EDITOR’S PICK--The Republican, white-nationalist Donald Trump slanders and insults Latinos, Muslims and women. He promotes violence. He mocks the disabled. He refers to himself as brilliant, citing his fortune—obscenely accumulated over decades of predatory business practices that cheat workers and consumers—as “proof.”
He feuds with the gold star parents of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, claiming that he too has “sacrificed” (like the dead soldier and his parents) by employing “thousands and thousands of people.” It was a remarkable comment: Being born into wealth and in a position to hire a large number of people is not a “sacrifice.” If Trump isn’t reaping profits from all those workers under his command, he must not really be the brilliant, capitalist businessman he claims to be.
A military veteran gives the Republican presidential candidate his Purple Heart medal, bestowed on soldiers injured in battle. Trump quips, “I always wanted a Purple Heart. This was a lot easier.” Unreal. Donald Trump, Mr. Sacrifice, used college deferments to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.
How is this noxious candidate even within shouting distance of Hillary Clinton? Let’s separate the fact from the fiction.
The Donald and the White Working Class
One easy, elite answer is to blame the supposedly stupid and racist white working class. It is common to hear mainstream (corporate) media talking heads proclaim that Trump is the candidate of the white working class and “low-income whites”—those that The Wall Street Journal and Trump himself like to call “the forgotten Americans.” These are who Barack Obama described in 2008 as people who “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
How accurate is this narrative? According to exit polls, the median household income of Trump’s primary voters was $72,000, $11,000 higher than the corresponding figure for Bernie Sanders’ and Clinton’s primary voters.
In his analysis of survey data gathered from more than 70,000 interviews in June and July, Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell found that Americans who favor Trump have incomes that are 6 percent higher than that of nonsupporters.
Trump is less popular with the white working class than Mitt Romney was four years ago. In 2012, Romney garnered 62 percent of votes by “non-college-educated whites” (researchers’ and journalists’ longstanding, if imperfect, stand-in term for the white working class). According to the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Trump isn’t even backed by a majority of this group, with just 49 percent on his side. Earlier this summer, his support among these whites hovered around 60 percent, suggesting that they are capable of processing information on his toxicity.
When you consider that the nation’s abysmally low voter-turnout rate falls the further one moves down the U.S. income scale, it seems highly improbable that Trump—currently behind Clinton in national polls—will ride some great wave of white-proletarian, Brexit-like sentiment to victory in November.
Still, Trump is doing better than Clinton with working-class whites. In the aforementioned NBC-WSJ survey, she trails him by 13 percentage points among whites without a college education and by 21 points among men in that group. In former union strongholds and deindustrialized, white working-class enclaves like Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County and Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, Arun Gupta recently reported on teleSUR English that voters are “flocking” to Trump.
Where did Trump do best in the primaries? A New York Times analysis found that his strongest base was in predominantly white areas where a proportion of workers toil in jobs that involve “working with one’s hands, especially manufacturing”; a big share of working-age adults are jobless; an unusually high number of people live in mobile homes; and all but a few residents told the U.S. Census Bureau that their ancestors were “American.”
Jon Flanders, a retired railroad machinist and former union leader, told me that he recently “asked a question about who the union workers in the railroad shops predominately supported. The question was asked on a Facebook page with about 1,000 members. The answer? Trump, overwhelmingly.”
Rothwell, the Gallup economist, determined that “the prototypical Trump supporter” is white, male, Christian (but not Mormon), heterosexual and without a college degree. He found Trump supporters significantly correlated with low intergenerational mobility, weak income growth and employment in “blue-collar occupations that have been exposed to competition with immigrants and foreign workers.”
The higher-income figures of Trump supporters relative to Democratic primary voters and non-Trump supporters is largely explained by race. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to be white, and whites receive considerably higher average incomes than nonwhites.
The Elite Liberal Thesis
So what’s this white working-class preference for the bombastic Trump all about? It might seem counterintuitive, even absurd, that a vicious, opulence-flouting, uber-narcissistic plutocrat and Republican like Trump garners more support than a Democrat from working-class people of any race. We can be sure that many residents of affluent, liberal enclaves nodded their heads in approval when Obama said this about Trump at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia: “Does anyone really believe that a guy who’s spent his 70 years on this earth showing no regard for working people is suddenly going to be your champion? Your voice? ... If so, you should vote for him. But if you’re someone who’s truly concerned about paying your bills, if you’re really concerned about pocketbook issues and … creating more opportunity for everybody, then the choice isn’t even close. … You should vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Then why are so many white workers failing to vote in accord with their purported obvious economic interests, Mr. President? How do we explain this great anomaly? When it isn’t simply writing non-college-educated whites off as irredeemably racist, the standard, elite, liberal-Democratic, campus-town line is that all those poor, pitiful, xenophobic, gun-clinging white proles have been tricked into foolishly “voting against their own pocketbook interests” by clever Republican strategists who divert white workers with convenient scapegoats and social issues—inner-city black criminals and “welfare cheats,” Mexican immigrants, guns, gay rights, abortion and religion. All these ugly cards are played to prevent the white working class from fighting the selfish billionaires who profit from the plutocratic agenda of the Republicans, “the party of big business.”
There’s some truth in this venerable, liberal trope, of course. The divide-and-conquer Machiavellianism this “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” (WTMWK) narrative points to has helped Republicans win white working-class votes since the days of Archie Bunker (at whom much of Trump’s rhetoric seems aimed) and through the age of blue-collar Reaganites and “Joe the Plumber.”
What’s the Matter With the Limousine-(Neo)Liberal Democrats?
Still, the prevailing, liberal, WTMWK narrative is plagued by four basic difficulties. The first and most obvious problem is that post-New Deal era, neoliberal Democrats are no less captive to the 1 percent than the GOP. Like the Bill Clinton and Obama presidencies, the likely presidency of the heavily Wall Street-backed Hillary Clinton will be loaded down with economic elites linked to the top financial institutions and transnationally oriented corporations and to elite corporate policy-planning bodies like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution.
It’s true that the Sanders challenge and the broadly populist mood of U.S. voters in the current New Gilded Age of extreme inequality pushed Clinton’s rhetoric to the progressive-sounding left during the primary campaign. But this is just another example of what Christopher Hitchens once described, in his bitter and acerbic study of the Clintons, as “the essence of American politics”—“the manipulation of populism by elitism.” Clinton’s Wall Street backers have never been concerned about the populace-pleasing rhetoric she’s had little choice but to wield in chasing middle-, working- and lower-class votes. They know “it’s just politics.” They expect a President Hillary Clinton to drop her current opposition to the arch-corporatist Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as soon as possible.
Look at her first major action after locking down the Democratic nomination: She selected Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate. Kaine is a financial-sector darling who backed fast-tracking the TPP and supported his state’s anti-union, right-to-work laws.
It is little wonder that top Wall Street operatives flocked to the Democratic National Convention after the Sanders specter advance-surrendered and Kaine was tapped. The large, socially liberal and economically neoliberal wing of the elite financial sector was pining to reunite with the more functional and effective of the nation’s two reigning state-capitalist political parties.
But the Democrats abandoned the working class and embraced the economic elite, including the professional elite (more on that below) long ago (as journalist Thomas Frank noted in his book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”). And Democrats of the neoliberal era are no less adept than Republicans at deploying the politics of identity to hide their captivity to the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money. They just play the other, more multicultural, side of the same identity-politics game. Both parties make sure that, in Chris Hedges’ words, “Goldman Sachs always wins,” since “there is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs.”
Is it really all that clear that workers of any race have obvious and rational “pocketbook interests” in the presidential ascendancy of yet another identity-politics-wielding, hedge-fund Democrat like Hillary Clinton?
A Beast of a Different Sort
Second, Trump has hardly restricted his appeal to the white working class by pushing racist, sexist, nationalist, religious, gun-toting and nativist buttons. Making repeated overtures to Sanders supporters, he has mimicked the language of Franklin Roosevelt with denunciations of “big business” and its corruption of government and politics. He’s denounced the North American Free Trade Agreement and “free trade” more broadly, blaming multinational corporations for abandoning working people. He altered the Republican platform to include a plank calling for the breakup of big banks via the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act. He’s dropped standard Republican assaults on social-democratic “entitlements.” He’s attacked the globalism of the corporate elite and criticized related imperial entanglements the GOP has joined top Democrats in advancing for more than six decades.
Sincerely or not (his profile of advisers and top funders and his most recent economic policy addresses certainly suggest the latter), Trump has tacked further to the liberal-populist-social-democratic-sounding left on economic policy than any Republican presidential candidate in history. This is something the Democrats in Philadelphia seemed not to understand. In one Democratic convention speech after another, they depicted Trump as little more than the usual Republican monster spouting ugly, nativist, racist and patriarchal narratives to hide his allegiance to the wealthy Few. They showed little understanding that Trump is a different type of Republican beast.
Labor-Market Economics 101
Third, it is misleading to draw too firm a line between workers’ “pocketbook” concerns and nativist calls for immigration restriction. It doesn’t take an advanced academic degree to realize that the movement of poor and desperate workers from one part of the world capitalist system to another poses threats to the working and living standards of working people who are in the receiving nation. Of course, white workers have rational economic reasons to want to restrict the size of the “reserve army of labor” that employers can use against the working class in the “homeland.”
In a similar vein, it’s a mistake to think that white workers in, say, West Virginia coal territory or the North Dakota oil fields have no cogent pocketbook reasons to feel threatened by Democrats’ claim (more progressive fluff than serious environmentalist reality) that they will address climate change by cutting back on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
Those who find such proletarian pocketbook calculations ethically horrifying might want to recall one of Bertolt Brecht’s more cutting lines: “Grub first, then ethics.” Times are desperate indeed in the burned-out coal fields of Appalachia and the ever more opiate-addicted and suicide-plagued provinces of deindustrialized, post-family-farmland, white America. The “forgotten” counties where Trump did best in the GOP primaries are the same counties in which middle-aged, working-class whites have been experiencing high death rates.
We Are Not the 99 Percent: Between Labor and Capital
Fourth, liberals making the WTMWK argument often seem to operate with a simplistic, two-class model dividing the U.S. into the superrich (let’s call them the 1 percent), linked naturally to the Republicans, and everybody else (the 99 percent), linked naturally to the Democrats. Besides deleting the Democrats’ captivity to the wealthy corporate and financial Few (really the 0.1 percent or even the 0.01 percent), this dichotomy provides undue privilege-cloaking cover to “lesser” elites—professionals, managers, administrators and other “coordinator-class” Americans in the nation’s top 20 percent.
The privilege and power of the professional and managerial elite is no less “true,” “real,” substantive or vital to contemporary hierarchy than that of the financial super-elite. In the U.S.—as across the world capitalist system and even in non- and anti-capitalist workplaces and bureaucracies—ordinary working people suffer not just from the private, profit-seeking, capitalist domination of workplace and society. They also regularly confront what longtime left economist and activist Mike Albert calls the “corporate division of labor”—an alienating, dehumanizing and hierarchical subdivision of tasks “in which a few workers have excellent conditions and empowering circumstances, many fall well below that, and most workers have essentially no power at all.”
It is through regular subordinate and often humiliating contact with the professional and managerial, or “coordinator class” (Albert’s and his fellow radical economist Robin Hahnel’s term), not the 1 percent, that the working class experiences class inequality and oppression in America.
I talked earlier this summer to “Big Frank,” a 40-something, white, graveyard-shift, parking ramp and parking lot cleaner at the University of Iowa. He doesn’t like “rich bastards” like Trump, but it’s not the financial and corporate elite he deals with daily. He sees Trump and other rich and famous Americans like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett on television. He carries out “ridiculous orders” and receives “idiotic” reprimands from well-paid, “know-it-all pencil-pushers who don’t give a flying fuck about regular working guys like me.” Frank is voting for Trump “just to piss off all the big-shot [professional-class] liberals” he perceives as constantly disrespecting and pushing him around.
Listen to Green Party leader Howie Hawkins, the Teamster union activist who got 5 percent of the vote in New York’s last gubernatorial election. “The Democratic Party ideology is the ideology of the professional class,” he says. “Meritocratic competition. Do well in school, get well-rewarded.” Unfortunately, perhaps, his comment reminds me of the bumper sticker I’ve seen on the back of more than a few beat-up cars in factory parking lots and trailer parks over the years: “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student.”
“The biggest threat to the Democrats isn’t losing votes to the Greens,” Hawkins says. It is losing votes to Trump, who “sounds like he’s mad at the system. So they throw a protest vote to him.”
It doesn’t help that the professional and managerial class is largely aligned with both the politically correct, pro-immigrant multiculturalism and environmentalism that many white workers have genuine economic (and other) reasons to see as threats to their well-being, living standards and status.
Members of this privileged class beneath the 1 percent may not ride in limousines, but they also don’t go around in the beat-up pickup trucks that “Big Frank” drives both on and off the job. We might designate some of its more liberal members as “Prius Progressives.”
A Trump victory in November seems ever more unlikely. The gaffe-prone and highly unprofessional nature of the candidate, the vastly superior ruling- and professional-class resources being marshaled around the de facto, moderate-Republican Clinton, the racial and ethnic demographics of the national electoral map, and the relative weakness and likely low turnout of his supposed “white working-class base”—all this and more points to a major defeat for “the Donald.”
Progressives should view the alleged threat of a great wave of racist, nativist, white, working-class anger ready to “Brexit” the toxic Trump into the White House with a healthy dose of skepticism. Trump’s white proletarian base is not big or energized enough to make that happen. The notion that it is seems calculated to scare left-leaning progressives into voting for the Wall Street-favored, right-wing Democrat, war hawk Clinton and to reinforce the very neoliberal and identity-obsessed politics that helps explain the existence of such white working-class Republicanism in the first place.
(Paul Street is an independent researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City and Chicago. This piece was posted most recently at TruthDig.)