The backlash that greeted Donald Trump’s nomination of Andrew Puzder for Labor secretary took many Republicans by surprise. Puzder, a fast-food executive, is well liked by Wall Street for his opposition to minimum wage increases and burdensome regulations. But his past support for immigration reform alarmed border hawks concerned Donald Trump will break his promises to build a wall along the southern border and crack down on both illegal and legal immigration. By the end of last week #NeverPuzder was trending on Twitter.
On December 9, in a brief article for RealClearPolitics.com, Puzder reassured Trump supporters that he agrees with the president-elect’s agenda. “My job as a business person is to maximize profits for my company, employees, and shareholders,” he wrote. “My job as secretary of Labor, if confirmed, is to serve U.S. citizen workers—this is my moral and constitutional duty.” Puzder said he would “fiercely defend American workers” and carry out the parts of Trump’s immigration policy that fall under the purview of the Labor Department. “With 94 million Americans outside the labor force, and massive unemployment in our inner cities and among minority workers, my job will be to help these workers find jobs.”
The statement carried Puzder’s name, but it was written in the voice of Stephen Miller. The 31-year-old former congressional aide has been the force behind Donald Trump’s policy and communications shop since last January. He’s a critical link between the Trump campaign and populist critics of the Beltway establishment. A combination wonk and flack who not only formulates policy but also writes speeches, press releases, and op-eds and assists reporters with scoops and story pegs and telling details, Miller is the populist counterpart to liberal wunderkinds Ezra Klein and Ben Rhodes. He’s one of the most effective aides in Washington—despite having lived here for less than a decade.
As an aide to Jeff Sessions, Miller was instrumental in derailing the 2013 immigration bill. His responsibilities for Trump grew from speechwriting and policy advice to appearing on television and introducing the candidate at rallies. And with Trump about to assume the presidency, Miller is preparing for a much larger role. The president-elect recently appointed him assistant to the president and senior adviser to the president for policy. According to the transition team, Miller’s job will include “directing White House policy staff, managing speechwriting functions, and working to ensure the enactment of the president’s policy agenda.” No easy task.
That’s because Trump’s success as president depends on his ability to balance the interests of establishment Republicans with those of the populist grassroots that brought him to power. The Puzder episode was a telling illustration of this tension: It brought into conflict the imperatives of big business and the arguments and enthusiasm of immigration restrictionists. Trump’s future is in jeopardy if one part of the coalition eclipses the other. Miller’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Where you stand in the argument between business and the populists depends on whether you believe Trump won because of his deviations from the GOP economic playbook or despite them. Was it Trump’s unorthodox positions on trade and immigration and entitlements that brought into his column Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—or was it merely opposition to Hillary Clinton?
I have my answer. Immigration and trade, and the nationalist ideas of solidarity, citizenship, and sovereignty with which they are associated, are the reasons Trump forged a gut connection with the white working class and won states no Republican nominee has claimed in decades.
My guess is Miller agrees. I met him in 2011 when he was beginning to shape a middle-class policy agenda for Sessions. Looking back, the themes of that agenda match those of Trump’s to a remarkable extent. The national debt, Obamacare, burdensome regulations, illegal immigration, Chinese currency devaluation, opposition to “spending money we don’t have to try to buy votes,” an emphasis on middle-class livelihoods and median incomes—it’s all there.
So was the idea of a rigged system that enriches an interconnected and entrenched global elite. “On every front,” wrote Sessions (read Miller) in a 2014 op-ed, “the left embraces an agenda that benefits only the fortunate few.” Sessions went on: “Wherever the policies of the left have been faithfully implemented, as in Detroit, human tragedy has followed.” This emphasis on the cities and the economic fortune of black men and women would show up again in Trump’s calls for law and order and his “New Deal for Black America.”
Sessions noted the irony that Barack Obama won reelection despite the fact that millions of Americans were out of the workforce and those who did have jobs earned stagnant wages. “Yet Mitt Romney, the challenger to the incumbent president, lost lower- and middle-income voters by an astonishing margin. Among voters earning $30,000 to $50,000, he trailed by 15 points, and among voters earning under $30,000 he trailed by 28 points.”
The rejection of the GOP in 2012 called for a reorientation of its economic priorities. What was necessary was support for tight-labor markets—and thus opposition to immigration bills that “would inevitably increase the flow of low-skilled immigration, reducing the wages and living standards of the very voters whose trust the GOP had lost.” Sure enough, Trump closed the lower-middle and low-income-voter gap by running on the Miller agenda, narrowing Democratic margins to 11 points among voters earning $30,000 to $50,000 and 13 points among voters earning less than $30,000.
Trump’s appointment of Miller to an influential White House position says that the president-elect is not about to abandon a winning economic formula. There are plenty of people who would like him to, however. Which means future clashes between elements of the Trump coalition are all but guaranteed. At issue is the supply of labor, and the question of whether immigration and trade laws should privilege native-born workers or the upscale beneficiaries of globalization.
“The principal economic dilemma of our time is the very large number of people who either are not working at all, or not earning a wage great enough to be financially independent,” wrote Sessions in his 2015 “Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority.”
The surplus of available labor is compounded by the loss of manufacturing jobs due to global competition and reduced demand for workers due to automation. What sense does it make to continue legally importing millions of low-wage workers to fill jobs while sustaining millions of current residents on welfare?
It’s a question that might have been raised at Wednesday’s meeting between President-elect Trump and the titans of Silicon Valley. Where Stephen Miller, populist impresario, sat between the next secretary of Commerce and the CEO of Microsoft.