Hot takes: Trump, racism & the American working class


**EDIT: I no longer agree with all the analysis below. I think it’s fair to say that it’s pointless reaching out to the people who voted to ‘build a wall’ – we should be trying to mobilise the millions of voters who voted Democrat last time but for whatever reason sat on their hands and didn’t vote for anyone this time. However, the stuff about lower middle class voters fuelling the Trump surge now seems plainly wrong. Although I’d seen the votes for each income category, at the time of writing I hadn’t noticed the swings. Actually,  it’s quite hard to sustain the argument about a relatively privileged section of the working class voting for Trump when the largest Republican swing – 16 points – was in the poorest demographic. Sorry, my bad…**

Trump won. And the dust is settling, still.

In all honesty, I’m a little perplexed by all this. What I’m offering, then, is less an authoritative account of What’s Really Going On, and more a sketch of what I suspect the situation is – why I suspect Trump won.

From what I’ve seen there are two serious explanations for how we ended up in this position. The first goes something like “after years of being screwed, the American ‘white working class’ (a term I hate – more on that later) finally had enough and gave the establishment a kicking”. The second goes something like “America is a profoundly racist and sexist society which meant voters were susceptible to Trump’s anti-immigrant racism and hated Hillary Clinton”.

I’m not sure either of these is completely right (although I agree more with the latter than the former). Although there was a swing to Trump amongst low income electors, the Democratic vote held up amongst the poorest in society. Poor (i.e. working class) people voted Clinton. It was amongst middle income, white people that the vote for Trump was decisive.

As the so-called ‘elephant graph’ demonstrates, it’s precisely this group of people who have seen almost zero gains in their real income between now and 1988. As stagnation hit western developed economies, so too did the US middle classes suffer in a way they hadn’t previously.

I agree with Paul Mason, then, when he writes

Donald Trump has won the presidency – not because of the “white working class”, but because millions of middle-class and educated US citizens reached into their soul and found there, after all its conceits were stripped away, a grinning white supremacist.

Mason’s piece is well worth reading; it’s conclusion, especially, is very good. Of course, from the perspective of classical Marxism (which is broadly the one from which I write) the middle class are just a privileged “white collar” section of the working class – for all their cultural capital, they still sell their labour to subsist. Trump’s success, then, was in forging an alliance – on the one hand – between relatively privileged sections of the working class who have lost out under the processes of globalisation and the secular stagnation of the US economy, and – on the other – the most virulently racist parts of the American ruling class.

After all, the nostalgic slogan, ‘make America great again’ is only coherent – only has any resonance – if the “greatness” of America once benefited you. For the poorest sections of the American working class (who are also incidentally the non-white sections) this is obviously fantasy – America was never “great”.

But for the most privileged sections? Well, provide them with a (racist) reason for their stagnating living standards and it makes a kind of sense – you’re materially less well off because of Muslims, Hispanic people, immigrants etc. etc. I’d argue that this section of the working class is the most susceptible to these kind of arguments. Until recently, the system benefited them; they are the least class-conscious precisely because of their historically privileged status. White supremacism comes more naturally to the provincial, white, lower-middle-class man trying to understand why life is harder now than 30 years ago – indeed, the latent racism was probably already there.

Which leads me to my main criticism of the “after years of being screwed, the American ‘white working class’ finally had enough and gave the establishment a kicking” argument: it sees the working class as an undifferentiated mass. Or, rather, the main – insidious – differentiation it identifies is racial. But this is to play ruling class games. White workers are not oppressed because they’re white; they’re oppressed because they’re workers. It’s an illegitimate – racist, even – differentiation to make, which only serves the divide and rule agenda of the bosses. Rather than adopt phrases like ‘the white working class’, socialists should subject them to ruthless criticism.

There are, however, legitimate differentiations to point towards. It may be the case that one historically relatively privileged section of the working class has been won to Trump’s racist arguments, but it’s certainly not true to say all sections have been. I’ve already said that the poorest voters were not won decisively to Trump’s brand of demagogic racism.

Importantly, too, turnout in this election was down. The candidates from both parties received less votes than in the last election. I can’t help but think that the 7 million fewer votes than Obama received were largely to do with the uninspiring candidate chosen by the Party. The political situation demands radical solutions that Clinton’s ‘Third Way’ social democratic politics simply cannot – will not – deliver. I suspect that Clinton’s “establishment” candidacy did not so much mobilise Trump supporters against her, but demobilise people who would otherwise have voted Democrat.

All this is to say that just as some sections of the (more privileged) American working class are racist, there are other sections that aren’t. In fact, some are to the left of the Democratic Party leadership. We simply shouldn’t ignore the fact that 52% of people with incomes under $50,000 – the progressive working class – voted for Clinton and that 7 million people sat on their hands, totally uninspired to vote. Rather than pontificating about how we win over a layer of people who are quite happy to support a partition wall between the US and Mexico, the question we need to ask is how we create an anti-racist electoral coalition out of the social forces that actually exist, now. I don’t think we can do that with a candidate like Clinton.

So, my view is that Trump won by ramping-up racism and garnering support in the most backward, but historically most privileged, sections of the US working class; and that Clinton lost because she failed to mobilise the progressive vote behind her – corruption allegations, her “establishment” credentials, alongside her promise of “more of the same” made her the wrong candidate.

And I guess that, friends, is my “hot take”.


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