham Accords
Perhaps none of Trump’s achievements was as surprising as the Abraham Accords, a series of agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, later joined by Bahrain and Sudan, that normalized relations and has ushered in a bonanza of investment, chronicles of which read more like love affairs than business deals. It was a huge change, and one whose benefits will reverberate for generations.
Opinion | 5 major (progressive) Trump achievements for Biden to build on
Left out of the love affair were the Palestinians, whose cause had been the major impediment to such normalizations in the past. It is here that Biden can make the biggest impact. With his record as a friend to Israel, he can pick up the momentum where Trump left off, and bring the Palestinians into the picture, putting their urgent civil rights cause at the center of the table as more nations follow in the UAE’s wake.
Now that Trump has been defeated at the polls and the distraction of his constant, insulting and undignified tweeting is safely at bay, an honest assessment of his achievements reveals many exciting avenues for Democrats to pursue should they chose to. I hope they will.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bungarsargon.