Reactionaries and even fascists rise across Europe. Brexit feeds on and breeds hate. Trump threatens. Syriza, Podemos, and Sanders rise, but also suffer setbacks. Misplaced opposition to immigrants and blatant racism churn concern but so does anger at elites imposing collapsing services. Hypocritical lies confront legitimate and illegitimate desires. Elites push to preserve themselves and deflect or crush opposition. Will the final product be retrograde or revolutionary?
Progressive ideas and forces have for decades and in many places made serious gains along axes of race, gender, and sexuality. We haven’t won all we want, but have won quite a lot. We have done far less well and often even quite bad along lines of class. Nothing comparable in scope and complexity to the range of issues anti racist and anti sexist activists battle over has ever even surfaced about class.
I would like to suggest a possible cause of both white male working class support for the likes of Trump and the relative ineffectively of progressives at working class activism because I think understanding this cause will aid getting positive outcomes.
Leftist analysts tell us that while part of Trump’s support (and the Brexit vote) stems from fear of immigration and from racist, imperial yearnings for past triumphalism, another part comes from anger at being economically worse off than in a half century due to the machinations of the rich. Once we notice the latter factor, however, there is a very large elephant in the room that left analysts largely ignore.
Donald Trump is a billionaire and doesn’t for a second hide it. Given that a large part of the anger fueling his constituency is with economic impoverishment, why are his working class supporters so aggressively wedded to one of capitalism’s main practitioners of impoverishing others?
Consider videos of Trump’s supporters asked what it would take for them to not vote for him. Would you not vote Trump if he went back on some promises? If it turned out he had been a fraud in the past? If it turned out he was horrible to employees? If it turned out he has a swastika tattoo? The respondents all say no, they would still vote for him.
Okay, would you not vote for him if it turned out he had raped someone in the past? If he killed someone in public? If he said he was eager to use a nuclear bomb? The questions got more aggressive because the answer, from person after person, to the end, was no, I would still vote for him, he is my guy. People scoff at this solidity of support, ridiculing it, but scoffing and ridiculing is part of the problem.
Contrary to everyone’s impression, it is no accident Trump has demolished all the opponents he has thus far faced. Trump is no one’s fool. He is a lying, sexist, bigot, bully, exploiter, but he knows what he is doing.
So, again, how can Trump’s supporters be so angry at their personal economic plight – and they are – and yet so steadfastly, unswervingly, and unyieldingly positive about a billionaire? What happened to class consciousness?
The answer is that class consciousness is operating, quite strongly, just not the way most leftists conceive.
The passionate anger at elites coursing through a good part of Trump’s supporters – and I bet this holds true in the UK, Spain, France, Austria and Poland, too, – is, in fact, class conscious hostility to a perceived class enemy. The thing is, the hated enemy is not just, or perhaps even mainly, capitalists.
Most working people have never encountered a capitalist. Not once. But, they routinely encounter doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and others who have highly empowering jobs and major associated status and wealth. These empowered folk compose what I call the coordinator class, about 20% of the population. Workers daily serve these people, obey these people, get meager but absolutely essential benefits from these people, often paternalistically. Workers are routinely treated like children, or worse, by these people. And, yes, when we are talking about overall, averaged out attitudes – workers even despise these people.
Workers see the advantages that coordinator class members enjoy. Workers even often want their kids to escape the family neighborhood and its local employers to become one of these doctors, lawyers, engineers, or whatever, however infrequently it can happen given society’s definitions of jobs and circumstances and the different conditions people encounter growing up. But, even wanting their kids to become one, still, these coordinator class members are the people in society who angry workers most viscerally hate. When working class folks move around in society, on the streets, in the mall, going to the doctor, at work, they don’t encounter capitalists, not in any part of daily life. But they do encounter coordinator class types. People who dress differently, talk differently, enjoy different movies and shows, and expect the working class person to move out of their way or follow their instructions as they go about their domineering tasks.
Workers hate being administered, being bossed around, being rendered powerless, being considered inferior, dumb, and being paternalized – which may well be the hallmark of the interface between working class and coordinator class. Yes, workers also hate their own material deprivations and their own work conditions, but the group of human beings that workers daily experience as at least in part responsible for and benefitting from their personal plight, and as harshly derogatory and dismissive of them, is this group of empowered actors in the economy, the coordinator class.
So how does this explain anything about Trump? Or how does it explain anything about the travails of a left that has perpetual difficulty gaining working class participation?
Trump’s supporters support him, even love him, because of all the faults that his critics point to rather than despite those faults. They believe Trump is a good guy, friendly, and mainly unrelentingly honest. He doesn’t masquerade. He isn’t a lying hypocrite. He doesn’t exude academic arrogance. He shoots straight. Tough. Reliable. Ready to fight. He is not some hypocritical, arrogant, dismissive, academic, coordinator class type – like Clinton – who will pander to workers, talk about workers, claim to support workers, but who they can viscerally feel really just doesn’t give a damn about working people and is so classist – yes, classist – that it is palpable in the way she walks, in the way she talks, in the very air that circulates around her, all of it so different than Trump’s walk, talk, and surrounding air.
And, sad to say, while Trump’s supporters love for him is of course horrendously misplaced – though not so different in its basis in personal impressions than the love many blacks feel for the Clintons which is also horribly misplaced – Trump’s supporters’ antipathy for the managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants who earn many times what they earn and who have power and influence that dwarfs theirs and who treat them like children or fools, conveying zero real empathy but only a palpable air of holier than thou entitlement, is often all too warranted.
White working class hostility to what they call PC is in very large part hostility to the class that has all kinds of rules and norms that workers must obey, and that uses those rules, and their fancy manners and language, to stay above working people, to lord it over working people, and to defend class prerogatives at the expense of working people.
Okay, so we come to the election. If Sanders were running against Trump this Fall, I believe he could and would appeal directly to Trump’s voters, and I believe when he did so, in heads up exchanges with Trump, they would hear him. He would come across as caring, honest, and tough – not as a pose, but because he is. Sanders would have answers that Trump supporters really would like to hear. In turn, when Sanders won, Trump’s supporters would not feel that they had been disregarded. Far from it, they would have wound up supporting Sanders or, if not, at least respecting and liking him. Their class consciousness of all types would be alive, but their hope would be aroused as well, and they would be moving toward opposing real injustices and seeking real solutions, rather than becoming entrenched in scapegoating other victims of injustice.
But, Clinton running, and winning, could, I fear, yield a whole different trend, even if for countless other reasons her winning would be essential to beat Trump. To white working class guys, and I bet by election time many other working class folks as well, Clinton is the archetype despised, arrogant, academic, boss, who extolls solidarity, but exudes style and assumptions that put the lie to that solidarity. Sexism makes the hatred all the more intense for some, to be sure, but even without sexism, Clinton and a good part of the population would be oil and water.
Unless Clinton works a near miracle on her substance and even more so on her style – which, in fact, reflects true substance quite accurately – working males and many females too, will hear nothing she says even if she tries to communicate with them. And that is the best case. More likely, she will sense their hostility and develop a campaign that aims for Black votes, Latin votes, female votes, and young votes, and that basically ignores and constantly ridicules (with a coordinator-ish paternalistic tone) Trump’s supporters. And when Clinton wins – and in the nightmarish horror show we confront we have to hope that she does indeed win – while her victory will have kept Trump from power and will have kept the right wing machine from dominating social life, Trump’s supporters will feel even more angry and more ready to fight than earlier. They will have been ignored yet again. And so the phenomena of right wing populism trending toward fascism will not have been beaten back forever, but will have only been stalled and at the same time aggravated.
So what is the bottom line of this aspect of our query? It certainly isn’t to hope Clinton loses. You won’t get greater working class involvement in efforts at real social change by having their worst manifestations enshrined in the Oval Office. And what activism you do get, against Trump in office, will be largely aiming to get some liberal in, instead.
What we are discussing suggests Sanders needs to not only try to help beat Trump, and needs to not only try to facilitate creating a lasting left with a serious program and with real infrastructure, he also needs to organize Trump’s constituency away from Trump and toward class, race, and gender conscious politics that really does respect and address the actual needs of, among others, white working class guys.
If this doesn’t happen, I fear 2020 may see something catastrophic in the U.S., and likely in many other places in the world as well.
But what about the other side of the same coin? Why don’t progressive and radical forces have greater reach in working class communities? Why don’t the far more accurate answers left commentators have about the state of white working class lives, and the far more supportive history of activity of left organizers, as well, resonate more with the working class than Trump resonates with it?
No doubt there are many answers, many factors. But realize, this is not about the last six months or year, it is about the last fifty years. And during that span, don’t we have to acknowledge that “the movement” often comes across as not worker aligned, not worker identified, not worker led, but rooted, instead, in more coordinator class connections, assumptions, and even values, often literally dismissive of working people in its manners, style, tone, taste?
And isn’t that reality apparent to class conscious workers even when some candidate or anti nuke organizer or campus radical says screw the 1% and champion the workers – because the choice of words, phrasing, and style says, wait, I am really not one of you. Don’t they often hear from us, not explicitly, but in our tone, manners, and style – and sometimes even our pronouncements – I am a fledgling manager, lawyer, doctor. And I know it. And I look down from up here, thinking your views are dumb and you need my guidance, my instructions. I dismiss your pain as wrong headed. Mostly, I talk a lot about owners and profit seeking but I show no interest whatsoever in changing the relation between my class, or my class to be, the coordinator class, and your class, the working class, much less any interest in eliminating the class difference entirely.
Why are we surprised, then, that this underlying reality of difference, and our approach when interacting creates a gigantic impediment to unity, and indeed even to hearing one another with the slightest sense of belief, empathy, and understanding? This is something to consider. And if you decide this isn’t a problem, well – something sure is.