The conventional wisdom is the same as it ever was, but with a fresh twist: the Republican Party under the former president is now a working-class party. The twist is that this working-class coalition is multiracial. The evidence for that claim is the small percentage of Hispanic voters, in places like Texas and Florida, that sided with Donald Trump first in 2016 than in greater numbers in 2020.
Being known as the party of the working class has been desirable since at least 2011 when Rick Santorum ran for president. That he drove around rural Pennsylvania campaigning in a “beat-up pickup truck” was taken by columnists like the Times’ David Brooks as a sign of the former senator’s “working-class vibe.” That “vibe” was highly coveted, as it signaled authenticity and “real America,” rather than the effeminate wonkiness of the liberal technocratic establishment.
Fact is, “Real America” is what you say when you think Americans living on the coasts or in big urban centers like Atlanta or Chicago or Philadelphia are for some reason not quite American enough, similar to the way a certain president wasn’t quite American enough the same year Santorum was campaigning to unseat him. There was just something about those cities and that president that didn’t make the cut. As far as the GOP goes, it’s a mystery better left unsolved.
Santorum might have had that “working-class vibe,” but he was hardly representative of the working class. His parents were highly educated professionals. He himself has advanced degrees. And anyway, he grew up in a house in the suburbs, for God’s sake.
But his biography wasn’t why Santorum failed to gain necessary traction among white working-class voters. It’s the same reason former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney failed. Neither was openly hostile to people on the political margins of society. Neither enjoyed meanness. Neither spoke explicitly in the language of white power.
Donald Trump, however, did.
He was authentic.
He was a real American.
This is the proper context for understanding conventional wisdom that tells us that the GOP now has a “multiracial working-class coalition.” This is the proper context in which to begin a corrective.
First, the Republican Party’s multiracial working-class coalition isn’t working class. It’s middle class, indeed upper middle class. It’s long been established that the 2016 revolt against the effeminate liberal establishment was really the revolt by the petty bourgeoisie. I’d add that it was a revolt against the forces of liberal democracy that created conditions to elect a not quite real American as president.
Second, the Republican Party’s multiracial working-class coalition isn’t multiracial – unless we mean the equivalent of one nonwhite person in a room full of white people. To be sure, the Republicans have attracted a greater share of the Hispanic vote in places like Texas, but that’s not enough to justify saying that the Republicans are multiracial compared to the Democrats, who are in fact multiracial.
The Democrats have a genuinely multiracial working-class coalition on account of its base being majority nonwhite (and female) and on account of nonwhite people (and women) doing the most working-class work for working-class wages under working-class conditions in which working-class workers are bossed by petty bourgeois bosses.
In that coalition are white people who earn working-class wages – a national average of $50,000 per year per household. Of these are white working-class women who, if they vote, don’t vote for the GOP. They vote for Democrats, because their policies tend to help white working-class women who are bossed by petty bourgeois bosses.
Republican policy is absent – I mean, totally absent – from the conventional wisdom about the GOP having a multiracial working-class coalition. It’s one thing to say the working class is too busy worrying about the cost of gas and food to worry about policy addressing, say, climate change. It’s another to say that the working class wants policies that the GOP is offering. It’s offering nothing.
The Republicans are, however, offering the politics of white power, which is to say, the politics of the wealthy white Christian men who dominate God’s “natural order of things.” If the GOP has any policy concerns, they are for the protection of their white power.
This is what attracts to the GOP some white working-class men. The politics of white power promises the opportunity to ascend the racial hierarchy – to reach the heights of their social betters so that instead of getting bossed, they can be the boss, instead of being white, they can be one of their superwhite petty bourgeois bosses.
This is what attracts to the GOP some Hispanic voters, too. The politics of white power promises the same opportunity to ascend the racial hierarchy, but with a big difference. While white working men can become superwhite (highly unlikely but still), Hispanic voters can never be superwhite. They can, however, become white under strict certain conditions by internalizing the politics of white power – by betraying their cultural identities for a shot at the American dream.
The peddlers of this conventional wisdom with a fresh twist tell us the Democrats are in trouble in the run-up to the midterms. The problem is a matter of class, they say, not a matter of race. That sounds convincing if you don’t understand that we all live in the political reality that white power created. We are its inhabitants.
Those who argue the Democrats face a problem of class, not race, understand neither. Neither do they understand that class is nestled in the cradle of white power and that white power defines class. In this political reality, the white working class can get whiter and nonwhite people (though not Black people) can become white under strict conditions and with extreme sacrifice. Such conventional wisdom harms the Democrats’ ability to promote liberal democracy.