Throughout the 2016 campaign, amid the shock of its results, and in the various recapitulations of its lessons, great swaths of the mainstream and liberal press have been consistent about whom they blame for Donald Trump and his ultra-right-wing administration: the white working class. “That’s what Trump is playing to,” The New Yorker’s George Packer told NPR’s Terry Gross days before the election. “It’s a really dangerous, volatile game, but that’s…maybe the biggest story of this election.” In the weeks after the election, liberal-hotshot-of-yesteryear Markos Moulitsas found it appropriate to crow over retired coal miners losing their health coverage from his office in gentrifying Oakland. Even today, the contempt remains obvious: Self-appointed “resistance” leader and actual flag-wearer Keith Olbermann could find no better way to insult his fellow multimillionaires Sarah Palin, Kid Rock, and Ted Nugent than by calling them “trailer park trash.”
Even according to pundits on the traditional right, one can find the reason for Trump’s success festering in lower-income white communities, the enemies of racial and social progress, where reactionary politics and redneck racism run rampant. “The white American underclass,” according to National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, “is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.” According to this analysis, Trump’s fascism is merely a reflection of the debased preferences of poor people.
But scapegoating poor whites keeps the conversation away from fascism’s real base: the petite bourgeoisie. This is a piece of jargon used mostly by Marxists to denote small-property owners, whose nearest equivalents these days may be the “upper middle class” or “small-business owners.” FiveThirtyEight reported last May that “the median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000,” or roughly 130 percent of the national median. Trump’s real base, the actual backbone of fascism, isn’t poor and working-class voters, but middle-class and affluent whites. Often self-employed, possessed of a retirement account and a home as a nest egg, this is the stratum taken in by Horatio Alger stories. They can envision playing the market well enough to become the next Trump. They haven’t won “big-league,” but they’ve won enough to be invested in the hierarchy they aspire to climb. If only America were made great again, they could become the haute bourgeoisie—the storied “1 percent.”
Trump’s most institutionally entrenched middle-class base includes police and Border Patrol unions, whom he promptly unleashed after his inauguration by allowing them free rein in enforcing his vague but terrifying immigration orders, and by appointing an attorney general who would call off investigations into troubled police departments. As wanton as their human-rights atrocities in the years leading up to the Trump era have been, law-enforcement agents are already making their earlier conduct look like a model of restraint. They are Trump’s most passionate supporters and make concrete his contempt for anyone not white, male, and rich.