Why do the angry white poor and working class support the unlikely populist Donald Trump — a spoiled bully who made and lost fortunes in part by gaming the system, who seems to take gratuitous rudeness and cruelty as a birthright, whose lifestyle is symptomatic of American excess, and who for the last half-century has embraced no ideology other than Trump, Inc.?
Perhaps it’s because Trump is a phantasm. He is not a flesh-and-blood candidate judged as crude or acceptable on the basis of the usual criteria. His attraction rests on about 100 sound bites over the last year that shattered taboos and attacked elite sacred cows, in a manner that no candidate has done in the past — or is likely to do in the future. Trumpism is nihilism. A reckless Trump had no political career or social capital to lose, unless one thinks that The Apprentice discriminates against the outrageous and crass, or that the New York real-estate industry blackballs prevaricators.
If Trump or Hillary is elected as a result of white-middle-class furor or abdication, the Republican establishment pays either way.
Trump is not so much appealing to the ethnic prejudices of the white poor and working class, or playing on their perceived resentments of the Other. It’s more that he, a crass member of the elite (“It takes one to know one”), is resonating with their deep dislike of the hypocrisies of the white elite, both Republican and Democratic. Middle-class whites should be outraged at the cruel and gross manner in which Trump insulted John McCain and Megyn Kelly, but they are not. Perhaps, if asked, they would prefer to have the latter pair’s money and power if the price was an occasional little slapdown from Donald Trump. What they see as outrageous is not Trump’s crude “Get out of here” to Spanish-language newscaster Jorge Ramos, but rather the multimillionaire dual-citizen Ramos predicating his con on a perpetual pool of non–English speakers, many of whom have broken federal immigration law in a way a citizen would not dare break the law on his tax return or DMV application. For an angry Arizonan, ridiculing “low energy” Jeb is not as crude as Jeb’s own crude “act of love” description of illegal immigration. An act of love for exactly whom?
What is the perceived white elite? Perhaps a Hillary Clinton raking in $300,000 per half hour at UCLA or shaking down Wall Street for $600,000, even as she pontificates on privilege and the dangers of racism (obviously embraced, in her view, by whites other than those of her class). Or a Chelsea Clinton deprecating the attraction of riches, as her Wall Street internships and marriage perpetuate the Clinton model of pay-for-play enrichment — all to be camouflaged by professions of progressive empathy. Or an elite media that snores when an ex-president of the United States jumps on the private plane of convicted child-assaulter Jeffrey Epstein for a trip to his fantasy island. Or a former anti-government “conservative” congressman who hangs around Washington and mysteriously becomes a multimillionaire leveraging his past government service. Our popular culture is one of Pajama Boy, Mattress Girl, and the whiny, nasal-toned young metrosexual with high-water pants above his ankles and horn-rimmed glasses who “analyzes” on cable news. Is it any wonder that millions sympathized with the heroism of Benghazi’s middle-class defenders rather than with the contortions of the far better-educated, smoother, more sensitive, and wealthier Rhodes scholar Susan Rice, novelist Ben Rhodes, or former First Lady Hillary Clinton?
Whom do these sometimes incoherent Trump supporters likely despise? I would wager anyone who has never been sideswiped in a hit-and-run by an illegal-alien driver but lectures others on why “illegal alien” is a racist term; anyone who has lucrative government employment and whose job description does not exist in the poorer-paying private sector; any politician or his appendage who somehow became quite wealthy on a GS salary in Washington; anyone who makes more than $50 an hour and lectures others on why the country is going broke and must tighten its belt; anyone who sermonizes on free trade and knows few people who ever lost jobs through outsourcing; anyone who freely uses the word “white” in a way and context that he would never use “black” or “Latino”; or anyone who hires someone else to clean his house, watch his kids, and take care of his yard, and then lectures others on their illiberality.
Trump is a dangerously effective classic demagogue not because the working white poor are empty-vessel racists, but rather because he has split white America along class lines and has, among the Republicans, who are already the minority party, opened a self-destructive Pandora’s box of white resentments toward wealthy whites who use their education, family ties, networks, income, and money to leverage privilege while caricaturing or deprecating poor and middle-class whites. Poorer whites can live with the perceived injury of the well-connected and well-educated white elite capitalizing on the age of globalization, of huge and bankrupt government, and of politically correct multiculturalism, but not with the perceived insults that are central to the elite career and psyche. In an age of La Raza (“The Race”) and (only) Black Lives Matter, how exactly did the Republican establishment think the white working classes would eventually react to the new hyphenated America? With a week’s escape to Provincetown or commiseration at a B-list D.C. party? Tribalism for thee, but not for me?
There are two characteristics common to popular uses of the term “white”: It is almost always used pejoratively, and it is mostly voiced by elites of all backgrounds — and usually as a slur against the white working and “clinger” classes. So “the Latino vote” reflects shared aspirations; “the white vote” merely crude resentment. Those who benefit from affirmative action are not privileged, but those who do not certainly are. Whites cling in Neanderthal fashion to their legal rifles; inner-city youth hardly at all to their illegal handguns. Buying a jet-ski on credit is typical redneck stupidity; borrowing $200,000 to send a kid to a tony private university from which he will graduate more ignorant and arrogant than when he enrolled is wise. White “evangelicals” are puzzling for their crude hypocrisies; not so the refined paradoxes of Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Smoking is self-destruction, while injecting a strain of botulism toxin into your face is not self-mutilation.
Nothing is more surreal than to hear a multimillionaire African-American athlete (in a professional sports league that suffers from lack of diversity and is exempt from the government notion of disparate impact) or a Malibu-based movie star rail against white privilege — as if most of Appalachia or Oildale lived in the manner of one’s white neighbors in Santa Monica or the Hollywood Hills. About the time when billionaire Oprah Winfrey sought further victim status by inventing a racial slight at the hands of a Swiss boutique that refused to show her a $38,000 handbag, I thought of a white, gap-toothed, out-of-work painter with a bad back and bad habits in the southern San Joaquin Valley, who periodically wants me to hire him again to paint the barn. Oprah is the supposed victim of a rude European white person, and thus by extension we have to end the unfair racial privileges enjoyed by barn painters?
The latest campus lunacies — from Black Lives Matter to the Trotskyization of the names of dead white male benefactors — are predicated on quite privileged white kids attacking the idea of whiteness to win exemption for their own quite comfortable status. Stanford students would be far more believable as racial egalitarians if, instead of rallying against the reintroduction of Western Civilization in their curriculum, they had they used their energy to drive their Beamers over to East Palo Alto and volunteer to tutor in the all-but-segregated public schools. Better yet, their professors could curb the diversity enthusiasm in the Academic Senate and instead put their own children in a good San José public school. Integration and assimilation are proven remedies for minority disparity.
The white lower and middle classes are angry, and they are tired of being blamed for the unhappiness of other tribes.
Most of the spineless university presidents and deans are affluent and privileged white men and women, committed to affirmative action and diversity, but always at the expense of someone other than their own class. Could not a college president at least write the following memo: “As proof of my commitment to diversity and campus egalitarianism, I promise to end all special consideration for the children of alumni and wealthy donors. I further pledge that I will accept no off-the-record phone calls from parents lobbying for their children’s admittance outside of accepted admission channels. In an increasingly diverse society, it simply will not do to circumvent transparent channels of evaluation. And as an added incentive to encourage fairness and to promote the public schools, our university will soon announce a one-year hiatus on prep-school applications.”
Such a proclamation would do more to promote university equality than all the self-serving, pompous diversity memos of the ruling elite.In sum, the white lower and middle classes are angry, and they are tired of being blamed for the unhappiness of other tribes. In our world, in which uncouth tribal leaders can say almost anything, these whites wanted their own Sharpton or Ramos, and finally got him with Donald J. Trump. As is true of most revolutionary movements, the aggrieved are not as angry at their perceived opponents as they are contemptuous at the enablers of them.
Given his cruelty, obnoxiousness, and buffoonery, Trump should have been a three-month flash in the pan, exactly as most of his critics had prophesied and dreamed. I hope he will still fade, as he should. But the fact that he has persisted this long may be because the hatred our elites so passionately claimed was aimed at the Other was actually directed at themselves.