To understand white working-class voters’ support for Trump, we have to consider not just their economic anxieties and political resentments, but also their cultural fears regarding the costs of elusive upward mobility. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Michelle M. Tokarczyk posits a new theory to explain Trump’s working-class appeal.
Trump’s version of masculinity—angry, blunt-speaking, and indifferent to sensitivities called “political correctness”—reflects a stereotype of working-class men reminiscent of figures such as Archie Bunker from the 1960s sitcom All in the Family and Walt Kowalski from Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008). Trump carried himself with a determined swagger and wore a trucker’s cap. While some saw Trump playing a character, as he did on The Apprentice, working-class viewers found him familiar, a man who spoke like people they knew. While working-class voters perceived the East and West Coast elites as looking down on them, they felt that Trump understood and shared their views. In other words, he inspired working-class nostalgia not only for lost jobs, but also for the social status that accompanied these jobs. When these jobs disappeared, the very fabric of working-class communities was torn
Some have argued that Rust Belt residents from places like Pennsylvania or Ohio could easily improve their lives by relocating. This suggestion implicitly dismisses the many family and community ties that bind people to locations, and, as Paul Lauter once stated, working-class people must rise in solidarity with their class or leave it. Further, well-meaning elites don’t understand that a working-class person’s decision to stay put is likely motivated by both personal and economic factors. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that those who moved long distances from their communities of origin were more likely to have graduated from college than those who remained. A worker with only a high-school education will not necessarily fare better in relatively affluent Maryland than in Ohio. Class mobility, not geographical mobility, is required. As working-class scholar Barbara Jensen has argued, changing classes involves changing cultures and too often devaluing one’s culture of origin.
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-16 academic year, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors.