In this intervention, we critique the ways that the combination of whiteness, masculinity, and economic precarity in contemporary working-class U.S. lives has been mobilized to explain and account for the “Trump effect”. Although evident today during the Trump presidency, elements of nationalistic populism have long shaped social movements, workplace dynamics, and neighborhoods within the U.S. and beyond. Here, we think through some of the complicated articulations among whiteness, masculinity, and class, particularly as they are both invoked in right-wing political appeals and represented by critics of working-class political behavior. We draw on our collective work on the lived realities and political struggles of working-class communities across the U.S. South, as well as our involvement in teach-ins and other forms of public scholarship in the first few months of the Trump administration. In doing so, we call for more critical attention to the ways that racialized claims and class antagonisms are mobilized across scales and toward various political ends both by and through the figure of working-class communities.
Ten years ago, when we started writing as a team, we set our sights on funding for a comparative ethnographic study that tried to develop a widely applicable theoretical and methodological framework that could elucidate the rural U.S. South’s changing political climate vis-à-vis immigration and the implications for immigrant inclusion strategies. In the mid-2000s, much of the migration literature suggested that workplace dynamics drove hostility toward immigrants (Hamermesh and Bean 1998; Waldinger 1997; Waldinger and Lichter 2003), while media analyses highlighted a racist, nativist southern “culture”. Both explanations, we suggested, were looking in the wrong places, literally and figuratively. To understand the growing anti-immigrant sentiment across the U.S. South in the mid-2000s, we argued, we should look in other places: not workplaces, but grocery stores and parks; not downtown spaces associated with protests, but everyday, emotionally evocative sites of daily life (Smith and Winders 2008).
As immigrant and native-born white workers in rural southern communities coped with plant closings, “temp” work, and other disruptive consequences of “going global”, both groups increasingly made material and symbolic investments in place by staking a claim to membership in southern towns. We speculated that the substance of and motivations for these place claims varied among Latino immigrants who had recently arrived in many southern communities, younger long-term residents who constituted the “generation of decline” facing precarious employment and diminished incomes, and older long-term residents employed in the golden era of Fordist manufacturing, whose way of life, including traditional gendered divisions of labor, was disappearing over the course of their lifetimes. The different lived realities between the generation of decline and older long-term residents employed in the golden era of manufacturing, we felt, could tell us something important about changing political dynamics across the rural South and elsewhere in the U.S.
While we found this argument compelling, funders did not, nor did many other social scientists, who repeatedly told us we were looking in the wrong places and at the wrong dynamics. During the 2016 presidential election, however, our ideas came to mind frequently. Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, resonated in all sorts of ways with the disjuncture we wanted to interrogate between those who worked under a Fordist regime and those increasingly described as a lost generation of workers whom global outsourcing and neoliberal globalization had seemingly abandoned.
During his campaign, Trump successfully positioned immigration as a stripped-down proxy for a range of complex forces shaping the lives of working-class people, especially, if not exclusively, white working-class people. In ironic fashion, he used dominant American values closely associated with a history of immigration (and settler-colonialism, we might add)–America is the land of opportunity, hard work pays off, and so on–to obscure the complicated structural forces shaping working-class lives. Analyses that feature global commodity chains, neoliberal globalization, flexible labor markets, and other processes create no target, and no tangible solution, for the white working-class people, among many others, affected by them. As a human embodiment of these and other aspects of capitalist globalization, however, immigrants provide a far more accessible explanation and remedy: get rid of them and, thus, get rid of these de-stabilizing forces that, in this narrative, have made America something other than “great”.
It is important to stress that the naked xenophobia invoked by Trump was not nearly so evident when we did research on attitudes toward immigrants in the mid to late 2000s in the South. Winders, for example, did extensive field research in Nashville, Tennessee, in white working-class neighborhoods with growing immigrant populations and aging white working-class populations. These neighborhoods had flourished with manufacturing jobs through the 1970s, when they peaked and then went “downhill”. By the late 2000s, these parts of the city were being repopulated, if not revitalized, by Latino immigrants. In interviews, white working-class residents struggled to create a story line, a narrative, about that change from thriving neighborhoods up to the 1970s to emerging immigrant enclaves by the late 2000s. Although immigration might be the most visible change in their neighborhood, it was not what long-term white residents emphasized in their stories of how the neighborhood had changed. Instead, they spoke more frequently–and more passionately–about a lost way of life, about feeling that they were no longer relevant in a world where success was measured by educational degrees rather than by hard physical labor, where their worldviews were no longer normative. Immigration was only a small part of this set of feelings (Winders 2013). Trump, however, took that sense of being left out, of being left behind, and linked it successfully to immigration. He positioned immigrants as the cause of this feeling and immigrant exclusion as something that can fix that sense of marginalization.
Even while Trump managed to reduce the complex dynamics and de-stabilizing impacts of global political economy and cultural change to the immigrant as stranger and threat, journalists studying Trump’s appeal among white working-class people have offered similarly reductionist and over-simplified explanations. Relying on a variant of the exotic travel narrative, they describe their “searches for the Trump voter” and journeys “into the heart of Trump country”. These quests inevitably involve interviews with what a recent New Yorker article deemed “an emblematic Trump voter: a white Protestant man in the dying coal industry in southern West Virginia, which is one of the parts of the country most deeply and unshakably loyal to Trump, and most deeply and unshakably hostile to Clinton and [then] President Obama” (MacFarquhar 2016).
Justifications for focusing the search for “the Trump voter” in places like Appalachia sometimes involve misleading statistics, like the lead sentence from a 2016 article in The Guardian (Hoel 2016): “In the Republican primaries … [last] spring, Donald Trump won sweeping victories in Appalachia … I wanted to meet Trump supporters … so I travelled through parts of West Virginia, the Ohio Valley, the Pittsburgh area and the coal country of eastern Pennsylvania.”
What is wrong with this statement? It is not inaccurate. The only problem is that, especially after Ted Cruz left the race, Trump won sweeping victories in virtually every Republican primary across the country. In California, 75% of votes in the Republican primary went to Trump; in West Virginia, he got 77%. Obviously, there are many more people in California than in West Virginia, and in our crude political geography of red and blue states, California is blue, and West Virginia is red. That designation, however, conceals as much as it reveals, and it is important that we, as geographers, not lose sight of that geographic complexity and the spatial pervasiveness of the “Trump” voter across that map.
The New Yorker article we quoted earlier, which stated that southern West Virginia is “one of the parts of the country most deeply and unshakably loyal to Trump, and most deeply and unshakably hostile to Clinton and President Obama”, uses Clinton and Obama as stand-ins for sexism and racism, respectively, going on to provide anecdotal evidence of opposition to immigration and indifference to Trump’s sexism as further evidence of these voters’ attitudes. Trump did indeed win the Republican primary in southern West Virginia, specifically the eight coal counties that Smith has studied for the past 40 years and which are the historical heart of the central Appalachian coalfields and the militant unionism of the UMWA (Smith 1987, 2015). However, this characterization fails to mention that Bernie Sanders garnered far more votes than Trump in five of those eight counties and, in the other three, had fewer votes than Trump only because Clinton claimed a larger share of the Democratic vote. Thus, the assertion that these counties were “unshakably loyal to Trump, and … unshakably hostile to Clinton and President Obama” is simply wrong.
What is going on here–other than the fact that journalists and even some academics have set out into the supposed “heart of Trump country” and found evidence for what they presupposed? There are many factors involved, but we want to draw attention to the ways in which this narrative about Trump country functions to uphold–regardless of authors’ individual opinions, self-image, or intentions–a dominant, self-congratulatory, and national imaginary of the U.S. as a land of enlightenment, modernity, progress, and freedom because the rural (white) South is not. Under this imaginary, any boy, maybe now girl, can grow up to be president, meritocracy reigns, and racism is confined to rural backwaters that are rapidly fading from relevance, even as, under Trump’s imaginary, these same areas are increasingly central to what the U.S. should look like, believe, and constitute to make the country “great again”.
We want to close this intervention with a few points about how race and class function in these narratives about Trump voters. First, the spatial containment of white supremacy to the U.S. South is an old trope in American racism, one that has been both interrogated and reproduced in scholarship across disciplines. That this trope can persist in the era of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Black Lives Matter is all the more astonishing, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference: in this imaginary, racism, at the end of the day, is about the South. Second, an equally old trope is the specter of working-class whites’ racist violence: it is not the white planter, lawyer, or boss whom people of color should fear, condemn, or reject, but other workers who are white. This, too, is an exceptionally old trope, one that has stymied efforts to create class alliances across lines of racialized difference, as well as limited efforts to create anti-racist alliances across lines of class.
Third, an equally powerful, if more recent, trope is the mapping of the “working class” onto the bodies of aging, unemployed white men from dead and dying manufacturing industries. This gendering of the figure of the working class performs a seemingly endless list of erasures. It implies that in the current era of globalization and gig economies, those left behind are mainly white men, despite the fact that the working class, especially the working poor, are disproportionately women of color. In this trope, most working poor, who are not male or white, are not only erased but also apparently do not deserve the re-training to become nurses, drone operators, and other career options that laid-off miners and steel workers seemingly merit. The U.S., of course, needs extensive job creation and redistributive programs; our point is that the hardships facing white working-class men eclipse attention to other working-class people.
Finally, pointing to “working-class (white) voters” to explain Trump’s electoral victory flies in the face of data. According to Nate Silver’s (2016) study of primary exit polls in 23 states, the income of Trump voters is above the U.S. median. It is also worth keeping in mind that the heart of the Republican Party since well before Trump and to this day is white people who earn more than $50,000/year. In other words, exclusive focus on the white working class obscures the longstanding support of white elites for the Republican Party and its class war on the poor.
We could go on and on, but the wider point is that both Trump’s own xenophobic appeals to the white working class and many who seek to understand that appeal offer reductionist and misleading narratives that uphold dominant tropes of American innocence while blaming variously defined others. The consequences for Left coalition-building and a politics of resistance are especially worrisome. Today, scornful commentaries about the working-class white South getting what it deserves (in the form of Trump’s policies) because it is too stupid to vote for what it needs are all too frequent. Enough. In place of these easy critiques, we call for incisive analyses of the profound shifts in lived experience, economic possibility, and cultural values that are shaping the white working class today.
We thank participants in our session at the 2017 AAG Annual Meeting, where we first presented these ideas, for their feedback.
Hamermesh D and Bean F (eds) (1998) Help or Hindrance? The Economic Implications of Immigration for African Americans. New York: Russell Sage Foundation
Hoel A (2016) Trump country: Why Democratic strongholds are turning red. The Guardian 2 October
MacFarquhar L (2016) In the heart of Trump country. The New Yorker 10 October
Silver N (2016) The mythology of Trump’s “working class” support. FiveThirtyEight 3 May https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-mythology-of-trumps-working-class-support/ (last accessed 8 August 2017)
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