As with so much these days, a great deal of the response to Donald Trump’s electoral victory has been purely performative. It has sought either to explain away the bigotry and misogyny of the Trump campaign as an ‘authentic’ expression of working class anger, or it has wallowed in what Philip Roth called the ‘ecstasy of sanctimony’.
If Donald Trump’s defenders are standing athwart history yelling ‘stop’, then liberals seem to want to be the loudest to denounce his entire voter base as the ‘deplorables’ that Hillary Clinton said they were. Politics has become about sending ‘virtual hugs’ to America’s oppressed, whereas understanding is synonymous with making excuses. What after all is there to understand? Trump supporters are no more than stupid, ignorant bigots (never mind that stupidity, ignorance and bigotry seem to fluctuate wildly across societies and to rise and fall over very short periods of time).
So first of all, then, what does explain Donald Trump’s unlikely ascendance to the summit of American politics? Several things, I suspect. Hillary Clinton was an establishment candidate during anti-establishment times. Trump managed to communicate in that unvarnished language so common to working people yet so alien to the professional classes with their conversational padding. Racism and sexism were certainly factors; as was a widespread willingness to overlook them on the part of people who liked other parts of Trump’s message. Almost a week on from the election, most of this is uncontroversial.
But mention economics and you are slapped down by middle class liberals faster than you would have been slapped down two weeks ago for suggesting that Hillary Clinton might not be a very good presidential candidate. Apparently, Democrat and Republican economics played no role in Donald Trump’s rise. After all, did most wealthy Americans not vote for Trump, while most of those with low incomes voted for Clinton?
Beneath this pseudo-progressive reasoning is an unwillingness on the part of liberals to understand class oppression in a similar fashion to the way that sections of the right are unwilling to understand racism. Liberal identity politics doesn’t after all want to do away with vast economic inequalities, so much as to divvy up the misery along the appropriate demographic lines. ‘We must not indulge the white working class‘, they opined last week from the moral high-ground of op-ed columns which pay out more for a thousand words than many working people take home in a week. And no, we shouldn’t indulge unreconstructed working class racism and sexism. But since when has the white working class (or the working class of any colour, come to that) been indulged economically?
Only those ensconced in their own bubble of class privilege can say with any degree of certainty that Donald Trump’s unlikely victory had nothing whatsoever to do with economics. A look at the state of the American economy reveals a grim picture that will be all too familiar to British readers. Encouraging headline figures – high rates of employment and low inflation – conceal both the growth of precarious low paid work, stagnant wages and the precipitous decline of former industrial towns. This isn’t the very poorest lashing out. Such movements rarely are. Instead it is a backlash of the working class that reside in communities which both Republicans and Democrats have in recent years sacrificed to the logic of the untrammelled free market.
That most wealthy Americans voted for the Republicans should not be your take away from the election. They always do that. Far more interesting was the 16-point swing of Americans earning below $30,000 a year away from the Democrats and to Donald Trump – a swing which is being quietly written out of the picture by baffled middle class scribblers who seem to believe that life at the sharp end of America’s low pay economy is fine and dandy.
According to exit polling, nearly half of those Americans without a college degree supported Donald Trump. At least a partial explanation for ‘why?’ is surely found in the fact that over 95% of the jobs created during the recovery have gone to college-educated workers. Or to put it even more starkly, those with a college education have captured 11.5 million of the 11.6 million jobs created. One can certainly respond to figures of this sort by moralising about ‘ignorance’; but one might also recognise that a lack of college education strongly correlates with a lack of economic opportunity. And besides, unless you believe in the (distinctly illiberal) existence of a cognitive lumpenproletariat, a lack of educational spending in the richest country in the world is a question of economic decision making.
The surest argument against those who wish to blame Trump solely on unreconstructed working class bigotry is the fact that many of those who voted Republican this time around voted for a black man to be president four years ago. Indeed, more black and Hispanic voters opted for Donald Trump than voted for previous Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Trump also won by winning places like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, which voted for Obama by double digits in 2012.
It is certainly regrettable that many voters were willing to overlook the bigoted aspects of the Trump campaign because his message of a break with the economic status quo seemed to resonate. But the idea that a massive and sudden upsurge in racism led to Trump’s victory is implausible. And even if it were true it is not something that has magically emerged from thin air like an autumn fog: racists are made rather than born.
In truth, attempting to de-couple bigotry from economics makes no more sense in 2016 than pretending the pseudo-scientific racism which formed the ideological scaffolding to 19th Century colonialism was simply a superfluous add-on, rather than a convenient rational for plunder and exploitation. People do not hate minorities ‘because they are different’, as liberal race relations theory would have it. That hatred is typically whipped up by people who have an economic interest in distracting from or justifying their own privileges.
Or as the black American academic Adolph Reed has written, “Racism and white supremacy don’t really explain how anything happens. They’re at best shorthand characterisations of more complex, or at least discrete, actions taken by people in social contexts; at worst…they’re invoked as alternatives to explanation.”
The idea that understanding is necessarily indulging is something that liberals are quick to reject when it comes to political phenomena like Islamist terror or gun violence. These things do not ‘just happen’ as if by magic. They are not conjured out of thin air like a rabbit produced from a magician’s hat. Nor are they simply a question of soggy moral standards. They are typically a byproduct of the interaction of both material and social forces. The idea that economic fear might have something to do with the rise of Trump is not to make excuses for the people who voted for him, any more than acknowledging black-on-black gun crime might be a product of economic injustice is to justify a drive-by shooting.
Yet many bien pensant progressives who automatically accept the latter refuse to acknowledge that unconstrained markets might also foster reactionary social attitudes among a fearful white working-class. For the liberal centre, it seems like class is the one thing you are can still be unreflective about.
James Bloodworth is former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK’s top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy.