Liberal Blind Spots Are Hiding the Truth About ‘Trump Country’
WICHITA, Kan. — Is the white working class an angry, backward monolith — some 90 million white Americans without college degrees, all standing around in factories and fields thumping their dirty hands with baseball bats? You might think so after two years of media fixation on this version of the aggrieved laborer: male, Caucasian, conservative, racist, sexist.
This account does white supremacy a great service in several ways: It ignores workers of color, along with humane, even progressive white workers. It allows college-educated white liberals to signal superior virtue while denying the sins of their own place and class. And it conceals well-informed, formally educated white conservatives — from middle-class suburbia to the highest ranks of influence — who voted for Donald Trump in legions.
The trouble begins with language: Elite pundits regularly misuse “working class” as shorthand for right-wing white guys wearing tool belts. My father, a white man and lifelong construction worker who labors alongside immigrants and people of color on job sites across the Midwest and South working for a Kansas-based general contractor owned by a woman, would never make such an error.
Most struggling whites I know live lives of quiet desperation mad at their white bosses, not resentment of their co-workers or neighbors of color. My dad’s previous three bosses were all white men he loathed for abuses of privilege and people.
It is unfair power that my father despises. The last rant I heard him on was not about race or immigration but about the recent royal wedding, the spectacle of which made him sick.
“What’s so special about the royals?” he told me over the phone from a cheap motel after work. “But they’ll get the best health care, the best education, the best food. Meanwhile I’m in Marion, Arkansas. All I want is some chickens and a garden and place to go fishing once in a while.”
What my father seeks is not a return to times that were worse for women and people of color but progress toward a society in which everyone can get by, including his white, college-educated son who graduated into the Great Recession and for 10 years sold his own plasma for gas money. After being laid off during that recession in 2008, my dad had to cash in his retirement to make ends meet while looking for another job. He has labored nearly every day of his life and has no savings beyond Social Security.
Yes, my father is angry at someone. But it is not his co-worker Gem, a Filipino immigrant with whom he has split a room to pocket some of the per diem from their employer, or Francisco, a Hispanic crew member with whom he recently built a Wendy’s north of Memphis. His anger, rather, is directed at bosses who exploit labor and governments that punish the working poor — two sides of a capitalist democracy that bleeds people like him dry.
“Corporations,” Dad said. “That’s it. That’s the point of the sword that’s killing us.”
Among white workers, this negative energy has been manipulated to great political effect by a conservative trifecta in media, private interest and celebrity that we might call Fox, Koch and Trump.
As my dad told me, “There’s jackasses on every level of the food chain — but those jackasses are the ones that play all these other jackasses.”
Still, millions of white working-class people have refused to be played. They have resisted the traps of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and nationalism and voted the other way — or, in too many cases, not voted at all. I am far less interested in calls for empathy toward struggling white Americans who spout or abide hatred than I am in tapping into the political power of those who don’t.
Like many Midwestern workers I know, my dad has more in common ideologically with New York’s Democratic Socialist congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than with the white Republicans who run our state. Having spent most of his life doing dangerous, underpaid work without health insurance, he supports the ideas of single-payer health care and a universal basic income.
Much has been made of the white working class’s political shift to the right. But Mr. Trump won among white college graduates, too. According to those same exit polls trotted out to blame the “uneducated,” 49 percent of whites with degrees picked Mr. Trump, while 45 percent picked Hillary Clinton (among them, support for Mr. Trump was stronger among men).Such Americans hardly “vote against their own best interest.” Media coverage suggests that economically distressed whiteness elected Mr. Trump, when in fact it was just plain whiteness.
Stories dispelling the persistent notion that bigotry is the sole province of “uneducated” people in derided “flyover” states are right before our eyes: A white man caught on camera assaulting a black man at a white-supremacist rally last August in Charlottesville, Va., was recently identified as a California engineer. This year, a white male lawyer berated restaurant workers for speaking Spanish in New York City. A white, female, Stanford-educated chemical engineer called the Oakland, Calif., police on a family for, it would appear, barbecuing while black.
Among the 30 states tidily declared “red” after the 2016 election, in two-thirds of them Mrs. Clinton received 35 to 48 percent of the vote. My white working-class family was part of that large minority, rendered invisible by the Electoral College and graphics that paint each state red or blue.
In the meantime, critical stories here in “red states” go underdiscussed and underreported, including:
Barriers to voting. Forces more influential than the political leanings of a white factory worker decide election outcomes: gerrymandering, super PACs, corrupt officials. In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach blocked 30,000 would-be voters from casting ballots (and was recently held in contempt of federal court for doing so).
Populism on the left. Today, “populism” is often used interchangeably with “far right.” But the American left is experiencing a populist boom. According to its national director, Democratic Socialists of America nearly quadrupled in size from 2016 to 2017 — and saw its biggest one-day boost the day after Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s recent primary upset. Progressive congressional candidates with working-class backgrounds and platforms have major support heading into the midterms here in Kansas, including the white civil rights attorney James Thompson, who grew up in poverty, and Sharice Davids, a Native American lawyer who would be the first openly lesbian representative from Kansas.
To find a more accurate vision of these United States, we must resist pat narratives about any group — including the working class on whom our current political situation is most often pinned. The greatest con of 2016 was not persuading a white laborer to vote for a nasty billionaire with soft hands. Rather, it was persuading a watchdog press to cast every working-class American in the same mold. The resulting national conversation, which seeks to rename my home “Trump Country,” elevates a white supremacist agenda by undermining resistance and solidarity where it is most urgent and brave.