At long last, the working class has won. The referent is of course to the “white working class,” the newest and also the oldest practitioner of identity politics. An improbable person leads the armies of right-wing populism. A billionaire—if he is to believed, which is a dubious assumption—he nonetheless feels the pain and anger of blue-collar America. He talks their talk and promises to walk their walk. Populists in pinstripes have been with us for a while now—corporate lobbyists decked out in hard hats, managerial honchos in cowboy garb munching on bacon rinds, zillionaire dynasts driving Range Rovers—have populated the political landscape for a quarter-century, faux bubbas seeking votes and office from working-class stiffs in order to shelter their own privileges.
Trump, however, dared to go where no one of his social genotype had dared to go before. He assaulted mercilessly the redoubts of established power, party chieftains, political sages, corporate kingmakers, media lords, Pentagon generals, and guardians of convention and political politesse. And although running as a Republican, his contempt for elites was bipartisan. This had been a work in progress ever since Nixon invented the “silent majority” to mobilize its fury against the limousine liberals who had betrayed the American everyman. But until Trump that ire had been directed against the cultural and moral offenses of cosmopolitan elites—abortion and women’s rights generally, gay marriage and other sexual transgressions, impiety and secularism in public life, welfare indulgences, and so on. Never had upper-class rabble rousing challenged the sources of economic and political power which, after all, both parties guarded like the crown jewels.
Challenges of that kind erupted independently and most recently both on the left (Sanders and Occupy) and on the right (the Tea Parties and their animosities aimed at the “bail-out state,” the Federal Reserve, and the political correctness of the Fortune 500). What had been a silent-majority creature of elite confection found its own voice, denounced its creators, and found a mouthpiece in “the Donald.”
Once a banished part of our lingua franca, today you can’t open a newspaper or Web site without learning this or that about this mysterious, long invisible world, the burned over social space of the blue-collar working class. Days before the election they were dismissed as dinosaurs, all but extinct. Some dinosaurs! While Trump’s triumph clearly depended on other parts of the population as well, breaching the “blue wall” of the Rust Belt by feigning solidarity with the beleaguered working-class victims of Wall Street was critical (50 percent of union households voted for “the Donald”). If not quite the corpses depicted by liberal pundits, they were indeed and had been for decades witnessing their own dispossession at the hands of finance capitalism and the global free market. But that is too antiseptic and abstract a way to put it. This devastation in material well-being and in ways of life was not the work of history or the technological imperative, nor was it the empyrean, icy judgment of progress. It was consciously connived at by leading circles of corporate industry and finance and their political enablers in both parties. Dispossession was as much the work of the Clintons as the Bushes, as much Obama’s doing as Reagan’s.