The Myth of Trump and the Working Class

Trump Tower: A symbol of the tacky elite. So is Donald Trump. Photo by Andrew Seaman (Creative Commons). 

Today, Americans are (hopefully) flooding the polls to put an end to our prolonged national nightmare. As I look back over the last year, some themes just keep coming back, the zombies of the political cycle. One of the most persistent and enduring memes of the election has been Donald Trump’s “working-class support.” But this idea warrants much closer examination because it ties tightly into American identity, ideals, and values—and not necessarily in the ways Republicans think it does.

Trump has certainly cultivated the myth of working-class support, leveraging Republican tales about the working class and throwing them in the face of liberal anxieties. The purported billionaire—it’s difficult to pin down his net worth without accurate tax information—has repeatedly attempted to cast himself as a man of the people. He’s one of us, sympathetic to the struggles of the working man, except, of course, for the working people of the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, who just prevailed in a National Labor Relations Board case against the candidate.

But other than them, he totally cares about the middle class.

In July, he crowed about visiting “laid-off factory workers” in the Rust Belt, conjuring up an image of economic struggle and suffering—caused, of course, by Democrats, bad trade deals, and regulations. That same month, he warned about the perils for “working people” under a Clinton presidency. “I love the poorly educated,” he said in the wake of a Nevada primary win, a not-so-sly nod to the fact that most working-class people have little to no college education and a throwback to decades of anti-intellectualism among conservatives. His stump speech routinely references things like “wages” and positions him as a candidate who cares.

“I believe in #AmericaFirst and that means FAMILY FIRST! My childcare plan reflects the needs of modern working-class families. #ImWithYou,” the candidate said in September on Twitter. The comment brilliantly tied something Republicans think they have a lock on—family values—with his alleged working-class support. In the debates, he similarly tied working-class identity to Republican anxieties, hammering Secretary Hillary Clinton repeatedly with assertions that she would raise taxes, dodging the likely economic impacts of his own tax plan, which includes a tax hike for middle-class Americans—the people whom, in a sense, Trump is targeting with his dire threats about how Democrats are destroying an idealized America that never existed in the first place.
Hillary Clinton at a rally in Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons).

His campaign is tapping into a zeitgeist of fears that Republicans perpetuate, a nightmare world in which ordinary, hardworking, God-fearing Americans are steamrollered by “progress.” Conservatives are experts at cutting out the heart of a social issue and making it their own with a few keywords—see, for example, the success of the “pro-life” movement—and they’ve long attempted to exert ownership over the working class. Not just working-class voters, but the working class as a symbol, emboldened in recent decades by gains in regions like the Rust Belt.

But who are the working class, really? Class is a slippery animal, and we’ll stick, for the time being, with a loose, general definition. To be working class, people need to have few assets (and possibly even a negative net worth), little to no college education, and jobs that often involve a high degree of manual labor. An analysis of Trump’s supporters suggests that this profile doesn’t actually fit the data. Trump voters have median incomes higher, sometimes much higher, than those in the rest of their state, and low-income voters overall are not well represented in the GOP. Plus, over 40 percent of Trump’s supporters have college degrees.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that around two-thirds of the workforce is working class and that by 2032, the majority of working-class people will be people of color. We’re not there yet, but people of color are making tremendous gains in this segment of the population. This is not a white man’s game anymore, and it never truly was.  

Trump isn’t making appeals to the “working class.” He is specifically targeting the white working class, which is a shrinking group—the fact that it is shrinking actually plays into his campaign priorities by generating a false sense of anxiety that “they” are everywhere. Many of the immigrants he delights in maligning, for example, are entering the working class in the United States, which conservatives view as confirmation of the myth that “they” are “taking our jobs.”

Chart by Five Thirty Eight.

While it may be the working class that ultimately decides the outcome of this election, that’s not going to play out the way Trump imagines it will. This isn’t a question of whether white working-class voters in key states will turn up. It’s the sight of hundreds of thousands of Latinx voters turning out in Florida and Nevada for early voting that is telling us something about how this election will go. People of color, the cornerstone of the American working class, are showing up for this election in force, in part in response to Trump’s rhetoric targeting the “endangered” white working class.

But what about that white working class? Is it in fact a sea of unwashed, ignorant, bigoted people falling into lockstep behind a tangerine menace, as it’s often painted in the media? Does the left, which fetishized “the working class” during Occupy and the Bernie Sanders campaign, genuinely believe the white working class is a bunch of garbage humans making terrible voting decisions that go against their own best interests? It certainly looks like it sometimes, with even the president of the United States exhorting the white working class to “come on, man,” wake up, and join the Democrats.

Is it actually fair to say that Trump enjoys overwhelming white working-class support? As it turns out, no, for a simple reason: White working-class voters are not actually a racist monolith. When looking at how white working-class voters—Republican, Democratic, or otherwise—tend to break in elections, the bigger predictors tend to be where they live, their level of racial resentment, and larger demographic trends. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll exploring white, working-class Trump supporters found that social anxieties were a huge predictor. Many responded that they felt like America was under threat (perplexingly, homeowners were included in the definition of “working class” for this poll, despite the fact that a home is a high-value asset, but it’s notable that homeowners identifying as working class appeared more likely to support Trump, speaking perhaps to fears about taxes and government interference). Evangelical Christians and  rural residents were more likely to say America’s best days are behind us, and respondents in many parts of the South were most likely to identify as Trump supporters. While Pew has found a growing number of white men and white people without college educations going to the Republican side, polling data hasn’t supported the assertion that this actually makes a difference—Trump’s support in this supposedly coveted demographic barely beats out Romney’s.

When you dig into Trump’s voting bloc, you quickly learn not only that his working-class support is a myth, which ignores a huge population of people of color in the working class. But even the legendary monolith of ignorant, poor whites flocking to the Republican party doesn’t hold up. This is a pretty clear lesson that the more diverse Democratic Party is much stronger than the GOP— “better together,” as its candidate likes to say—but it’s also a warning to liberal pundits hand-wringing over the “working class.” A fair amount of the working class is already here—you just aren’t paying attention.

s.e. smith's headshot. they are wearing blue and their short, curly brown hair halos their head.
by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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