RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Trade issues were a big part of Trump's appeal in America's industrial areas, where he brought out a big surge of working-class, white voters. Danielle Kurtzleben writes for NPR Politics on our website. And she writes that it is his own form of identity politics. She's with us now. Good morning.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Democrats have been criticized for relying too heavily on identity politics - so, you know, appealing to voters based on their race or their gender or their sexual orientation. How does the president turn trade into an identity issue?
KURTZLEBEN: Right. So it's really easy to think of identity politics, you know, the way that it's often talked about in political discourse these days, which is that it's just about race or gender. But American voters, on both sides of the aisle, identify in all sorts of ways. You can identify as a gun owner. You can identify by your religion. So when politicians talk about trade, manufacturing really is the key. And these new Trump tariffs - by the way, they're about steel and aluminum. So they're about manufacturing. And Americans have a very emotional connection to manufacturing. Political strategists on both sides of the aisle have told me that. There's the sense among Americans that manufacturing jobs are special, that there is a certain kind of dignity about them, that they provide a decent wage - even for Americans who have no connection to that factory floor.
MONTAGNE: But how does trade, as a part of the American identity, compare with trade as part of the U.S. economy?
KURTZLEBEN: There's a lot more to trade than manufacturing. But we are talking about political speak. So manufacturing is what we're going to zoom in on here. Now, manufacturing is still a sizable part of the U.S. economy. During the 1990s, manufacturing employment was on the downswing. But manufacturing output was on the upswing. A big part of that is automation. We just got way more efficient at it. So even while factories were shedding workers, we were doing much better at manufacturing. So, you know, to get back to the identity once again, back in the '40s, '50s, around one-third of American workers were involved in manufacturing. Today, that's much smaller. Instead of being a manufacturing country by employment now, we're a health care country. We are a country of teachers, of clerks at grocery stores, of government workers, office workers. That's really more what we are now.
MONTAGNE: Well, then when we talk about identity politics - and we often talk about it in relation to race or gender - here, with this more occupational form of identity, what still makes it so effective for political campaigns?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, so identity politics writ large is very effective politically because it invokes a feeling of belonging. I mean, the answer is right there - right? - in the word identity. People are emotionally tied to the ideas - these stories they have of who they are. You can make the case pretty easily that they're more tied to that than they're tied to particular, you know, taxes or tariffs or what have you. Now, manufacturing isn't overtly about race or gender. But, you know, Donald Trump's whole political persona is about nostalgia, right? Make America Great Again. America's forgotten people.
He's a very backward-looking guy. And he likes to harken back to this era - the '40s, the '50s, the '60s, the '70s - when manufacturing employment was on the upswing. So that is how he brings that into it. And as one Democratic strategist, Jeremy Rosner, explained to me, harkening back to the era of the 1950s isn't just about harkening back to manufacturing. It's about harkening back to this time when a particular group of Americans - particularly white Americans and white men - were really on top.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben. Thanks very much.
KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.
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