From What to Why on the Trump Proletarian Narrative

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The wrongheaded but ubiquitous notion that the Republican Amerikaner Trump base is the (um, white) “working-class” drawn to “populism” has been disproven in study after study showing that the Trumpenvolk are relatively affluent, not proletarian and poor, and driven by an ugly, mutually reinforcing mixture of racism, sexism, nativism, fundamentalism, and authoritarianism.

Those who have habitually called the backers of Trump and his white nationalist party “working class” have tended to badly conflate education level and region of residence with class. They have fallen for the foolish notion that someone is working class and economically anxious simply because one does not possess a college degree and/or lives in a region that does not contribute much to the national gross domestic product.

They ignore evidence available in social science and everyday observation showing that the main thing driving the right-wing and frankly (though they won’t say so and indeed often recoil against the description) fascist (not “populist”) sentiments of the Amerikaner Trumpenvolk is racist patriarchal authoritarian nationalism, not “economic anxiety.”

What’s it all about? I get why the “working class [well, um, white working-class] Trump base” narrative is strong on the right. Snotty corporate Republicans in the Fred Whirlpool Upton-Liz Cheney-National Review mode like to blame the takeover of their right-wing party by the lowbrow variant of white nationalism (Trumpism) on uncouth “trailer trash.” Classism provides them a convenient explanation for how the racist and reactionary politics they helped cultivate for decades became a tariff-bashing, coup-plotting Frankenstein’s monster beyond their control.

At the same time, Republicans in the Trump mode enjoy and embrace the “populist” and “working class” mantle, wrapping their virulently racist, sexist, ecocidal and stealthily plutocratic politics in the deceptive flag of the “forgotten” working men and women (but men primarily) of “the heartland.”

But why is the false (um, white) Trumpenproletarian narrative so widely shared in the center and even on the left? Neoliberal Democrats in the Clinton-Obama-Citigroup-Council on Foreign Relations-Third Way mode like the empirically unsupported storyline because it helps to justify their own long “progressive-neoliberal” (historian Nancy Fraser’s clever if oxymoronic phrase) flight from working-class causes and so-called populism to the corporate and managerial center-right. If the (um, white) proletariat is a reactionary “basket of deplorables,” to use Hillary Clinton’s colorful but impolitic 2016 language, well, then the Hell with the working-class and with populism.

Okay, but what about Bernie Sanders, and several progressive intellectuals I’d rather not name, who seem irretrievably fixated – basic data and social science be damned – on the notion that the Trumpenvolk is composed of potentially progressive proletarian “victims of neoliberalism” to whom Democrats and the left must “reach out”? What is their foolish, anti-science judgement all about?

I have theories about this. Part of it, I suspect, is a kind of intellectual laziness and a certain data-phobic innumeracy related to a faux-left refusal to engage with quantitative social-scientific findings generated by the bourgeois academy. There’s work involved with data, work that has nothing to do with how many volumes of Marx or David Harvey or Chomsky or Zizek you’ve read. Without digging into the data, or at least into the work of people who dug into the data, one is left with the dominant and superficial political reporting, which has been running with the Trumpenproletarian (white) narrative from day one. The idea of Trump’s base as working class has been planted by sheer repetition in the heads of even leading Left thinkers by the mainstream media. It resonates with the lefties’ memory of “that [excessively praised 2004] Thomas Frank book on Kansas” (What’s the Matter with Kansas? – which left out race) and perhaps with their anecdotal knowledge of some local white guy Teamster who voted for Obama in 2012 but for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Another part of it, I suspect, is that many people on the left, and this applies particularly to left intellectuals and academics, have little if any contact with actual human beings on the Trumpist right. They rarely or never talk to or closely observe the real socialism-loathing Trump base, much of which is far from proletarian and poor and little of which can ever be won over to Medicare for All and a Green New Deal (or even to the re-empowerment of unions). This also predisposes them towards acceptance of the ubiquitous mainstream narrative of Trumpism as white-proletarian populism.

Another part of it, I suspect, is the widespread refusal of many on the Left to acknowledge that Trump and Trumpism were and are neofascist. If you buy into the silly academic and journalistic notion that Trumpism is “populism,” you are likely to see “working-class” (um, white) content in it and blow-off actual research proving otherwise.

Another part of it, I suspect, is the tendency on the left to automatically associate any legitimate concerns with sexism, racism, nativism, transphobia, and homophobia with “bourgeois identity politics.” As you try to explain that reactionary social sentiments and related political authoritarianism, not economic populism and anxiety, are the real driving passions behind the Amerikaner base, these leftists curl up their faces in disgust and charge “identity politics!” – as if being a Lefitst interested in building popular solidarity against capitalism-imperialism doesn’t mean steadfastly opposing racism, nativism, sexism, trans-bashing, and homophobia.

And here, at the risk of being accused of that horrible sin – bourgeois/“PMC” identity politics (false: I am a full-on communist opponent of capitalist class rule) – I will (yes, anecdotally) observe that preponderant majority of avowed lefties who have curled their lips and advanced to me the empirically unsupported Trumpenproletarian thesis are themselves older and straight white males. Sometimes I wonder if they hold the thesis in part because they share at least some of the right’s white patriarchal revulsion against anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-nativism, anti-transphobia, and anti-homophobia. At the same time, their white male privilege (the ones I hear from are typically quite comfortably situated) insulates them from the dangerous white nationalist sentiments and forces afoot in the land. Calling Trump’s base “working class” gives them a way of stealthily putting a left spin on white male reaction and indifference. How pathetic.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).