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What’s Class Got to Do With It?

Unsettled by Donald Trump’s bigotry and xenophobia, liberal pundits have struggled to understand his improbable anointment as the nominee of the Republican party. Many have sought answers in the experience and behavior of the white-working class, the bedrock of Trump support. Why, asks the New Yorker’s James Surolecki, would any working class person support Trump. Surolecki believes that part of the answer lies in the appeal of Trump’s nativist rhetoric.

For William Galston, writing in Newsweek, working class whites vote for Trump because they “seek protection against all the forces that they perceive as hostile to their way of life—foreign people, foreign goods, foreign ideas.” And wary of Trump backers and their potential for violence if the Republicans lose the presidency, Salon’s Michael Bourne locates white working class anger in “1960s-era legislation for promoting the interests of immigrants and minorities over their own, just as they blame free-trade policies of both parties for sending their jobs offshore.” According to Bourne, they are either the hapless “victims of American progress or a bunch of over privileged bigots.”

In these accounts, poorly educated, working class whites bear outsized responsibility for the rise of Trump’s ethnonationalism. They are portrayed as retrograde parochials who channel their rage and bitterness at forces beyond their control into racist and xenophobic explanations for broken lives that the march of progress has made irrelevant. No doubt prejudice is alive and well in the United States today. Blatant racism frequently surfaces at Trump rallies, where anti-immigration speeches fuel the hatred. However, narratives that blame the individual prejudices of working class whites for the ascendance of Trump are too partial and convenient. Not only do they miss how thirty years of anything-goes, free-market capitalism re-established the power of corporations at the expense of diverse working people, and how so much upheaval created new and aggravated old racial, national and gender inequalities among working people. They also ignore how racism and hatred are present in the upper echelons of US society, where the well-to-do isolate themselves in gated communities, and decades of war on drugs and terror disproportionately target minorities, define them as threats, and militarize the policing of their communities.

To be clear, white working-class Americans did not vote Trump in the primaries; white working-class Republican Americans did. According to the
gillsoaU.S. Census Bureau, many fewer Republicans in the ten poorest counties of the country went to the polls than Democrats, casting 5,530 votes to 13,000 for the Democrats. Although there is no doubt that Trump received the majority of the Republican vote in those counties, Bernie Sanders won more votes in the Democratic primaries than Trump did in the Republican (3554 vs. 3431 respectively), and Hillary Clinton received almost twice as many votes (9960) as all Republican candidates combined. The ten poorest counties are located in Appalachia and the South, and their residents are mostly white and poorly educated. The median household income is only $21,000 annually, less than half the national average, and only 10% of adults 25 years of age or older hold a bachelor’s degree. Yet this is only half, the story. The spotlight on white, working-class bigotry casts a shadow over the support that Trump has received from more affluent Republicans whose racial attitudes and reasons for embracing Trump receive little scrutiny

Even as Republicans splinter, and Trump support dwindles among the party’s established elites, who fear his disavowal of trade policies and worry about his criticism of US security commitments, it is worth remembering that substantial numbers of highly educated, well-heeled Republicans responded to his call to “make America great again.” These nationalists joined hands with white, working class partisans with whom they share a sense that the world and their place in it are changing in disturbing ways. Trump’s promise to register Muslims, build a wall along the Mexican border, and deport all undocumented immigrants, his demeaning treatment of women, a Mexican-American judge, and a disabled journalist, and his mocking of “political correctness,” speak to their collective sense of insecurity about the perceived collapse of “order” and the hierarchies that define it.

If we look at nine of the ten wealthiest counties of the United States[1], for example, Republican voters backed Donald Trump over other contenders by a high margin. Trump clearly outperformed his main Republican opponents with an average of 45% of the votes compared to 19% and 10% for his closest rivals, Kasich and Cruz respectively. The margin of Trump support is especially high for the three wealthiest New Jersey counties (Hunterdon, Somerset and Morris), where Trump garnered an average of 76% of the ballots cast. Said differently, in three of the ten wealthiest counties of the USA, over three quarters of Republican primary voters chose Donald Trump. By and large, this pattern is not exceptional for wealthy white America.

The ten richest counties are concentrated on the East Coast, with 5th ranked Los Alamos county, NM and 8th ranked Douglas country, CO the only exceptions. Four of the East coast counties surround Washington, D.C., where occupations in professional services and technology contracting offer lucrative incomes and major federal agencies, such as the Defense Department, employ thousands of people. Three cluster around New York City in suburban New Jersey, within easy commuting distance to Wall Street. For these counties, residents count among the most highly educated voters in the country. Sixty percent of those 25 years of age or older hold at least a bachelor’s degree. They live in households with an average income of $107,777, which is over twice as high as the nationwide average and five times higher than the median household income of the ten poorest counties. Residents are also overwhelmingly white.

Taken together, these data demonstrate that independent of income, educational level, or region, white Republican primary voters heavily favor the candidacy of Donald Trump. This forces us to expand on the question James Surolecki asked in the New Yorker. While it is, indeed, puzzling that any working class person would support Trump, it is equally confounding why an affluent person would endorse his candidacy. Trump’s anti-labor stance, his proposed tax policy, and his own business practices are hostile to working-class interests, yet his disdain for global trade agreements and his isolationist international policies do not favor those in the upper echelons of power, either.

Clearly, explanations that focus on working class bigotry to explain Trump’s success miss the point. One of the more likely reasons lies in their shared experiences of race, regardless of class background. The appalling racism of many Trump enthusiasts has been manifest on the Internet and at campaign rallies, despite his recent efforts to cast himself as a friend of African Americans, after one poll showed his support among them at zero. Yet Trump himself is less a noxious novelty than the product of years of right-wing revanchism and a conservative movement that, as Corey Robin argues, strives to recall “those forms of [racial, gender, and sexual] experience which can no longer be had in an authentic form.” As he packages himself in incendiary racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric and stirs hopes of returning America to a time when white supremacy felt secure, Trump the billionaire purports to be the champion of ordinary people whose ragged lives are ignored by their unresponsive representatives and dismissed by uncaring elites.

This is the same message pedaled by Nigel Farage, a leading Brexit advocate and former leader of the far-right, British UKIP party. Farage urged Britons to “take back control” of their country by voting in a recent referendum to leave the European Union. As reported in the New York Times, he subsequently addressed Trump supporters at a Mississippi rally telling them that “the message is clear, the parallels are there. There are millions of ordinary Americans who have been let down, who have had a bad time, who feel the political class in Washington is detached from them, who feel so many of their representatives are politically correct parts of that liberal media elite.” The similarities between Trump and the anti-Brexit party of the Great Britain do not end there. Neither Trump nor Farage spend much time worrying about facts in their public pronouncements. Both stoke fears about crime and terrorism and conjure simplistic accounts of economic decline in which undeserving immigrants stalk white jobs at every turn.

Pundits such as James Surolecki, William Galston, and Michael Bourne have heard Trump’s message but fail to realize that, much like Farage’s backers, Trump’s Republican stalwarts are not only found among the white working-class “ordinary folks” he calls upon in his speeches. Rather, white Republican voters across the class spectrum who fear immigrants, Muslims, and minorities, as well as the erosion of US global power and privilege, share responsibility for his rise to the top of the Republican ticket. Journalists who vilify the white working class inadvertently strengthen Trump’s hand by reinforcing hatred of media elites and confirming his claim to be on the side of the common person. Such liberal condescension, writes Connor Kilpatrick in Jacobin is “code for an anti-class agenda,” one in which “racism can be blamed but capitalism can be exonerated.

Notes.

[1] We exclude Douglas county Colorado from our analysis because data are unavailable.

Lesley Gill (Lesley.gill@Vanderbilt.edu) and Norbert Ross (Norbert.O.Ross@Vanderbilt.edu) teach anthropology at Vanderbilt University.

January 22, 2019
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