Here be monsters: Trump’s “white working class”

Is the ‘white working class’ really responsible for the rise of right-wing populism in the US?

Trump supporters
Supporters hold up signs as US President Donald Trump's motorcade passes by in West Palm Beach, Florida, US, January 13, 2018 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

For those of the centre-left around the world, the election of Donald Trump was the inauguration of a political dark age. The besuited directors of a more humane, liberalised and inclusive capitalism – a Democratic Party type of capitalism – were being usurped in favour of the rabid irrationality and apocalyptic bluster of the far right.

A monster was birthed. And all at the behest of a population whose frustration and ignorance, especially that of the poorer elements, had bubbled over, yielding a toxic age of unreason. 

Specifically, the notion of a “white working class” became de rigueur. Liberals at dinner parties described this entity in terms which were both sorrowful and condescending. Having seen a decline in their economic level, “white workers”, it was argued, had sought solace in the catharsis provided by hatred of the “other” – of minority groups – and thus afforded themselves a form of cultural compensation, a sense of social superiority, as a palliative to political and economic despair. 

The mainstream media proliferated the same image. The rise of Trump had been facilitated by “a white working class” who lacked the education and agency to see they were being manipulated for demagogic ends.

“The white working class” became a stand-in for the age-old concept of “the mob”, the legions of people at the bottom whose irascibility, irrationality and ignorance could be whipped up, unleashing the maelstrom; or, to say the same, “the white working class” became the perfect placeholder for the anxiety and prejudice of the middle classes towards the people at the bottom.


2016 article from National Review captured the sneering, fearful mentality to a tee: “The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”

Without delving into the dubious sociological merits of the concept of “the white working class” – i.e. a group of workers on a nationwide scale who have a social basis and a set of interests fundamentally at odds with the working classes as a whole – one should note that the purveyors and peddlers of such a fiction have a hard time coming to grips with the notion of class per se.

Indeed, most of the polls that took place in 2016 relating to the presidential election defined class, specifically the working class, in purely cosmetic terms. The methodological criteria did not depend on information about how people earned their living but rather revolved around more superficial considerations like whether they had college degrees or not – without taking into account that many such people, who supported Trump, were affluent despite their lack of a university education.

The concept of a 'white working class' who voted in droves for Trump, allows a more mundane truth to be masked.


However, the biggest survey to take the measure of the 2016 election carried out by the American National Election Study revealed that, among “people who said they voted for Trump in the general election, 35 percent had household incomes under $50,000 per year”.

A similar statistic came out of a March 2016 NBC survey which showed that “only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more, and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites.” If one assumes that working class jobs tend to fall at the lower end of the economic spectrum, then one has to conclude that the vast majority of Trump supporters in the run-up to the 2016 election were simply not of the working class.

But the concept of a “white working class” who voted in droves for Trump, allows a more mundane truth to be masked. In 2008, when Barack Obama swept into the White House on the heady promise of “change”, 61.6 percent of those eligible to vote in the population did so. Yet in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic candidate that number had fallen drastically to 58.1 percent – millions of those who turned out before now chose to stay at home. What had changed?

During his eight years in office, Obama failed to deliver on the alternative and transformative politics voters had been encouraged to expect. He promised to close the prison camp and torture hotbed of Guantanamo. He didn’t.

He swore to recall all US troops from the bloody quagmire of Iraq, but US forces were still being sent there during the final year of his presidency. He helped create a more militarised police force and under his watch the slaying of unarmed blacks, including children, became epidemic. 

And while Trump’s toxic anti-immigration policies are sufficiently well known, what is not common knowledge is how under Obama’s tenure more than 2.5 million people were deported, a figure which exceeds that of any previous president.

Obama broke his pledge on introducing “card checks” – a system that would have made access to union membership for workers easier. At the same time, he fortified the rapacious and corrupt cabal of bankers and financiers who had helped facilitate the global economic crisis by barring the justice department from prosecuting those at the top of the largest banks. And, of course, he bailed out the banks.

A deteriorating, increasingly defunct form of managerial capitalism established by slick corporate figures rang more and more hollow, and swaths of people lost the impetus and motivation to vote for Clinton in 2016 – precisely because she offered much of the same. The concept of “the white working class”, however, helps rescue this rather jaundiced liberalism from the mire, for it allows the pro-Clintonite liberal to perform a rather neat reversal.

The move from Obama to Trump is no longer conceived of in terms of the shattered promises made by those at the top of the Democratic Party as they endeavour to better grease the neoliberal machine through the promotion of a glittering financial elite and the prosaic, murderous routines of empire.

Rather it is recast in a melancholy lament for a more rational age, whereby a more humane set of political actors are eventually and tragically consumed by a political barbarism which has been foisted upon the nation courtesy of those at the bottom, the spectre of Trump issuing out of the seething, furious tumult of “the white working class”. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.