June 15, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Trump transcended class divisions between white people. GOP governors are inflaming them
Race and class in America are indistinguishable.
The idea that the Republicans are the party of the working class is now conventional wisdom among some members of the Washington press corps. That has bothered me for a variety of reasons, but I don’t recall reporting the following annoyance. If the Republicans are the party of the working class, what does that mean in terms of class? We don’t know, because most of the press corps does not bother asking the question.
Instead, we are left to read between and among the lines. The working class is drawn to the Republicans on account of the Republicans standing against things and people and ideas that the working class stands against. Those “things and people and ideas” have a certain color and a certain gender such that the Republicans are the party of the working class less in terms of class and more in terms of bigotry and prejudice. We are not talking about a working class so much as a whites-only working class. This is what lurks between and among the lines but the press corps never comes out and says it.
To the whites-only working class, Trump was their hero. To the whites-only petty bourgeoisie, he was their ideal. To both, he was the means by which they stayed white or got whiter.
There are intimations of class, though. The people who twice broke for Donald Trump were largely the very obscenely rich as well as Americans believing they deserve to be very obscenely rich but for whatever reason are not. They live in every city and town. They are businessmen, property-owners and church members. They are respected and admired. They work hard and give back. They didn’t go to college, which to the press corps means they are working class. To everyone else, they are the local upper crust.
That’s not usually reported either. Neither is the root of the local upper crust’s support for their idol. The Republicans, when they had control of the Congress, did one thing. They passed tax cuts benefiting the very obscenely rich. To the extent they benefited a petty bourgeoisie that’s resentful of not being very obscenely rich, it was by treating the petty bourgeoisie as if they were very obscenely rich. That they got little or nothing materially is beside the point. The point was being seen as being like Donald Trump.
In this, the former president was a unity figure. In him was embodied the right combination of “cultural” factors that were capable of transcending real class divisions between the whites-only working class and the whites-only petty bourgeoisie for whom the whites-only working class worked. By “cultural,” of course, I mean bigotry and prejudice. In this context, I think, we would profit from reconsidering the relationship between class and race (and other identifiers). To the whites-only working class, Trump was their hero. To the whites-only petty bourgeoisie, he was their ideal. To both, I’d suggest, he was the means by which they either stayed white or got whiter.
Here’s the tip jar!
We’re all familiar with the idea of upward mobility. If you work hard and play by the rules, the American dream can be yours. But what if, as Editorial Board member Kaitlin Byrd has argued persuasively, the US economy was built in accordance with white supremacy? Then class and upward mobility, in reality, are indistinguishable from systemic racism. That would mean the whites-only working class panics when the economy crashes. Being white no longer protects them. They need a savior. That would mean the whites-only petty bourgeoisie rejoices at the sight of their idol signing massive tax cuts for the very obscenely rich. Though they are not and never will be very obscenely rich, it doesn’t matter. They got to be like Trump. They got to be whiter.
Seen from this perspective, one has to wonder how the whites-only working class is feeling in 25 states, where the Republican governors have shut off pandemic relief funding at the behest of a whites-only petty bourgeoisie that does not want to pay more in wages than the whites-only working class is receiving in unemployment benefits. Where Trump was capable of transcending the real class divisions between these camps with appeals to their whiteness, these GOP governors are inflaming divisions by taking whiteness away from one while maintaining it for the other.
We don’t usually talk this way, because the (mostly white) press corps doesn’t talk this way. It doesn’t have, or doesn’t want to have, the language with which to convey these felt realities. Instead, it talks about class as if it were only about class. It talks about race as if only Black people had a race. I hope someday we will all have access to a new American social vocabulary. In the meanwhile, I’ll have to settle with being annoyed.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
You bravely wrote, “…the Republicans are the party of the working class less in terms of class and more in terms of bigotry and prejudice.” These attitudes are understood at a primal level but remain mostly unspoken by White people. Unspoken by some because of a fear of ‘opening a can of worms’ and unspoken by others because of what it might reveal.
You’ve also shown some real insight by discussing “… a petty bourgeoisie that’s resentful of not being very obscenely rich… by treating the petty bourgeoisie as if they were very obscenely rich.”
Bravo! A resentful petty bourgeoisie is what is driving the Republican party because there are a lot more of them in America than they are Americans in the “filthy rich” category.
The big question then is why are they resentful. I think there is a fundamental religiosity that you lightly touched upon when describing this portion of the Republican party as “businessmen, property-owners and church members.” Left unsaid was the description of the “church” that these men attend – but which is implied by using the term “church” instead of a more vaguely sounding “religious services.” Church means Christian – at least it does in the “nation” of the Deep South.
One of the big societal shifts over the last decade has been the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” Prosperity has come to be synonymous with wealth. Therefore upward mobility is a sign of God’s favor. In my opinion, this creed calls to those seeking power and control – those who get to make the big decisions. So, yes they seek to be wealthy but they want to ensure that a predetermined status quo is maintained. You say that the Republicans’ tax cut treated “… the petty bourgeoisie as if they were very obscenely rich.”
In Calvinistic terms, that means these petty bourgeoisie were part of The Elect or as commonly thought the Blessed – God’s Chosen, known to all because God–bestowed blessings are obvious and tangible. Even the ability to “give back” is a sign of being Blessed.
This brings us to the resentments of the White working-class, which you’ve touched upon, writing, “the whites-only petty bourgeoisie for whom the whites-only working class worked.”
In my opinion, at least in the Deep South where I live, I believe there is a caldera of resentment smoldering in the Whites-only working class. Harangues opposed to extreme wokeness or complaints against cancel culture are merely window-dressing, masking all the resentments that underlie the lives of these Americans.
I believe Donald Trump, speaking with words high-school dropouts can understand perfectly, plugged into the fear, ill will, and anger many working-class Whites have. They often believe that a mysterious cabal of “elites” has caused their woes… not happenstance, genetics, misconduct, malpractice, or sheer bad luck.
Though they may not have innate race hatred in their hearts, it’s easy to feel bitterness when it seems “people of color” are reaping all the benefits of the elites’ efforts–and they are making advancements!
Now more than ever before, Republican politicians are trying to feed this cycle. For many of them though, they can never truly SPEAK to these separate groups the way Donald Trump did.
In his case, words spoke louder than actions. Grievance will still have an audience, but it won’t be the perfect storm of Donald J. Trump and that’s why Republicans want Trump to shut up about stolen elections.
You write about Kaitlin Byrd who “has argued persuasively, the US economy was built in accordance with white supremacy.” I would argue that the US economy was built by the White Elect and this continues to this day–or maybe we should ask Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk.
The mystery to me is why the Democrats don’t seem to be able to tap into the entire working class with a prosperity message of their own.
Truth! I too do not understand why Democrats are can not tap into the entire working class. At times I think Bill Clinton was a Democratic fraud (centrist Republican) bought off by the bourgeoisie. It seems to me that the centrist Democrat today is the traditional Republican bourgeoisie and the Republican base are the inmates that have taken over.