Last modified on Thurs. 15 September 2016
An acute insight into the reasons these voters almost found a new messiah in a man regarded as an offensive clown by many, a man who ultimately cannot save them
Donald Trump: a hero to so many of the forgotten white working class. Photograph: Akron Beacon Journal/TNS via Getty Images
America has never been entirely sure what to do with its white poor. For complicated historical and political reasons, we associate “poor” in our public consciousness with “black”. Terms such as “welfare queen” and “culture of poverty” became associated uniquely with the social maladies of African Americans in urban ghettos, despite the fact that poor whites outnumbered poor blacks.
It wasn’t always thus. When President Lyndon Baines Johnson launched his “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, he did so from eastern Kentucky coal country, then and now one of the poorest regions of the country. That region is my ancestral homeland, the place from which my grandparents emigrated to avoid the sort of material destitution President Johnson highlighted. Like millions of southern and Appalachian migrants, they moved north to the booming industrial economies of Ohio, Pennsylvania and similar states.
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They moved in the hope of finding better jobs and higher wages and for a time they found those things. Yet in the wake of a long-term decline in manufacturing in the United States, the economic boomtown my grandparents migrated to began to struggle in many of the same ways as the eastern Kentucky town they left behind. By the time their grandchildren reached adulthood in the early 2000s, joblessness and despair had replaced the optimism that characterised my grandparents 50 years earlier. And though the local economies of each region differed – in Detroit, automobile manufacturing; in southern Ohio, steel and paper mills; in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, coal mining – the social problems looked eerily similar. All across Appalachia and the Rust Belt, opioid addiction, family breakdown and rising mortality set in. And the ills afflicting the white working class, so similar to those stereotypically assigned to the black poor, became impossible to ignore.
To many commentators, these problems are statistics to be analysed, but to me, they were the backdrop of my youth. As a kid, I sorted Middletown into three basic geographic regions. First, the area surrounding the high school, which opened in 1969. The “rich” kids lived here. Large homes mixed comfortably with well-kept parks and office complexes. If your dad was a doctor, he almost certainly owned a home or had an office here, if not both. I dreamed that I’d own a house in Manchester Manor, a relatively new development not a mile from the high school, where a nice home went for less than a fifth of the price of a decent house in San Francisco. Next, the poor kids (the really poor kids) lived near Armco, where even the nice homes had been converted into multi-family apartment units. I didn’t know until recently that this neighbourhood was actually two neighbourhoods – one inhabited by Middletown’s working-class black population, the other by its poorest white population. Middletown’s few housing projects stood there.
Then there was the area where we lived – mostly single-family homes, with abandoned warehouses and factories within walking distance. Looking back, I don’t know if the “really poor” areas and my block were any different or whether these divisions were the constructs of a mind that didn’t want to believe we were really poor.
Across the street from our house was Miami Park, a single city block with a swing set, a tennis court, a baseball field and a basketball court. As I grew up, I noticed that the tennis court lines faded with each passing month and that the city had stopped filling in the cracks or replacing the nets on the basketball courts. I was still young when the tennis court became little more than a cement block littered with grass patches. I learned that our neighbourhood had “gone downhill” after two bikes were stolen in the course of the week. For years, Mamaw said, her children had left their bikes unchained in the yard with no problems. Now we woke to find thick locks cracked in two by deadbolt cutters. From that point forward, I walked.
Downtown Middletown is little more than a relic
If Middletown had changed little by the time I was born, the writing was on the wall almost immediately thereafter. It’s easy even for residents to miss how much Middletown has changed because the change has been gradual – more erosion than mudslide. But it’s obvious if you know where to look and a common refrain for those of us who return intermittently is: “Geez, Middletown is not looking good.”
In the 1980s, Middletown had a proud, almost idyllic downtown: a bustling shopping centre, restaurants that had operated since before the Second World War and a few bars where men like Papaw would gather and have a beer (or sometimes many) after a hard day at the steel mill. My favourite store was the local Kmart, which was the main attraction in a strip mall, near a branch of Dillman’s, a local grocer with three or four locations. Now the strip mall is mostly bare: Kmart stands empty and the Dillman family closed that big store and all the rest, too. The last I checked, there was only an Arby’s, a discount grocery store, and a Chinese buffet in what was once a Middletown centre of commerce. The scene at that strip mall is hardly uncommon. Few Middletown businesses are doing well and many have ceased operating altogether. Twenty years ago, there were two malls. Now one of those malls is a parking lot and the other serves as a walking course for the elderly.
Today, downtown Middletown is little more than a relic of American industrial glory. Abandoned shops line the heart of downtown Middletown, where Central Avenue and Main Street meet. Richie’s pawnshop has long since closed, though the hideous yellow and green sign still marks the site, last time I checked. Richie’s isn’t far from an old pharmacy that, in its heyday, had a soda bar and served root beer floats. Across the street is a building that looks like a theatre, with one of those giant triangular signs that reads “ST–L” because the letters in the middle were shattered and not replaced. A little farther down the road is a cash-for-gold store and not far from that is a payday lending outfit.
Not far from the main drag of empty shops and boarded-up windows is the Sorg mansion. The Sorgs, a powerful and wealthy industrial family dating back to the 19th century, operated a large paper mill in Middletown. They donated enough money to put their names on the local opera house and helped build Middletown into a respectable enough city to attract Armco. Their mansion, a gigantic manor home, sits near a formerly proud Middletown country club. Despite its beauty, a Maryland couple recently purchased the mansion for $225,000 or about half of what a decent multi-room apartment sets you back in Washington DC.
Located quite literally on Main Street, the Sorg mansion is just up the road from a number of opulent homes that housed Middletown’s wealthy in their heyday. Most have fallen into disrepair. Those that haven’t have been subdivided into small apartments for Middletown’s poorest residents. A street that was once the pride of Middletown is now a notorious spot for druggies and dealers. Main Street is now the place you avoid after dark.
The white working class had grown angry. And it had no heroes
City leaders have tried in vain to revive Middle-town’s downtown, though in recent years they’ve met with some limited success, as a few businesses have opened near the newest branch of a local community college. Despite some progress, efforts to reinvent downtown Middletown are likely futile. People didn’t leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren’t enough consumers in Middletown to support them. And why weren’t there enough well-paying consumers? Because there weren’t enough jobs to employ those consumers. Downtown Middletown’s struggles were a symptom of everything else happening to Middletown’s people, especially the collapsing importance of the local steel mill.
Unfortunately, very few of America’s political or financial classes understood what was happening in towns such as Middletown. And this ignorance comes in part from their increasing segregation from working- and middle-class families. In booming Washington DC, cosmopolitan New York and hi-tech San Francisco, people rarely come face to face with the poor, with the possible exception of the random beggar. Their interactions with the poor of rural and suburban America are rarer still. Meanwhile, as a 2011 Brookings Institute study found, “compared to 2000, residents of extreme-poverty neighbourhoods in 2005–2009 were more likely to be white, native-born, high-school or college graduates, homeowners and not receiving public assistance”. The white poor always existed, but they were rapidly growing in numbers and America’s wealthiest and most powerful residents seemed unaware.
Indeed, if they deigned to care much about the white working class, they often expressed little more than condescension or outright disdain. As my grandma once told me, “hillbillies” – by which she meant poor whites with some connection to Appalachia – were the only group of people that elites felt comfortable stereotyping and looking down upon. From MTV’s chronicle of a “wild” white family in West Virginia to Justified, a popular show about eastern Kentucky, the media’s interest in the region seemed confined to entertaining caricature.
The political system’s response was even worse. While candidate Obama in 2007 secretly chastised poor whites for “clinging to their guns and religion,” the Republican party, where most white, working-class Americans made a political home, seemed completely unaware that its own base was struggling. In 2012, Mitt Romney ran on a platform that celebrated the noble business owner, even as polls showed that the white working class increasingly mistrusted the business owners perceived to push them from their work.
And in late 2015, the party appeared ready to crown Jeb Bush, the scion of a wealthy family whose policy programme differed little from Mitt Romney’s, even as his tone did. This was the brother of a man who started two unsuccessful wars, wars whose burden was disproportionately shouldered by the white middle and working class. And though a number of putative challengers offered stylistic contrasts with the younger Bush brother, no one challenged the core premise at the heart of his candidacy: tax cuts and deregulation at home combined with an active, military-focused foreign policy abroad. Just eight years after George W Bush left office to historically low approval numbers, the party appeared primed to double down on Bush, both in policy and in genetics. And no one seemed that interested in stopping it.
Except for Donald Trump.
In a now famous September debate among Republican presidential candidates, Jeb offered a robust defence of his brother’s foreign policy: “As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure: he kept us safe.” In interviews after the debate and on social media, Trump filleted Bush repeatedly, noting the failures of the war and even blaming Bush for his failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was the third rail of Republican politics and television commentators predicated that it was the end of Trump’s candidacy. How, many asked, could Trump survive such an aggressive criticism of the party’s most recent president? Instead, Trump thrived, building on his lead in the polls and cruising to the Republican nomination.
What so many commentators failed to understand was that the Republican party of George W Bush had changed. In the eight years since Obama’s election, the white working class had grown angry: at the economy that failed to deliver good jobs, at the failed prosecution of two wars, at a government bureaucracy that failed to deliver good healthcare for veterans, at policy-makers who bailed out megabanks in the 2008 financial crisis even as many Americans lost their homes. The party didn’t want another Mitt Romney and it sure as hell didn’t want another Bush. It wanted, most of all, a man whose very existence is the opposite of everything prior nominees stood for.
This was about more than finances and the macroeconomy problem. As a culture, working-class white Americans like myself had no heroes. We loved the military but had no George S Patton figure in the modern army. I doubt my neighbours could even name a high-ranking military officer. The space programme, long a source of pride, had gone the way of the dodo and with it the celebrity astronauts. We had lost any trust in the media as guardians of truth and consequently many were willing to believe all manner of conspiracies about our allegedly foreign-born president and his supposed grabs for power.
In style and tone Trump reminds blue-collar workers of themselves
To understand the significance of this cultural detachment, you must appreciate that much of my family’s, my neighbourhood’s and my community’s identity derives from our love of country. I once interviewed my grandma for a class project about the Second World War. After 70 years filled with marriage, children, grandchildren, death, poverty and triumph, the thing about which she was unquestionably the proudest and most excited was that she and her family did their part during the war.
We spoke for minutes about everything else; we spoke for hours about war rations, Rosie the Riveter, her dad’s wartime love letters to her mother from the Pacific and the day “we dropped the bomb”. My grandma always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different and neither was anyone else I knew.
Many in the US and abroad marvel that a showy billionaire could inspire such allegiance among relatively poor voters. Yet in style and tone, Trump reminds blue-collar workers of themselves. Gone are the poll-tested and consultant-approved political lines, replaced with a backslapping swashbuckler unafraid of saying what’s on his mind. The elites of DC and NY see an offensive madman, blowing through decades of political convention with his every word. His voters, on the other hand, see a man who’s refreshingly relatable, who talks about politics and policy as if he were sitting around the dinner table.
More important is Trump’s message. Implicit in the slogan “Make America Great Again” is a belief that one’s country is not especially great right now and that’s certainly how many of Middletown’s residents felt. In the wake of the Great Recession, there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large. If America was the lynchpin of a civic faith, then many in the white working class were losing something like a religion.
In America, commentators have devoted dozens of essays and think pieces to the question of whether Trump’s rise is primarily a function of economic insecurity or racial anxiety. The question is easy to answer – it’s both – and yet not especially helpful. Donald Trump isn’t just the candidate of economically dispossessed whites, though he is that. Nor is he just the candidate of racially anxious whites, though he is also that.
He’s the candidate of the man who opens his morning paper to find that another of his neighbours has died of a heroin overdose; of the woman who proudly sent her son to fight in Iraq only to watch it break his body and mind; of the father who spends hours on the phone with the Department of Veterans Affairs, begging for medical care that his former Marine nephew is owed both legally and morally; of the proud coal miner who voted for Bill Clinton and then watched as his wife promised to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”. Donald Trump is the candidate of a patriotic people who feel an almost apocalyptic apprehension about the future. His great insight was to recognise and exploit that apprehension.
The tragedy of Trump’s candidacy is that, embedded in his furious exhortations against Muslims and Mexicans and trade deals gone awry is a message that America’s white poor don’t need: that everything wrong in your life is someone else’s fault. No one doubts that globalisation and automation have disproportionately had an impact on the white working class and no responsible politics should fail to appreciate and address that fact. Yet our neighbourhoods and our communities create certain pressures and instil certain values that make it harder for our children to lead happy lives.
Trump’s entire candidacy consists of pointing the finger at someone else
During my junior year of high school, our neighbour Pattie called her landlord to report a leaky roof. The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned and unconscious on her living-room couch. Upstairs, the bathtub was overflowing, thus the leaking roof. Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers and passed out. The top floor of her home and many of her family’s possessions were ruined. This is the reality of our community. It’s not just about hard-working people dispossessed by globalisation, though that’s undoubtedly true for many people. It’s also about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life. It’s about children who lose their toys and clothes to a mother’s addiction. It’s about families torn apart by domestic violence and students afraid to go home when the school bell rings at the end of the day.
Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that their choices have no effect on their life’s outcomes. We acquired that sense of helplessness from a number of sources: from families who felt that you had to pretend to be “black or liberal” to get into an Ivy League school; from the home life that showed us the world could be turned upside down in an instant; from seeing so few of our neighbours succeed in the modern economy that we wondered whether success was even possible for those like us.
To recognise that these neighbourhoods and attitudes affect us is not to place moral blame on the poor. Indeed, many of the obstacles folks like me perceive are quite real. But it is dangerous, even destructive, to give up completely on the role of agency. The white working class must build a set of values that recognises life’s unfairness while constructively engaging with it – in our community institutions, in our government and in our families. Yet Trump’s message for the white voter so desperately in need of introspection and self-reflection is: it’s all someone else’s fault. His rallies may be cathartic, as he screams and yells at conjured enemies, but he offers no solutions. His entire candidacy is an exercise in pointing the finger at someone else.
In pointing that finger so repeatedly and enthusiastically, Donald Trump has debased our entire political culture. On the right, the party of robust American global leadership now finds itself apologising for a man who apologises for Vladimir Putin even as he scares our staunchest European allies.
The Republican speaker of the house, a brilliant, respected leader, regularly repudiates some noxious statement of Trump’s even as he cannot politically repudiate the man himself. On the left, the cosmopolitan elites of the Democratic party have taken to Facebook and Twitter to denounce half of their fellow citizens, people they rarely see, much less know. In the eyes of American elites, Trump’s voters are racist rednecks, finally reaping what they’ve sown.
In this age of Trump, each tribe has lost the ability to show even a hint of compassion for the other side.
The great irony is that the people who may make Trump president are among those who most need a constructive politics and an engaged leader. They need a life raft and a mirror. Trump instead offers a political high, a promise to “Make America Great Again” without a single good idea regarding how.