To Understand Why the White Working Class Voted Trump, See Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge (Paramount Pictures)
Van Jones’s explanation for why white working-class America voted for Donald Trump is inadequate.

Why did the white working class support Donald Trump despite his history of racist and sexist remarks? For many liberals, the answer is simple: They were racists who wanted to take back the country. This view was articulated right after the election by CNN commentator Van Jones, who labeled Trump’s win a “WhiteLash.”

One month later, in a CNN special, “The Messy Truth,” Jones interviewed white workers who had twice voted for President Obama, but who went for Trump in this most recent election. In an almost direct paraphrasing of Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown,” one worker complained that it was the working class that built the nation, that helped win our wars, and yet it had been abandoned by Hillary Clinton.

This explanation, rather than racism, is closer to the mark: There is little doubt it was economic issues — jobs and wages — that led a modest share of white unionists to reject Clinton. If she had been more attuned to these economic concerns, Hillary probably could have eked out an Electoral College victory.

While Jones has sympathy for these trade unionists and their economic struggles, his new narrative is still woefully inadequate because it ignores the cultural values that have created a large schism between white middle America and the Democratic party.

If Jones wants to gain a more accurate understanding of Trump’s blue-collar supporters, he should see the new movie, Hacksaw Ridge. The film, directed by Mel Gibson, centers on the life of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist. His work in a Virginia defense plant exempted him from the draft during the Second World War. His patriotism, however, compelled Doss to join the Army, despite religious beliefs that would not allow him to carry a weapon. Doss explained, “Can’t stay here while all others in my community go and fight for me.” When asked by an enlistment officer why he wanted to join up, despite his unwillingness to fight, Doss answered, “While everyone else is taking lives, I will be saving them.”

At every step, Doss faced administrative and social obstacles to becoming a combat medic. His commanding officer told his platoon, “Private Doss does not believe in violence, so don’t look to him to save you on the battlefield.” The hostilities he experienced intensified when one of the enlistees led a group of men to physically assault Doss, claiming, “I don’t think this is a case of religion, I think this is cowardice.” Doss, however, eventually gains enough respect from his comrades that he is able to finish his training and is sent to the battlefields of Okinawa.

When his platoon is brutally counterattacked, forcing a retreat from Hacksaw Ridge, Doss decides to stay behind to help evacuate the wounded. Over the coming days, he single-handedly rescues 75 soldiers, including his commander. Each time he saves a man, Doss prays, “Dear Lord, help me save one more.” For his actions, Desmond Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Thus, this movie highlights the three core values that underpin the behavior of many within the white working class: patriotism, religion, and individual perseverance.

Many liberal professionals have little respect for the white working class’s love of country.

Many older liberals associate patriotism with U.S. imperialism abroad and Jim Crow at home. Some continue to believe that racial injustice in America and Islamic terrorism in the Middle East are fundamentally the result of these past policies. As a result, there is often a visceral negative reaction to the openly patriotic views expressed by many white working-class families — a belief that their patriotism reflects racist-driven notions of American superiority. Thus, many liberal professionals have little respect for the white working class’s love of country or for its sons’ (and daughters’) continued willingness to join the military for patriotic reasons.

In the movie, we see how religious beliefs promote efforts to help others. While there are a few Evangelical leaders who seek to impose their religious values on society, the vast majority of deeply religious individuals are focused on how to conduct their own lives in the service of family and community. It is primarily when government requires them to behave against their religious beliefs — e.g., bake cakes for a gay wedding — that they mobilize politically. And yet the liberal professional class has disdain for these traditional religious values, famously expressed by President Obama, who claimed that when these individuals are confronted with adversity, “they cling to guns or religion.” By contrast, these liberals have nothing negative to say about religious people who attend mosques or traditionally black churches.

#related#The film also highlights individual perseverance: how the hero did not succumb to defeatism when confronted by obstacles; how he relied on his own initiative rather than becoming a victim by waiting passively for outside intervention. This attitude explains why a large share of white working-class America believes entitlements stifle individual initiative or excuse dysfunctional behaviors of the poor, regardless of race — drug addiction, absent fathers, inadequate parenting, and violent criminal behavior. Indeed, Maine’s almost entirely white population twice elected Paul LePage governor in order to curtail what it saw as abuses of safety-net programs by their white neighbors and relatives.

The progressive movement can wish for the white share of the population to decline or hope for the atrophy of these core values in subsequent generations. If, instead, it wants to win them back, progressives must find a way to demonstrate respect for traditional patriotism, traditional white working-class religious values, and the importance of individual perseverance (and responsibility). Without this respect, a large share of white middle America will continue to seek alternatives to the Democratic party, even those such as Trump who have serious character flaws.


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