The dangers of the myth of Trump’s white working class support


The myth of the white working class support for Trump is animating post-election debates at alarming speed with misleading interpretations of often partial and incomplete data. It is being used from certain sectors of the Euro-American left to try to minimise the biggest single factor that emerges from the US presidential election results: most whites, across gender and income groups, voted for Trump, somebody who has not hidden his white supremacist views, condones sexual assault, and built his campaign on openly anti-immigration, anti-Latino and anti-Muslim themes.

It is quite likely that some sectors of the white working classes have switched from Democrat to Republican. Much better analysis and comparison are required than what is circulating to support the “working class thesis” – as examples of misleading early analysis of voter data see Nate Cohn’s piece in the New York Times; a much better analysis on the Washington Post dismissing Cohn’s interpretation is here. What is problematic is the attempt to blow this factor out of proportion and say that Trump’s victory was supported by some kind of popular revolt, that we should give attention to the anti-establishment narrative and policies proposed by Trump, so that we can produce better alternatives without the “awful racist rhetoric”.

Many on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, are liquidating the Trump phenomenon as just that, reducing it to the presence of racist and divisive “rhetoric”. This erases the fact that the vast majority of people of colour who voted, supported Clinton – clearly an “establishment” candidate, which doesn’t mean that those who voted supported an establishment agenda of course. And it ultimately dismisses the plight and suffering of groups who have experienced for centuries structural discrimination and marginalisation, both in the US and abroad, thus reinforcing racial and ethnic divisions, and undermining the possibility for broader solidarities across the various groups and communities that have been at the receiving end of the devastating effects of the current world order.

The issue is not so much with restating the fact that the establishment is in crisis, and something has to change. It seems that these narratives are accepted in certain quarters when the decline affects white Americans and Europeans. One gets the sense that it is only when we focus the attention on the plight of the “white working class”, that some people are able to fully grasp the damage that a discriminatory exploitative system has on people. This way of thinking does not allow for a radical restructuring of the world that will make space for all humans, and actively work against the privilege of certain groups – whiteness and maleness remain unmistakably two of the most dominant forms of privilege today. Knowingly or not, the “popular revolt” thesis plays in the hands of xenophobic and racist movements calling for “anti-establishment” politics that favours white nationals at the expense of everybody else.

One powerful reminder comes from South African history. The “poor white problem” emerged as a political category in the early 20th Century, when the white government became worried about the widespread poverty of Boer communities who had been dispossessed and turned into cheap labour after the Anglo-Boer war. Of course the worry was motivated by widespread revolts of that sector of the population, which was absorbed into mining labour, but was also driven by a racial concern for “fellow whites” who had fallen from grace. That formed the basis for the rise to power of Afrikaner nationalism and the establishment of apartheid on an ideology that supposedly provided welfare and protection for the “dispossessed” whites, at the expense of blacks and all other racial groups. Apartheid was a welfare state for whites only, supported by the cheap labour of black people and other discriminated racial groups, built on the brutal repression of any dissent and wars waged against black liberation movements across the African continent.

If we simplistically frame Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote as a revolt of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised white working classes – based on a partial and biased reading of the actual data – there is a real risk that the solutions we come up with will contribute to reinforce various forms of white nationalisms and xenophobic alliances, rather than providing a clear and uncompromising alternative to them. The attention has to shift to the whole system, with its myriads of levels of discrimination and oppression. Doing that will easily put into perspective the dissent by some sectors of the white working classes. While there is no doubt that we should attend to all forms of exploitation and dispossession, an intersectional approach means that we cannot privilege one dimension of exclusion over others. Race, class and gender need to be understood in interaction, rather than in mutually exclusive terms.

Sadly some of the analysis that has been produced recently by leftist commentators tends to produce stark dichotomies privileging a reading of class that disregards race and gender dynamics. These analyses tend to be driven by a narrow understanding of race and racism. Racism is not seen as a structural factor that orders and articulates the distribution of economic, social, educational and other resources and forms of capital, but as some left-over of Jim Crow or colonial imperialism that reappears as a rhetorical baggage to mislead the working classes in the wrong direction, providing the wrong response to the right concerns.

What is left out here is that many whites – the majority of whom are not impoverished working class – now feel under attack as “whites” and their perception of diminishing wealth and privilege are rooted in a racial view of a world that is perceived as hostile to their very existence, where other discriminated groups and some conspiratorial multi-billionaires have supposedly allied to marginalise the “common white folk”. The term “white” might be less present in European discourse, but there British, Italian, Swedish, German, and so on, are used as proxy for white nationals. In South Africa, we are seeing similar dynamics among the white communities. The problem then, in America and elsewhere, is not that racism is high among the white working class, rather it is widespread among all sectors of the white population.

We need to move beyond narrow readings of race. For instance, the analysis by Nate Kohn for the NYT claims, based on partial data from the Rust Belt, that many white working class voters switched from Obama to Trump, and this was the main reason for Trump’s victory. It is a simplistic conclusion based on the the fact that some states that voted strongly for Obama in 2012, saw a Trump victory this week. This “fact” is doing the rounds in social media, but has not been supported by solid evidence, because we need to properly evaluate how much of the victory is due to Clinton’s collapse in support more than a switch from Democrat to Republican.

Looking at percentages doesn’t help, we need to look at actual voters in 2012 and 2016. Nate Cohn’s analysis is lacking in this respect, and ignores the fact that in some of these states, for instance in Wisconsin, Trump did not get more actual voters than Romney in 2012, while Clinton lost significant support compared to Obama. Overall, Cohn’s analysis does not contextualise the extent to which the white working classes would supposedly constitute the decisive factor in Trump’s victory – it does not look at trends across the country and various income classes, to see whether Trump made significant rises there too compared to 2012. Christopher Ingraham for the Washington Post looks at a much broader set of national data across and concludes that, with the exception of southeast Ohio, most of the counties that experienced huge shifts from Obama to Trump are outside the Rust Belt. Cohn’s bias is also clear from a tweet where he classifies people earning between $50,000 and $99,999 per year to justify his mistaken claim that low-income white voters have supported Trump more than affluent white voters. We will have to wait for all the votes to be counted in this election to provide solid comparative analysis on this, but for now we can say that the evidence provided by Cohn is at best scant, and at worst incomplete and biased.

It is possible that some white voters across income groups have switched from Obama to Trump. What is worrying is the way this has been used to support the idea that if white voters have previously voted for a black president, then they can’t be implicated in racism. Obama’s first election was met with much clamour by many whites in America, who felt that this was a momentous event that would finally help America heal its deep racial divisions. It was seen as a sign of hope. Yet, throughout the two Obama presidencies we have seen a rise of racist rhetoric and arguments thrown against Obama that tried to dismiss pretty much everything he did, from the Affordable Care Act to state intervention in the financial crisis and foreign policy.  These views were often racialised and indicated that the alleged failures were the making of an incompetent black man not suited for office. Explicit racist rhetoric was often replaced by a coded way to talk about race that characterises much liberal racism today.

The fact that some of the same people who voted for him could join the ranks of those who attacked him as unfit for office and even unAmerican, is not contradictory. We see this all the time when black professionals are hired in workplaces dominated by white colleagues. Often, many of the same colleagues that support the need to diversify the workplace and make it representative of wider societal demographics, are quick to dismiss and undermine their black colleagues with a myriad of overt and less overt aggressions. It is evident that on the whole, white people are still very uncomfortable with having people of colour in positions that were traditionally occupied by whites and constitute up to now the core of white privilege. The basic hierarchy that puts whites on top is put in question, and hence the backlash. A possible switch of some white voters from Obama to Trump does not make the arguments about “popular revolt” any more valid. It can be easily explained by a more nuanced approach to race that recognises how widespread various forms of white racism are today.

In the same way, to gloss over the fact that Trump’s victory has a strong gender component would also be wrong – this too is often downplayed by some left commentators, to stress once again the dominant narrative the only reason for Clinton’s lack of popularity was her establishment credentials. The fact that people supported an unashamed chauvinist who says that groping women is not sexual assault is not something that can be minimised as a “character flaw”. Trump did gain most of the vote of white women, but in significantly lesser proportion than white men. Women of colour voted for Clinton in bigger numbers than men of colour. The vitriolic arguments against Clinton during the campaign suggested that gender was a factor.

When men are confronted with the possibility of women becoming their equals, there too there is a backlash. It’s not just about biological sex or the pigmentation of one’s skin. It is about having individuals who are not willing to mould their persona and behaviour to fit the accepted racial and gender stereotypes in a world dominated by whites and men. Sarah Palin, who is an enthusiastic Trump supporter, poses no threat to the toxic masculinity of the president-elect. Hillary Clinton does. To minimise misogyny as an important factor in Clinton’s defeat – as a post-election piece by Adaner Usmani in Jacobin magazine does – because 42% of women voted for Trump, is to offer a poor and narrow understanding of gender and sexism, and how they intersect with issues of race and class.

The same piece ends on a note that highlights many of problems with the linear class narrative that I am criticising:

Yet if the Left writes off Trump’s base, we too have no answer. All the socialist POC in the country can’t fill a football stadium, much less put Humpty Dumpty back together again. In the main, we live in universities and/or in blue-state bastions. If organizing means nothing more than doubling down, we are in trouble.

The role of the left should not be to focus the bulk of its efforts on negotiating and allying with the – often misrepresented – concerns of one sector of the working classes. It is to mobilise a broader alliance against the system that can effectively tackle various forms of discrimination, acknowledge the differential levels of discrimination and exclusion experienced by various groups, and make proposals that do not gloss over white and male privilege at the expense of everybody else simply because “that’s our base”. Framing the Trump phenomenon as driven by legitimate concerns expressed with the wrong rhetoric goes in the opposite direction.


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