This column is not about Donald Trump. It about my father, who, like Trump, was also a New York salesman.
Of course there were significant differences. My father was born in Staten Island, and died in 1982. He sold wholesale paint, Benjamin Moore. Trump is from Queens, he sold real estate and now he sells an incoherent but seductive political message.
Trump was born rich, inherited a fortune and a business from his father.
My father was born to a poor Polish immigrant family and had to quit school when he was 14 to support his sisters and single-parent mother.
A shy, industrious working-class guy, my father brought his family to the lower edge of the middle class after serving in the navy as a petty officer in the engine room of a tank landing ship in the last year of the Second World War.
You might be curious to know how a shy man could be a successful salesman. My father, if he were forced to explain it, would say it was all about content, the quality of the products he had to sell. He honestly believed that the paint he sold to hardware stores was the best he knew of. He took great pride in knowing that he could be trusted when he talked about the kinds of paint he sold.
Donald Trump has a lot of things to sell these days but he doesn’t seem to know very much about any of them. And trust, well, that’s not on the agenda.
One topic he hammers away about is globalism and trade deals.
A recent exchange in one of the Republican debates on Fox Business Network went like this:
Question: You've criticized the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 Asian countries?
TRUMP: The TPP is a horrible deal. It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It's a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone. It's 5,600 pages long, so complex that nobody's read it...This is one of the worst trade deals. And I would, yes, rather not have it...
Question: Are there particular parts of the deal that you think were badly negotiated?
TRUMP: ...Well, the currency manipulation they don't discuss in the agreement, which is a disaster...If you look at the way [China takes] advantage, it's through currency manipulation. It's not even discussed in the almost 6,000-page agreement...
Sen. Rand PAUL: Hey, you know, we might want to point out China is not part of this deal.
So why would I want to compare my scrupulously honest father with a charlatan politico wannabe?
Maybe it’s because my father would have been just the kind of person who Trump is looking for today as a supporter, a working-class white guy. If truth be told my father was sometimes hard done by an economy that chewed up little guys and cast them aside. That was especially true in his last days when the hundreds of single-owner hardware stores, which were his customers, were starting to be replaced by chains and big-box stores.
If Trump has a base of support, it’s supposed to be guys like my father.
It’s a strange phenomenon. History suggests that American liberals should be the natural supporters of the working class. But they somehow lost their touch in the generations following FDR. Have the Democrats spent too much time courting Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street, while their working-class base wandered in the wilderness of globalized capitalism? Probably.
If he were alive today, my father, who was always reluctant to criticize anyone, even the most blatant liars whom I knew he abhorred, would probably say Donald Trump is “talking through his hat.” That’s about as harsh as he’d get, and it was reserved for people who were regular gasbags about things they knew nothing about.
Is there a lesson here for Canadian politicians? Yes.
It is in vogue for politicians from all parties to speak about “middle-class Canadians.” That in itself is not a bad thing. A strong middle class keep a democracy stable, pays taxes, votes and can be generally civic minded if it is not overly trapped in consumerism. Thanks especially to a decent public education system and universal health care the Canadian middle class is not crumbling at the bottom as rapidly as it is in the United States.
But there is another way to look at the middle class—from the bottom up. How many working-class people are able to climb the first step on the middle-class ladder? And what systemic obstacles can political leaders try to move aside to make this possible?
Canada has a large population that is far from middle class, though it would like to be.
In the US it was ignored for a long time and now a demagogue has arrived on the scene and pretends to speak for it. How many history lessons have to be read to learn that ignoring the poor and the working classes is done at great peril?
No country is immune from the rise of demagogy ruled by people who, though they may have charisma, always speak through their hats.
Jim Creskey is Embassy's senior editor.