Economy & Business

The Construct of the White Working-Class Zombies

At a Trump rally in Toledo, Ohio, September 21, 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ have their antecedents in Obama’s ‘deplorables.’

One of the strangest transformations in the era of Obama has been the overt and often gratuitous stereotyping of so-called white people — most often the white working classes who have become constructed into veritable unthinking and unrecognizable zombies. For progressives especially these were not the sympathetic old foundation of the Democratic party, who were once romanticized as the “people” pitted against the industrialists and the bluestockings, but rather have become monstrous caricatures of all sorts of incorrect race/class/and gender behavior and speech.

Stranger still, this disparagement was concurrent to the release of a variety of recent studies that have shown that the white working class has been “losing ground” in far more dramatic terms than have other ethnic groups, especially in key areas such as health and life expectancy. Such news might once have earned liberal sympathies rather than derision. Odder still, the so-called one percenters — that includes high percentages of whites, who have benefited from globalization and changes in the U.S. economy — are often precisely those who damn the less fortunate for supposedly enjoying racially based privileges that are largely confined to themselves.

From ‘tricks’ to ‘clingers’

Obama himself had long ago made popular the idea that there are not individual white people, good and bad, lazy and industrious, but more generally a collective Borg of racist and culpable “white people.” Or, as he characterized his own “effective” tricks over clueless whites in his admittedly fictional memoir Dreams from My Father, “it was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had learned: [White] People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves.”

The president himself repeatedly amplified this emphasis on clueless retrograde whites during his two presidential campaigns, which in toto can be fairly characterized as a refutation of his earlier admirable 2004 speech at the Democratic convention (‘There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America”).

Indeed, on a number of occasions during the 2008 campaign, Obama reverted to the “white men” tropes earlier found in Dreams from My Father and commonly heard in Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church. In Obama’s much heralded March 2008 apologia (“A More Perfect Union”) for intimacy with the racist Reverend Wright, he drew a moral equivalence between the racist firebrand Wright and his own grandmother, who had sacrificed to send him to prep school (“I can no more disown him [Wright] than I can my white grandmother”).

When later he was called on equating Wright’s racism with his clueless grandmother’s supposed racist fears of being alone on a street with young African-American males (in the manner that progressives such as Jesse Jackson, Mark Cuban, and Lena Dunham have similarly confessed), Obama further dismissed her with the curt remark that “she is a typical white person, who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn’t know, you know, there’s a reaction that’s been bred in our experiences that don’t go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way, and that’s just the nature of race in our society.” In a public reading of Dreams From My Father in Cambridge, Mass., in September 1995, a young Obama emulated his prejudicial grandmother’s supposedly nerdy white accent.

“Typical” (along with “they” and “them”) is a favorite stereotyping adjective of Obama’s and reappeared recently during his Laos trip, when he blasted Americans as racist: “Typically, when people feel stressed, they turn on others who don’t look like them.” That invoked memories of his clinger speech eight years earlier. After losing the Pennsylvania primary, Obama generalized the white working classes as mindless zombies of a xenophobic and racist sort who had not supported his candidacy: “And it’s not surprising, then. They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

In repeatedly emphasizing “they” and “them,” Obama sought to reinvent the country into two groups — one, a noble if not long-suffering ascendant coalition of various aware racial minorities, aided by largely sympathetic but naïve and condescending well-meaning whites. The other half were the “lazy” Americans who in times of economic stress “typically” revealed their innate ignorance through racism and nativism. 

The Deplorables, B+ers, and Such

Since then, such progressive disparagement of so-called whites has become pro forma, as campuses and popular culture have become emboldened by Obama’s imprimatur. Most recently, Obama’s “clingers” reemerged as Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic [sic], you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.

Ironically the white working classes whom Hillary now had written off as “not America” and “irredeemable” (if so, what ultimately are we to do with such reprobate zombies who are incapable of ever being reeducated or saved?) were precisely those whom as a candidate in 2008 she had sought to pander to along racial lines to counteract Obama’s own race-based appeals:

Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me. . . . There’s a pattern emerging here. . . . These are the people you have to win if you’re a Democrat in sufficient numbers to actually win the election. Everybody knows that.

In our new age of racial polarization, few have been quite as crude as Minnesota governor Mark Dayton, who lashed out at any Minnesotans who questioned the wisdom of allowing into his state mostly unvetted refugees from Somalia, a few with demonstrable Islamist ties: “If you are that intolerant, if you are that much of a racist or a bigot, then find another state. Find a state where the minority population is 1 percent or whatever.” Then Dayton zeroed in with contempt for the white working class: “Our economy cannot expand based on white, B+, Minnesota-born citizens. We don’t have enough.”

What are we to make of the clingers, the deplorables, and B+ whites? What, for example, were Dayton’s criteria in labeling white B+ers as intrinsically less admirable (or valuable?) than immigrants from Somalia?

Low Expectations and Zombie Corpses

The new normal is to double down on such pejorative stereotyping, on the assumption that there is such a thing as a typically culpable white person, that such a person is mostly a foul creature deserving of condemnation, and that there is only an upside is saying just that. Or as Ta-Nehisi Coates phrased such disdain in supposedly high-brow fashion: “When people who are not black are interested in what I do, frankly, I’m always surprised. . . . I don’t know if it’s my low expectations for white people or what.”

The white working classes are increasingly the butt of popular caricature.

The low-brow version of Coates’s hard bigotry of low expectations is something akin to Kendrick Lamar’s (the president recently gushed over Lamar at the White House) album cover of a mutilated corpse of a white judge (replete with xed-out zombie eyes), amid young African-Americans toasting his demise on the White House lawn. And of course the lowest-brow manifested itself in something like the recent video, taken during the rioting in Charlotte, of a white bystander who was chased into a parking garage, stripped, and kicked unmercifully on the ground by black youths — apparently a sidebar to the ongoing protests against racism.

The white working classes are increasingly the butt of popular caricature. They are the grammatically incorrect, dentally challenged, and obese who inhabit reality-televisions shows of the last decade, such as Ice Road Truckers or Ax-Men or the hunting, fishing, and survivalist loser vignettes set in Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Sometimes New York Times reporters or columnists, in the role of cultural anthropologists, venture out in the field to do survey work and to report back how strange such folk are who live between the coastal corridors.

For all the charges of Islamophobia in Hollywood, today’s collective villains are not so much jihadists, Communist Chinese, or even bluestocking conniving corporationists but increasingly demented and tattooed right-wing white nihilists — sometimes inept buffoons from rural America, sometimes Russian criminal psychopaths disfigured with full-body tattoos and struggling with sinister accents, and even sometimes the sun-burnt white racist remnants from South Africa or the Old Confederacy, with properly Germanic accents or Southern drawls.

What is behind the new disparagement of the white working classes?

Useful Know-Nothings

One reason for the new stereotyping is simply careerism and demography. The construction of a xenophobic monolithic white know-nothing class empowers a notion of an antithetical and ascendant collective “non-white” nation. The idea, common in the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 (e.g., “get in their faces,” “punish our enemies”), was that illiberal whites can help to establish commonalities among otherwise often disparate Asians, blacks, and Latinos, who are supposedly fashioning a “new America” from the shrinking and embittered old white world. When the nation is no longer 90 percent white and 10 percent black but rather 70 percent white, 20 percent minorities, and 10 percent “other,” how else can an us–them reductionist dichotomy be maintained that pays any political dividends? In 2016 progressive thinking, a wealthy Punjabi broker, an Asian ophthalmologist, and an inner-city resident apparently are all to share a common un-white status that transcends their own class and race differences — and any idea that they are all unique individuals who do not define their existences by their appearances.

Sometimes the idea of non-white solidarity was taken to Orwellian lengths. Recall the buzz word “white” as used by the New York Times to demonize the half-Peruvian George Zimmerman. When Zimmerman was reinvented as a “white Hispanic,” the Trayvon Martin case was not seen as a brawl between two people of color. Obama himself, of course, whose mixed ancestry mirror-images Zimmerman’s, would call racist any similar attempt by the Times to suggest that he was a “white African American.” But certainly with the aid of reversed linguistic gymnastics, a Barry Soetoro might have once seemed whiter than had George Zimmerman used his Hispanicized and maternal nomenclature, Jorge Mesa.

White progressive elites also explain much of the disparagement. By focusing on the supposed racism of the working classes, they find exemption for their own often exclusionary lives. Paula Deen’s long ago insensitive racial epithet was nearly a career-ending gaffe, whereas the nation simply shrugged off the more recent and racist characterization of Barack Obama in 2008 by then senators Joe Biden and Harry Reid. Saturday Night Live, worried about the appearance of its nearly all-white cast, just hired a “Latina” comedian who in preemptory fashion deleted 2,000 tweets that had illustrated her own racial stereotyping of black men and Asians in general.

Those with real “white privilege” can both alleviate guilt and navigate around the ramifications of their own racialist ideologies by expressing outrage at supposedly unrepentant Confederates and hillbillies — and, more recently, Trump supporters. I know hundreds of working-class whites in rural central California and have not heard racial slurs from any of them. But then again, none stereotype other white people as “deplorable” in the fashion of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Maybe because none ever traffic in the race vocabulary of “white people,” in the fashion that Hillary Clinton did in 2008, they now feel no need to do so to demonize them.

Many minority politicians, journalists, and writers are of the class identical to that of their culpable white counterparts, and all have become accustomed to stereotyping without any verbal pushback.

Cowardice too plays a role. It is much easier to blast faceless white supposed Neanderthals from afar when proximate whites are frequently the sensitive metrosexuals and pajama boys of the Yale campus, in the MSNBC green room, or among the Washington press corps. When a Princeton environmental-studies major confesses to her white privilege, she seeks exemption for her own apartheid by suggesting that white racists are epidemic in places she has never visited.

Speaking truth to power is not chastising those of the same elite class but rather venturing to a Bakersfield NASCAR race or a rural Ohio fairground to blast “white privilege.”

Certainly Obama would not travel to Utah to caricature an audience as typically lazy and uninformed when it is so much easier to do so in Laos among the traveling White House press corps. Many minority politicians, journalists, and writers are of the class identical to that of their culpable white counterparts, and all have become accustomed to stereotyping without any verbal pushback. It is not incongruous, but logical, in such an elite world for Colin Powell in his hacked e-mails to play his race card while caricaturing “poor white folks” and thus blasting Trump as a pariah — all the while name-dropping at the Hamptons and Bohemian Grove and whining that Hillary Clinton’s jacked-up campus-lecture fees imperiled his own.

Finally, life is too confusing for the new racialists without an old demonized Other. Only that way can 64 percent of the white vote for Trump be seen as racist in a way that 95 percent of the black vote for Obama was not. If a female cop shoots a black suspect in Tulsa or a black policeman shoots a black suspect in Charlotte, how do the racial mechanics work out if there is not a large amorphous clinger-and-deplorable class to fall back on as the root cause that supposedly prompts such racist violence? White racism trumps free will. Cops of color in police departments headed by black chiefs can incite riots if they shoot black suspects precisely because ignorant racist whites created the rules by which the more enlightened were tragically forced to play.

In a new world of racially segregated dorms, racially safe spaces on campus, and racial preferences for the children of Eric Holder and Jorge Ramos, one needs a quite unattractive white working class other than the sympathetic multimillionaire cadre of a John Kerry, Chelsea Clinton, or George Soros. In that context, the Clingers, the Deplorables, and the B+ers of America’s vast loser interior serve well enough.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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