The Notion That White Workers Elected Trump Is a Myth That Suits the Ruling Class
When a false narrative becomes pervasive, ask cui bono? Who benefits?
Take the notion that Donald Trump rode into the White House on a great upsurge of support from poor, white working-class voters drawn to the Republican candidate’s “populist” pitch in key Rust Belt states. This conventional “Rust Belt rebellion” wisdom was pronounced on the front page of the nation’s newspaper of record, The New York Times, one day after the election. The Times proclaimed that Trump’s victory was “a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters.” Times political writer Nate Cohn decreed that “Donald J. Trump won the presidency by riding an enormous wave of support among working-class whites” (emphasis added).
Trump’s Real Base
This storyline has been repeated over and over and taken for granted in the mainstream media and even in much of the progressive left—including by me (see this Truthdig essay, in which I unfortunately referred to “Trump’s conservative, white working-class base”). And it is false. The narrative is flatly contradicted by the data. As Lehigh University political scientist Anthony DiMaggio noted three weeks ago:
Support for Trump … is largely concentrated among more affluent Americans. Trump voters were significantly more likely to be older, white, Republican conservatives—a group that has been quite privileged historically speaking. Trump voters were not more likely to be unemployed, compared to non-Trump voters. Income-wise, the single largest group of Trump supporters was comprised of individuals hailing from households earning incomes of more than $100,000 a year—which made up 35 percent of all his voters. Those earning between $75,000 to $100,000 a year accounted for 19 percent of Trump voters, meaning that 54 percent of the president’s supporters came from households earning over $75,000 a year. Another 20 percent of Trump supporters earned between $50,000 to $75,000 a year, putting them over the national median household income, which has long hovered around $50,000. In sum, approximately three-quarters of Trump voters were from households earning more than the national median income, while just one-quarter earned less than the median.
Lost in the hoopla over Trump’s alleged “working-class base” is an all-too-easy-to-forget fact that a higher percentage of Trump’s voters (35 percent) than Hillary Clinton’s (34 percent) were from the one-fourth of Americans who live in households that “earn” over $100,000 a year.
Academic studies of exit polling data show that Trump’s backers were concerned primarily with the “social issues” he championed. Sexism and racism (white identity) were the leading correlates with Trump voting, not economic dissatisfaction or disadvantage. It was Trump’s chauvinistic positions and statements on race, gender and immigration — not his “blue-collar populism” — that scored him the most points with his mostly middle-class backers.
Yes, the white working class, defined as Caucasians with less than a college degree (more on that below), demonstrated yet again their preference for Republicans over Democrats in the presidential election. Indeed, Trump bested Clinton among white voters without college degrees by 66 percent to 28 percent, the biggest Republican margin with those voters since 1980.
But the lack of a college diploma is a highly imperfect measure of working-class status. Bill Gates never got a bachelor’s degree. Neither did his proletarian comrade Mark Zuckerberg. Occupation and income are far better indicators. Exit polls include the second category but not the first. And nearly 60 percent of white people without college degrees who voted for Trump were in the top half of the income distribution. One in 5 white Trump voters without a college degree had a household income over $100,000.
Another difficulty with the white Trumped-proletarian narrative is that most whites without an allegedly class-defining college degree don’t vote. Thanks in part to this silent election boycott, Trump got votes from approximately just a fifth of the 136 million white American adults who lack the higher ed diploma.
The image of poor and working-class whites flocking to Trump is a media myth. Like fascist and other right-nationalist political movements of the past, Trump has drawn his main support from the more reactionary segments of the middle class and petite bourgeoisie.
Trump Didn’t Win the Working Class. The Democrats Lost It.
The dismal Democrats have been losing white working-class votes for decades across the long neoliberal era because the party has abandoned workers’ lunch-pail economic issues and the language of class in pursuit of corporate sponsorship and votes from the professional class. But there was no mass white working-class outpouring for Trump. Clinton’s miserable, centrist campaign and Obama’s neoliberal legacy depressed working- and lower-class voter turnout, opening the door for Trump to squeak by — with no small help from racist voter suppression in key states.
Slate writers Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr got it right three weeks after the election. “Donald Trump didn’t flip working-class white voters,” they wrote. “Hillary Clinton lost them. … Relative to the 2012 election, Democratic support in the key Rust Belt states [Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin] collapsed as a huge number of Democrats stayed home or (to a lesser extent) voted for a third party.” The decline of working-class Democratic voters between 2012 and 2016 was much bigger than the rise of working-class Republican voters in the “Rust Belt Five.” Among those earning less than $50,000 a year there, the decline in Democratic voting was 3.5 times greater than the rise in Republican voting. Among white voters in general, the decline in Democratic voting was 2.1 times greater than the growth in Republican voting.
The most relevant factor behind Trump’s success in winning over the majority of “white working-class” voters was the decision by so many in the working class not to vote at all, given the neoliberal nothingness of the onetime purported “party of the people.” This is the truth behind Bernie Sanders’ recent statement to the People’s Summit in Chicago: “Trump didn’t win the election. The Democratic Party lost the election.”
Why have so many commentators, politicos, reporters and talking heads run so strongly and matter of factly with the white Trumpen-proletarian narrative, unsupported by empirical data? With progressive left intellectuals, one problem beyond undue deference to The New York Times is that many of us are excessively allergic to data. Statistics are time-consuming to dig up and digest and often inelegant and unsexy to write about. Since some of us don’t feel sufficiently competent, interested and/or energetic to wade into the numbers swamp, we miss critical facts.
Other explanations relate to class position. Intellectuals tend to have little contact with people without college degrees (which is most of the U.S. populace) and thus tend to be susceptible to false narratives about such people in the same way that racial segregation renders whites disposed to embrace fantastic beliefs about black people. At the same time, many progressive thinkers are touchy about how little they’ve done to connect with, and fight for, working-class folks—the people who clean their offices, make their shampoo, take their blood pressure, haul their garbage and sell them their garden furnishings. The notion that those people have been turned into a bunch of right-wing racists, nativists and misogynists is perhaps subconsciously useful when it comes to rationalizing that failure.
Left intellectuals are understandably drawn to Thomas Frank’s “Kansas” thesis that losing the white working class to the vicious and manipulative Republican Party is the price neoliberal-era Democrats pay for moving to the right, dumping labor and the language of class to cozy up more closely to the corporate-financial establishment and the professional class. It’s an elegant argument. There’s some veracity to the thesis, a staple in my own political writing for many years, though the deeper truth is that the Democrats have lost the white working class and the electorate less to the highly unpopular and ever-more rancid and radically reactionary Republican Party than to apathy and nonvoting.
Another factor may be some left thinkers’ taste for pessimism and darkness over hopefulness and light. The notion that the right wing has won over the working class is about as gloomy as it gets for a left progressive.
Things are less tricky when it comes to grasping why more-powerful players have embraced the white Trumpen-proletarian narrative. There’s nothing mysterious about establishment neoliberal Clinton-Obama-Pelosi-style Democrats’ attraction to the notion of a big racist, nativist and misogynist white working class. The corporate and professional class elitists atop the onetime “party of the people” have been betraying the proletariat and eschewing populist and working-class rhetoric for decades. The Hillary Clinton campaign was specifically crafted around a highly identity-politicized neoliberal politics of “hate and castrate”—a politics that wrote off the working class as irredeemably racist, nativist and sexist. The strategy failed, dovetailing with Obama’s failure to address working- and lower-class needs to demobilize enough normally Democratic voters for even the noxious and unpopular Trump to prevail—with some help, to be sure, from racist voter suppression (a key factor that has been sadly forgotten in the discourse of liberals obsessed with unsupported charges of relevant Russian election interference), the openly absurd Electoral College, James Comey and some ill-timed increases in health insurance premiums under Obama’s not-so-Affordable Health Care Act.
Establishment Democrats find it useful to continue smearing the white working class as a bunch of despicably racist and sexist rubes and reactionaries. This absolves them, they think, from their ongoing refusal to properly address the needs of the nation’s economically embattled working-class majority. It’s a remarkable failure in a nation where the top 10th of the upper 1 percent possesses as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, where half the population is poor or near poor and lacks any assets while an ever more opulent minority lives in obscene hyperopulence and globalist indifference to ordinary Americans.
“Hey, don’t blame us,” elite Dems suggest, “blame those stupid and vicious right-wing white proles out there. Hillary shouldn’t have called them ‘deplorables,’ but they’re pretty, well, deplorable.”
There’s an obvious parallel here with the “blame Russia” narrative. The irony is that if the Democrats had run Sanders or a Sanders-like campaign, they would have mobilized enough white and nonwhite working- and lower-class votes to prevail.
There’s a similar dynamic behind the corporate media’s embrace and advance of the white Trumpen-proletarian myth. Like the Democratic Party, it has some sins to cover up with the rise of Trump. He’s the dominant media’s Frankenstein to no small extent.
The preposterous faux-populist Trump arose with no small help from a news media that gave him absurd amounts of free public exposure, enabling him to defeat and indeed humiliate Wall Street’s chosen Republican contenders, including first and foremost Jeb Bush.
The media helped create a giant monster from which it would later recoil—too late. It obsessed over Trump’s every ridiculous statement and tweet while systematically under-covering the giant progressive rallies held by the actually populist Bernie Sanders, who would have defeated Trump in the general election. So it too has a vested interest in deflecting attention away from itself and on to the big, bad, white working class when it comes to explaining the ascendency of an “Insane Clown President.”
For those Republicans who have aligned themselves with Trump either out of sincere attachment or for political and legislative/parliamentary reasons, the notion that he won and stays in office with the support of a great, popular, heartland “base” is obviously welcome. The ridiculous illusion of the archplutocratic Trump as a populist working-people’s champion provides cherished Orwellian cover for the Republicans’ radically regressive program to distribute wealth and power yet further upward.
’They Deserve to Die’
Among aristocratic Republicans who have not let go of their class disdain for the noxious Twitter-addicted Trump, he is a symbol of what happens when the nefarious proletariat is allowed to unduly influence national political affairs. A National Review commentary decrying Trump’s supposed working-class base last March reeked with class viciousness. “The white American underclass,” the journal sneered, “is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. The truth about these dysfunctional downscale communities is that they deserve to die.”
This kind of poisonous class disdain isn’t restricted to old-time rich Republicans in the William F. Buckley mode. I’ve heard practically identical denunciations of the supposedly Trumpified, white working class from disdainful, professional-class “liberal” Democrats in the university community of Iowa City. One such self-described “progressive” tells me that “they’ve put the White House on wheels,” the joke being that Trump represents the “trailer park crowd.” Beyond the dreadful classism, it’s a stupid joke considering Trump’s remarkable personal wealth, the stocking of his Cabinet team with superrich fat cats, and the hyper-regressive Trump and GOP agenda of slashing taxes and regulations to make the hyperwealthy yet more fabulously affluent.
The Ruling Class Could Send Him Packing
Atop the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money, the wealthy few are no doubt enjoying the opportunity to cash in from Trump’s plutocratic presidency while watching the reigning media-politics culture blame the deadly idiocy of that presidency on the unwashed proletariat. Either way—Trump succeeds or Trump fails—the ruling class wins. (What else is new?)
Trump’s nationally embarrassing absurdities pile up from one news cycle to the next. Normally staid news anchors are reduced to shaking their heads in disbelief and outrage at his latest childish and all too commonly misogynist Twitter outrage. The world cringes at the practically subhuman ogre inhabiting the White House—a great symbol of the vulgar stupidity, mean-spirited violence and sociopathological selfishness that is all too prevalent in the nation’s corporate-crafted mass culture. The crazy, malignant narcissist who stands at the symbolic top of the world’s only superpower—the self-proclaimed “exceptional” homeland and headquarters of liberty, democracy and everything good—is an unmitigated and abject national disgrace.
If it cared to, the nation’s globalist, corporate and financial elite could take this fetid farce of a president down. The ruling class could threaten a capital strike, promising to “make the economy scream” until Trump was sent back to the golf course full time through impeachment, 25th Amendment removal (on grounds of incompetence) or resignation (a la Nixon). The corporate and financial masters might well be taking such action were Bernie Sanders or some other actual progressive in the Oval Office.
They have no intention of removing Trump, however—not yet, at least. So what if he’s dangerously “unfit for the presidency”? Who cares if his call to “deregulate energy” is “almost a death knell for the species” (Noam Chomsky)? There’s too much quick money to be made with Trump and his opportunistic Republican allies in office. “American” capitalism is an inherently sociopathic system that exhibits less special attachment to the United States with every passing globalist year. Beneath all his ridiculous and manipulative populist pretense and his vile Twitter thuggery, Trump dutifully meets regularly with top corporate CEOs. He seems sincerely dedicated to escalating the already savage inequality of wealth and power in the U.S. Austerity, tax cuts and deregulation are good for the rate of profit.
Along the way, he provides a useful distraction and obsession for liberals and progressives. He keeps “the left” focused on his latest politically incorrect, identity-triggering offense and on the major party, candidate-centered election cycles instead of the critical task of forging a serious popular and working-class resistance movement beneath and beyond the quadrennial electoral extravaganzas that are sold to us as the only politics that matter.
The outlandish tyrant in the White House is also very good at poisoning public discourse and thereby encouraging more and more ordinary Americans to abandon any concern for politics because it’s just too toxic and Orwellian to merit precious attention and energy better focused on personal and family survival. Reduced public engagement is something the ruling class has every reason to want to foster in the populace. Oligarchs want as little public interference as possible in public affairs.
On top of all that, the masters get to blame the Trump atrocity on the working-class majority, thereby discrediting yet further the last flickering embers of democracy.
For the 1 percent, what’s not to like?