It is a fair assumption that Donald Trump has never driven a pickup truck, gone duck hunting, or glanced through Guns and Ammo. The totems of working-class white manhood are as foreign to his experience as they are to wine-track grandees such as California Governor Gavin Newsom. This cultural distance, however, has not prevented the Orange Autocrat from forming a bond of unprecedented closeness with downscale white-male America. Trump’s insight into the white working class is, in fact, his most potent political asset.
The white working class has been an object of fascination since pollster Stan Greenberg published a landmark series of focus groups with white voters in the blue-collar Detroit suburb of Macomb County. Working-class whites propelled the New Right into two generations of political dominance, and their steady, if slightly fickle, trend toward Republican allegiance was a powerful headwind in the face of Democrats seeking to reconstitute their majority after the collapse of the New Deal coalition. Despite demographic changes in the country, working-class whites still represent the largest bloc of the electorate. They remain especially vital in Midwestern swing states and play an outsized role in determining which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Thus, understanding the motivations of working-class white voting behavior has long been an important task for political professionals. On the left, analyses have ranged from Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas?, which championed the fantasy that left-wing populism can overcome the white working-class’s backlash mentality, no matter how unreceptive white workers have been to leftism of any kind; to harsh rebukes of the white working-class’s supposedly incorrigible racism. The American right has vacillated between reverence and contempt for the white working class, depending upon how the Republican Party has chosen to brand its eternal dogma of tax cuts and deregulation.
What both sides have missed, however, are the complexities that inject nuance into the white working class’s worldview. Now, the white working class is vast and economically diverse; there is no coherent working-class politics in the white population of the sort Marxists would have imagined in the glory days of the Dialectic. But Donald Trump has discovered a few critical insights into this demographic that account for his remarkable success in making working-class white people into hardcore denizens of the Republican base.
- They are populist, not conservative. Republicans have consistently enlarged their share of the working-class white vote ever since Richard Nixon began to court the “hard hats” who were disillusioned with the left-wing candidacy of George McGovern. But this long rightward trend did not indicate an ideological conservatism in the white working class. Working-class white voters remain deeply suspicious of economic elites, supportive of labor unions (in the North), and driven more by an amorphous anger at globalization and social hardship than any commitment to the shibboleths of Reagan conservatism. Trump has fully embraced this oeuvre of populist sentiments, and his willingness to jettison rigid conservatism allowed him to peel off thousands of working-class white voters who had refused to vote for the plutocratic Romney-Ryan ticket.
- They are not culturally conservative on every issue. The white working class was originally attracted to the Republican Party out of conservative revulsion toward the changing currents of 1960s American society. But working-class white voters in the North resisted the temptation to vote Republican in overwhelming numbers because too many Republicans appeared to be wedded to a Southernized social conservatism that many of them found morally prescriptivist and judgmental. In particular, they recoiled from the sexual puritanism of religious conservatives. Trump, to put it lightly, is not burdened by perceptions that he wants to police working-class bedrooms.
- They are Republicans’ most promising electoral target. In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012–a failure which surprised most Republicans–the GOP elite settled on a conclusion that the party needed to culturally modernize. They would seek to attract college-educated and diverse voters from growing demographics while remaining committed to certain Reaganite principles such as small government and a strong defense. But given the cultural disruptions upending America, this analysis was off the mark. The most promising opportunity for Republicans to expand their coalition laid in the voters who perceived the greatest dislocations from America’s racial and sexual transformation. This was the white working class. Trump lunged for the heart of anxious cultural conservatives and won a surprise victory
In no sense is Donald Trump a talented politician. He does not understand most of the country and his remarkable ignorance has left him unable even to contemplate building a majority for his party. But he holds one subtle advantage over political actors blinded by their upscale economic worlds and focused on the all-important “suburbs.” He came to understand the white working class through years of selling low-brow TV to a downscale audience. And this, arguably, is the greatest reason that he’s a viable candidate in an country that generally despises him.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.