I’m writing this letter as the proud son of the working class. My father, who never attended college and was our family’s breadwinner, worked as a Greyhound Bus ticket seller, part-time mail carrier and grocery store stock boy. When he died of a sudden heart attack at age 47, he was working the night shift as a hospital orderly. I was 12 years old and my younger brother was seven.
Because my dad was a World War Two vet, we had a very modest house purchased under the G.I. Bill’s Home Loan Guaranty Program. Under provisions of the Social Security Act’s Aid to Widows with Children, my mother received some scant relief, but never beyond the maximum legal amount of $200 per month. As recipients, single moms were not to work outside the home. It wasn’t easy but I shudder to imagine our lives without these Federal government programs. It also taught me that a government responsive to its citizens can be a positive, make-or-break difference.
After growing up a poor kid in Fargo, North Dakota, I managed to achieve some success through hard work, sacrifice and determination, but I certainly displayed no more grit than you’ve expended. Earlier this year, my wife and I retired to a comfortable lifestyle, with all that implies.
Changing Times, Change Outcomes
I mention this background only because I think it conveys an important lesson: Had my “back in the day” working class existence occurred thirty-five years ago instead of sixty years ago, all my determined self-improvement wouldn’t have produced the same positive outcome. Why? Because times changed. A long economic decline occurred and you’ve been working harder for decreasing wages and benefits. Just how bad is it? When you total up their debt and total up their assets, 40% of Americans (4 in 10) have zero dollars. Zilch. They’ve been cheated out of opportunities that once were available to me and other members of the white working class. That America no longer exists. Now, is it possible to determine with precision’s just who’s to blame for this state of affairs. You betcha.
One more thing: Had I been the child of a black veteran, my situation would’ve been truly grim. I’m embarrassed to admit that for most my adult life I was ignorant of the fact that racial exclusion provisions of the Social Security Act meant that throughout the South and elsewhere, black mothers were virtually excluded from these benefits. Widows who’d been “working” in the cotton fields or as house maids were legally ineligible. States were allowed to refuse mothers based only on race and routinely did so.
Likewise, African-American vets were denied many of the G.I. Bill’s benefits. They were prevented from gaining access to mortgages, bank loans, and educational opportunities. Formal and informal segregation excluded blacks from the suburbs where most new housing was being built. That’s only the tip of the iceberg that fostered a wealth gap between whites and blacks that continues to this day.
I should add that I’m a recovering Democrat, a longstanding member of Democrats Anonymous. But I haven’t been immune to (very) temporary seductions by smooth-talking presidential candidates, the last being Obama in 2008. In 2016, I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton in either the primary or general election.
How does race play into our political situation?
If your high school education was similar to mine, you’ll be as surprised as I was to learn that there was no “white race” in our country until the idea was invented by white plantation owners in Virginia around 1676. Before their arrival here, the Europeans had never thought of themselves as white.
Ninety percent of the colonial population in Virginia consisted of Africans, some of them enslaved and others indentured servants, and poor European tenants and laborers. Not only did they share deep grievances against the ruling plantation owners; for three generations, blacks and whites had inter-married, worked, celebrated and mourned together. It may be hard to imagine today, but questioning any of this simply wouldn’t wouldn’t have entered their minds. Notions of mutual aid and common cause was second nature. So what happened?
A small army of poor (black) Africans and poor (white) English frontiersmen realized they were getting their asses whupped by the landed aristocracy. This ragtag militia, led by the Englishman-turned-rebel, Nathanial Bacon, attacked the royal English government and burned Jamestown to the ground. Ultimately, the overmatched uprising failed. Bacon died of illness, but 23 of his followers were hanged as traitors. This is known as Bacon’s Rebellion.
Recognizing that another insurrection was possible and might spread, the now-terrified ruling circle of plantation owners came up with a solution: Their great trick was to drive a wedge between white and black workers. On the one hand, draconian laws were passed that punished whites for associating with blacks. On the other hand, financial rewards were bestowed on whites who captured runaway slaves. Furthermore, perks like owning a tiny plot of land and a few minor legal rights were granted to whites, and their status versus blacks was elevated. Over time, an artificial bond was created between elites and the white working class. This was the genesis and evil genius of creating “white identity” where none had existed. Gradually, poor whites came to believe they were better human beings by virtue of their skin color. This strategy has been working for 400 years even though there’s nothing “natural,” nothing biological about it.
What about the white working class today and Donald Trump?
It’s well known that the white working class makes up one-third of the American adult population and they supported Donald Trump by a margin of two to one. Their votes in the key electoral states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin tipped the election to Trump. Hillary Clinton had dissed two-thirds of Americans without college degrees, including those in these states.
Hillary Clinton had written off voters like yourselves. Why? Because she had nothing of substance to offer you. Wall Street’s Mistress promised “ladders of opportunity,” but you knew from painful experience that those ladders had been kicked away long ago by leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Members of the posh, immensely privileged, white upper class were reaping all the benefits of policies enacted by the Republicrats.
I may be mistaken but based on my reading, some Trump voters also found merit in Bernie Sanders’ program. But with Sanders off the ballot, you reasoned, “Hey what do I have to lose?” I’m also given to understand that many Trump voters also didn’t believe he would be a great or even good president, but voted for him anyway to poke a finger in the Establishment’s eye. An Ohio voter clarified that it was the middle finger. If so, good for you!
I trust you to correct me, but my take is that Trump offered hope with his “I’m not a politician” maverick outsider status. Policies of both major parties diminished your livelihoods, leaving you unable to afford child care, housing, and education. Many Trump supporters are one medical emergency from economic disaster. Whatever your household income, the future seemed precarious, headed in an inevitable downward spiral, and prospects of a better future for your kids slipping away. For decades, no one was listening, but Trump seemed different in his pledge to get matters “under control.”
But what has Trump actually done since taking office? Here are just three examples among many: During the campaign he demonized Hillary Clinton for being in bed with Goldman Sachs (she was), the financial firm that “robs our working class” (it does). Yet we’ve recently learned that Trump’s long awaited tax cut plan was written by former Goldman investment bankers now on his team. The tax plan is an obscene giveaway of trillions of dollars that will, in the words of economist Jack Rasmus, “redistribute income massively upward from the middle and working classes to the rich.”
Meanwhile, Trump wants a spending cut of $1 trillion in Medicaid over the next decade and continues to shred what’s left of the social safety net after Bill Clinton’s devastating cuts in 1996. By any measure, Trump’s economic agenda is “largely Goldman’s agenda.” In fact, I agree with those who argue that Goldman Sachs and the military-industrial complex now administer the presidency. I don’t believe this is what you were voting for.
Further, in explaining his startling decision to reverse a solemn campaign pledge to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, Trump said, “Decisions look different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” Indeed. Whatever one’s intentions, one quickly learns to obey the wishes of the deeply imbedded, unelected power structure in Washington, or face daunting consequences.
Finally, you might recall that Trump proclaimed he would be “the greatest jobs’ President that God ever created.” Well, we’re still waiting. And so are the 1.5 million workers who lost jobs during Obama, another “jobs creator.” Many of them have fallen into poverty and opiate addition, and have suffered permanent psychic scarring. More and more jobs are being outsourced or converted to part-time, seasonal, and low-wage, while still others are being replaced by robotics.
Just yesterday, here in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA, 460 workers at the Wells Fargo call center were told to report to the cafeteria, where they were abruptly fired. Many left the meeting in tears. Nancy Jenkins, 53, was one of them, and told the local newspaper, “We have a lot of single parents who worry they’ll have to take a minimum wage job and aren’t sure how they’ll make it.” Jennings herself recently had a kidney transplant and worries she’ll be unable to pay for anti-rejection meds. Jennings’s starting salary at Wells Fargo: $13.82 per hour. Wells Fargo’s profit just this quarter: $4.47 billion.
You may have seen Trump’s recent late night response to all of this when he tweeted, “Stock Market at an ALL-TIME high!” How much stock do you own?
But after having reported this, I must add that Trump is not the central problem, but only the predictable outcome of a much deeper crisis, one created by several preceding administrations. I’m suggesting that, consciously or not, Trump (or, really, his media guru, Steve Bannon) sold the white working class a bill of goods, and he encouraged you to scapegoat immigrants and black people for your entirely justified grievances. After poring over this material, I can say that no evidence exists to support these charges and reams of data refute them.
If Trump’s vision succeeds, there will be only one noteworthy change: A different 1% will rule the country. We have no skin in this game. All of this reinforces the conclusion reached by numerous nonpartisan political science studies: ordinary citizens have no influence over what the government in Washington. As things stand, voting is essentially meaningless.
So, what’s next?
I’m not the first person to say there is one tiny minority that’s dangerous to you. It’s the wealthy, privileged, and overwhelmingly white oligarchy that rules over all of us. Other than worrying that you might catch on that immigrants, Muslims and people of color are not threatening your well-being, they have never given a rat’s ass about us, our children or our grandchildren. All they want from us is our labor, and that only if the price is low enough.
As the late George Carlin famously quipped, “No matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, you’re screwed because it’s all fixed. There is a club and you ain’t it.” Tim Wise, a close student of race matters, notes that by virtue of their experience, brown and black people have always known this. The white working class, owing to conditions more recently thrust upon them, has only begun to entertain this truth and the troubling questions and doubts surrounding it.
Given all of the above, I would respectfully ask you to consider the following: The pain and fears of the white working class are real, but the diagnosis is wrong, and, if not corrected, terribly dangerous. This letter was my attempt to offer a second opinion, one which goes beyond symptoms towards pinpointing the actual cause, those who own and benefit from our deeply dysfunctional economic system. I wrote these paragraphs not to cast blame or make judgments about Trump supporters, but to begin a much needed conversation about our country’s future.
There are people, including some I know, who depict Trump sympathizers as bigoted, ignorant, gullible rubes, almost congenitally incapable of empathy. In fact, a few individuals advised me not to bother with this letter because “Trump supporters are fact-resistant and won’t give you the time of day.”
I don’t buy this, and the sweeping claim that all 62 million Trump voters are incapable of thinking and acting in their own interest is not only bullshit, but smugly condescending.
I’ve never doubted that white working class folks, if privy to all the facts, constitute one pillar in constructing the basis for a social movement that — operating outside the hopeless two party system — can fundamentally change our country. For me, that feels like our last and best hope.
Gary Olson is Emeritus Professor of political science, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA.