Trump and the (Partial) Myth of White Working Class Anger

Trump and the (Partial) Myth of White Working Class Anger September 18, 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a brilliant essay at the Atlantic that looks at a whole bunch of issues regarding Donald Trump. You should absolutely read the entire thing. But I want to pick out one section about the degree to which white working class anger drives his followers:


The indictment continues: To their neoliberal economics, Democrats and liberals have married a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture and mocks the white man as history’s greatest monster and prime-time television’s biggest doofus. In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.

“We so obviously despise them, we so obviously condescend to them,” the conservative social scientist Charles Murray, who co-wrote The Bell Curve, recently told The New Yorker, speaking of the white working class. “The only slur you can use at a dinner party and get away with is to call somebody a redneck—that won’t give you any problems in Manhattan.”

“The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes,” charged the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, “is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we’re seeing now.”

That black people, who have lived for centuries under such derision and condescension, have not yet been driven into the arms of Trump does not trouble these theoreticians. After all, in this analysis, Trump’s racism and the racism of his supporters are incidental to his rise. Indeed, the alleged glee with which liberals call out Trump’s bigotry is assigned even more power than the bigotry itself. Ostensibly assaulted by campus protests, battered by arguments about intersectionality, and oppressed by new bathroom rights, a blameless white working class did the only thing any reasonable polity might: elect an orcish reality-television star who insists on taking his intelligence briefings in picture-book form.

Asserting that Trump’s rise was primarily powered by cultural resentment and economic reversal has become de rigueur among white pundits and thought leaders. But evidence for this is, at best, mixed. In a study of preelection polling data, the Gallup researchers Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell found that “people living in areas with diminished economic opportunity” were “somewhat more likely to support Trump.” But the researchers also found that voters in their study who supported Trump generally had a higher mean household income ($81,898) than those who did not ($77,046). Those who approved of Trump were “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time” than those who did not. They also tended to be from areas that were very white: “The racial and ethnic isolation of whites at the zip code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.”

An analysis of exit polls conducted during the presidential primaries estimated the median household income of Trump supporters to be about $72,000. But even this lower number is almost double the median household income of African Americans, and $15,000 above the American median. Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascar dads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant. According to Mother Jones, based on preelection polling data, if you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81, with the remaining 68 votes either a toss-up or unknown.

Part of Trump’s dominance among whites resulted from his running as a Republican, the party that has long cultivated white voters. Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012. But unlike Romney, Trump secured this support by running against his party’s leadership, against accepted campaign orthodoxy, and against all notions of decency. By his sixth month in office, embroiled in scandal after scandal, a Pew Research Center poll found Trump’s approval rating underwater with every single demographic group. Every demographic group, that is, except one: people who identified as white.

The focus on one subsector of Trump voters—the white working class—is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition.

I think Coates is both right and wrong here. What I’d really like to see is some distinction made between those who voted for Trump and those who are really his fanatical base. I don’t know if we have the data to make such a distinction, but my guess is that while lots of white people voted for Trump, as they would vote for pretty much any Republican, the fanatical base is largely found in that white working class. Those are the ones who show up to his rallies (still) and scream and shout, who see him, bizarrely, as their savior.

And let’s cop to exactly that derision of uneducated white voters by liberals like me. I’ll plead guilty to that. And I have no doubt that it does drive a good deal of their anger at “elites” and “pointy-headed intellectuals” telling them that they’re stupid. But guess what? Most of them, particularly the ones who make up Trump’s howling base, are, in fact, pretty damn stupid.

But there’s another factor here as well, which is that his base is also made up of exactly the kind of people who respond to the kind of demagoguery that Trump offered up. We have more than enough studies to show that conservative voters, especially the relatively uneducated and those who live in rural areas, value purity and tribalism above almost all else. They see immigrants as a threat to their tribe, so they are prone to the kind of bigotry and xenophobia that Trump fed to them on a steady diet. They are, in short, the proverbial mob that Mencken spoke of a century ago:

“The individual man, cheek by jowl with the multitude, drops down an intellectual peg or two, and so tends to show the mental and emotional reactions of his inferiors. The crowd, as a crowd, performs acts that many of its members, as individuals, would never be guilty of. Its average intelligence is very low; it is inflammatory, vicious, idiotic, almost simian. Crowds, properly worked up by skillful demagogues, are ready to believe anything, and to do anything…The third rate man, though he may wear the false whiskers of a first rate man, may always be detected by his inability to keep his head in the face of an appeal to his emotions. A whoop strips off his disguise.”

This is why I do, in fact, hold such people in contempt and treat them with derision. And while I can accept that doing so, not only by me but by millions of others, drives their imagined anti-elitism — imagined because it invariably involves them following rich and powerful men driven by their own interests who espouse policies that will hurt the very followers they have whipped into a frenzy — I don’t apologize for it.

These are the people who, as Richard Hofstadter identified half a century ago, make up the mobs, often with literal pitchforks and torches, that form every 40 years or so in our history. They are driven by an exaggerated sense of grievance, by an ignorant and unrealistic populism, by tribalism in every possible form (racial, ethnic, national). They are the enemy of every principle I am committed to advancing, the ones who have to be overcome in every generation’s battle for equality and justice. How could I not find them worthy of derision?

So I think Coates is too quick to dismiss the idea that it’s the largely uneducated white working class that make up Trump’s real core of support, and too quick to dismiss the idea that those people really are driven, in large part, by a sense of grievance at the dismissal of their deeply-held and very emotional concerns. But I don’t know what the alternative could be. I can’t be dishonest and pretend that I don’t loathe them when I do.

Please read the entire essay. Coates is, as always, brilliant and eloquent even if I quibble with him on this particular issue. The whole thing really should be read widely.

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