Donald Trump won the election by what once seemed a far-fetched strategy: energize working-class whites, especially those in rural locales and the Rust Belt. Trump’s economic and cultural appeals to working-class whites have been widely analyzed by the media. He promised to bring back factory jobs. In struggling Appalachian states, he promised to bring back coal. He addressed concerns about undocumented immigrants and terrorism. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, working-class voters responded to his promises; no one else was promising them anything.
But many analysts were still puzzled by his appeal. Why were many working-class voters willing to put their trust in a billionaire businessman from New York City, a place so clearly identified with elites? They don’t understand that instead of alienating these voters, Trump’s lifestyle probably enhanced his appeal. The combination of his performance of masculinity and his conspicuous consumption spoke to fears that working-class voters have not only about economic decline but also about the potential toll of upward mobility. In Trump, working-class voters saw both the promise of economic regeneration, and the possibility that they or their children could move into a more privileged class without forsaking their cultural identity.
Trump’s version of masculinity—angry, blunt-speaking, and indifferent to sensitivities called “political correctness”—reflects a stereotype of working-class men reminiscent of figures such as Archie Bunker from the 1960s sitcom All in the Family and Walt Kowalski from Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008). Trump carried himself with a determined swagger and wore a trucker’s cap. While some saw Trump playing a character, as he did on The Apprentice, working-class viewers found him familiar, a man who spoke like people they knew. While working-class voters perceived the East and West Coast elites as looking down on them, they felt that Trump understood and shared their views. In other words, he inspired working-class nostalgia not only for lost jobs, but also for the social status that accompanied these jobs. When these jobs disappeared, the very fabric of working-class communities was torn
Some have argued that Rust Belt residents from places like Pennsylvania or Ohio could easily improve their lives by relocating. This suggestion implicitly dismisses the many family and community ties that bind people to locations, and, as Paul Lauter once stated, working-class people must rise in solidarity with their class or leave it. Further, well-meaning elites don’t understand that a working-class person’s decision to stay put is likely motivated by both personal and economic factors. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that those who moved long distances from their communities of origin were more likely to have graduated from college than those who remained. A worker with only a high-school education will not necessarily fare better in relatively affluent Maryland than in Ohio. Class mobility, not geographical mobility, is required. As working-class scholar Barbara Jensen has argued, changing classes involves changing cultures and too often devaluing one’s culture of origin.
In their seminal The Hidden Injuries of Class Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb explore how blue-collar men deal with the emotional toll of lifelong unrewarding work. (Not all blue-collar work is unrewarding, of course, but that’s a subject for another essay.) Knowing they themselves will not advance, they labor for their children’s futures. Middle-class parents also sacrifice for their children, but they usually have more rewarding jobs. To paraphrase Sennett and Cobb, middle class jobs are “models,” working-class jobs are “warnings.” The status of unemployment is a starker warning. In effect the working-class parent must tell his or her children, “Whatever you do, don’t be like me.” If the working-class parent is successful in launching his or her children into the middle-class, those children may look down upon their parents’ lives and values. Anthologies of essays by academics from the working class such as my co-edited Working-Class Women in the Academy and C.L. Barney Dews and Carol Leste Laws’s This Fine Place So Far from Home depict academics from the working class struggling to adjust to the academy’s middle-class culture and remain true to their working-class roots. Academia, like many social and cultural institutions, is predominately composed of middle- and upper-class people who do not understand the working-classes and often disdain them. While many working-class and middle-class people these days worry that their children will fall down the class ladder, many also worry about what would happen if their children do manage to move up.
Enter Donald Trump, an extraordinarily wealthy man with about 500 businesses around the world. He talks and behaves like one of the guys, one of the white working-class guys. Working-class voters saw Trump as speaking to them, not down to them. He seemed like one of them, just one with more money. His promise to revive blue-collar jobs was likely read as a promise to preserve working-class values and cultures. Trump embodied the possibility that working-class people, or at least their progeny, could rise in income without changing their values and behavior. They needn’t join the ranks of the elites.
I am not negating Trump’s appeal as a political outsider at a time when Americans affiliated with both parties were disillusioned with elected politicians. Neither am I minimizing the suffering of Rust Belt working-class whites or the fear that Trump’s election sent through many communities. I also think we should be concerned that so many voters, including many from the working-class voted for a man who regularly made racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic statements. These votes are extremely unsettling, at the very least.
But if we want to understand white working-class voters’ support for Trump, we have to unpack not only their economic anxieties and political resentments, but also their cultural fears, including their concerns about the costs of elusive upward mobility.
Michelle M. Tokarczyk
Michelle M. Tokarczyk is a Professor of English at Goucher College who has published widely in Working-Class Studies.