To hear the voices of American media tell it, Donald Trump’s base supporters are working-class whites. Article after article details this mob, who cheer Trump’s racist, sexist, xenophobic pronouncements, as members of Rust Belt communities who, having lost their high-paying factory jobs to outsourcing, now look to scapegoat anyone and everyone they feel may have been responsible for the diminution of America on the world stage. Donald Trump stokes their anger against an elite that looks down on them.
But reporters’ views of the working class confirm the very bias that Trump exploits. Each time that the press refers to the working class as a voting bloc that is mindlessly voting its “feelings,” it also reminds its audience of Trump’s notorious statement to his audience at a Nevada rally, “I love the poorly educated.” Since then, the press has taken that statement as permission to conflate the categories “working class” and the “poorly educated” as if they were one and the same.
Having grown up in a household with a strong tradition of left-wing intellectual working-class politics, I wonder how it is that the media has failed to note the history of the working-class movement in the United States. The working class movement was so feared in the 20th century that states and the federal government enacted multiple laws against it. The government jailed its leaders. It even deported or executed others. That history is erased each time Trump’s rise is “blamed” on some nameless, faceless working class—an ill-defined category of people that do not have the same access to journalists as those who reinforce this easy, troublesome interpretation for Trump’s popularity.
Americans have tended to recoil from invocations of “class” labels. When President Obama has referred to the income gap, or acknowledged the Occupy movement, he has been accused of “mining the resentment,” of stirring up “class consciousness” by the right wing that sits, frog-like, waiting for any statement that can be whipped out of the air and used to feed the outrage beast that drives the spin cycle.. But with the success of Donald Trump – the candidate that the media helped to create with its 24/7 “shocked-bystander” coverage – TV pundits and print journalists alike have struggled to identify Trump’s constituency and have landed on “class.”
The problem at the heart of Trump coverage is that it’s difficult to find a mainstream journalist who would have identified themselves as Trump supporters from the beginning. While there are plenty of Republican journalists, few, with the exception of “Morning Joe’s” Joe Scarborough were out front with their support for Trump’s candidacy and the platform that he espouses from the campaign podium. So, while other Republican and Democratic candidates were treated as (depending on their potential support) “serious” contenders whose ideas could be discussed, Trump was discussed as the celebrity-huckster that he was. His campaign was expected to fail. Because it didn’t, it meant that somehow, Trump had found his audience. And, since no one among the journalists reporting on the presidential race knew anyone in their own social circles who was supporting Trump, it quickly became shorthand that Trump’s voice had found its echo out “there.”
Trying to nail down a definition of “working class” in America reveals part of the issue. In countries such as England, where my parents are from, class status is part of the complexity of individual identity. But in the United States, until very recently, everyone—unless they are retired, at which point they become “senior citizens”—usually identifies themselves as “middle class.” Searching for a definition of “working class” turns up only, according to the Economic Policy Institute, that they are workers who do not have a college education. But those were not the divisions that I remember when I was younger. The “working class” was what my dad talked about his family being in England. Here in America, as a kid and young adult, I never heard the term.
As a teenager, the “middle class” referred to both the managers and engineers who worked at the airplane manufacturing plant in town, in addition to the machinists and other laborers. It also referred to secretaries, lawyers, doctors, store clerks, truck drivers—the kinds of jobs our parents held, regardless of our ethnicities. The middle class was not differentiated by jobs. Driving through my neighborhoods, it wasn’t immediately apparent whether the house with the boat and the new car in the driveway belonged to a Boeing machinist or a business owner or a professional. The middle class was something you belonged to by dint of money and attitude.
Now, however, the explanation that is offered is that Trump’s natural constituency is something called the “working class.” Specifically, the white working class. And while it certainly makes sense that Trump’s support is primarily white – Trump’s rhetoric regularly targets immigrants, blacks, Hispanics, or women—the media has veered wildly between blaming Trump’s appeal on economic disparities in the United States that have left many former members of the middle class now struggling to pay their bills as one explanation, to blaming it on an undercurrent of racism—America’s original sin—where white men, who have been king of the mountain, are finding the hill being assaulted on all sides by people of color whose numbers are swelling at a rate that makes it inevitable that eventually, white people will no longer be the majority. And that white folks are terrified of that possibility. Of course, both of these things are playing a role in Trump’s popularity. But it’s not the only explanation, and the term “white working class voters” is becoming a mantra among journalists who don’t want to admit that they are clueless.
Perhaps no clearer explanation of the media’s inability to understand that conflating “working class” with “ignorance” with “racist” is problematic exists than in the recent example of an article that appeared on July 28 in The Atlantic by Ronald Brownstein.
Brownstein was commenting on last week’s DNC, which many had considered an unfettered triumph in its inclusive politics. But Brownstein reported that by paying attention to everyone else, one group had potentially been left out of the Democratic coalition.
“The fear among some is that this polychromatic Democratic Party, open to all races, both genders, all sexual orientations, welcoming to immigrants, and championing diversity, may not have preserved enough room for the working-class white voters who anchored the party from Andrew Jackson through Lyndon Johnson.”
First, the “working-class white voters” who supported Andrew Jackson are hardly a monochromatic group that existed through to the time of Lyndon Johnson. Waves of immigration added to the working class, as did waves of philosophy. A simple view of history reveals immigration patterns.
The working class also moved through various intellectual movements—anarchism, Marxism, socialism, for example. It had its intellectual champions—Emma Goldman, Big Bill Heywood, Eugene Debs—are just some of these names. And it had a vibrant press. Some of its publications had names like the Blast and The Masses. It also produced its bards who sang of protest and political liberation: Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. Even in my own history, for example, my partner’s machinist father took him to the (New York) Village as a child to see Bob Dylan, The Weavers, and other bands play. The idea of something unified called a working class that came to an end during the 1960s doesn’t hold up to historical scrutiny. With the exception of mainstream journalists such as Joan Walsh, whose book, What’s the Matter with White People? looks at various political coalitions within the working class movements since 1968, a real “historical sense” of class seems to have disappeared from reporting.
The press ignores all of this in favor of a view of the working class that robs its members of any kind of intellectual curiosity. The terms “working-class white voters” and “poorly educated” are held up as some kind of explanation for the source of racism. The story remains that only the ignorant would be racist. Racism disappears with education we’re told. But, if that’s the case, how does that explain so many prominent conservative politicians with their multiple degrees and their resentment of “political correctness?” And why assume that since the divisions of the late 1960s, all members of the “working class” have suddenly lost interest in college for their children, or for reading books, or for watching documentaries? There is a whole tradition among those locked out of college educations to be autodidacts, that is, to continue their educations outside of the classrooms. Book learning continues to happen outside of the classroom.
Despite the fact that Tim Kaine, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton all come from working-class, even hard-scrabble, backgrounds, the media continues to push a narrative where these politicians lack “authenticity” with working class voters. In a headshaking moment, Carol Costello referred to Donald Trump as a “blue collar billionaire.” Brownstein argued that folks like Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren—also members of the working class—“were winners in the information-age meritocracy” and thus incapable of speaking to the folks who produced them.
This disconnect—that somehow, because Trump is crude and vulgar, and is therefore more authentic than eloquent folks like Booker, Clinton, or Warren — is repeated when Brownstein quotes an official with the AFL-CIO who concurred with Brownstein’s construction of the difference between the political class and the working class:
“That’s a great observation and it’s definitely a challenge,” Michael Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO, told me Tuesday. “We would argue that most of the political class comes from the same background whether it is Democrats or Republicans and that all politicians lack a kind of authenticity with working-class voters. Obviously, last night, the Clinton campaign was appealing to other voters.”
Trying to explain Donald Trump’s appeal is not easy. When confronted with the popularity of such an ugly personality it is tempting to point the finger at a particular segment of society and pin Trump’s success on it. But the very worst part of America’s character—its racism, its greed, its general disdain for the rest of the world accompanied by a constant insistence that it’s the best—that belongs to all of us.