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Trump Supporters: It’s Both Race and Class



Here is another long essay about Trump supporters and what they see in him. The useful thing in this piece is how it identifies the divide between relatively wealthy Republicans who hate welfare programs and believe in bootstrapism no matter what and poor whites who really need government programs but who associate them with blacks and immigrants and see Trump as a way out of that.

How can we understand this growing gap between male lives at the top and bottom? For Murray, the answer is a loss of moral values. But is sleeping longer and watching television a loss of morals, or a loss of morale? A recent study shows a steep rise in deaths of middle-aged working-class whites—much of it due to drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. These are not signs of abandoned values, but of lost hope. Many are in mourning and see rescue in the phrase “Great Again.”

Trump’s pronouncements have been vague and shifting, but it is striking that he has not called for cuts to Medicaid, or food stamps, or school lunch programs, and that his daughter Ivanka nods to the plight of working moms. He plans to replace Obamacare, he says, with a hazy new program that will be “terrific” and that some pundits playfully dub “Trumpcare.” For the blue-collar white male Republicans Sharon spoke to, and some whom I met, this change was welcome.

Still, it was a difficult thing to reconcile. How wary should a little-bit-higher-up-the-ladder white person now feel about applying for the same benefits that the little-bit-lower-down-the-ladder people had? Shaming the “takers” below had been a precious mark of higher status. What if, as a vulnerable blue-collar white worker, one were now to become a “taker” oneself?

Trump, the King of Shame, has covertly come to the rescue. He has shamed virtually every line-cutting group in the Deep Story—women, people of color, the disabled, immigrants, refugees. But he’s hardly uttered a single bad word about unemployment insurance, food stamps, or Medicaid, or what the tea party calls “big government handouts,” for anyone—including blue-collar white men.

In this feint, Trump solves a white male problem of pride. Benefits? If you need them, okay. He masculinizes it. You can be “high energy” macho—and yet may need to apply for a government benefit. As one auto mechanic told me, “Why not? Trump’s for that. If you use food stamps because you’re working a low-wage job, you don’t want someone looking down their nose at you.” A lady at an after-church lunch said, “If you have a young dad who’s working full time but can’t make it, if you’re an American-born worker, can’t make it, and not having a slew of kids, okay. For any conservative, that is fine.”

But in another stroke, Trump adds a key proviso: restrict government help to real Americans. White men are counted in, but undocumented Mexicans and Muslims and Syrian refugees are out. Thus, Trump offers the blue-collar white men relief from a taker’s shame: If you make America great again, how can you not be proud? Trump has put on his blue-collar cap, pumped his fist in the air, and left mainstream Republicans helpless. Not only does he speak to the white working class’ grievances; as they see it, he has finally stopped their story from being politically suppressed. We may never know if Trump has done this intentionally or instinctively, but in any case he’s created a movement much like the anti-immigrant but pro-welfare-state right-wing populism on the rise in Europe. For these are all based on variations of the same Deep Story of personal protectionism.

Yet again, race and class are intertwined here. The white, poor southern men (the linked article profiles Louisiana) who love Trump are racist. There’s no doubt about that. They see their white privilege slipping away at the same time that they feel their class stability collapsing beneath them. How then to get the help you need in a world without good-paying working class jobs? Demonize those you used to demean for getting the programs you now need. Talk about yourself as a real, deserving American and the others as undeserving of Americanness.

There is no simply policy to solve racism. There are however policies that can undermine the class insecurities these people feel. Just because they vote for Trump and are racist doesn’t mean we should not take the precariousness of their lives seriously. Moreover, any class-based program that helps these white people in Louisiana also helps people of color. But sadly, working-class issues really are not on the table in this general election campaign (although arguably there are no issues under any kind of serious discussion right now). Democrats are a little better at recognizing the need to put people to work, but they have struggled mightily to come up with any sort of serious jobs program that would find good work for poor Americans. It’s all education and retraining, which are easy panaceas that make policymakers feel like they are doing something but which do almost nothing for the affected people. That’s what has to change–people of southern Louisiana, black or white or Asian or Latino, all need access to good jobs in the places they live. Racism will never go away. But until good jobs are in place, it will be very easy for fascists like Trump to make the kinds of connections between economic hard times and racial mythology to create very scary political movements in the United States.

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