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Something very curious unfolded in the latter days of Trump’s presidency. No, not Trump’s “big lie” about voter fraud and his election victory. Rather, it was a peculiar spin on the future of the Republican Party’s relationship to the working class. Some Republicans, including Trump, began to describe the Republican Party as a “working class party” standing in opposition to the alleged elitism of the Democratic Party. Conservative intellectuals, religious institutions, and think tanks also began to propose a rebranding of American conservatism and the GOP around “pro-worker” politics.
Many observers scratched their heads at this shift, as the platform and practice of the Republican Party have been, historically, anything but pro-worker.
But Trump and his far-right allies in the GOP were not so much announcing that the class composition or policy platform of the Republican Party had shifted. Indeed, the balance sheet of Trump’s labor politics was horrendous. Rather, they were seeking to forge a particular form of racialized unity among alleged productive members of US society against the alleged unproductive members. Among these alleged unproductive are the so-called coastal and woke elites; sometimes referenced as the “Eastern Elites,” who, supposedly allied with Jews (although often referenced indirectly), racial minorities, feminists, LGBTQIA activists and immigrants from the global South, are challenging the social texture and political viability of the United States.
According to this narrative, it is the custodians of “woke capital” who are especially to blame for the assault on productive Americans, punishing patriotic workers with a globalist, social justice agenda, and crushing the “real economy.” While this rhetorical focus on the working class has surprised many pundits, it is hardly new. It is a species of right-wing populism, a longstanding irrationalist political current that bases itself on racism, sexism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. It is the manure within which neofascist currents sprout.
The right-wing populist movement that has grown in the U.S. since the late 1960s has always positioned itself as an aggrieved white movement countering the advances of the traditionally oppressed and marginalized sectors of the population. In some cases, right-wing populism has been blatant in its racism and white supremacy. In other cases, however, it has been more subtle, offering a carrot to segments of racialized populations so long as they embrace the critical image of the U.S. as a perpetual “white republic.”
The Republican Party’s flirtation with pro-worker politics is both absurd and clever. It allows them to claim that racial and gender diversity and inclusion (not to mention anti-racism and anti-sexism) are somehow ploys of the woke—read ‘Jewish’—elites to rob the ordinary (white) person of what they supposedly earned through hard work. Further, efforts to oppose racism, even symbolically, are portrayed as an assault on “American” history and the white population—the victims of a woke agenda that oppresses “straight white men.”
A case in point was the decision of Major League Baseball (MLB) to relocate the 2021 All-Star game. Originally scheduled to have been played in Atlanta, Georgia, MLB made the surprising decision to relocate the game to Denver, Colorado after being pressured to denounce Georgia’s voter suppression efforts. Immediately, many Republican politicians, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, loudly proclaimed the need to attack the antitrust exemption that has allowed MLB to monopolize baseball since the early 1920s. The fact that Republicans have consistently opposed efforts to overturn the antitrust exemption were ignored. What mattered was that they were taking on “woke corporations.” Senator Mitch McConnell even threatened major corporations for taking such stands, hilariously suggesting that corporations should stay out of politics (he quickly reversed himself).
We must be clear. This illusory pro-worker conservatism has nothing to do with labor rights, income inequality, occupational health and safety, or progressive economic development—urgent issues that confront workers every day. Rather, it is an opportunistic attempt to create a united front of the supposedly productive classes and fractions of American society against the supposedly parasitic forces—both elites and “Others” ( foreign-born and domestic)—that are draining the country of its national strength.
Constructing the “White Working Class”
Right-wing claims to speak for the working class should always be taken with a grain of salt, but they also have to be understood historically. Jim Crow segregation in the US was not presented to white people as a policy of the white elite but as something beneficial to all whites insofar as they were productive members of society. Likewise, as fascist movements grew in both Italy and Germany, the right attempted to present itself not as the partisan protector of the rich and powerful but, instead, of the “worker”—though in using that term they were certainly not relying on a Marxist definition of class.
Right-wing populists, including but not limited to fascists, tend to root themselves in the middle strata of capitalist society—at least until they capture political power, at which point an alliance with segments of the capitalist class becomes essential. This middle strata includes small businesses, the professional-managerial sector, the upper crust of the working class (those who must sell their labor power to capitalists to survive), employees in the finance sector, and many self-employed craft workers.
This is a very unstable sector in capitalist society and is regularly threatened with forms of pauperization by the dominant forces; indeed, it is routinely threatened by the manner in which capitalism operates as a system. This middle strata often feels crushed between the rich and the poor, but it especially resents this because it sees itself as the productive, or at least part of the most productive sector of the overall society.
Right-wing populist movements attempt to bridge the gap between the aggrieved middle strata and segments of the elite by constructing the image of a productive segment of society and, as such, defining all productive members of society as “workers”—or, at least, patriotic. It is no accident, then, that the ascendent German fascists called themselves the National Socialist German Workers Party, a propaganda coup to seize the workerist imagery from the Left and redefine the “worker” in racial, chauvinist terms.
The banner of “worker,” as articulated by the Republican Party, is not and never has been about working-class people. It does, however, represent a renewed effort to reach the white middle strata and segments of white workers with several messages, messages that must be understood in the context of the crisis of neoliberalism.
Right-Wing Populism to the Rescue
U.S. capitalism sustained a series of body blows beginning in the late 1960s as a result of the demands of progressive social movements for wealth redistribution and social justice. Along with this came changes in global capitalism as competitor capitalist countries like Japan, the Federal Republic of Germany, and Sweden reemerged. Technological stagnation in the U.S. was also a contributing factor. American capitalism found itself facing a declining profit rate. In the minds of many of its ideological leaders—what Antonio Gramsci would call the “organic intellectuals” of the capitalist class—this posed a threat to capitalism itself. It was in this milieu that the experiment that came to be known as neoliberalism emerged.
Neoliberalism, engineered first among Republicans and later embraced by the leadership of the Democratic Party, brought with it staggering economic dislocation, inaugurating an era of economics and politics that pursued privatization, deregulation, casualization, free trade and the destruction of worker organizations. As the theory to lead the USA out of 1970s stagnation and inflation, it also challenged the notions of collective action among the disenfranchised and the idea of a social contract. One need only remember former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s words to the effect that there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families.
With the rise of neoliberalism there was the decline of the US worker, and working people more generally. The living standard for the average U.S. worker stagnated or declined beginning in the mid-1970s, and working people became increasingly dependent on credit and multiple jobs to survive. Slowly but surely the promise of the so-called American Dream was vanishing for millions of white Americans—people who had been led to believe that if they played the game, their future would improve. The other part of playing the game, of course, was ignoring or supporting the oppression and marginalization of populations that were not to be considered fully “American” and supporting U.S. foreign policy, regardless of its extensive criminality.
Changing demographics contributed to this growing sense of unease about what was happening in the country. Opportunities were opening up for populations that had been historically, and almost literally, invisible. This represented a crisis. If white Americans, people who saw themselves as working hard and playing by the rules (even if those rules jumped them ahead of racialized populations) were not becoming beneficiaries of the system, then clearly, it did not pay to be white anymore.
In stepped the right-wing populist movement, the articulation of the counterattack or backlash against the progressive, democratic victories that had been achieved by the social movements of the mid-twentieth century. The various components of the right-wing populist movement increasingly cohered around what has come known as the “great replacement” conspiracy—or more crudely, around fears of “white genocide.” In other words, good, hard working white people were being displaced by the foreign, unassimilable ‘Other.’ And the ‘Other’ was populations that did not work as hard; populations that supposedly always had their hands out; populations that were not pulling themselves up; and populations that were worshipping the wrong God. One need only look to the most popular right-wing populist media personality, Tucker Carlson, to find this theory blatantly endorsed. In April, he railed that “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.”
The Republican construct of “worker,” then, is not responsive to the demands of working-class people who are being stepped on and crushed on a daily basis by the juggernaut of capital. Rather, it is a call to those who supposedly work hard—whether a white construction worker, a white manufacturing magnate, or even a worker of color who either wishes to deny their heritage or somehow thinks that they are ‘different’ from others—to join hands in restoring to America the pride and strength that it has allegedly lost. These are the true “workers” who must be represented against the Eastern elites and their supposed puppets among the masses.
Segments of white workers, as well as some racialized workers, are attracted to this banner because they can distance themselves from other segments of the oppressed and marginalized, believing that they are, themselves, different.
This was just as true in the lead-up to the Nazi domination of Germany. In fact, a wing of the Nazi Party focused on trying to win the German working class to Nazism. Known by their leaders, brothers Otto and Gregor Strasser, they called on the Nazi Party to lead a so-called national revolution against both Jews and monopoly capitalists. Though they made little headway, the Nazi Party continued to lay claim to being the party of the German worker. And, through massive preparations for war, the Nazis were able to win considerable support within the German working class as they provided jobs, security, and a perverse sense of imperial national purpose.
Fighting White Supremacist Capitalism
Therein lies the danger. White supremacist oppression in the U.S., which emerged from settler colonialism, created a sense of white purpose. The mythology connected with whiteness included the view that North America was vacant until the arrival of the Europeans and that hard-working Europeans—later Euro-Americans— turned an uncultivated wasteland into paradise. And they did this with little help, at least so goes the myth. It is this heritage that was supposedly robbed from the average, hardworking (white) American with the rise of “big government” and the emergence of intruder populations who were and are undeserving of the benefits of whiteness. It is America’s settler colonial, slaveholding past that is the connecting thread to today’s reinvigorated “pro-worker” conservatism.
Defeating right-wing populism will involve far more than debunking the notion that the Republican Party is or will ever be a workers’ party. It necessitates the construction of an alternative left politics to address the crises brought about by the destabilization of global capitalism and the environmental catastrophe overtaking our planet. Right-wing populism seeks to avoid dealing with the depths of these crises by punching down on scapegoats and convincing whites that they are under threat.
Nor will our confrontation with right-wing populism succeed if it tries to avoid the challenges of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, essential tools of capitalist domination. Rather it is in our ability to take on these oppressions directly, demonstrating through education and through actual struggles that it is the capitalist elites—those who truly dominate the economy—who play working people for fools.
The capitalist class is hoping and praying that white workers, in particular, will value their white “uniform” rather than recognize that they are being crushed—not by the poor, not by immigrants of color, not by people of color, not by those challenging heterosexism, but by those who never seem to be able to squeeze enough wealth out of the bodies of working people.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a longtime trade unionist, writer and a past president of TransAfrica Forum.