NEW YORK – In the weeks following the U.S. election, Donald Trump's victory seemed to herald a welcome change: a desire on the part of politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens to understand the poor working-class white voters who, according to the president-elect, voted him into power.
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There were demands that the liberal media do some soul-searching after ignoring and perhaps even alienating many Trump voters, and reporters listed reality shows and country songs that could help readers on the coasts understand America's heartland.
In June, historian Nancy Isenberg published “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” (Viking). The book was heralded for its critique of the myth that the United States has always been and remains a land of opportunity. After Trump's victory, the book surged once again on best-seller lists.
Isenberg believes the interest in the underclass is a passing phenomenon that won’t change the general attitude toward this segment of society.
“I don’t believe Americans in general genuinely want to understand the notion of class, or the major notion that class is inherited in the United States,” she tells Haaretz. “We have this idealized notion that America believes in the middle class, even if in U.S. history there has been more downward mobility than upward mobility.”
The book describes how British colonists brought their disdain for the poor with them, and how it was preserved through popular theories from the mid-19th century. These included claims that poor white people were a different race than rich white people, questions about their skin's “yellowish” hue, and suggestions that they be sterilized.
“British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World,” writes Isenberg, a professor at Louisiana State University.
She says that early on, the colonists had to sell the concept of the colonies to investors, who promoted the idea that America could be turned into fertile land. Isenberg adds that “expandable people – waste people – would be unloaded from England; their labor would germinate a distant land. Harsh as it sounds, the idle poor, dregs of society, were to be sent thither to simply throw down manure and die in a vacuous muck.”
In 1619, for example, King James I angry about poor children roaming around near his palace dispatched them to Virginia. Among the first colonists there were also “vagabonds, Irish rebels, prostitutes and a series of convicted criminals” whom the British wanted to get rid of, Isenberg writes.
Isenberg notes that attitude toward poor white people won’t change, since there is no serious discussion of class in the United States – in contrast to the discourse on race, which has preoccupied society since the 1960s.
Not really a democracy
Sen. Bernie Sanders, who focused on class inequality during the election campaign, is too much a populist, according to Isenberg. “Bernie’s understanding of class is simplistic. Class isn’t just the One Percent. During the campaign, he said something along the lines of ‘White people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.’ That’s ridiculous – 42 percent of the people below the poverty line are white.”
Isenberg claims the reason the attitude toward the poor won’t change is that the U.S. system of government is not really a democracy. “We don’t have a democracy, we have a democracy of manners where the politicians – all of them millionaires – pretend to be one of the people.”
Occasionally, Isenberg adds, this absurdity manifests itself like when Hillary Clinton had trouble entering the New York subway because, contrary to what she had claimed, she hadn’t used public transportation for years.
Isenberg describes in the book how the democracy of manners and the need to attract the poor grew among Southern Democrats, who turned the pretense into an art form. In addition to dressing like poor white folk, eating hotdogs and consuming alcohol, Southern politicians also had to demonstrate that Southern music was close to their hearts.
She says Southern politicians always had to wear a costume, especially the Democrats. Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, always had a campaign band accompanying him.
Johnson initiated social reforms but Isenberg notes that, like other politicians who tried to deptict themselves as part of the white underclass, that doesn’t mean he didn’t despise them. She offers one of his quotes as proof: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.”
She sees Trump as another politician who wore the costume of the hick white man on the campaign trail.
“Trump used a very tried and true method: he pretended to be ‘one of the people’ in the way he spoke – as everyone said with raw honesty. Even his habit of giving people nicknames isn’t new, either: Politicians in 1800 used to come up with nicknames for their opposition.”
According to Isenberg, the red baseball cap that became Trump’s trademark wasn’t new either but was stolen from the previous "simple" hat-lover who was elected to the White House Bill Clinton. “The key to Clinton’s run was discovering a positive Southern image,” she says.
“In the beginning of his campaign, people were attacking him for not going to Vietnam, for smoking marijuana. So instead of identifying with the ’60s, he started identifying with the ’50s and evoking the ghost of Elvis a very powerful symbol that allowed him to connect with Southern men.
“The irony is that we have an inherited class system, just like the one we rebelled against in England,” concludes Isenberg. “The Republican Party is not going to change that. Trump is definitely not going to change that; he is a son of a rich man.”