Have Trump’s working-class whites really embraced ‘class warfare’?

Trump rally in New Hampshire
Trump supporters at rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, December 28, 2015. Photo: Marc Nozell

For liberals, one of the lessons of the Trump campaign is that they and the Democratic Party have to start paying more attention to the economic pain of America’s white working class, which Trump has turned to his advantage in such a startling way.

These people without a college education are the ones left behind by the Obama recovery, left behind by the modern global, high-tech economy in general, and the Democratic Party, which used to speak for this class, doesn’t any longer and this has to change, according to the new liberal consensus.

I don’t doubt the economic pain of people who have no job security, whose salaries and benefits have steadily declined, and whose prospects for the future look no better. What I do doubt, though, is that Trump’s economic pitch – to bring back the good old days of American factory work – is up there among the main reasons why he’s getting such huge support from these people.

I doubt it because blue-collar America didn’t just start declining now; it started in the 1980s, and even a little before. Where have these working-class whites been all this time with their demands to reverse free trade?

These Trump voters are Republicans and right-leaning Independents; why have they been supporting pro-free-trade, pro-1%, anti-union, anti-safety-net Republicans for decades? Why did they, and why do they still, worship Reagan, who broke the mold on this economic policy, and who did more to screw American workers, not to mention the American poor, than any other president?

GOP’s old name for Trump’s economics

Before Trump, the Republicans had a term for the complaint that workers were getting hammered and Wall Street was the enemy: “class warfare.” Only Democrats preached class warfare, and the white working class wasn’t having it – if they voted, they voted Republican.

So why have they suddenly woken up? Why, for the first time since they left the Democrats and flocked to Reagan in 1980 (if they hadn’t left as part of Nixon’s “silent majority” in 1968, or as part of his 1972 landslide over the Bernie Sanders of the day, George McGovern) are they talking like proletarians?

Because the new, working-class economics that Trump is serving them comes packaged in the good old Republican wrapping that they always grab for – hatred of Washington, politicians, the media, the Democrats, Obama, the Clintons, immigrants, Muslims, as well as blacks, women and gays who aren’t grateful for all their advantages.

Plus, many if not most of them really like Trump’s style, which is also new. Many respect his wealth, seeing it as proof of his ability and believing he’ll use it to get them a better break. Many also see his beautiful women and his exciting life, and hero-worship him.

Take away Trump’s Republican political and social themes, take away his personality, his billions and his celebrity and make him a Democrat running against free trade and for bringing back factory jobs to America – would working-class whites be interested? I don’t think so.

Sander NY rally
Sanders at rally in Manhattan, September 18, 2015. Photo: Michael Vadon

I know, Bernie Sanders also appealed to working-class whites with the same basic approach to trade and jobs. But I’m convinced that many of these people didn’t know he was a holdover from the late-‘60s New Left, and that once they found out – as they most certainly would have in a general election – they would have fled in droves to the Republicans, to the Libertarians or stayed home.

By and large, America’s working-class, high-school-educated whites are not proletarians, or anyway that is not an important part of their identity. No, they’re nationalists. And nationalists need enemies. That’s what the Republicans have given them, it sure as hell is what Trump has given them, and this is the decisive reason they love Trump.

Protectionist economics? That’s icing on the cake.

I have to wonder if these voters even believe it, if they believe there’s something a president can do to get their jobs back from overseas, to rebuild the factories and revive industrial unions and guarantee their employment, good wages and benefits, regular raises and the rest of what was once on offer in blue-collar America. It’s gone. It’s been dying in pieces for almost 40 years. The technological revolution and globalization killed it off; how do you reverse that combined force?

Anybody who tells Americans with no more than a high school diploma that there’s a way to get them into the middle class – other than by upgrading their education – is lying through his teeth. Leave that to Trump; Democrats don’t have to imitate him.

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For further reading:

Shhh, don’t tell Donald: Trump is not the first Republican to champion white working class, MarketWatch

Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why, The Guardian

Head of the class, New Yorker

New data: Why white working class voters back Trump, Newsweek

What Democrats still don’t get about George McGovern, New Republic