When Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency started to gain momentum last year, a largely ignored class of Americans suddenly found themselves on the front pages of every newspaper in the country. They brought their flags, guns, trucker hats, and conspiracy theories with them, re-introducing mainstream America to the angry opinions of the Bible Belt, the Rust Belt, and the shady parts of the Sun Belt. This, argues Nancy Isenberg, Professor of History at Louisiana State University and author of the new book White Trash: the 400 Year Untold History of Class in America, is a significant but highly precedented phenomena. Anxious, economically marginalized Caucasians have been around for centuries and their sudden significance only obscures the fact that they are a constant. They will be around long after Trump has been forgotten.
They may be around long after they’re white.
Isenberg spoke to Inverse about how politicians have courted the white trash vote throughout history and what the future holds for disenfranchised Americans, white and not.
I’m going to start with a question that relates to the end of your book. What does it mean to be white trash, now, in the 21st Century?
Probably the most common term that’s used for white trash today is “trailer trash.” One of my key themes is the importance that class has on geography. Now we know this in terms of race because people who study poverty [have seen] the way in which center cities were allowed to deteriorate, essentially to become wastelands. At the same time that we have a crisis over center cities, the migration of the middle-classes into the suburbs, gave rise to dystopian trailer parks situated on the margins of the metropolis. If we think about geography there, we have that urban ghetto, we have the trailer trash on the margins of the city and then we have the growth of the mostly middle-class/upper-middle-class suburbs. Not only are we divided in terms of what sociologists study — like the difference between lower, middle, and upperclass based on wealth and income — but we also are substantially divided in terms of where we live and the resources that we have.
It’s one of the ways we reinforce our class system, by living separately, not only based on race but also based on class.
So why has class never become more of a unifying factor in terms of how this socio-economic divide plays out? What is the biggest thing that has maintained that gap between the white working class and the non-white working class?
Racism and class prejudice are often intertwined, this has been a common pattern in our democratic politics. It is often that people at the bottom of the social hierarchy are pitted against each other. One of the problems that we face today is that we have politicians that exacerbate the racial divide. If we look at Donald Trump’s rhetoric, when he calls on his magical fantasy wall and alludes to migrants as racists and criminals, he’s targeting poor border-crossing Mexicans. He’s using both racial and class inflected vocabulary. It works because when people are poor they’re afraid. They’re afraid that their condition is only going to get worse. So it’s easy to target a group and say it’s using this idea of a zero-sum game, that if one group gains that you’re going to lose ground. It relies on this idea that we have to accept that in American society there are limited resources, limited job opportunities.
We refuse to admit that inequality is built into the very structure of our capitalist system, and that means that often different groups imagine themselves competing against other groups, and that’s where [speaking about] race has been very effective [for Trump and other candidates]. In claiming that it’s a contest and only one group is going to win.
Yeah, I wanted to ask about Donald Trump. As you said, we’ve seen candidates that have tapped into that sort of that populism and fear-mongering before. But do you see anything different about his candidacy and about the support that he’s enjoyed from such a wide swath of the white disenfranchised lower class across America?
It’s really hard to say. We have inaccurate measures of who’s actually supporting Donald Trump — Nate Silver has argued that people who’ve actually voted for Trump in the Republican primary were of a higher income bracket than people voting for Hilary and Bernie. Part of the attack against Trump’s supposedly white trash followers, I think, really came over the coverage of his rallies, and the image of white men in their truckers caps, and this idea that he had an appeal for the working class. But this is a problem too, because the working class has never been monolithic. To assume that white men represent the working class is flawed.
From a historical perspective, our working class has been ethnically diverse, and racially diverse. Where that [support] really comes from is that Trump has revived Nixon’s “silent majority” — the rhetoric that he used in 1969 as a way to try to attract lower-middle class whites from the Democratic Party into the Republican base. It relied on racism, and it also relied on this image that is part of the rhetoric of the working class, that they are hardworking and independent. His fear that there are other people getting handouts is a really old fear. In the past, the unworthy poor were beggars that pretended to be injured and were ‘freeloaders’ and got ‘handouts.’
Everyone imagines themselves as hardworking good Americans who have earned what they’ve gotten, but every group has benefitted from certain kinds of privilege. For some reason, whenever we talk about welfare, we think that this is somehow an undeserved privilege. And that really taps into that older fear about the poor, the fear that their condition will never change. There’s a sentiment that you’re just throwing away good money, that charity doesn’t work.
Is that why we see so many people who come from classes or socio-economic backgrounds that would benefit most by having more government assistance, counter-productively supporting candidates like Donald Trump?
You know, it’s been proven over and over again, the fact that the Republican policies do not help the working class. They don’t help the poor. This is the problem of American politics, that politics are often irrational, it’s about emotions. It’s not about facts. We accept huge disparities of wealth just as long as our politicians pretend to act like one of us. And this is what Trump has been doing, he’s stepped down from his elite penthouse, he’s put on his trucker cap and because of the way he talks and his ability to be bolder, rude, and obnoxious somehow makes him seem like he’s an ordinary guy.
I would say the same for Bernie Sanders. I think [Sanders’s] followers want something really different from Trump’s followers, they want class revolution and they actually do want social justice, whereas Trump’s followers want class security; but they [both] are also catering to a rhetoric that is very emotional and making promises that can never be kept. I mean Trump’s wall is never going to be built. And the idea of handing out free college tuition is not going to happen either. But I think it’s really very revealing that Americans get so caught up in the promises that they lose sight of what can actually be done.
Hillary Clinton is the one who’s been the most honest, and people think, she’s the one who is not going far enough, not making big enough promises. And that problem is never going to go away.
So what future is there for this white working class? What does white trash mean ten years from now?
I think [we have to] recognize that everyone has the potential to face serious economic problems, [and] realize that that kind of poverty can reach higher up the social hierarchy and stop bracketing that group [the lower class] off as if their destiny is predetermined. We also have to find ways to communicate across the classes, and this is where I find politicians and journalists to be the most troubling, is that they think everybody shares the same values. By and large most of the major news networks are talking to middle class people. The people who don’t fit into those classes get ignored. Their interests occasionally get brought to attention by politicians, but I think even Bernie Sanders said: ‘Nobody cares about the poor because they don’t vote.’ And there’s some truth to that. (Ed. note: Sanders’s actual quote was: “Poor people don’t vote. I mean, that’s just a fact. That’s a sad reality of American society.”)
So is there any hope left? And if so, what would have to happen politically and economically in the United States to change the future of white trash, of the white working class?
I really think we need a new New Deal. The Democratic [party’s] solution to the loss of [heavy] industry in this country is job training. Some of that does work, but it’s not the only solution. We have to invest into different areas of our country. We have to break down the different concentration of wealth. I think our government needs to invest a vast amount of money in infrastructure, because it would build jobs [and] it would instill a sense of public good, which we lack in this country. How can we find ways to reinvest into communities that we’ve labeled wastelands? We have to stop thinking that education is always the solution, because before you can educate people and retrain people you have to make sure they have the security to just exist. In terms of having food, having basic resources in keeping their families together. We can’t just sort of assume that that’s a given because we’re such a wealthy country. It’s not a given.
What does give you hope?
I actually really like teaching at LSU, I find the students there, even though it happens to be a more conservative state, the students are very open-minded. They want to embrace the world. And that’s the one thing that keeps me somewhat optimistic is this thinking that people who are looking to the future, wanting to learn, you know there’s always the chance that they could be the people who influence the future and get people to break out of this very negative and nasty way of dismissing the poor. That’s the saddest thing, the saddest thing is when people are so overcome with hatred and fear that they can’t get beyond blaming somebody else for what are larger economic, political problems.
Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is available now on Amazon and most major book sellers.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.