I’ve been critical of “Hillbilly Elegy” and other theories that made the rise of Trump more the result of economic disparity than white supremacy. It’s the same argument that populism is a reaction to a dying Republican party, a “death rattle” as the party becomes smaller and has to resort to extremes to win. The obvious critique of this lies in the 74 million Americans who decided to back the very guy who over four years showed us he was more racist than anyone wanted to admit (though a lot of us knew better from the beginning and were ringing the alarm bells left and right). I mean, when you’re voting for the same guy all the Neo-Nazis are praising, surely you have to find that a little suspect if you’re a remotely decent person.
More to the point, I’m skeptical of a thesis that poor whites are the “true” Trump supporter so much of Trump’s support was the result of wealthy elites getting behind him.
Nevermind the media’s obsession with “trying to understand” those “poor working class whites” as “real Americans” who are goodhearted blokes while truly marginalized BIPOC are often ignored, or worse, treated with disdain and undue suspicion.
Surely we can all agree a bunch of white dudes storming the U.S. Capitol with white boy grievances, shouting about “the Jews” and hating on “Obummer” weren’t just “poor working class whites,” even though amazingly, bizarrely the media is still glorifying them in this way.
So, yes, I think racism–more specifically, the use of fear of the other–is the predominate motivating factor in supporting candidates like Trump. And yet, I’m becoming less convinced that Americans are as willing to jump to scapegoating other races or political parties if the economic disparity gap is improved. It’s hard not to view the Gamestop fiasco through the same lens as the rise of Trump, especially now that the Redditors are targeting the SEC and brokerage firms with the hashtag #StopTheSteal. It’s almost as if the death rattle isn’t [solely] of a dying Republican party but of a dying middle class. And in the case of Trump, if racism is the predominate motivating factor to propel hate, economic disparities are the vehicle it rides in on.
Don’t get me wrong: [perceived] economic disparity is not an excuse for their hatred, as films or books like Hillbilly Elegy might suggest, but it’s made them more susceptible to hatred (even if the roots were already there), and certain bad actors have capitalized on that. You see other extremist movements working the exact same way: Osama bin Laden was an educated thinker, an elite member of society; his followers were often poor and desperate. If you want to create a violent society, take away the people’s (false or real) hope, and there’s no better way to do that than making it difficult to climb the economic or social ladder. When you kill upward mobility, downward mobility takes you straight to hell.
I wrote and spoke about this back in 2012, in fact, on returning from Morocco and having studied a “sociologist who interviewed several ‘retired’ terrorists. He had actually focused on a group of Moroccan terrorists who were originally from the town of Tetuouan [sic] and who had attacked several trains in Spain. He found in his studies that most of the people who come to extremist forms of Islam are not particularly religious before they join the movement. They are, instead, usually poor, uneducated, and desperate. They will look to anyone who can give them hope. So, if somebody comes along and says, “Hey, I know you may have to die for this cause, but you’ll get seventy-seven virgins in heaven,” well, if you’ve got no money, no education to think otherwise, and no hope, the guy may have just put something on your table that might give you reason for living. Or for dying.
“This particular sociologist further demonstrated his point when he interviewed nearby school children in Tetouan [sic] asking them who their heroes were. Four answers consistently came up: a Moroccan player for the Barcelona soccer team, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as the Terminator movie had just been released), Barack Obama, and Osama bin Laden, the latter two tying as “heroes” for Moroccan youth. Now, how could that be? A world-famous terrorist and a man who was the leader of the free world, complete opposites, tying among Moroccan youth for their “heroes.” The sociologist had a simple explanation: people will listen to anyone who gives them hope, regardless of religion or politics or any other factors.”
These phenomena also help explain the Obama- or Bernie-turned-Trump voter, of which there were many. They are seeking a person, an individual, who says what they need to hear, motivates them not with intellectual rigor but by appealing to their base instincts and capitalizing on their anger and fear. They aren’t seemingly committed to a political party, which is why the GOP is at such risk of splitting. Many of these followers want liberal economic policies but only for themselves (note that one of Trump’s lowest polling averages in his entire presidency–even lower than the Capitol riot–occurred when the Republican tax bill passed in late 2017). It makes Trump and his followers Jim Crow-era Democrats more than they are Republican or Democrat. If a “Patriot Party” were to form, that’s what they would be.
We’re wrong, then, to claim that the Trump voter is merely a racist, or that the Trump voter is merely caught up in a broken middle class. Both can be true, and we cannot miss the ways in which economic disparities influence hatred. The more these groups feel (or are told they are) disenfranchised from society, the likelier it is that they will resort to violence or extreme methods in grassroots extremism to topple the status quo. And they may be right that revolution is needed; but they’re dead-wrong that it’s needed for them and them alone.