My 1994 Warning About Trumpism, and the Crap I Got From the White House for It

Robert Reich / Substack
My 1994 Warning About Trumpism, and the Crap I Got From the White House for It Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. (photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

I gave a speech that turned out to be prescient, but the White House was furious.


On Saturday’s coffee klatch, I mentioned a speech I gave almost exactly 29 years ago that predicted Trumpism. The speech made headlines — and also made the White House furious. Many of you wanted to know more.

(You can catch the critical nine minutes of it by clicking above.)

As secretary of labor, I thought it important to explain why the Democrats had lost both the House and the Senate in the 1994 midterm elections. I attributed it to the fact that many Americans felt angry and frustrated about not getting ahead, and they took it out on Democrats who had been running Congress for many years.

I also felt it necessary to sound the alarm about the future:

“My friends, we are on the way to becoming a two-tiered society composed of a few winners and a larger group of Americans left behind, whose anger and disillusionment are easily manipulated. Once unbottled, mass resentment can poison the very fabric of society, the moral integrity of society, replacing ambition with envy, replacing tolerance with hate. Today the targets of that rage are immigrants and welfare mothers and government officials and gays, and an ill-defined counterculture. But as the middle class continues to erode, who will be the targets tomorrow?”

I was tragically prescient.

Speeches by Cabinet members were supposed to be approved in advance by the White House, but in this case I doubted the White House would approve my speech because it was so foreboding. So I sent to the White House a different speech — one that was anodyne and boring.

I thought I could get away with this because I doubted the media would pay much attention to my speech.

I was wrong. It made headlines.

Not surprisingly, I was ordered to the White House — where an ambush awaited me. Clinton’s chief of staff Leon Panetta, his economic adviser Bob Rubin, his political adviser George Stephanopoulos, and other top advisers told me in no uncertain terms that I had violated White House rules.

They accused me of not being a team player and barred me from making any further speeches.

I told them I didn’t work for them. I had been nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and they had no power over me. I’d be silenced only if the president directed me to be.

Well, that was the end of it. I knew Bill Clinton wouldn’t tell me to stop speaking my mind.

But his top advisers did have a point. Cabinet officers must be team players. Otherwise, the executive branch can’t function. In this instance, I wasn’t a team player.

I never regretted giving that speech.

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