But First, Black America
Over the last several years, I’ve been interested in the plight of the urban, black poor. I’ve read two books, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander who argues that mass incarceration by virtue of its disproportionate enforcement of drug laws on black neighborhoods has effectively imposed a third wave of Jim Crow laws on this population – taking away their right to vote, access to welfare, affordable housing and most importantly jobs. The second book, Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward, a black woman who grew up in a small town in Mississippi describes the death of five of her male relatives, ranging from a drug overdose, a car accident to a suicide. She blames a system of aggressive societal neglect that in different ways lead to each of these deaths. I’m also a huge fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates although I have yet to read his book, but his writing in The Atlantic consistently portrays an America still struggling with deep and persistent white supremacy.
Why Barak Obama?
It’s hard to correlate the rise of Barak Obama with the fatalistic writings of these black writers and thinkers. Obama had to be almost perfect to win the presidency. His biggest scandals, at the time of his first run amounted to where he went to church, where he might have been born and what he smoked in high school. But as a presidential candidate, he was perfect. He never lost his temper and he rarely ever mentioned race. He has the perfect family: a beautiful, accomplished, talented wife, two perfect daughters, and no scandal. He grew up in Hawaii, his mixed heritage, a white mother from the midwest and a black father from Kenya, did not link him to the urban inner city. His political stardom rose not on racial issues but on a speech calling for unity in an increasingly polarized country . But his race, his skin color was a factor. He knew and had felt racism and in these ways, black America put their political hopes in him. His path to the Democratic nomination was won in the same way Hillary’s, through the black voting block of the south east electorate which gave him just enough cushion to weather a strong push from Hillary Clinton.
Why Hillary Clinton?
Despite what Bernie Sander’s supporters otherwise believe, Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination for two reasons, she had almost universal support from the Democratic establishment, but more importantly and in the same ways Obama had previously beat her, she won because of her overwhelming support from black America. The segment of our society that has incurred the most damage from our country and its institutions over our history went overwhelmingly for the most establishment candidate in the race. Hillary Clinton owes her presidential nomination and likely her presidency to black America.
Why Donald Trump?
Meanwhile, on the right, a different story has played out. Donald Trump ran an insurgent, populist race, playing by different rules, powered by his celebrity, television charisma, and his willing to say literally anything. His candidacy was light on substance but heavy on personality fueled with fiery anger. The polls show that the support for Donald Trump come mostly from those who are white, without a college degree who feel they no longer have a voice in national politics. Donald Trump is the only politician from either party willing to give an unapologetic voice to the anger brewing from this demographic. Yesterday, I happened upon an interview from the author of the book Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance, whose family heritage link him to Kentucky poor. In it, he captures the deep societal ills that plague working class whites especially those with connections to Appalachia.
What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.
And when Donald Trump entered the presidential race he gave a voice to this part of America, one that has largely been looked down upon, scorned and ignored. Donald Trump speaks their language.
The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.
From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.
Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.
The last point I’ll make about Trump is this: these people, his voters, are proud. A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well. We were taught to raise our fists to anyone who insulted our mother. I probably got in a half dozen fights when I was six years old. Unsurprisingly, southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate. Can you imagine the humiliation these people feel at the successive failures of Bush/Obama foreign policy? My military service is the thing I’m most proud of, but when I think of everything happening in the Middle East, I can’t help but tell myself: I wish we would have achieved some sort of lasting victory. No one touched that subject before Trump, especially not in the Republican Party.
This explains the violence that occasionally erupts at Trump rallies, it also explains the apocalyptical angst, the pessimism and the anger.
I bought his book last night and I’m already through the first five chapters. I went on a mission in Alabama serving two years working with both the black and white communities in this region. I can’t say I totally understand it. I’m white, I grew up poor but I grew up in a far more functioning community than what this book describes. My parents were largely disconnected from their family, but I’m Mormon and the heritage of Mormonism, with its work ethic, conservative values, fervent religiosity provided a framework of support that was lifesaving for me. There was never a doubt I would attend college. My entire family attended. None of us fell into a drug addiction trap, and none of us were ever prone to violence nor were victims of it. Our childhood experience with poverty did not prevent us from clawing our way into an adult middle class.
So, I’m not in a position to fully answer this question, but I’m going to try anyway. Why did black and brown Americans overwhelmingly support the prototypical establishment candidate while white, desperately poor and suffering America support the angry populist?
I think at its root is that black Americans are a lot more hopeful and optimistic about America and its institutions. They feel that perhaps, they are finally getting a voice and that policies are beginning to actually help them. The plight of black America and the injustices of mass incarceration is getting much deserved attention even from conservative politicians, notably Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, though we have yet to live up to our rhetoric. The national conversation on police brutality toward our blacks can be seen as progress. These issues are getting attention, those from these vulnerable populations are getting a voice. Their opinions are being heard.
But perhaps more importantly, their history has been one of deprivation and suppression, from one generation to another. It’s hard to feel sustained anger for missing out on something you’ve never had. Rather I think there’s a sense of hope that black America can finally heal itself and finally get a claim on the American dream.
Contrast that with white Appalachia, those entering adulthood today, many grew up in the last vestiges of middle class. These states, from northern Alabama to southern Ohio, benefitted disproportionately from manufacturing and mining jobs. These jobs offered a route to the middle class without requiring college education to a population used to poverty. For decades, they began to climb the ladder into the middle class helped by a combination of white privilege and a country that dominated global manufacturing – thanks to the decimation of global competition from our two world wars.
The last couple of decades have changed this reality. A combination of globalization and automation have eliminated these jobs. And the cultural weaknesses of this region – the violence and tribalism deprived them of the right social capital to facilitate a pivot to the new economy. Meanwhile, the political class has not only ignored this demographic, they’ve outright mocked and disparaged it.
In contrast to black America, the white working poor is experiencing a loss. Decades of upward mobility have been yanked away from them and as a result, they are suffering. From endemic poverty, manifesting itself in unstable families, premature parenthood, and addiction. Having something and then losing it, can, for many, be more painful then never having it at all.
Trump is Playing a Con
I believe working class grievances are real. There are serious problems in our economy that privileges the elite and their children, making it increasingly difficult for a child to pull themselves up and into a higher economic class. Acceptance into elite university increasingly require credentials that are simply difficult for poorer students to achieve. Rich and middle income kids have access to SAT tutors, family support to shepherd them from activity to activity, help and support with homework, and a stable functioning home-life. Many children in poor neighborhoods have access to none of these.
Globalization and immigration increase competition for jobs of all sorts but especially those that requiring no college credentials. As Europe and Asia have rebuilt and as other previously third world countries have developed, more of their population have been able to compete in an increasingly global marketplace. Finally automation has eliminated most low-skill jobs. Jobs that don’t require specialized knowledge are also jobs that with increasingly sophisticated technology can be done by robots.
These are global realities and there is nothing any one politician can do about it. “Making America Great Again” as Trump seems to define it, is simply not a possibility. No wall, no matter how high or thick is going to bring back manufacturing jobs. Repealing NAFTA is not going to do it either.
Trump’s presidential campaign seems, from my perspective, more about Trump than about working America. His candidacy seems more focused on keeping the news cycle focused on him rather than showing any willingness to defend and explain how his policies might help.
There are likely policies and programs that can help, but part of the solution has to be cultural and they have to come from within these regions. I’m not sure an outsider is going to be able to do it. Appalachia needs Appalachian leaders to truly identify and make sense of the problems. And the solutions need to be a combination of bottom up, hopeful striving within the communities themselves and policies from above that can provide enough infrastructural support to make their strivings successful.
JD Vance says it best here:
Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly forment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers. I have watched some friends blossom into successful adults and others fall victim to the worst of Middletown’s temptations – premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration. What separates the successful form the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s falut.
My dad, for example, has never disparaged hard work, but he mistrusts some of the most obvious paths to upward mobility. When he found out that I had decided to go to Yale Law, he asked whether, on my applications, I had “pretended to be black or liberal.” This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen. We should hardly be surprised that as attitudes like this one spread, the number of people willing to work for a better life diminishes.