Attention Must Be Paid: The Electoral Lessons of the Working Class

Liberals and Never Trump Conservatives must learn Donald Trump was a warning from the Working-Class.

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Alex was a worker at an Ohio factory. When his plant was bought out by a multinational corporation, he learned he learned how expendable he was to to the company.

Alex came down with the flu, which put him out of commission and out of work for three days. When he returned, he came armed with a doctor’s note explaining why he called in sick. The new plant manager didn’t accept the note because the doctor never said when Alex could come back to work. Alex got a revised note. This time the plant manager said he should have called in each day he was out. Alex explained in the past calling in on the first day was sufficient. The plant manager disagreed, and since he took three days off unannounced he was now on a five day suspension.

You can guess what happens next. The plant manager calls him after a few days and tells him they were looking for something better, so he was fired.

In the past, his union would have gone to bat for him, but with the plant under new management, his union rep no longer had the relationship with plant management that he used to have so they couldn’t help Alex. Since his firing, he has gone from job to job in hopes of finding good stable work.

His union job offered security. It allowed him to buy a house, raise a family and have a good life. In his current situation he has to work much hard and probably for much less to keep that security.

For the last four years, four very long years, Donald Trump stumbled, bumbled, lied and damaged the American experiment. However, Trump is a symptom of something that is wrong in our political system. His win and the nightmare of his administration should have been a time for our political elites to do some introspection to determine where has the system let people down.

The above story told by Amber Lapp for American Compass, is one of the reasons we have Donald Trump as President. While many of us breathe a huge sigh of relief that he has lost and Joe Biden will now become our nation’s 46th President, it is not time to “go back to normal.” Political elites have to sit and wonder how they had a hand in making the Orange God King a reality.

Have political elites learned how they helped make Trump possible?

No. I don’t think people have learned a damn thing.

Donald Trump is like watching a traffic accident- you just can’t look away. His antics stir people up. The left and the portion of the right that is against Trump is basically in permanent outrage mode. And let’s admit it, it is not that hard to be outraged.

But when you are always outraged, when you believe that we are at the tipping point where American democracy is lost, you tend to miss a lot of other things that get the electorate mad.

I think that myself included, people got focused on what Trump has done while in office to undermine democracy. Trump’s turning of the Department of Justice into his personal law firm, decimating the Refugee program as well as forcibly separating children from their parents, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his willingness to use other governments as oppo research, and so on are truly outrages that you have to pay attention to. However, in doing this we forget that he is a sign that something is wrong in with our political system.

Trump is President for a reason. (No, the answer is not Russia.) He is the Commander in Chief because both political parties had nothing to offer to the electorate especially among the lower middle and working classes. They were upset and started to look for someone, anyone to listen to them.

Yes, he’s a crook and a liar and a jerk. But he was able to say the right words to get people to vote for him. The problems that elected Donald Trump are still problems. As long as his opponents (and I include myself) don’t attend to those problems with solutions, Trump will continue to be a problem.

But it’s hard to ignore all the drama of Trumpworld. We obsess over his latest tweet, or what he said at a press conference, or how he doesn’t seem to understand how the American government works and he doesn’t seem to care.

The problem is economic and social, but at the end of the day, the problem is not a what, but a who: Trump voters.

When people start talking about Trump voters, they are discussed as if they are some invaders from another planet, mostly planet KKK. The media and what our President calls the elite, can at times look at them as if they are nothing more than racist rubes that want to go back to the 1950s. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the fall of 2017 about Trump as the first “white president,” meaning he is a President that embodies white supremacy, which means that his voters people who are dealing with racial animus and saw Trump as their vehicle of expression:

The triumph of Trump’s campaign of bigotry presented the problematic spectacle of an American president succeeding at best in spite of his racism and possibly because of it. Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed. This presented the country’s thinking class with a dilemma. Hillary Clinton simply could not be correct when she asserted that a large group of Americans was endorsing a candidate because of bigotry. The implications — that systemic bigotry is still central to our politics; that the country is susceptible to such bigotry; that the salt-of-the-earth Americans whom we lionize in our culture and politics are not so different from those same Americans who grin back at us in lynching photos; that Calhoun’s aim of a pan-Caucasian embrace between workers and capitalists still endures — were just too dark. Leftists would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism. Incorporating all of this into an analysis of America and the path forward proved too much to ask. Instead, the response has largely been an argument aimed at emotion — the summoning of the white working class, emblem of America’s hardscrabble roots, inheritor of its pioneer spirit, as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry.

I don’t doubt that a number of Trump supporters are racists and xenophobes. Anyone who can’t see that is blind. I don’t doubt that race and xenophobia were factors. But that can’t be the whole story. A nation doesn’t go from electing its first black President twice to Trump simply because of race. There has to be something more, something that would make people who voted for Obama go and pull the lever for someone who called Mexicans rapists. Why they might be attracted to Trump? Were they in some way pushed to choose a reality TV show star?

Trump exposed something that we Americans are loathe to talk about — class. As hard as it is to talk about race in America, we like to pretend class doesn’t exist. But the fact is,it does and it shows itself in how middle and upper income Americans look at low income Americans, especially those who are poor and white. The well educated in American society tend to view the working class, especially the white working class with contempt. British writer Clive Crook wrote in 2016 that coming from class-conscious Britain didn’t prepare him for the way the working class is treated in America:

I’m a British immigrant, and grew up in a northern English working-class town. Taking my regional accent to Oxford University and then the British civil service, I learned a certain amount about my own class consciousness and other people’s snobbery. But in London or Oxford from the 1970s onwards I never witnessed the naked disdain for the working class that much of America’s metropolitan elite finds permissible in 2016.

When my wife and I bought some land in West Virginia and built a house there, many friends in Washington asked why we would ever do that. Jokes about guns, banjo music, in-breeding, people without teeth and so forth often followed. These Washington friends, in case you were wondering, are good people. They’d be offended by crass, cruel jokes about any other group. They deplore prejudice and keep an eye out for unconscious bias. More than a few object to the term, “illegal immigrant.” Yet somehow they feel the white working class has it coming.

The Democrats, which were once known as the party of the working class, slowly but surely shed that title. The party became a bifurcated party; a coalition of upscale whites and persons of color.

NeverTrumpers, the tribe I belong to, very seldom had concerns about working-class voters with the exception of David Frum. In fact, there has been a sense among some NeverTrump conservatives to look down on voters without college degrees, ie: working-class voters. Neither group is in a reflective mood about how Trump came to be. Both are more involved in punishing the GOP than they are about trying to prevent another Trump. Both are too online to take the time to talk and/or persuade Trump voters in the way that writer Chris Arnade has done.

Liberals and some NeverTrumpers are stumped that after four years of Donald Trump would get a single vote. If someone could vote for the President, then it could only be because of racism and white supremacy. But New York Times writer Farah Stockman spent time interviewing working-class Americans and notes the true answer isn’t so simple. “Spend time at a dying factory and you might see how difficult it can be to disentangle the two,” she said. Stockman followed a number steelworkers in Indiana who were black, white, men and women. She saw them deal with the news of their factory shutting down, train their Mexican counterparts and then have to look for work. They left this factory to apply for jobs that paid half of what they used to make.

Stockman follows a man named Tim who had a father who was a faithful Democrat. But NAFTA and trade with China made Tim loathe the Democrats and gave his vote to the Republicans and Donald Trump.

Macomb County, Michigan has always been a trending county. A suburban county of Detroit, the county is made up of working-class white voters. This county is where the term “Reagan Democrat” became famous. In 2008 and 2012, Macomb voted for Obama. In 2016, the county went for Trump. As Macomb went, so did the state of Michigan. Macomb went for Obama in ’08 and ’12, which meant Michigan went for Obama. In 2016, when Trump won Macomb, he won Michigan. Hilary Clinton did not spend as much time with the white working class and the result was she lost three states : Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. While Biden won Michigan back in 2020, Macomb County stayed in the Trump camp, winning the county 53–45 percent.

The answer is no, liberals and NeverTrump conservatives haven’t learned a thing from 2016 about the working class. Many NeverTrump conservatives were more concerned that Republicans were now against free trade instead of wondering if too much trade isn’t good for American workers after all. Donald Trump was a warning to the body republic. Ignore huge swaths of American society and they will long for a populist who fights for them.

People have said that Trump is a person that hates the people many in the working class hate. It’s easy to think this is fueled by racism, but what if racism is the result of years of economic uncertainty and resentment from people with college degrees? What if Trump was the guy who shared the resentments and could take the fight to them?

In the aftermath of the 2016 race, sales of a nearly 20-year-old book by a philosopher who died 9 years earlier went through the roof. Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country was published in 1998, and it contains three paragraphs that seemed to predict 2016:

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

Finding a strongman would then have disastrous effects on our hard-fought social gains of the last 70 years or so:

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

All of this has happened. The white working class in 2016 followed by working-class people of color in 2020 are upset at how the world has treated them and they are willing to vote in a wannabe authoritarian to burn down a world they believe is arrayed against them.

Towards the end of the play Death of A Salesman, Linda Loman the wife of the main character Willy Loman speaks about the hell that her husband is going through. She says the following:

I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

Attention must be paid. For me, that phrase spoke to working-class men and women who work hard and are being abused by things that are out of their control. Attention must be paid to Alex and Tim and all the others who don’t have college degrees but work to make this country a better place.

If the political class doesn’t pay attention to these people, we shouldn’t be surprised when they support a strongman, and when that strongman takes down the system it will make America a worse place.

Attention must be paid or we will pay the price.

Written by

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism. https://www.dennislsanders.net/

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