I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve queried: How in the world did Donald Trump become president? My blog post from October 20, almost three weeks prior to the election, speaks a cultural truth – for better and worse, Americans equate wealth with success – but my prediction that Trump would “convincingly” lose the election, despite his wealth and because of his many flaws, reveals that I have more to learn about Americans.
Nancy Isenberg’s provocative White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is essential reading for understanding the Trump phenomenon, and for delving deeper into American society’s long history of inequality. Even though the hardcover version was released in June 2016 before the advent of the Trump era, Isenberg effectively describes the context that helps answer the above query. The LSU American history professor, in the paperback version released earlier this year, directly answers the query in a new preface. Class and identity politics, she says, not one more than the other, operated in tandem to help elect the forty-fifth president.
History tells that colonial Australia was a dumping ground for English convicts and other undesirables. Colonial America, with widespread indentured servitude and expanding slavery, wasn’t markedly different. Consequently, Isenberg argues, American society has always been stratified and class-based. The group of marginalized American underclass – enslaved Africans and blacks, Native Americans, and expendable laboring migrants – also included white undesirables, initially labeled as waste people, rubbish, lazy lubbers, crackers, clay eaters, and swamp dwellers. The moniker “white trash” would come later as a catch-all phrase subsuming these and other descriptions.
The extension of suffrage to non-property owning white men in 1828 helped Andrew Jackson win the presidency that same year. Jackson – vengeful, blunt, defensive, retaliatory, braggadocious, and crass – was the original Trump. An arch-populist, he spoke the language of common folk and railed against elites in Washington. Jackson won reelection in 1832. He signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, aiding white settlement and abetting the deaths of thousands of Native Americans in the infamous Trail of Tears.
During his first week in the oval office Trump proudly hung a portrait of “Old Hickory” near his desk, calling the seventh president “an amazing figure of American history.” The two men, and the political contexts that produced their presidencies, have many commonalities. I scribbled “Trump” in the margins of my hardcover version of White Trash no less than twenty-five times on the pages where Isenberg described Jackson and his era.
Isenberg says that, like Jackson and other politicians before him, Trump has tapped into a rich vein of American identity politics. Trump embraced the forgotten white, sometimes rural, working (or previously working) class – many who are afraid for the future, feeling disinherited, some blaming Mexicans and immigrants for unfavorable changes, and others perilously hooked on opioids. Thomas Edsall reports in the New York Times that, according to a 2014 Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, opioid prescriptions in twelve states outnumbered their populations: Arkansas, Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Strikingly, all twelve states voted in the Trump column on November 8th. Edsall also cites a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation release that reports overdose death rates from opioids, including heroin, were much higher for whites at 13.9 per 100,000 persons, than for blacks (6.6) and Hispanics (4.6).
When Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump’s supporters as a “deplorables,” she filled up a white trash basket with racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamaphobes. While Trump’s numerous disparaging comments rarely hurt his political fortunes, Clinton’s phrase turned against her. Not only was it over-generalized and inaccurate, it further galvanized some of Trump’s supporters – non-college educated, left-behind whites – into a class and an identity that separated them from elites like Clinton and her ilk from above, and “Mexicans and immigrants” from below. Their fear of falling down the socioeconomic ladder met up with Trump’s promise to be their savior. A small slice of this group – white supremacists and neo-Nazis – acted out mid-August in Charlottesville, Virginia and the president, incredibly, came to their defense.
Trump was not elected solely by whites anxious about losing status and tumbling into a lower socioeconomic class. There were plenty of college educated, and economically well-to-do that voted for Trump. Isenberg argues that America has always been a class-based society, and despite all our talk of equality, a society quite comfortable with hierarchy. With the attainment of the American Dream for many becoming nothing more than empty promise and platitude, Trump masterfully tapped into (and continues to stoke) historic resentments and an electoral college majority of Americans bought it.
In part, this is how Donald Trump was elected president. I’m still learning about my fellow Americans, even though it sometimes leaves me scratching my head.
I’m loathe to make another lousy prediction, but for the life of me I can’t see how this presidency ends well.
T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago). JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.
Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.
The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!
¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!