Donald Trump’s play for union votes leaves the GOP in a confusing spot once again

Former President Donald Trump will touch down in Michigan on Wednesday, following up Joe Biden’s historic appearance on a United Autoworkers (UAW) picket line with his own address to striking factory workers and the broader Rust Belt that carried him to victory in 2016 and defeat four years later.

According to a handful of news outlets including the Detroit Free Press, the ex-president will address “500 former or current union members”, apparently part of the event he is hosting at Drake Enterprises in Clinton Township. But that’s where the details end, and the GOP once again, thanks to Donald Trump, careens into uncertain territory.

There are already several inconsistencies that are adding up to make Mr Trump’s visit to the state he snatched away from Hillary Clinton a mess of unclear policy stances and disjointed pro-worker rhetoric. What the former president ends up saying at Wednesday’s event is truly anyone’s guess, other than the near-certainty that he will address the ongoing criminal prosecutions hounding his every step.

Speaking to the union, maybe

Whether Donald Trump is actually going to speak to currently striking union members is not actually certain.

The vow to do so came to speak in front of 500 “former or current” members came from a “source close to the Trump campaign”, most likely just his comms team, on day four of the UAW strike earlier this month. But that was the beginning and end of the details being released by Trumpworld on the matter. And other factors throw that promise into question entirely, with the most obvious being the venue for Mr Trump’s speech.

The former president is set to speak at Drake Enterprises, a plant that does not have a unionised workforce and is not actually tangentially related to the demands of the striking UAW autoworkers down the road. It’s not even clear if the campaign means to speak to UAW union members, or whether any former or current union employee is fair game for a ticket to the show.

The Independent attempted to reach a Trump campaign spokesperson for clarification on why Mr Trump would choose to speak at a non-union shop if he plans to address striking union autoworkers. There was no response on Tuesday.

One source with ties to the striking autoworkers verified to The Independent that Mr Trump had not been in contact with UAW at any level prior to his planned visit.

That, combined with a rumour that the Trump campaign is relying on a major anti-union political group to fill seats in the audience, raises even more questions about both the content of Mr Trump’s address and the makeup of the audience that will hear it firsthand.

Shawn Fain remains unconvinced

Whether rank-and-file union workers find something to support in Mr Trump’s speech on Wednesday remains to be seen. But one UAW member is making his thoughts known about the former president’s choice to address union workers while refusing to actually meet and deal with the union.

UAW president Shawn Fain appeared on CNN early Tuesday evening, less than 24 hours before Mr Trump was set to arrive, and just a short time after he had joined the incumbent president of the United States, Joe Biden, on the picket line in a historic moment for American labour.

“I don't think the man has any bit of care about what our workers stand for, what the working class stands for,” Mr Fain said, dismissing Mr Trump outright. “He serves a billionaire class.”

“I find [it a] pathetic irony that the former president is going to have a rally for union members at a non-union business,” Mr Fain added.

Donald Trump and the pro-union right?

Yes, it’s an inherent contradiction. But since when has that mattered in Trumpworld?

The idea of a Republican heading to the Midwest to fight for votes among union workers is almost comical. The GOP has proudly and openly opposed just about every pro-union piece of legislation on the national stage in recent memory. Ronald Reagan’s decision to break the strike on air traffic controllers is still the party’s most famous labour-related position of the past half-century.

While many Republicans around the country continue to cling to that old-school corporatist mindset — Sen Tim Scott, another 2024 primary contender, called for companies to fire striking autoworkers and restaff — Donald Trump’s apparent play for the union vote is leaving many in a confusing place.

Take Josh Hawley, who in 2015 tweeted that it was “time for an end to union-backed candidates in the GOP”, has now made his latest about-face on a policy issue and appeared on the picket line this week. There, he verged on impersonating a Democrat as he called himself “pro-worker” and stated his support for higher wages for autoworkers.

Then there’s the national Republican Party, which rather than denounce the striking workers or Mr Biden for siding against American corporate interests (the “job creators” that the GOP has championed for decades), chose instead to blame their low pay and working conditions on “Joe Biden's EV policies and destructive inflationary policies”.

Other Republicans have been left wholly unprepared for a labour discussion to take place within the context of a Republican primary. That much was evident in the response from Vivek Ramaswamy, who derided Mr Biden’s visit as a “distraction” and claimed without much explanation that there should instead be a picket line in Washington DC. Whether this was a call for federal workers to strike for higher wages, or merely a ham-fisted expression of hate for federal agencies themselves, it wasn’t clear to anyone, perhaps including the candidate. It also wasn’t clear if he thought Mr Trump’s visit was a distraction too.

When Mr Trump touches down in Michigan on Wednesday, it will be a perfect encapsulation of his effect on the GOP — he will be trying to win a constituency of voters just for the sake of winning, not because the party truly is going to do an about-face and start pushing pro-union policy, or because of any real support for the workers’ demands. And the real baggage from his visit will be borne from the policymakers in his party in Washington, who will be saddled with the burden of forging a coherent message out of his wake.