The first order of business between now and November is to defeat Trump. But regardless of what happens, his supporters — a constituency defined by white Christian nationalism and white working-class frustration — aren’t going anywhere. The defeat of their candidate will only inflame their anger and alienation.
While mass incarceration and deindustrialization have devastated the black underclass in the inner cities and suburbs, rural poverty might be even more challenging. Opioid abuse and fatal overdoses have notably hit white communities the hardest, and beneath the medical reality of addiction lies an inescapable sense of hopelessness. For the first time in years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, white female life expectancy is down, with drug overdoses, suicides and diseases related to smoking and heavy drinking leading to death in mid-life.
If this sounds like white grievance, consider that Alicia Garza, the cofounder of Black Lives Matter, has issued a call in the current issue of the Nation for white progressives “to take seriously the task of engaging white working-class voters who have been abandoned by the Democrats and exploited by the Republicans.” While arguing that the political revolution must be led by people of color and immigrants, she also says white progressives need to engage white working-class voters “in a fundamentally different way — one that doesn’t rely on preaching, smugness, or pity, but instead addresses the fears that many are responding to with a concrete plan to improve conditions for all of us.”
I know Trump’s people — that is, white, rural working-class people who have become estranged from the political left while answering the siren song of social conservatism — all too well. While I appreciate Garza’s call to action, my life is a testimony to the urge to run in exactly the opposite direction. I once faulted my parents for fleeing to the countryside in the early 1970s in search of the simple life of sustenance and sharing while their peers in the New Left stayed in the struggle and tried to organize unions. In truth, I made a similar bargain in fleeing the country in search of an imagined utopia of cosmopolitan diversity, transit, cycling and food co-ops.
Growing up in the rural hill country that rings the Bluegrass in Kentucky — an area with a tiny black population where migrants from Central America suddenly showed up around 1990 to work in the tobacco fields — I can recall my exasperation as a teenager when my dad’s friend went on a tangent about welfare cheats. He eked out a modest living as a carpenter and marijuana trafficker. When I told him I’d rather focus my discontent on the wealthy, he responded, “Oh, don’t even get me started,” but then went right back to trash-talking the undeserving poor.
Tobacco subsidies — welfare for farmers — and the legacy of the United Mine Workers of America once made Kentucky a reliably Democrat state, but the elimination of crop supports and cratering of the coal industry has turned the state into a Republic stronghold. While Bill Clinton narrowly carried the state in 1996, Barack Obama won only 37.8 percent of the vote in 2012. Nowhere has the reversal been more dramatic than Pike County, in the heart of Appalachian coal country, where the Democratic vote share plummeted from 60.1 percent to 23.9 percent in less than two decades.
I know Trump’s people from working construction jobs in and around Lexington, Ky. after I graduated from college. I’ve sat under a tree on break listening to the guy who interrupted his complaints about his ex-wife always being on his ass for child support to angrily declare his hatred for “sand n*****,” his epithet for Latinos. The construction industry, as I knew it in the late 1990s was segmented by race: Us whites held most of the stick-framing jobs. The brick masons were predominantly black. The roofing crews were Mexican.
At least within the white work-world that I knew, the code of male, heterosexual domination was strictly enforced. Anyone who wasn’t boasting about his sexual conquests must be a homosexual. A foreman on a painting crew thought it was funny to say that a woman had applied to work on the all-male crew and she had assured him she wouldn’t mind experiencing sexual harassment.
Despite their anger, stewing resentment and preoccupation with domination, I’m confident that the rural, working-class people I once knew are smarter than their attraction to Trump would suggest.
When they hear Trump promise to “make our country rich again” and “bring our jobs back,” there must be a kind of knowing wink. They might realize they’re not going to prosper under Trump, but at least they’re getting back at the urban elites who are flourishing in the knowledge economy. Their nihilism comes from the all-too human instinct towards collateralizing pain: If I’m going down, you’re going down with me.