We’re hearing it over and over again, seeing it in the media left and right, voiced by Donald Trump himself: The paradoxical and meteoric rise of one of the most bizarre presidential candidates in US history can be attributed to a groundswell of support from the working class. You know, the salt of the earth, the real Republican values voters — those ignorant, short-sighted people who are totally incapable of critical thought and who instead mindlessly parrot political slogans. Make America great again!
This belief is widely perpetuated, but it’s both wrong and offensive. Let’s start with the demographics of Trump voters: Statistically speaking, his supporters are actually wealthier, and this isn’t some sort of revolt within the ranks of the Republican party. It’s a reinforcement of the party’s self-created values, that people should be entitled to nearly unlimited wealth with unchecked social and business practices. Of course wealthier people are going to support Trump.
But let’s take a closer look at the ‘working class,’ which is kind of a nebulous term. In terms of people living at or close to the poverty line, which is definitely one way to define it, people of colour are far more likely to be members of the working class and the precariat. While low-income white people exist, especially in rural areas, they’re underrepresented overall in poor communities, and while some are conservatives, not all of them are. While Republicans have historically relied on the belief that they can appeal to poor white people with promises of lower taxes and plays upon oppressive social attitudes, those ploys are failing.
What really infuriates me about this rhetoric when it comes to Trump and the working class is that it’s just plain insulting. There’s no evidence to suggest that the working class in general supports Trump, but also, the suggestion that people are automatically conservative when they’re working class carries very loaded implications. Like the idea that working class people are uneducated, incapable of critical thinking, and thereby unable to evaluate how candidates will affect their lives in the long term. And the notion that working class people are bigoted and more likely to support candidates who espouse bigoted views.
I wrote in 2011 about the ‘hayseed‘ stereotype that surrounds rural communities, which have an extremely high poverty rate, and this is just another iteration of that. It’s dismissive. Liberals like to talk a big talk about poverty and how important it is to create a social safety net, but at the same time, they patronise actual poor and working class people — there’s a sense of ‘for their own good’ and an added iteration that poor people can’t advocate for themselves and need nice liberals to talk for them. There’s also an attitude that poor people insist on supporting political ideals that hurt them when there’s not really a lot of strong evidence to back that up.
Sure, some poor people are social conservatives, just like middle and upper class people. The origins of those beliefs are complicated and interact with a lot of poor and working class experience, including rhetoric from conservatives who like to push the notion that social equality will somehow harm working class people. (See, for example, notions about ‘reverse racism’ and how affirmative action is ‘stealing’ jobs, places at colleges and universities, and other social opportunities.) People aren’t socially conservative because they are poor, though. They’re conservative because of the culture they’ve grown up in, because of the politics of friends and family, because of their own internalised beliefs and attitudes. Social structures perpetuate political and social values.
Demonising the working class for Trump’s rise is another form of marginalisation. It suggests that the working class aren’t grateful for what nice kindly liberals do for them, that they’re too limited to understand the cause they’re supporting, that their communities are automatically bigoted in nature because everyone is poor and struggling to survive. This entrenches the distrust and class tensions that we already have plenty of, because there’s no reason to trust people who repeatedly belittle you and treat you like a toddler who needs to have everything patiently explained to you because you’re obviously too clueless to figure things out on your own.
Donald Trump appeals to people who have a very specific worldview and mindset. He provides soothingly bombastic politics for people who believe that their way of life and values are under siege — he’s isolationist, he’s socially regressive, and he’s terrifying. But for some people, he represents precisely what they’re looking for in a culture where social change is accelerating, where people are pushing for equality and achieving more civil rights victories year by year. He’s playing upon beliefs that the left is out to steal your money, kill your babies, and open the borders wide to anyone who wants to come here, and those beliefs aren’t attitudes rooted in the working class. They are attitudes that come from the upper middle class and middle class, people who want to protect the status quo in order to entrench their social positions.
People achieve their political values on their own. Working class people are struggling with issues that the rest of the United States doesn’t want to engage with and cannot even begin to fathom. When they’re told that they must be regressive social conservatives because they’re not smart enough to think on their own, let alone think in the long term, it’s not surprising that many react negatively and with frustration. Wouldn’t you?
Image: Donald Trump, Gage Skidmore, Flickr