Charlotte Hays, the conservative writer and director of cultural programs at the anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum, has a new book out, titled When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question. A broadside against the moral and aesthetic failures of the lower orders, it’s a fascinating work, not for what it says but for what it represents. It’s a sign that at least some on the right are abandoning the NASCAR-fetishizing Palinesque faux-populism of recent decades for a more overt style of class warfare.
A chapter on the foreclosure crisis and crushing student debt, for example, is called “White Trash Money Management.” “There are, I thus adduce, two keys to not being White Trash: having a job and paying your bills on time,” Hays sniffs. “The first is getting more difficult in this economy, but it is still White Trash to go on disability if you aren’t positively unable to lift a finger.”
Hays’s work is saturated with that particular kind of right-wing smugness born of the conviction that one’s willingness to express common prejudices is a sign of free-thinking audacity. What’s interesting is where it’s directed—not at liberals or their sacred cows, but at fat, broke, ordinary Americans. “We look like hell as a nation, and fat people bear a large brunt of responsibility for this,” she writes. “I can remember when going to New York meant seeing beautiful, pencil-thin people in stylish clothes on Fifth Avenue. Where are they now? The other day I saw a fat guy in polyester in my favorite New York restaurant.” Heaven forfend! She’s so delighted with her description of diabetes as “the talismanic White Trash disease” that she uses it twice.
This marks quite a change from the dominant conservative style of the last two decades. Until recently, the modern right defined itself in opposition to caricatured elitists—particularly fashionable New Yorkers. Think of the Club For Growth’s famous anti-Howard Dean commercial, with the earthy old couple decrying the candidate’s “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, volvo-driving, New York Times–reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show.” Tom Frank’s hugely successful What’s the Matter With Kansas? was all about this sort of ostentatious down-home shtick. “In the backlash imagination, America is always in a state of quasi-civil war,” he wrote. “[O]n one side are the unpretentious millions of authentic Americans; on the other stand the bookish, all-powerful liberals who run the country but are contemptuous of the tastes and beliefs of the people who inhabit it.”
This style, obviously, hasn’t entirely vanished from the right, but lately a bit of overt disgust towards those unpretentious millions has crept in. Or maybe crept out—if conservatives once tried to keep their contempt for hoi polloi behind closed doors, Mitt Romney–style, now they’re displaying it proudly.