Bruce Springsteen isn’t a big fan of President Donald Trump.
“He’s deeply damaged at his core,” the New Jersey-born rocker recently told Esquire magazine. “Anyone in that position who doesn’t deeply feel those ties that bind is a dangerous man, and it’s very pitiful.”
That’s no big surprise. Springsteen is an outspoken liberal; he campaigned for John Kerry in 2004 and performed at Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
What IS a big surprise is what Springsteen told the Sunday Times in an interview in advance of the release later this month of his long-running Broadway show on Netflix.
“I don’t see anyone out there at the moment … the man who can beat Trump, or the woman who can beat Trump,” Springsteen said of the potential 2020 Democratic field. “You need someone who can speak some of the same language [as Trump] … and the Democrats don’t have an obvious, effective presidential candidate.”
Which is an interesting analysis – particularly when you consider that the Democratic field is likely to be the largest in modern American history, with two dozen (or more) candidates expected to run. One would think that, given the expected size of the field, there would be at least one candidate – and maybe a few – who Springsteen believes can take on and beat Trump.
And Springsteen’s specific doubt about the Democratic field – “you need someone who can speak some of the same language” as the President – is a very important one.
Dismiss Springsteen as just another liberal rock star if you will (and he is!), but also remember that Springsteen’s roots are in a working-class, blue-collar community – and that he has spent his entire life writing about and trying to explain the hopes, fears and anxieties of those communities to the country and the world.
Trump spoke to those fears and hopes in a very direct and real way during the 2016 campaign. He won the White House thanks to victories in the industrial Midwest – Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio – that was hit the hardest by the rapidly changing 21st-century economy and the crushing blows it dealt to the manufacturing sector.
“Donald J. Trump won the presidency by riding an enormous wave of support among white working-class voters,” concluded The New York Times’ Nate Cohen the day after the 2016 election. Trump won white, non-college educated males 71%-23% over Hillary Clinton and white, non-college educated women 61% to 34%, according to exit polling. Those white, non-college educated voters comprised one-third of the overall electorate. (“Non-college educated,” of course, doesn’t equal “blue-collar,” but history has shown there are strong similarities among those groups and their voting preferences.)
There is zero question – particularly when you consider the crushing blow Democrats delivered to Republicans in the suburbs in the 2018 midterms – that Trump’s path to a second term relies heavily on these same blue collar whites who got him elected President in the first place.
And like it or not, Trump does, as Springsteen notes, understand how to not only talk to this group but convince them that he is their champion, that he is a voice for the previously voiceless. This, from Trump’s inauguration speech, captures that sentiment nicely:
“January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.
“Everyone is listening to you now.
“You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
Trump makes this appeal by casting himself as a man of the people – fighting against elite snobbery and political correctness. (Yes, I am well aware of the irony of a man born into wealth and raised in New York City emerging as the voice of the working class.)
“Why are they elite?” Trump asked a crowd at a rally in Minnesota over the summer. “I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I became president and they didn’t. And I’m representing the best people on earth, the deplorables.”
Looking through that lens – as Springsteen is doing – you can understand the rocker’s concerns. Kamala Harris, the current frontrunner in the 2020 rankings I do with Harry Enten, is a senator from California. Elizabeth Warren is an unapologetic liberal from Massachusetts. Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist from Vermont.
None of that group has an obvious appeal to blue-collar white workers that would trump Trump’s – at least at first glance.
That said, I do think there are candidates in the field – or potential field – who would fit more of what Springsteen is looking for. Former Vice President Joe Biden has practically changed his middle name to “Hardscrabble roots in Scranton.” And Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown is the sort of gravel-voiced populist that might appeal to Bruce. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not nearly as well known as Biden and Brown but has a similar pitch – that Democrats need to start reaching Midwesterner voters, especially white working class ones, again.
The question before Democrats, to my mind, is not whether they have a candidate – or candidates – who can fight Trump for white blue-collar voters in the Midwest by speaking some of the “same language” as Trump, to borrow Springsteen’s phrasing. The question is whether the party’s base, which is increasingly coastal, non-white and liberal, wants to even consider a candidate like that as the party’s standard-bearer against Trump.
If 2018 is any indication, they don’t. No matter what Springsteen thinks.