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.
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.