Blaming the White Working Class for Trump

The Notion That White Workers Elected Trump Is a Myth That Suits the Ruling Class

The image of poor and working-class whites flocking to Trump is a media myth. Like fascist and other right-nationalist political movements of the past, Trump has drawn his main support from the more reactionary segments of the middle class and petite bourgeoisie.

By Paul Street

  Supporters of Donald Trump at a presidential campaign rally in Nevada early last year. (Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0)

When a false narrative becomes pervasive, ask cui bono? Who benefits?

Take the notion that Donald Trump rode into the White House on a great upsurge of support from poor, white working-class voters drawn to the Republican candidate’s “populist” pitch in key Rust Belt states. This conventional “Rust Belt rebellion” wisdom was pronounced on the front page of the nation’s newspaper of record, The New York Times, one day after the election. The Times proclaimed that Trump’s victory was “a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters.” Times political writer Nate Cohn decreed that “Donald J. Trump won the presidency by riding an enormous wave of support among working-class whites” (emphasis added).

Trump’s Real Base

This storyline has been repeated over and over and taken for granted in the mainstream media and even in much of the progressive left—including by me (see this Truthdig essay, in which I unfortunately referred to “Trump’s conservative, white working-class base”). And it is false. The narrative is flatly contradicted by the data. As Lehigh University political scientist Anthony DiMaggio noted three weeks ago:

Support for Trump … is largely concentrated among more affluent Americans. Trump voters were significantly more likely to be older, white, Republican conservatives—a group that has been quite privileged historically speaking. Trump voters were not more likely to be unemployed, compared to non-Trump voters. Income-wise, the single largest group of Trump supporters was comprised of individuals hailing from households earning incomes of more than $100,000 a year—which made up 35 percent of all his voters. Those earning between $75,000 to $100,000 a year accounted for 19 percent of Trump voters, meaning that 54 percent of the president’s supporters came from households earning over $75,000 a year. Another 20 percent of Trump supporters earned between $50,000 to $75,000 a year, putting them over the national median household income, which has long hovered around $50,000. In sum, approximately three-quarters of Trump voters were from households earning more than the national median income, while just one-quarter earned less than the median.

Lost in the hoopla over Trump’s alleged “working-class base” is an all-too-easy-to-forget fact that a higher percentage of Trump’s voters (35 percent) than Hillary Clinton’s (34 percent) were from the one-fourth of Americans who live in households that “earn” over $100,000 a year.

Academic studies of exit polling data show that Trump’s backers were concerned primarily with the “social issues” he championed. Sexism and racism (white identity) were the leading correlates with Trump voting, not economic dissatisfaction or disadvantage. It was Trump’s chauvinistic positions and statements on race, gender and immigration—not his “blue-collar populism”—that scored him the most points with his mostly middle-class backers.

Yes, the white working class, defined as Caucasians with less than a college degree (more on that below), demonstrated yet again their preference for Republicans over Democrats in the presidential election. Indeed, Trump bested Clinton among white voters without college degrees by 66 percent to 28 percent, the biggest Republican margin with those voterssince 1980.

But the lack of a college diploma is a highly imperfect measure of working-class status. Bill Gates never got a bachelor’s degree. Neither did his proletarian comrade Mark Zuckerberg. Occupation and income are far better indicators. Exit polls include the second category but not the first. And nearly 60 percent of white people without college degrees who voted for Trump were in the top half of the income distribution. One in 5 white Trump voters without a college degree had a household income over $100,000.

Another difficulty with the white Trumped-proletarian narrative is that most whites without an allegedly class-defining college degree don’t vote. Thanks in part to this silent election boycott, Trump got votes from approximately just a fifth of the 136 million white American adults who lack the higher ed diploma.

The image of poor and working-class whites flocking to Trump is a media myth. Like fascist and other right-nationalist political movements of the past, Trump has drawn his main support from the more reactionary segments of the middle class and petite bourgeoisie.

Trump Didn’t Win the Working Class. The Democrats Lost It.

The dismal Democrats have been losing white working-class votes for decades across the long neoliberal era because the party has abandoned workers’ lunch-pail economic issues and the language of class in pursuit of corporate sponsorship and votes from the professional class. But there was no mass white working-class outpouring for Trump. Clinton’s miserable, centrist campaign and Obama’s neoliberal legacy depressed working- and lower-class voter turnout, opening the door for Trump to squeak by—with no small help from racist voter suppression in key states.

Slate writers Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr got it right three weeks after the election. “Donald Trump didn’t flip working-class white voters,” they wrote. “Hillary Clinton lost them. … Relative to the 2012 election, Democratic support in the key Rust Belt states [Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin] collapsed as a huge number of Democrats stayed home or (to a lesser extent) voted for a third party.” The decline of working-class Democratic voters between 2012 and 2016 was much bigger than the rise of working-class Republican voters in the “Rust Belt Five.” Among those earning less than $50,000 a year there, the decline in Democratic voting was 3.5 times greater than the rise in Republican voting. Among white voters in general, the decline in Democratic voting was 2.1 times greater than the growth in Republican voting.

The most relevant factor behind Trump’s success in winning over the majority of “white working-class” voters was the decision by so many in the working class not to vote at all, given the neoliberal nothingness of the onetime purported “party of the people.” This is the truth behind Bernie Sanders’ recent statement to the People’s Summit in Chicago: “Trump didn’t win the election. The Democratic Party lost the election.”

Progressive Intellectuals

Why have so many commentators, politicos, reporters and talking heads run so strongly and matter of factly with the white Trumpen-proletarian narrative, unsupported by empirical data? With progressive left intellectuals, one problem beyond undue deference to The New York Times is that many of us are excessively allergic to data. Statistics are time-consuming to dig up and digest and often inelegant and unsexy to write about. Since some of us don’t feel sufficiently competent, interested and/or energetic to wade into the numbers swamp, we miss critical facts.

Other explanations relate to class position. Intellectuals tend to have little contact with people without college degrees (which is most of the U.S. populace) and thus tend to be susceptible to false narratives about such people in the same way that racial segregation renders whites disposed to embrace fantastic beliefs about black people. At the same time, many progressive thinkers are touchy about how little they’ve done to connect with, and fight for, working-class folks—the people who clean their offices, make their shampoo, take their blood pressure, haul their garbage and sell them their garden furnishings. The notion that those people have been turned into a bunch of right-wing racists, nativists and misogynists is perhaps subconsciously useful when it comes to rationalizing that failure.

Left intellectuals are understandably drawn to Thomas Frank’s “Kansas” thesis that losing the white working class to the vicious and manipulative Republican Party is the price neoliberal-era Democrats pay for moving to the right, dumping labor and the language of class to cozy up more closely to the corporate-financial establishment and the professional class. It’s an elegant argument. There’s some veracity to the thesis, a staple in my own political writing for many years, though the deeper truth is that the Democrats have lost the white working class and the electorate less to the highly unpopular and ever-more rancid and radically reactionary Republican Party than to apathy and nonvoting.

Another factor may be some left thinkers’ taste for pessimism and darkness over hopefulness and light. The notion that the right wing has won over the working class is about as gloomy as it gets for a left progressive.

Establishment Democrats

Things are less tricky when it comes to grasping why more-powerful players have embraced the white Trumpen-proletarian narrative. There’s nothing mysterious about establishment neoliberal Clinton-Obama-Pelosi-style Democrats’ attraction to the notion of a big racist, nativist and misogynist white working class. The corporate and professional class elitists atop the onetime “party of the people” have been betraying the proletariat and eschewing populist and working-class rhetoric for decades. The Hillary Clinton campaign was specifically crafted around a highly identity-politicized neoliberal politics of “hate and castrate”—a politics that wrote off the working class as irredeemably racist, nativist and sexist. The strategy failed, dovetailing with Obama’s failure to address working- and lower-class needs to demobilize enough normally Democratic voters for even the noxious and unpopular Trump to prevail—with some help, to be sure, from racist voter suppression (a key factor that has been sadly forgotten in the discourse of liberals obsessed with unsupported charges of relevant Russian election interference), the openly absurd Electoral CollegeJames Comey and some ill-timed increases in health insurance premiums under Obama’s not-so-Affordable Health Care Act.

Establishment Democrats find it useful to continue smearing the white working class as a bunch of despicably racist and sexist rubes and reactionaries. This absolves them, they think, from their ongoing refusal to properly address the needs of the nation’s economically embattled working-class majority. It’s a remarkable failure in a nation where the top 10th of the upper 1 percent possesses as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, where half the population is poor or near poor and lacks any assets while an ever more opulent minority lives in obscene hyperopulence and globalist indifference to ordinary Americans.

“Hey, don’t blame us,” elite Dems suggest, “blame those stupid and vicious right-wing white proles out there. Hillary shouldn’t have called them ‘deplorables,’ but they’re pretty, well, deplorable.”

There’s an obvious parallel here with the “blame Russia” narrative. The irony is that if the Democrats had run Sanders or a Sanders-like campaign, they would have mobilized enough white and nonwhite working- and lower-class votes to prevail.

The Media

There’s a similar dynamic behind the corporate media’s embrace and advance of the white Trumpen-proletarian myth. Like the Democratic Party, it has some sins to cover up with the rise of Trump. He’s the dominant media’s Frankenstein to no small extent.

The preposterous faux-populist Trump arose with no small help from a news media that gave him absurd amounts of free public exposure, enabling him to defeat and indeed humiliate Wall Street’s chosen Republican contenders, including first and foremost Jeb Bush.

The media helped create a giant monster from which it would later recoil—too late. It obsessed over Trump’s every ridiculous statement and tweet while systematically under-covering the giant progressive rallies held by the actually populist Bernie Sanders, who would have defeated Trump in the general election. So it too has a vested interest in deflecting attention away from itself and on to the big, bad, white working class when it comes to explaining the ascendency of an “Insane Clown President.”

For those Republicans who have aligned themselves with Trump either out of sincere attachment or for political and legislative/parliamentary reasons, the notion that he won and stays in office with the support of a great, popular, heartland “base” is obviously welcome. The ridiculous illusion of the archplutocratic Trump as a populist working-people’s champion provides cherished Orwellian cover for the Republicans’ radically regressive program to distribute wealth and power yet further upward.

’They Deserve to Die’

Among aristocratic Republicans who have not let go of their class disdain for the noxious Twitter-addicted Trump, he is a symbol of what happens when the nefarious proletariat is allowed to unduly influence national political affairs. A National Review commentarydecrying Trump’s supposed working-class base last March reeked with class viciousness. “The white American underclass,” the journal sneered, “is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. The truth about these dysfunctional downscale communities is that they deserve to die.”

This kind of poisonous class disdain isn’t restricted to old-time rich Republicans in the William F. Buckley mode. I’ve heard practically identical denunciations of the supposedly Trumpified, white working class from disdainful, professional-class “liberal” Democrats in the university community of Iowa City. One such self-described “progressive” tells me that “they’ve put the White House on wheels,” the joke being that Trump represents the “trailer park crowd.” Beyond the dreadful classism, it’s a stupid joke considering Trump’s remarkable personal wealth, the stocking of his Cabinet team with superrich fat cats, and the hyper-regressive Trump and GOP agenda of slashing taxes and regulations to make the hyperwealthy yet more fabulously affluent.

The Ruling Class Could Send Him Packing

Atop the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money, the wealthy few are no doubt enjoying the opportunity to cash in from Trump’s plutocratic presidency while watching the reigning media-politics culture blame the deadly idiocy of that presidency on the unwashed proletariat. Either way—Trump succeeds or Trump fails—the ruling class wins. (What else is new?)

Trump’s nationally embarrassing absurdities pile up from one news cycle to the next. Normally staid news anchors are reduced to shaking their heads in disbelief and outrage at his latest childish and all too commonly misogynist Twitter outrage. The world cringes at the practically subhuman ogre inhabiting the White House—a great symbol of the vulgar stupidity, mean-spirited violence and sociopathological selfishness that is all too prevalent in the nation’s corporate-crafted mass culture. The crazy, malignant narcissist who stands at the symbolic top of the world’s only superpower—the self-proclaimed “exceptional” homeland and headquarters of liberty, democracy and everything good—is an unmitigated and abject national disgrace.

If it cared to, the nation’s globalist, corporate and financial elite could take this fetid farce of a president down. The ruling class could threaten a capital strike, promising to “make the economy scream” until Trump was sent back to the golf course full time through impeachment, 25th Amendment removal (on grounds of incompetence) or resignation (a la Nixon). The corporate and financial masters might well be taking such action were Bernie Sanders or some other actual progressive in the Oval Office.

They have no intention of removing Trump, however—not yet, at least. So what if he’s dangerously “unfit for the presidency”? Who cares if his call to “deregulate energy” is “almost a death knell for the species” (Noam Chomsky)? There’s too much quick money to be made with Trump and his opportunistic Republican allies in office. “American” capitalism is an inherently sociopathic system that exhibits less special attachment to the United States with every passing globalist year. Beneath all his ridiculous and manipulative populist pretense and his vile Twitter thuggery, Trump dutifully meets regularly with top corporate CEOs. He seems sincerely dedicated to escalating the already savage inequality of wealth and power in the U.S. Austerity, tax cuts and deregulation are good for the rate of profit.

Along the way, he provides a useful distraction and obsession for liberals and progressives. He keeps “the left” focused on his latest politically incorrect, identity-triggering offense and on the major party, candidate-centered election cycles instead of the critical task of forging a serious popular and working-class resistance movement beneath and beyond the quadrennial electoral extravaganzas that are sold to us as the only politics that matter.

The outlandish tyrant in the White House is also very good at poisoning public discourse and thereby encouraging more and more ordinary Americans to abandon any concern for politics because it’s just too toxic and Orwellian to merit precious attention and energy better focused on personal and family survival. Reduced public engagement is something the ruling class has every reason to want to foster in the populace. Oligarchs want as little public interference as possible in public affairs.

On top of all that, the masters get to blame the Trump atrocity on the working-class majority, thereby discrediting yet further the last flickering embers of democracy.

For the 1 percent, what’s not to like?



  1. This makes so much sense. I suspected this as it confirms my experiences.

    My brother’s 1971 classmate has a blog in & on our hometown an hour outside NYC. Despite not having been to the town in ages I was on that blog intitially regarding antique houses being torn down & replaced w/ hideous McMansions (weirdly built on tiny plots of land) for the new robber baron types that have taken over both NYC & surrounding Shore towns (& driven everbody else like me out… most of the artists & elderly & people w/ disabilities & people of colour… etc.).

    It was during the last election & I got tangled up in a Trump thread in which I was attempting — entirely on my own — to defend Muslims (immigration & not belonging tropes) & Black Americans (“law & order” comments from racist Republicans blaming Black people for getting shot/killed by police). I was unmercifully bullied by very wealthy citizens there; both Trump supporters & Democrats. I knew they were wealthy because they could still afford to live there & from their comments on the teardown/preservation threads. (Ridiculously explaining in a very hostile manner why 18th & 19th c. houses need to be torn down because people need “ten bathrooms” for their “ten bedroom” house: despite environmental & energy consumption & historic preservation issues pointed out to them).

    In a later post & thread on Syrian immigration I was so badly mobbed there for defending Syrian immigrants & Arab Americans — including by the blog owner/my brother’s classmate — that I had the whole post & thread archived in the Arab American Museum (in Dearborn MI) & The Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR); as they both have a digital archive evidencing racism toward Arabs & Muslims.

    Some of the people who were racist toward myself (granddaughter of a Syrian Lebanese early 20th c. refugee from occupying Ottoman police/soldier terror) & Syrians in that thread were very wealthy Trump supporter Republicans. Although the worst actors there were wealthy Democrats; the wealthy Republican Trump supporters & wealthy Democrats banded together on this blog to attack me in. (I was asked if I “hate the USA” amongst other anti-Arab comments).

    And I am not even Muslim. I am a Syrian Lebanese Orthodox Christian w/ a German mum — but they still tried to rip me to pieces over being & supporting Syrians. However when others in the same thread that had English or German Jewish sounding etc. names expressed support for Syrian immigrants they were not harrassed. (The blog owner makes everyone post their real full names; hence people can be judged by their names/guessed at ethnicity in addition to their opinions/comments). I never swear or call people names or make personal comments; so I was only attacked for supporting Syrians immigrants. (As evidenced by both the Arab American National Museum & CAIR acknowledging that by archiving the post & thread when I sent it to them).

    So obviously it is not only ‘poor white’ Americans who voted for Trump; but also wealthy ‘white’ Americans. Some very wealthy. The ‘poor white’ Americans here where I am surrounding NYC live in cities w/ people of colour.

  2. PS:

    A former childhood classmate told me he voted for Trump. He is white & became wealthy — despite not having finished university. (He was hired by his brother in law in a lucrative business to do w/ IT and/or computers. Which fits w/ the scenario of white people being helped to succeed — despite a lack of education or experience — by family & surroundings).

    He converted to Catholicism. He made anti-immigration comments to me about (East) “Indians” re. the 1965 Immigration Act. (I told him that was a godsend to us Arab Americans; having reversed years of quota racism after the 1920s Exclusion Law etc.).

    All this despite his daughter is close friends w/ the little girl who hid in the Church office in SC hearing her father & other parshioners shot & killed. (After his initial telling me of this I could not get anymore from him on how the little girl & her family were doing).

    They holiday in Europe & all over the country. Live in a six bedroom house.

    After he voted for Trump we stopped communicating. (Prior to that it had been over thirty years since I had seen or spoken to him).

    In addition to that I attended a Greek Orthodox church (I am Orthodox but belong to an ancient Church other than Greek etc.) where I ran into the mostly wealthy & white parishioners who were/are Trump supporters. Including someone throwing the ‘people who collect Social Security for disability are not really disabled/are stealing from the govt by faking disability’ stereotype at me. I did not have the time & it was not the right place to explain to her in detail why & how that myth is completely false & how SS is almost impossible to receive even with a proven disability & how hawkishly regulated it is by the US Govt in order to prevent fraud. (There are serious studies & statistics on this. It is not simply guesswork).

    There are a LOT of middle-class & wealthy Trump supporters.

    1. In addition, as I explained on Abagonds, not everybody who voted for Trump was a Trump supporter and, as Abagond would say, a “presumed racist” (even the blacks who supported him!).
      Many, like those who voted for Clinton, were lesser evil voters. They were not voting FOR Trump. They were voting against the greater evil. Except that for them Hillary was the greater evil, not Trump.

      Funny that Abagond would not apply the same evaluation to Hillary voters that he applied to Trumps. He presumed those who voted for Trump to be racist because they voted for a racist. By that reasoning, Since hillary is arguably just as racist as Trump, then those who voted for Hillary are racist too. Including Abagond.

      1. I know a young married Bangladeshi immigrant who was pro-Trump. (I forget if he is now a citizen & can vote). He’s Muslim… fasting inc. from water… everything… So I was really really surprised. This was after the anti-Muslim immigrant talk from Trump (but prior to the election & hence actual ban). He told me he thought Trump was “just talking”.

        I don’t like when people want to shut the door behind them re. immigration. I haven’t brought it up again because he works in a shop across from my place & I’m in there all the time. He’s a really kind person in conversation… so I was a bit shocked really.

      2. Also for years I (& some other Arab Americans who pay attention… & the ones who haven’t been marrying white women for over a hundred years & hence become indoctrinated w/ colonialist mindset) were saying how anti-Arab HRC was/is.

        A lot of people think the opposite because of Huma. Huma is not an Arab… not Palestinian… not Lebanese… etc. Huma is Muslim & Americans then erroneously think that HRC therefore is fair to arabs as well… The truth could not be farther from that.

        HRC stood in front of the United Nations w/ the Israeli ambassador during the relentless bombing of Lebanon & said it should be stronger. After THAT I have not been at all fond of her. I used to loathe her but I am working on my theosis (= trying to know God perfectly) & anger gets in the way of that. It’s basically a waste of my time to be angry at people. However I was furious. What kind of mother could say THAT knowing Lebanese children were being destroyed.

        Don’t get me started on Palestine… hang on… !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! There… I feel a bit better… Thanks for listening… hands the Nomad a beer

      3. Oh & I forgot to say — you made/make good points (above) Nomad. I didn’t see it from the perspective you put forth until you just explained it now. Only because I was & am so blinded by Trump’s racism.

        I actually like HRC more than him & that is nearly impossible due to my opinion of her (please see my explanation above). However I take your point (because — again — my comment above re. Lebanon bombed almost like Dresden & her thinking it was not enough).

  3. Correction: ‘parishioners’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: