Long banished from the political lexicon and long marginalized in analyses of American life (unless modified by the term “middle”), class has been thrust back into the mainstream of public discourse. Although the country’s growing inequalities in wealth are partly responsible for this turn, the apparent attraction of the white working class to an assortment of politicians on the right—Donald Trump chief among them—is clearly a driving force. Which is to say that, for many political observers, “class” seems to be most appealing when it can be attached to what is regarded as bad or irrational behavior or, perhaps, to some notion of “false consciousness.”
The attention isn’t entirely misplaced. As early as the Democratic presidential primaries in 1964, George Wallace showed strength among ethnic working-class voters in Northern states like Wisconsin, and, running as the candidate of the American Independent Party in 1968, he won votes among unionized industrial workers as well as rural and small-town white Southerners. The defection of white working-class ethnics from the Democratic Party was one of the keys to Ronald Reagan’s victories in 1980 and 1984, and many of the defectors—“Reagan Democrats,” as they’ve come to be known—refused to return to the Democratic fold even after Reagan left office.
By the time Donald Trump entered the presidential campaign, the frustrations and hostility of white voters across the Rust Belt and outside major metropolitan areas seemed to be boiling over; many readily embraced Trump’s economic nationalism and aggressive posture toward a range of perceived enemies at home and abroad. It was these white voters, pollsters and political professionals tell us, who enabled Trump to eke out his electoral-vote victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and, with them, the presidency.
The apparent political muscle of white working-class voters in the United States has been further validated by the rise of the radical right across Europe, and especially by the surprising victory of the Brexit vote last summer and the formidable run that Marine Le Pen of the National Front made for the French presidency this spring. In both cases, it seemed that older white voters from declining industrial districts, many of whom had once voted for the Labour Party in Britain or the Socialists and Communists in France, moved to the right, venting their discontent at the consequences of globalization and immigration—a so-called populist wave, as many media outlets described it.
Scholars and writers haven’t been slow to sink their teeth, both descriptively and analytically, into this phenomenon. In fact, over the course of Trump’s campaign, a burst of new works of memoir, history, and sociology—-including J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, Carol Anderson’s White Rage, and Justin Gest’s The New Minority—appeared to have anticipated the emergence of the white working class as a significant political actor. Each of these books offers a different vantage point from which to view the discontent of white working-class people; taken together, they provide us with a look into the travails, anxieties, and developing rage of a constituency that is often depicted as helping to fuel this period of political reaction. With the exception of Gest’s book, they illustrate some of the limits that emerge when the phrase “white working class” is invoked and, as a result, remind us of the dangers of homogenizing white workers politically. They also serve as a reminder of just how little we still know about the moment we are in.
None of the books has received more attention or commanded a larger audience than Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about growing up and finding a way out of the dysfunctional family and community life created by deindustrialization in America. At the ripe age of 31, having just earned a law degree at Yale, Vance decided to write a book to help people understand, in very human terms, what happens when “the industrial economy goes south.”
Vance was born and raised in Middletown, Ohio, a once-thriving steel town on the I-75 corridor between Dayton and Cincinnati, but his family roots are in eastern Jackson, Kentucky, a coal-mining district that his grandparents left in the 1940s. Indeed, as Vance tells it, the cultural arc connecting the two worlds—what he both proudly and disdainfully calls “hillbilly”—was and remains central to his own sense of identity.
Vance recognizes that his family’s history resembles that of thousands of other whites and blacks who left the South during and after the Second World War. But he is mostly interested in relating a morality tale: how proud, hardworking folk can lose their way and descend into a miasma of depression, substance abuse, and hopelessness when the familiar means of earning a living evaporate—and how the loving and resilient among them can come to the rescue.
Hillbilly Elegy has, in fact, the feel of a college or professional-school application essay, one that simultaneously acknowledges the helping hands that Vance was offered and trades in the very caricatures that readers might expect to find. Although Vance contrasts the white working-class world of his grandparents, in which old-fashioned values like hard work, faith, and self-reliance ruled, with that of his mother, in which consumerism, anger, isolation, addiction, and distrust now do, we see very little of the former and plenty of the latter.
Women like Vance’s mother either left home early or failed to go to college because they became pregnant, got married, and quickly divorced; many, also like his mother, went on to revolving-door relationships, antisocial behavior, and perhaps drug dependency. In the case of Vance’s mother, the very turbulent and abusive relationship between her parents contributed significantly to her downward spiral. As for the hillbilly men in Vance’s world, they are a muddle of familiar contradictions: proud, independent, touchy on matters of personal honor, and, of course, prone to violence, sexism, laziness, and ignorance, which Vance is happy to put on full display. Hillbilly Elegy’s popularity may well grow out of the cultural voyeurism (class porn) that it encourages, enabling readers and reviewers to define their own experiences in relation to the mess that seems to envelop the white working class. It also allows Vance to make the most of his own redemption.
Without a doubt, Vance’s was a narrow escape, at least by his own telling. Shuttling between households while growing up, he watched his mother succumb to drug and alcohol addiction, as well as get arrested for domestic violence. His schooling suffered, and he seemed headed down the same bleak hillbilly trail that he depicts in his book when his grandparents, and especially his grandmother, “saved” him: taking him in, imposing rules they expected him to obey, insisting that he get good grades, pushing him to get a job as a grocery cashier, telling him to “get off your ass.” It worked, though a stint in the Marines during which he was deployed to Iraq probably assured his escape. An undergraduate education at Ohio State and then law school at Yale followed.
It’s an impressive story, a testament to commitment and determination of many sorts. But Vance tells it for specific reasons: He wants to reveal why hillbillies are so angry at the political establishment—and, in particular, at Barack Obama—and why hillbilly culture (including a version of living on the dole) convinced him that the policies of the Democratic Party “weren’t all they were cracked up to be.” The anger, in his judgment, isn’t because of race, but because Obama’s elite pedigree, like that of many other Democrats, played to their deepest insecurities and sense of cultural inferiority. For these very reasons, Vance’s grandfather couldn’t bring himself to vote for Walter Mondale in 1984—but his grandfather was also a lifelong Democrat who never again voted Republican after Reagan. As for Vance’s grandmother, she ricocheted between radical conservatism and social democracy. And both claimed roots in the coal districts of eastern Kentucky that now swing Republican, but that also have long histories of labor militancy.
Vance isn’t interested in exploring or confronting the explanatory challenges that his family’s political stories present. Neither is he interested in discussing what the phrase “white working class” means (there’s virtually nothing in the book on the actual work that anyone does, either in Kentucky or Ohio), or in reflecting on the wider implications of his own intellectual development, which says much about the political complexities of Ohio and Kentucky alike. Instead, Vance concludes his book by telling us that he has comfortably embraced “modern conservatism,” which, he believes, allows him to maintain his ties to what he values in hillbilly culture while offering him a perspective from which to criticize it. Undoubtedly, this position has also been fortified by the wealth he began accumulating in Silicon Valley after graduating from Yale. The talk is that Vance may now be headed back home to explore financial prospects there.
Nancy Isenberg is interested in providing the history that Vance overlooks, and although three generations of social and labor historians will be surprised to learn that she is offering the “untold” 400-year history of class in the United States, general readers will find White Trash to be a sobering and unsettling story. Isenberg ambitiously begins in the world of Elizabethan England and ends in the contemporary world of Duck Dynasty. Along the way, we are introduced to vagrants, indentured servants, poor freemen, squatters, crackers, rednecks, sharecroppers, hillbillies, and moonshiners; they populate chapters that deal with the Americas of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the recent past. But there are two themes that encapsulate the chronological span and define the self-satisfied ways in which many Americans—especially those who have never had to worry about making ends meet—dismiss the relevance of class. The first is the notion that “the poor are always with us.” The second is the fact that the poor have long been likened to “waste” and “rubbish”—thus the “white trash” we have come to recognize and name.
A work of social and political analysis, this book is not. Readers interested in discovering how many poor white people there were at any point, how poor whites behaved politically, or what it means to be poor and white in America will be disappointed by White Trash. But that’s because Isenberg has set her sights on something else: to offer a cultural history of the representation of poor whites, mostly by their betters, who feared, scorned, or were simply disgusted by them.
Isenberg’s research here is impressive, and she has an engaging writing style. But for all the chronological sweep of White Trash, there is something fundamentally ahistorical about it. The poor have certainly always been with us, and Isenberg demonstrates that the metaphors of waste and rubbish have continually been invoked to describe them. So then what makes the 20th century different from the 16th, or the 19th century different from the 18th? In part, these are questions of social history and political economy, and Isenberg doesn’t really go there. Yet they are central to understanding how and why social groups become impoverished, how poverty is transmitted, and how class and class relations—yes, class is a relationship, not just a state of being or a cultural perception—take shape.
Since White Trash explores the cultural representation of the poor and claims to chronicle the long history of class, it is especially odd that Isenberg never addresses what she thinks class is, or how her perspective on it may be more useful compared with others’. Nowhere does she seem to recognize that the crass epithets of “waste,” “rubbish,” and “trash” reflect perceptions that poor whites have no class position, that they are truly déclassé; and nowhere in the book do the poor white folk get to speak for themselves—they are simply the objects of representation. But can class be created solely by those who seek to describe another group? And can poor white people constitute a class if they don’t see themselves as such and are often regarded as something less by others?
What’s more, although Isenberg focuses on poor whites who are Anglo-American and, for the most part, Southerners, she gives us no sense of how they should be seen in relation to other poor and working-class Americans—those who are black or immigrants from other parts of Europe, Asia, or Latin America, and who have made up the bulk of the working class and déclassé poor for most of our history. Are these different class experiences with different vocabularies of denigration and discrimination? Or are they all versions of the same process?
In truth, White Trash is less a book about class than it is about race. (Not incidentally, it may have been black slaves who were most important in devising and popularizing the term “poor white trash,” as the many volumes of the Works Progress Administration’s slave-narrative collections suggest.) Although Isenberg assumes that the cultural assaults on poor white folk are solely manifestations of class divisions and attitudes, what she really presents is a history of the racialization of certain white people (much as other social groups can be and are racialized)—the construction of categories of inferiority, cultural degradation, genetic deformity, and ignorance that, in turn, place limits on opportunity and social mobility. It is just the sort of thing that Vance shows us about “hillbillies”: their identification and denigration, and how they then use those cultural markers to redefine themselves.
Unlike Vance and Isenberg, Carol Anderson makes it clear in White Rage that she has no doubts about the centrality of race to the political dispositions and class resentments of white Americans. Indeed, she begins her book by describing an epiphany that came as she tracked the media’s obsession with black rage in the protests against the police murders of African Americans: “What was really at work here,” she realized, “was white rage.” It wasn’t so much the white rage manifest in violence, but rather the white rage that “works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies.” And the trigger for this rage, as she sees it, is “black advancement.”
White Rage is a riveting and disturbing history that begins with Reconstruction and lays bare the efforts of whites in the South and North alike to prevent emancipated black people from achieving economic independence, civil and political rights, personal safety, and economic opportunity. Even after the Reconstruction amendments established a foundation for black citizenship and political equality, their effects were steadily hedged in, whittled down, observed in the breach, or barely enforced. Onetime Republican allies soon abandoned African Americans to the mercies of their onetime masters; the Supreme Court narrowed the reach of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and then validated the Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement that swept the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This meant that vigilantes and lynch mobs got the green light to execute thousands of blacks who dared to challenge the abject submission that whites demanded of them. Indeed, African Americans seemingly had no white allies they could count on for protection or support.
Little changed as African Americans migrated north during the 20th century. The combination of government policy, real-estate covenants, and white hostility left them in growing ghettos that offered dreadful housing, substandard education, and few prospects for escape. The civil-rights movement, Anderson argues, provoked massive resistance in the South and relatively slow responses in the North. And the many impressive gains that the movement made in the face of formidable social and political obstacles were soon rolled back by policy-makers—from both parties—-who worried about black militancy, court-ordered desegregation, and what they saw as a rising tide of drug-related crime. Obama’s election in 2008, while appearing to signal a new orientation and ease about race, quickly catalyzed a level of rage not seen for decades, together with concerted attacks on minority voting rights.
Anderson doesn’t blame racist rage on any particular group of white people; whites of all backgrounds are effectively homogenized as a social and political force. But however unsatisfying and misleading this might be, Anderson does make a deeper point that we must confront about white rage against black Americans and racialized others: It is by no means a new phenomenon. Instead, this rage has a history as long as the country’s, and although it presents itself in myriad ways (in what some distinguish as “soft,” “hard,” and lethal forms), it has always been close to the surface, ready to be summoned in times of crisis and distress, however much the forms of expression may have changed. And, as Anderson suggests, it’s the potential power and authority of African Americans and other racialized minorities that strike terror in the hearts of many whites.
Of all the books under review, only Justin Gest’s The New Minority has failed to win much popular notice: It didn’t make the best-seller lists, nor was it reviewed in mainstream publications. This is unfortunate, because The New Minority has a depth and range missing in the other books. Gest is a professor of public policy at George Mason University and the author of a previous book about Muslim communities in Western democracies. The New Minority blends historical, sociological, and ethnographic analysis into a comparative study of working-class politics in two declining industrial towns: East London, England, and Youngstown, Ohio.
The comparative nature of his study enables Gest to depict a transatlantic working—class political culture with similar dynamics despite the regional differences. For Youngstown and the American side, The New Minority adds ballast to the picture of the social and cultural consequences of deindustrialization. Youngstown was once a booming steel town—Republic Steel, US Steel, and Youngstown Sheet & Tube were all there—with a multiethnic working class that achieved a high level of home ownership and economic stability. But while census officials would define the population as somewhere between 70 and 80 percent white in Youngstown’s heyday, “white” was a broad rubric that included many immigrant groups from Europe and the Middle East and that therefore elided a great deal of cultural and ethnic differentiation.
The bottom fell out of the Youngstown steel industry in the late 1970s. Within six years, 50,000 steel-related jobs were lost (worth $1.3 billion in wages), and the population began a steady decline, with white residents more likely to leave and black ones more likely to stay. These days, Youngstown has about one-third the population of its midcentury peak, and it is strewn with empty lots and abandoned houses that are often taken over by drug or prostitution rings. Corruption seems to have infected most corners of political life: In the past three decades, the city has seen a sheriff, judge, prosecutor, and US congressman (James Traficant) indicted, and a prosecutor nearly assassinated by the mob. Like any number of Rust Belt cities—Toledo, Erie, Gary, Michigan City, Flint—Gest calls Youngstown’s condition “post-traumatic.”
Gest’s study thereby reveals a narrative that resonates with Vance’s and others like his. The collapse of the steel industry left those working-class whites who stayed in Youngstown in precarious circumstances: few jobs with decent pay and benefits, limited horizons for themselves and their children, low expectations for what government could do, and high levels of isolation and impoverishment. (Of course, African Americans presumably faced similar challenges.) Gest uses the concept of “deprivation”—of political power, economic well-being, and social stability—to account for what he calls a sense of “minoritization” among Youngstown’s white residents. By this, he means a perception of decline in their numbers, a dramatic loss in their status, and a feeling that other ethnic and racial groups are gaining social advantages at their expense. And those who experience “deprivation” most profoundly are also most likely to veer toward the radical right, which offers them a heritage-based identity and an antiestablishment alternative.
Readers may call some of Gest’s correlations into question (though he presents impressive statistical evidence), but there are several things about The New Minority that are especially helpful in explaining the current moment. One is that Gest refuses to put all working-class whites into the same political box, recognizing that they evince a range of responses to the traumas of recent decades. After all, Youngstown’s Mahoning County voted for Hillary Clinton rather than Trump, unlike its county neighbors.
Gest also shows how important the political context of Youngstown (and, by extension, similar towns) is to working-class political culture, especially the power of a triumvirate of unions, steel companies, and organized crime that either bypassed or compromised the official political structure. Finally, he implicitly draws into question the social and political usefulness of the very notion of a “white working class.” The New Minority demonstrates that class formation in Youngstown was a lengthy and complex process that involved both collective struggles and significant ethnic and racial divisions.
Since so many liberal pundits and political observers were quick to blame Trump’s election on white working-class rage, all of these books are helpful in raising some questions and doubts. They suggest that what has been assumed about American class politics may not really capture the dynamics at play—or even provide a meaningful description of who was angry and for what reasons.
It will be some time before the results of the 2016 election are fully analyzed, but it already seems plain that the base of Trump’s support defies early assumptions. Both in the primaries and in the general election, the majority of Trump’s supporters were not white working-class swing voters, but, rather, hailed from the ardently Republican middle and upper classes (especially small-business owners and their commercial allies). Trump also bested previous Republican presidential candidates among evangelical voters, and he outpolled the party’s 2012 candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, in suburban areas. In fact, only about a third of Trump’s voters might be regarded as working class (as is the case in the US population as a whole), whether by income (households below the national median of $50,000), occupation, or education (no more than a high-school degree, a dubious marker in any event).
To be sure, a number of Rust Belt counties that had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 shifted to Trump in 2016, helping him to break what was thought to be a “blue wall” in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Yet the enthusiasm for Trump in these places may have been limited, and some of their swing to Republican candidates related to recent plant closings or the inordinate casualties they’d suffered in recent wars, which they blamed on Democrats. Then, too, recent election cycles in both the United States and Europe suggest not so much a right-wing populist “wave” as an extreme volatility among voters discontented with the establishment parties and deeply distressed by the growing inequalities in wealth, and who therefore seek candidates from outside the political mainstream, whether on the left or right. Bernie Sanders startled the Democratic Party with his remarkable run as an avowed socialist; the far right in France and the Netherlands faltered in recent elections; and Jeremy Corbyn-—running on an explicitly socialist platform—stunned the overconfident Conservatives this summer in Britain, nearly driving them from power.
What we must recognize is that, in many ways, the configuration of the white working class, like that of the populism often associated with it, is very much the product of a particular political moment, one made possible by the transformation of the global economy over the past half- century. Declining industrial employment, stagnating wages, the dramatic weakening of large private-sector unions—all results of new economic forces and a relentless offensive on the part of manufacturers and financiers—ended the historic compromise that industrial workers struck after World War II. At the same time, the Democratic Party, like its Labour counterpart in Britain, moved to the center and also helped to undermine the material conditions and political leverage these workers had achieved. The “white working class” and contemporary “populism,” then, are expressions less of an emerging social and political landscape than of the contempt with which leaders in both center-right and center-left parties regard those who have lost ground in the last several decades and are now seeking outlets for their anger. (This is where Isenberg’s book has much to teach us.)
Angry whites have certainly earned some of that contempt. The far right has played to their fantasies of a world restored and to their fears of those who could be blamed for destroying it, and many white Americans have bought into this explanation, sometimes becoming shock troops of reaction, particularly when alternative options have been marginalized. But as was true with Vance’s grandmother, the political dispositions of those who have taken it on the chin in the new global economy are by no means set or easily shoehorned into the category of right-wing or left-wing populism. They can, as Gest shows, make any one of several political moves: They can take their fight into the established parties; they can withdraw from active participation in politics; or they can veer to the right, aiming to disrupt the political system they believe has failed them. “Populism” is meant to stand in for the last of these choices, when anger among the humbled and poorly educated threatens to rupture the political sphere. This populism has no program—indeed, it rarely even calls itself “populist”—but is instead the embodied rage, often awash in conspiracy theories, of those who detest the establishment and their clients and who imagine they can retrieve a world they have already lost.
Yet it is worth recalling that in the late 19th century, amid the extravagances of the Gilded Age, there was a different sort of populism that emerged: a Populist movement and party that challenged the rule of those they called “robber barons” in order to readjust the balance of economic and political power to the benefit of “producers”—workers and small farmers. The Populists of this era—and they were willing to call themselves “populists”—had their share of warts; some traded in racism and xenophobia. But they had an analysis of how political power and the distribution of wealth reinforced each other, and they developed a program—based on public control of the money supply, the nationalization of the means of transportation and communication, and cooperative exchanges—that aimed to rein in competition, exploitation, and corruption, and to make the industrial transformation of American society more democratic. Some also sought to extend their hands to potential allies across the lines of race, ethnicity, and region—at times with impressive results.
In the embers of their defeat, these Populists left a legacy of social-democratic thinking and activity that would influence the left wing of American progressivism, early 20th-century socialism (which was particularly robust in many Populist hotbeds like Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas), and the New Deal era of the 1930s. How we got from there to the populism of today, and from the producers of the Gilded Age to the white working class of the moment, holds the key to understanding our current dilemma. It might also allow us to better navigate our future and devise the social policies that can energize a new popular movement.