Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Meditations on the 'Trumpthuglicans': Untangling Class, Race, and "The Good Old Days"

Friend of the website Werner Herzog's Bear has a series of very smart essays on race, class, and the ascendance of Donald Trump over at his blog Notes from the Ironbound. I think that many of you would enjoy reading all of them. Here is one that I think is particularly on point.

The chattering classes and so-called "smart people" are doing a very poor job of discussing the relationship between "the white working class", white privilege, and out-group competition. If Trumpmania was actually driven purely by economic anxiety then where are all of the black and brown members of his hellish voting block, a group that has done far worse and experienced much more economic pain than whites? The answer is the obvious missing piece in the various half-cooked "think pieces" on Donald Trump.

Hopefully, we will get more smart writing and analysis from commentators such as Werner Herzog's Bear on the Trump phenomenon.


Quite a few trees have been felled and servers burned out in the cause of explaining the support for Donald Trump's presidential bid. As is usually the case with complex questions, people are looking for monocausal answers. Some in the mainstream media have gone out of their way not to talk about racism as a factor in Trump support, preferring to see him as the candidate of downtrodden working class whites. Others (more rightly) have highlighted the obvious face that white racial resentment is a huge element of Trump's support, but also tend to see talk of formerly middle class workers longing for the "good old days" to be a fig leaf for white supremacist yearnings. Though the latter group may be much more correct in their outlook, they also conveniently set aside the legitimate reasons so many would in fact pine for "the good old days." Not understanding that will make it very difficult to defeat Trump.

In the first place, the white racial resentment driving Trumpism is obvious, and the evidence for its strength grows with each passing day. A recent article in Salon shows this very starkly. Even without the statistics handy, the fact that working class people of color are not supporting Trump is a pretty glaring sign that his appeal is in no way purely or even mostly class based. As the article shows, Trump supporters are more likely to hold negative views of African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, and the LGBTQ than even other Republicans, and higher opinions of white people as well.

At the same time, Trump supporters look to the past, when things were better for "people like us." In my mind that's why I call them Archie Bunkers. If you remember All In The Family, Archie was always railing against the same people Trump voters don't like, except for Muslims, who had yet to become as vilified by his ilk. Every show started with he and his wife Edith singing "Those Were The Days," a song that longed for a former time when "men were men" and there was no "welfare state." Then as now, this pining for the past before the social revolutions of the 1960s is politically reactionary when put in those terms. Archie himself benefited from the white affirmative action aspects of the New Deal, from his union job to a house whose mortgage one could assume was backed by the FHA. It's when others benefited from the welfare state that he got mad, a pretty typical occurrence after the Great Society among Nixon's "silent majority."

But the old Archie Bunker still lived in the postwar world of high paying blue collar jobs and a growing middle class. Large swathes of the country in the last forty years have experienced great economic decline, from the Great Plains farm belt to Appalachia to the Rust Belt cities of the Great Lakes. The Rust Belt declines have had an even harder impact on African Americans (just look at Detroit, Cleveland, and Flint), but it is working class whites who have leveraged these declines into Trumpist anger. Whereas deindustrialization kept other groups from getting the entree into the middle class that they sought, the same factors have been pushing whites in many areas out of the middle class that had just been entered into by their parents' generation. The anger over losing has been transferred onto the "other," which Trump has exploited. Loss of economic power can be blamed on immigrant laborers and foreign trade, not on the vicissitudes of capitalism.

When a lot of older white folks answer poll questions and say life in America was better before 1965, they're not necessarily pining for an older social order. My own hometown in the farm belt of Nebraska is a place that was certainly a lot better off economically before the massive blows to the farm economy in the 1980s. However, it is possible for voters to be driven by BOTH racial resentment and economic privation. The latter is not imaginary, and the notable spike in deaths caused by drugs, alcohol, and suicide in working class whites shows the human toll this is all taking. But a lot of the same people who are upset at seeing their towns crumble as the jobs have moved away also have plenty of hate in their hearts and cling to a threatened white supremacy which they used to count on. Working class people of color continue to have it a lot worse, but the discrepancy is not enough to satisfy the need by many white people in this country to be in a special slot on the hierarchy.

The thing is, a lot of those whites unhappy at the economic turn are not turning to hate. The Democratic party has to reach those voters. I am not making the usual call for Democrats to appeal to working class whites at all costs, because those days are over and the Democrats ought to prioritize those loyal to them. Instead, I want the party to solidify its connections to those working class white voters willing to be in a multiracial coalition. While there is a stereotype that the white working class is overwhelmingly Republican, that is actually skewed by the numbers from the South. Outside of the South, it's much less the case. The Democrats can use the "good old days" narrative in a more positive way by arguing for worker protections, strong unions, and support for college and child care. Trump is actually handing them an opportunity, I only hope that they take it.

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