Working-class white men supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 71 percent to 23 percent… Why?
—Robert D. Francis, “Him, Not Her: Why Working-Class White Men Reluctant About Trump Still Made Him President of the United States” in Socius journal, 2018
There’s an underappreciated voting bloc that could help to unseat Donald Trump in November: white working-class men. Many white male voters chose Trump in 2016 because they believed his campaign promises to revive the coal industry and to jumpstart US manufacturing. Once in office, he broke both of those promises.
These men are still on the outside looking in—their noses pressed against the bakery window of the American dream—betrayed, watching as one-percenters gorge themselves on tax-break goodies. Are they beginning to realize that they’ve been scammed?
Although there are millions of these men to reach out to, there’s a, well, elephant in the room. Progressive activists, so quick to empathize with the struggles other groups of voters, usually fail to include working-class white men, callously generalizing that “men don’t have problems; they are the problem,” as journalist and historian Andrew Yarrow has said. We cannot afford to leave these men on the outside for another day.
When the modern-day antisexist men’s movement (composed of mainly privileged white men) began working to transform men and manhood four decades ago, many began by acknowledging—reluctantly at first—that conventional masculinity unfairly advantaged men. When it came to men who liked their masculinity just-as-it-is-thank you, we had a huge blind spot. While we began rejecting our own male socialization, we were intolerant, arrogantly characterizing these men as “unenlightened.” Indifferent to their struggles, we were self-righteousness and judgmental more than empathetic and compassionate.
Don’t get me wrong. Men who stubbornly refuse to give up unearned privilege must be challenged. At the same time, if we cede hurting males to the men’s rights movement then these men will likely continue to vote against their own self-interest. It has always been important to reach out to these men; in 2020 it’s imperative.
Years ago I led groups for men acting abusively in their relationships. Our philosophy was based on “compassionate confrontation”—yes, we would hold you accountable for your behavior toward your partner, and yes, we would treat you humanely as a person. No shaming; no humiliating. If we write off 2020’s alienated working-class men, we are missing an opportunity to connect with their humanity. We can simultaneously demand more of these men and empathize with their reality—especially the emotional toll the economic strain they’re under has taken, especially on those unable to adequately provide for their families.
White working-class men deserve a place in the tent of the marginalized. Once inside it’s possible they will become part of a grassroots movement working for the disadvantaged. They can simultaneously be empathized with and challenged.
Helping all people in physical, socioeconomic, and psychological distress should be a defining characteristic of a humane, caring, and democratic society. However, in our bitterly divided times, these foundational goals have been politicized: Many on the right have drawn attention to men’s problems, some thoughtfully but more often to bash feminism and women, while many on the left are silent because they are implausibly unaware of such issues or, more likely, that highlighting them would be deemed politically incorrect. This failure of liberals is not only morally wrong, but it also hurts their own prospects of winning broader support among men.
While many white working-class male voters still condone Trump’s unethical, illegal actions, is their support for him unshakable? It is possible that as more revelations of his malfeasance come to light—not to mention being reminded of how he abandoned them—some may begin to desert him. And their numbers could snowball.
In Chinese there is no equivalent for the word “crisis.” Rather, there are two symbols, one above the other. The top symbol means “danger”; the bottom “opportunity.” In considering the plight of white working-class men, we have to recognize the danger inherent in leaving these men outside the big tent of change, and the opportunity if we invite them in.