The Great God Trump and the White Working Class

The political and social war that is now inevitable in the United States could shape the character of the rest of the century.

By Mike Davis

History has been hacked. Trump’s “impossible” victories in June and November, together with the stunning challenge of Sanders’s primary campaign, have demolished much of elite political wisdom as well as destroying the two dynasties, the Clintons and Bushes, that have dominated national politics for thirty years. Not since Watergate has so much uncertainty and potential disorder infected every institution, network, and power relationship, including the Trump camp itself.


What was unimaginable a few months ago, has now come to pass: the alt-right has a foot inside the White House, a hate-curdled maniac advises national security, a white supremacist controls the machinery of the Justice Department, the coal industry owns the Commerce Department, and a wealthy homeschooler is in charge of national education policy. Obscure billionaires like the DeVoses and Mercers who have spent years transforming Michigan and Texas into right-wing policy laboratories will now cash their support for the president-elect into the kind of national influence once enjoyed by Rockefellers and Harrimans. Carbon has won the battle of the Anthropocene and Roe v Wade has been put on the butcher’s block. Out of an election that was supposed to register the increasing clout of women, millennials, anti-climate-change activists, and people of color, a geriatric far right has wrested policy-making power on a terrifying scale.


Trump’s victory, of course, may turn out to be the ghost dance of a dying white culture, quickly followed by a return to Obamian, globalist normalcy or, conversely we may be heading into the twilight zone of homegrown fascism. The parameters of the next four years are largely unknown. Much depends on whether the Republicans succeed in incorporating the old industrial states of the upper Midwest into their mid-continental reich of solidly red Southern and plains states. In this case, their structural electoral advantages, as the National Review recently pointed out, might override the popular vote for another decade.


But whatever the scenario, the issue of the utmost immediate importance to the Left is whether or not the Sanders coalition, including the progressive unions that backed him, can be kept alive as an independent movement bridging the racial and cultural divides among American working people. An extraordinary restructuring of political camps, cadre, and patronage is taking place in an atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty, but we need to understand more clearly whether 2016 actually reflects, or necessarily anticipates, a fundamental realignment of social forces.


Breaking Bad

The mainstream narrative, accepted by much of the right and the left, is that Trump rode a wave of white working-class resentment, mobilizing traditional nonvoters as well as alienated blue-collar Republicans and Democrats, some of whom were also attracted to Sanders. Political analysts, as well as Trump himself, emphasized the campaign’s affinities with European right-nationalist movements that likewise claim to fight against globalization in the names of forgotten workers and small businesses.


Endlessly cited have been exit polls that demonstrate Trump’s extraordinary popularity among non-college white men, although the same polls indicate that he ran up his highest margins in middle-class Republican constituencies. (If the polls in Wisconsin and elsewhere are to be believed, moreover, a fifth of Trump voters had an unfavorable opinion of their candidate and held their noses when they checked his box.) In any event he flipped a third of the counties that had voted for Obama twice. However until the US Bureau of the Census’s Current Population Survey releases its analyses of turnout demographics, political scientists can only speculate on whether changes in allegiance or changes in turnout were chiefly responsible for the results.


What follows is skeptical interrogation of this narrative using county-level vote data to compare the 2016 presidential campaign with the 2012 campaign in older industrial regions of the Midwest and Appalachia. A number of distinct voting patterns emerge, only one of which actually conforms to the stereotype of the “Trump Democrats.” The phenomenon is real but largely limited to a score or so of troubled Rust Belt counties from Iowa to New York where a new wave of plant closure or relocation has coincided with growing immigrant and refugee populations. Election punditry has consistently conflated blue-collar votes long captured by Republican presidential candidates with the more modest and localized defection of working-class Democrats to Trump. Several hundred thousand white, blue-collar Obama voters, at most, voted for Trump’s vision of fair trade and reindustrialization, not the millions usually invoked. I’m not implying that these substantial beachheads cannot be expanded in the future by continued appeals to white identity and economic nationalism but merely that have been over-interpreted as the key to Trump’s victory.


The “miracle” of the mogul’s campaign, apart from his cunning success in manipulating negative media coverage to his advantage, was capturing the entirety of the Romney vote, without any of the major defections (college-educated Republican women, conservative Latinos, Catholics) that the polls had predicted and Clinton had counted upon. As in an Agatha Christie mystery, Trump eliminated his dazed primary opponents one after another with murderous innuendo while hammering away on his master themes of elite corruption, treasonous trade agreements (“greatest job theft in the history of the world”), terrorist immigrants, and declining white economic opportunity. With the support of Breitbart and the alt-right, he essentially ran in Patrick Buchanan’s old shoes.



But if visceral nationalism and white anger gave him the nomination it was not enough to ensure that the big battalions of the GOP, especially the evangelicals who had supported Ted Cruz, would actively campaign for him. Trump’s stroke of genius was to let the religious right, including former Cruz cheerleaders David Barton and Tony Perkins, draft the Republican program and then, as surety, to select one of their heroes as his running mate.


At the same time, Rebekah Mercer, whose family super-PAC had been Cruz’s chief backer, seconded Trump her crack political team: pollster Kellyanne Conway, Citizens United head David Bossie, and Breitbart chair Stephen Bannon. (“It would be difficult to overstate Rebekah’s influence in Trump World right now,” one insider told Politico after the election.) This fusion of the two anti-establishment Republican insurgencies was the crucial event that many election analysts overlooked.


They exaggerated the blue-collar “populist” factor while underestimating the equity acquired by the right-to-life movement and other social-conservative causes in Trump’s victory. With the Supreme Court at stake and Pence smiling from the dais, it was easier for the congregation to pardon the sinner at the head of the ticket. Trump, as a result, received a larger percentage of the evangelical vote than Romney, McCain, or Bush, while Clinton underperformed Obama among Catholics, especially Latinos (down 8 points). Against all expectations, Trump also improved on Romney’s performance in the suburbs.


But – and this is a very important qualification – he did not increase Romney’s total vote in either the South or the Midwest; indeed he fell slightly shy in both regions. Clinton, however, received almost one million fewer votes than Obama in the South and almost three million less than the president in the Midwest. (See tables one and two.) Abdicating any serious effort in smaller industrial towns and cities, she focused almost entirely on major metropolitan counties and media markets.


Furthermore, in contrast to Obama, she had no outreach strategy toward evangelicals and her position on late-term abortion, even if misrepresented, alienated untold numbers of Obama Catholics. Likewise she ignored Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s urgings to invest campaign resources in rural areas. While Trump was factory-hopping in the hinterlands, her itinerary skipped the entire state of

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