Originally published in the New Left Review in 2017.
Trump’s echt supporter was not the poorest or most precarious straight white man. He was not the most likely to be unemployed, underemployed, competing with immigrants, living amidst the ruins of factories, or the most susceptible to the whiplash of global trade. Microdata from that Gallup survey put his mean household income at $81,898. Far from the proletariat of media typecasting, this ‘white working class’ is as likely to include business owners or managers as it is foremen or skilled workers in construction, production, installation, transportation, machine maintenance and repair. More likely to be over forty, more likely to receive disability or other Social Security payments, unlikely to have accumulated wealth that is not leveraged or to have got much if any post-secondary education, his is a proﬁle in disappointment: the low-boil blues of one who almost made it, but not quite.
Perhaps sick of ‘playing by the rules’, as his betters have always exhorted, and having so little to show for it, this voter was drawn to the man who could say anything, do anything, and get away with it. America has always loved its outlaws. The Gallup survey says next to nothing about motivation, and even if asked, people might not have told the truth. Exit polls show that nationally, Clinton won voters who said the economy was their top issue by 10 points. They suggest that what Trump voters wanted most was some generalized shake-up, ‘change’, a word with as many meanings as the people who invoke it. Change could be the reason for the touted paradox of the Obama voter now supporting Trump. On election night outside Trump’s victory party in Manhattan, though, change meant the defeat of Obama, as enthusiasts chanted the ﬁnal date of his second term as if he’d been on the ballot, and one man marched around shouting, ‘White power!’
Anecdote is not explanation, but neither is analgesic talk of trade or the economy. If the working class was the determinant on 8 November—the whites who backed Trump, the blacks and Latinos who did not surge for Clinton, the union households who gave the Democrat candidate the smallest advantage (8 per cent) since 1984— then its alienation from itself and the ways both parties relate to that are arguably the momentous issues of the election. This working class without ‘the class’, with little ideological consciousness of itself, no coherent politics and diminishing organization, is hardly new; but against the spectre of Muslim bans and intensiﬁed state machinery to round up undocumented workers, its divisions are newly dangerous, especially for designated scapegoats—but also for itself.
To take the Trump voters ﬁrst, it is dishonest to pussyfoot around bigotry as vital to their man’s appeal. It is also no use assuming that all 62.9 million of them—the highest number in Republican history— are virulent haters. More likely, and more difficult politically, most are probably typical white Americans who historically haven’t let discrimination get in the way. Their forebears, metaphorically speaking, lived with legalized racism, segregation, unequal wages, chauvinism and violence of one sort or another; they followed leaders who validated that reality; and, taken up with their own problems, they didn’t give much thought to the notion that accommodating themselves to the myriad oppressions of others also disciplined them, limited them, depleted them.
In this, they are not unlike the Democratic Party, which for decades accommodated its segregationist rump; or organized labour, which even in the best cases has a fairly disembodied focus on wages and conditions, while providing limited room for political discussion or education. Covering the Democratic primary in Ohio in 2008, I had a series of talks around the state with rank-and-ﬁle members of the Communications Workers of America. My interlocutors (not all white men) passionately expressed views that straddled matters of work, personal life, war—that is, their embodied class reality. They could be sharply contentious; invariably, at the end, someone said, ‘I wish we could do this in our local.’ Equally invariably, when I put it to the local leader, he responded with some version of ‘Are you kidding? The gun people would be at the throats of the anti-gun people; the abortion people would be tearing at each other. No, it would be a mess.’ This is less a reﬂection on CWA, a progressive union, than it is a window onto the generally pinched construction of class issues and the scant opportunities for people to analyse power and the beneﬁts that capital accrues from division. In unions with less member involvement than CWA, limiting politics to endorsements typically issued from the top only serves to telegraph that there is no faith in the workers—no faith in them as people, who are complicated like most people and looking for a matrix to make sense of their lives. It says they don’t count, their views don’t count. In 2016, Clinton lost union households in Ohio by 9 per cent.
Outside the unions, someone else has been providing a matrix. Most people do not have a clear-cut ideological worldview. Most times, their political perspective is a jumble of left and right, aspiration and defeat, cynicism and romanticism. They take what seems to make sense at the moment, what ﬁts with their experience and history. It’s often contradictory. These are people like my father, a tool-and-die maker in Buffalo until the late 1980s, when the work moved to Texas and Mexico. He and my mother lived in a black neighbourhood that had once been mainly Polish, staying put when most of the whites ﬂed. Sometime around 2003 he took to listening to Rush Limbaugh and kindred radio blow-hards. My mother loathed them. He called them comedians. After sending a few dollars to wounded-warrior outﬁts and ﬁlling out surveys sent from Republican congressional offices, he began receiving sheaves of GOP, religious and truly demented literature in the mail. He voted for Obama against Hillary in 2008 but voted for McCain–Palin in the general election because he was a veteran and she was ‘a nice, feisty girl’ who was strong against abortion. By then my mother had died. The fright mail intensiﬁed after Obama’s election, as did phone calls on behalf of Newt Gingrich and other party luminaries. The Democrats, meanwhile, sent a birthday card.
In 2012 he was alone and almost ninety, and his house had been broken into twice. Democrat-led redevelopment that was trans-forming Buffalo’s waterfront and West Side had not ﬂowed to the black East Side. The avenues that he remembered abuzz with commerce remained desolate after thirty years. When the factories that had supported the black and white working-class left, so did half the people. Workers were told that it was their fault, the fault of their unions, which had driven up the price of business in the 1970s, and of the black unemployed, who scared away investment when they lit up the city in the 1960s. I’m not sure how my father voted in 2012. Probably for Romney, on ‘right to life’, the only thing left to believe in.
The tangle of delusion, belief, hope, disappointment and realism should not be underestimated. The dissonance between people’s personal behaviour and their political choices ought not to be under-estimated either. The only person on our block whom my father couldn’t stand was the other white man, who let his property rot and sat around all day living on disability. The older black people on all sides he talked to over the fence or on the porch, only rarely in the kitchen; and the idle young men he hired for little jobs around the place and instructed in the use of tools. The little kids he watched over as they waited for the school bus, mostly because he didn’t want them on his lawn but also because he thought that children ought to be minded. The people of the hood called him ‘the old man’, and one prayed over him when he was sick. I felt sure this year, had he been alive, he’d have voted for Trump. He never liked the Clintons, never went third party and never sat out an election. He would have voted and then, I’ve no doubt, he would have talked to the people next door about common things, cheered that the house across the street was sold to a home owner and not a management company; but worried, too, because the Bangladeshis who bought it, and who are buying up houses in the area that cost anywhere from $6,000 to $35,000, might be terrorists. As one of his neighbours, a former presswoman now retrained as a medical tech, said last month when I was at the house, ‘They’re Arabs, and you never know.’ So now white and black are scared of the South Asians—‘ok, they’re not Arabs, but they are Muslim’—moving in.
Trump’s appeals to economic insecurity allowed those who might ordinarily be turned off by the open racism and nativism and sexism to say, ‘Well, there is something more here. He’s talking about our experience. He’s talking in a language we understand. He’s talking about the prosperity we lost and how we’ll get it back.’ About the rest, the ugliness Trump tapped, they said, ‘He doesn’t mean it’, or ‘He won’t be able to do it’ (round up 11 million undocumented immigrants), or ‘That’s just electioneering’, or ‘That’s just locker-room talk’, or ‘He’s an entertainer, he doesn’t mean anything he says.’ I heard all those justiﬁcations, or versions of them, from Trump supporters last year.
Bigotry didn’t get in the way for them. It didn’t get in the way, either, for third-party backers. This is not to exaggerate the power of those protest votes. It was a revolting election (it usually is). Clinton lost it by arrogance and inattention, by ignoring voters in her ‘blue wall’ of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and offering the Obama coalition of non-white and young voters more symbol than substance. Mostly she lost it by making the election about Trump, captured in insipid slogans, ‘Love Trumps Hate’ and ‘I’m with Her’. People need to have something to vote for; many also expect to be asked for their vote. In Wisconsin, Hillary didn’t even ask. Not the whites. Not the blacks, whose vote the state made every effort to suppress. Politically indisposed to formulating a class argument that addressed the multiple, interconnected strands of people’s insecurity, she took all their votes for granted. It was her own form of triangulation: pitch for the Obama urbanites and the Republican suburbanites—on the superﬁcial grounds of legacy in the ﬁrst instance, and salvation from embarrassment in the second—and ﬁgure the blue wall had nowhere else to go. It turns out everyone had somewhere else to go in the places that counted.
Nevertheless, the third-party vote raises a serious question for the left: what would it take for social solidarity to outstrip an airy sense of political purity with respect to the electoral arena? Trump promised to round up undocumented immigrants, exclude Muslims and reinstitute torture, but that brash commitment to human suffering was not severe enough to mobilize a united left opposition to thwart him. By his own vow or in the choice of his running mate, he favoured constraints on bodily freedom for young black men, women and homosexuals, but that was not enough; nor was musing on the use of nuclear weapons. It’s an academic question now, given the weakness of the left. There is no mass-based organized force that might have backed Clinton as an instrumental means of averting attacks on the most vulnerable populations, then mobilized in the streets and every other area of struggle to disrupt her own plans of attack and to press for radical reform. There is no broadly articulated class politics in which race, sex, origin, are not add-ons, not simply matters of ‘inclusion’, but deeply entwined, as they are in life (and Sanders didn’t have this). No electoral strategy to develop power bases in conjunction with grassroots groups. The protests now—and the scramble in cities and states, campuses and churches, to declare sanctuaries—are measures of our hope but also our impotence, as the pro-Clinton media makes Putin Public Enemy Number One, as some protesters blithely follow, and Democrats, distrait since the election, ﬁnd their calling in manly embrace of the national security state. A thousand gnats nip at Trump, but power is on the right.
— An adapted excerpt from Contraventions: Editorials from New Left Review, Edited by New Left Review and Susan Watkins.