In Sunday’s paper, Leonard Pitts’ column discussed a recent book by J.D. Vance, “Hillbilly Elegy,” in which he compares the white, working-class, “less-educated” citizens of Kentucky and Ohio of whom Vance writes, to people who support Donald Trump in the presidential campaign. When talking about the column with a friend, the question that came up was, “Why are blue-collar people so dissatisfied with how our country is operating to want to vote for such an obviously unqualified candidate?” As we talked, answers suggested themselves, and I find these to be worth reflecting on as the campaign unfolds.
Two factors suggested themselves that explain the anger and anxiety of working people and their embrace of Trump. The first is a feeling of alienation and impotence about contemporary America. Our society has been changing at an accelerated pace over the past 50 years, and these changes have challenged — and threatened — long-held beliefs and traditions. As recently as the 1960s and ’70s, the industrial workplace was a bastion of white, male privilege. From the factory floor, to the mill, to the mine shaft, the workplace was populated largely, if not exclusively, by white men. Then came the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s, the gay rights movement of the 1980s and ’90s, then the election of an African-American as president in 2008, and now the LGBTQ movement and the legalization of same-sex marriage. From the perspective of many white, working-class men (who apparently constitute the core of Trump’s electoral base), the world that they knew and could make sense of has fallen apart around them. For someone averse to rapid change — that is, to a conservative person — these developments seem to have left him behind and to have undermined the eternal verities on which he was raised and according to which he lives his life: It’s a man’s world, and a white man’s, at that. When Trump promises to “bring back those jobs” and to “make America great again,” he is promising a return to the America in which many working-class Americans grew up. Of course, as most economists tell us, the industrial jobs lost to automation, the declining use of coal as an energy source owing to economics, and the outsourcing of labor-intensive jobs to other countries through economic globalization will not be coming back. Additionally, most Americans really don’t want to return to the world where women, people of color, and those with different sexual orientations and gender identifications were either oppressed or persecuted, or both.
The second major factor is economic insecurity brought about by the diminishment of labor unions’ membership and the erosion of their power by Republican legislators and governors, who have, over the past few years in particular, seriously limited the ability of unions to protect the interests of working people (not just factory workers and miners, but also teachers, firefighters, police, civil servants, etc.). The balance of power has been shifted heavily toward owners and corporations who save money on labor costs by shipping American jobs overseas and can cut jobs and benefits at home without having to worry about collective bargaining or labor strikes. The attraction of Trump to working-class citizens is that he lets them know that he “feels their pain,” but he is not calling for a resurrection of the union movement; indeed, his tax-cut proposals seem designed to increase the wealth and power of corporate America. Thus, working-class attraction to Trump is ironic because it invites blue-collar voters to elect a Republican and a businessman (a corporation owner) whose own values and interests run dramatically counter to their own. Working people have a diminished voice in contemporary American politics and economics because the organizations that have spoken for them over the past century have been rendered increasingly mute by Republican legislators and governors in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. If blue-collar, working-class people want to find someone to blame for the situation in which they find themselves, they should look at the Republican Party. As for Donald Trump, he doesn’t really want — or plan — to bring all those manufacturing and mining jobs back to the Rust Belt. As a businessman, he really just wants to make more money.
Chris Johnstone lives in Patton Township.