If you read one think piece aimed at breaking down the Trump phenomenon, I highly recommend Jonna Ivin’s essay on coming to terms with Trump’s appeal with poor white voters. It very much informs the following essay. Ivin traces the use of racism and other manufactured diversions by elites throughout American history to divide the working class.
For students of history, this thesis is not particularly startling: It’s well-known that Bacon’s Rebellion (a late 17th-century uprising of interracial rabble against the tidewater elite of Virginia and, sadly, the local Native Americans) prompted the adoption of black codes to segregate workers; the postbellum Southern elite famously used, and use, racism to maintain their own status over white workers and as well as black ones. The success of Ivin’s essay is that it places the divide-and-conquer strategy in the contemporary context, and, more importantly, humanizes Trump supporters.
Donald Trump memes are amusing. From images comparing Trump to a Buddhist monk to his hypothetical take on the situation in Westeros, they are all over the internet. But they don’t help us, and frequently reflect the kind of thinking Ivin writes about: The way in which the Left as well as wealthy interests look down upon poor white people. Ivin writes:
Why do poor whites vote along the same party lines as their wealthy neighbors across the road? Isn’t that against their best interests?
Ask a Republican, and they’ll probably say conservatives are united by shared positions on moral issues: family values, religious freedom, the right to life, the sanctity of marriage, and, of course, guns.
Ask a Democrat the same question, and they might mention white privilege, but they’re more likely to describe conservatives as racist, sexist, homophobic gun nuts who believe Christianity should be the national religion.
The issue here is the Left’s perception of poor whites. We should be nuanced about this, especially in regard to race: Of course racism would not be possible without poor white people. But the Left has failed them in its own way. Our social justice rhetoric frequently tackles everything but class, singing the virtues of intersectionality but still mocking impoverished whites. Small wonder that when they hear us calling Trump racist or sexist (which he objectively is), the response is inevitably something along the lines of “that’s liberal PC BS, which is ruining this country.”
How do we get around this?
I propose instead of calling out Trump directly on racism, sexism, and general disdain for those he thinks are weak, we could use the following three arguments:
1. The people Trump blames are not responsible for America’s problems.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to explain that radical Islam is dangerous but its adherents constitute a tiny fraction of the billion Muslims in the world. If someone doesn’t understand this, they may be a lost cause. As far as Mexican immigrants, some hard facts dispel most of the rhetoric. According to CNN, the prevailing myths about the lazy, welfare-absorbing Mexicans isn’t particularly accurate. Add this to the fact that Barack Obama deported more immigrants than any President in US History, and a new picture emerges: First, Mexican immigration isn’t a nation-destroying threat, really, though it may pose a collective problem for us to solve. Second, why would a border wall help, if Obama has already upped deportations? Finally, liberal academia, feminism, etc: Do these institutions and ideologies really have much of a sway over the United States political establishment? If they do, have the Trump fan explain exactly how “political correctness” is ruining America. I really haven’t heard a coherent argument for that position. The trick here, I think, is to ask for specifics and be specific.
2. Trump can’t help you.
Donald Trump’s appeal is frequently cited as fundamental honesty. That is to say, “he tells it as it is”. This is pretty objectively not true, according to Politifact, which is nonpartisan and highly respected. In addition to his disastrously scant knowledge of foreign policy, we see a candidate that says some extremely vague things (“Make America Great Again”, “bomb the s— out of ISIS”, etc.) that sound great for those fed up with the political establishment. If he were an outsider to politics, albeit one with nuanced and well-reasoned ideas, Trump might be a more legitimate phenomenon. He is not. What we can do, again, is to ask for specifics: How is Mexico “sending its worst”? This implies the government of Mexico is purposefully undermining us for no reason. What constitutes “bombing the s— out of ISIS”? What would our objectives be in this hypothetical Syrian war? Why is Trump a fan of Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin?
3. Only with the help of the people from Item 1 can America progress.
Ivin’s article quotes MLK in during the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968:
You [poor whites] ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because, through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.
To put this in Trump-terms, the only way to Make America Great Again is by standing together with those Trump puts down. Only an interracial and multicultural front can make serious progress on economic issues; another way of putting this is that racism and economic exploitation are inherently linked.
Ivin’s article ends with a rallying call for Bernie Sanders, whose presidential bid I support. Asking everyone to get aboard that train comes off as agitprop, however, and while Ivin’s arguments are generally accurate, the Sanders section partially undermines her article. Nevertheless, her thesis remains poignant: Poor white people support Trump for reasons other than simple prejudice. To reach out to them and change their minds about Trump, while exceedingly difficult, may provide us with valuable allies for future struggles. Remember, be specific and ask for specifics!