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Trump Will Continue to Scam the White Working Class. Here’s How to Stop Him.

Posted on Feb 16, 2017

By Paul Street

(Page 2)

No such initiatives are remotely imaginable in Trump’s White House. The president’s embattled nominee for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, an anti-union, billionaire, fast-food CEO who is opposed to any increase in the minimum wage beyond a paltry $9 an hour, had to withdraw his nomination. We can only guess whom the next plutocrat Trump puts up for this position will be. [Editor’s note: On Thursday, Trump selected R. Alexander Acosta, a Florida law school dean and former assistant attorney general, for the post.] Perhaps Trump should rename the Department of Labor as the “Ministry of Worker Exploitation.” Trump’s education secretary (“minister of public schools destruction”?), Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire married into the Amway fortune and a dedicated enemy of teacher unions, along with public schools.

We Are Not the 99 Percent

Is Steve Bannon, Trump’s quasi-fascist political Svengali and veteran propaganda master, worried that Trump could lose the allegiance of the WWC as they realize they’ve been scammed by the latest new president to manipulate populist-sounding rhetoric and racial and ethnic identity politics on behalf the capitalist “elite”? Probably not. Bannon is likely calculating that his right-wing, arch-capitalist regime can keep its WWC base on board by claiming to save and create blue-collar jobs with Carrier-like deals, protectionism, energy (fossil fuels) deregulation (the Trump project depends critically on expanded oil and gas extraction), and infrastructure expansion—while directing working-class anger at immigrants, Muslims, environmentalists, black civil rights activists, liberals, intellectuals, China, Mexico, Iran and/or Europe.

Bannon likely also understands something that distinguished law professor Joan C. Williams (herself the product of a WWC family) put her finger on two days after the 2016 election in a Harvard Business Review essay titled “What So Many People Don’t Get About the Working Class.” As Williams wrote, in a passage that merits extended quotation:

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“For months, the only thing that’s surprised me about Donald Trump is my [academic and liberal] friends’ astonishment at his success. What’s driving it is the class culture gap. … One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that ‘professional people were generally suspect’ [in their families of origin] and that managers are college kids ‘who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,’ said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. … Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men also found resentment of professionals—but not of the rich. … Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. … That’s another part of Trump’s appeal. …

“Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. ‘Directness is a working-class norm,’ notes Lubrano. As one blue-collar guy told him, ‘If you have a problem with me, come talk to me. … I don’t like people who play these two-faced games.’ Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being ‘a total wuss and a wimp.’ … Of course Trump appeals. [Hillary] Clinton’s clunky admission that she talks one way in public and another in private? Further proof she’s a two-faced phony.”

Middle- and upper-middle-class, college-educated liberals, progressives and leftists who cluck about how “foolish” Caucasian proles don’t know who their real 1-percent enemy is don’t get it. The WWC experience perceives the professional “elite” as their main class oppressor on a day-to-day basis. “We are the 99 percent.” Except we’re not really. Trump may not necessarily lose that many points with WWC voters for serving his fellow billionaires. He scores points with the WWC by horrifying the smug, arrogant and disrespectful, two-faced and overly “politically correct” professional class.

‘Who’s Stupid?’

Progressives who want to connect with WWC people in coming months and years—an urgent task if “President Wreckingball” is going to be stopped from blowing up the world—should drop their smug condescension toward today’s blue-collar white Republicans. The WWC may not be as dumb as many professional class people seem to think. As Williams notes, it is not wrong to see the dismal dollar Democrats as any better than the GOP when it comes to protecting workers against the ravages of international capitalism:

“ ‘The white working class is just so stupid. Don’t they realize Republicans just use them every four years, and then screw them?’ I have heard some version of this over and over again, and it’s actually a sentiment the WWC agrees with, which is why they rejected the Republican establishment this year. But to them, the Democrats are no better. … Both parties have supported free-trade deals because of the net positive GDP gains, overlooking the blue-collar workers who lost work as jobs left for Mexico or Vietnam. These are precisely the voters in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that Democrats have so long ignored. Excuse me. Who’s stupid?”

Resist the disastrous temptation to write off all WWC anger and resentment as little more than white-nationalist racism, nativism and/or sexism. Contrary to what many white middle-class professionals seem to think, the Caucasian proletariat is not a big monolithic mass of frothing racists, nativists, sexists, gay-bashers, ecocidalists, arch-militarists and incipient fascists. Many, if not most, white working-class folks would back a seriously fighting and populist social-democratic party if such a thing could have a meaningful presence in American political life. If Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic Party candidate instead of the neoliberal Clinton, Sanders might well have denied Trump his winning WWC margin.

If you really want to connect with the WWC, try joining it. Nothing educates like experience. Take a blue-collar or other kind of working-class job, preferably in a more rural red region, and see what it’s like to be bossed around by professionals all day long. Take a close look at the misery you can find all around the white flyover zones, where farm decline and job loss have bred an epidemic of opiate addiction and alcoholism that have helped generate a shocking decrease in white working-class lifespans in recent years.

The WWC can be engaged and learned from—not just spoken to. And here’s a hint: It doesn’t do much good to lecture folks on their “white privilege” when they are barely making it in shitty jobs that don’t match the ever-rising costs of health care, housing, food, and clothing and more. Appeal rather to their material and political interests in working-class solidarity across (real) differences (and identities) of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, age and sexual orientation.

Keep a healthy focus on the lunch-pail issues that the ever-more corporatized Democratic Party has pushed to the margins across the ongoing neoliberal era. As Williams reflects, “[B]oth parties need an economic program that can deliver middle-class jobs. Republicans have one: Unleash American business. Democrats? They remain obsessed with cultural issues. I fully understand why transgender bathrooms are important, but I also understand why progressives’ obsession with prioritizing cultural issues infuriates many Americans whose chief concerns are economic.”

Progressives must, of course, work with and through particularities of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality and sexual orientation. But there are socialist, democratic and working-class solidarity-building ways of doing that, and there are hateful, neoliberal and top-down “divide-and-rule” ways of dealing with those particularities. A real, progressive activist must strive for the former. The all-too “two-faced” Hillary Clinton represented the latter and a toxic, bourgeois variant of identity politics—a version that disastrously tossed many of the everyday people who repair cars, maintain city parks, build pallets, drive trucks, clean sewers, work construction, take patients’ blood pressure, stock warehouses and do countless other low-pay and low-status jobs into “a basket of deplorables.” Within or beyond the two-party system and electoral politics (I am a fan of neither, to say the least), we can and must do much better than that on the progressive left.


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