Trump, Change, and the White Working Class

With some 60,000,000 votes tallied for Trump, I am aware there are among those votes diverse motivations.  Many voted for Trump in the hope he would focus on the revival of the manufacturing sector.  If I thought his policy team would prioritize pushing unemployment down to 4%, offer more access to trade school/college for retraining, and so on, I would not have written this post.  However, there is no denying the racist tone of the Trump campaign and its negative effect on the nation.  This post is specifically geared towards that aspect of the upcoming Trump presidency. 

With the election over and the surprise result in, the punditry is engaged in a fit of self-examination over the lack of understanding of the “forgotten” white working class.  This ongoing media tragicomedy includes proposed Marlin Perkins type forays into the heartland.  Like many disasters, this one has a confluence of causes.  The Northern racial aspect of the Trump campaign, as in the South, has its origins in labor history.  While in the South racial antipathy has its roots in slavery, in the North its roots are in market competition, or elimination thereof.

In 2016, when we apply for a job, we put together a resume with our job experience, education, and accomplishments.  In the old industrial economy, social/political machine connections played an oversized role.  In Buffalo, various ethnic groups lived in insular neighborhoods.  The Polish lived on the East Side, Irish on the South Side, and Italians on the West Side.  These ethnic groups would come to dominate certain industries such as the Irish on the waterfront.  How do you keep the other ethnic groups out?  You assign them inferior status using ethnic slurs and stereotypes are part of the enforcement mechanism.

While these various groups would bump up against each other from time to time, they formed an equilibrium in a region that was growing in jobs and population.  The great migration of African-Americans from the South during the 1950’s and 60’s was on a local scale, regarded as a competitive threat much like current immigration is viewed nationally among the white working class.  From 1940-70, Buffalo’s African-American population grew from 18,000 to 72,000.  Some found good paying jobs in manufacturing, but most were locked out of the job market and the housing market as well due to redlining.  I recall the reaction in my white working class neighborhood when the first black family moved in during the mid-70’s.  Pamphlets with, from what we would call today Alt-Right, were passed around with swastikas.

Swastikas, even in that difficult situation, were considered outside the norm. There were plenty of World War II veterans still alive at the time.  However, a strong and violent reaction ensued necessitating a police car stationed outside the house 24 hours a day.  About a year or so later, the family moved out.  This was around the same time the industrial economy began to falter intensifying the competition for jobs.

The public (but not catholic) educational system specialized in class replication.  That is, preparing us for a life employed in manufacturing.  One morning, delivering the old Courier-Express, the headlines announced 5,000 layoffs at Bethlehem Steel.  During the same day, I attended a shop class that presented a lecture on the basics of steel making.  Even though it was obvious the manufacturing ship was sinking, the inertia of the educational system kept moving forward like the Titanic until it hit the iceberg.

Class replication was also enforced outside the school system.  For some, who attended high school on the college track, could be met with an onslaught of slurs from both friends and family.  It was not uncommon for some who received offers to attend college prep high schools to turn it down for that reason.  I think of this often when I hear of working class rage against the educational elite.  How many working class kids from that era could have escaped the economic trap of the post-industrial age in a different setting?

As an adult, you realize the verbal abuse slung around was simply from people who had little control of their lives and this was one way for them to exercise power.  Real small-minded stuff.  However, for a teenager, it can difficult to navigate that storm.

When discussing the working class today, those cultural mechanisms are still in place.  While the ethnic neighborhoods have by and large dissipated and merged into a single white self-identity, the reflex to discriminate against African-Americans (the way Muslim is now used as an epitaph is an euphemism for the n-word)  and newer immigrants still exists.  And that includes many who have since exited the working class.   Even if one is not a racist, and many in the white working class are not, you still benefit economically within the confines of this system.  What the Trump campaign has done is expand the norms how such discrimination is discussed.

The first time I ventured into Queens during the mid-eighties, it bore a striking resemblance to Buffalo.  The biggest difference is Queens was more light manufacturing rather than heavy manufacturing based, but by and large, pretty much working class.  The Trump family had left the working class by then and Donald was operating in Manhattan, but as the campaign showed, he still understood the racial buttons to push.  However, unlike past candidates who used dog whistles (states rights, welfare, etc,) Trump, being Trump, used a bullhorn.

Throughout the campaign nebulous ties were established with the Alt-Right.  During the aforementioned Buffalo neighborhood incident, the hate groups spewing swastika laced pamphlets were considered cranks with just a single neighborhood bookstore operation.  Even in a racial situation that was pretty tense.  Now those same type of groups have a link to the Oval Office.  And the effect is rippling down to the ground level with increased attacks on minority/immigrant communities.  Certainly, many in the white working class do not embrace this, but it’s undeniable racism permeates our society and those who do embrace/ignore this drove the rise of Trump to the presidency.

However, what succeeded decades ago within the confines of insular neighborhoods for the white working class to secure employment and resources by eliminating competition will fail on a national level.  The opposition is too great (Hillary Clinton drew 2 million more votes than Trump).  In a flip-flop of historical trends, resistance to discrimination on the ground level will blunt the federal government.  Trump’s trade policy, as outlined in another post, will not bring 1955 back.  At any rate, with telecommuting, neighborhoods do not geographically tie down jobs as they once did.  Paul Ryan, public university graduate/Ayn Rand fanboy, wants to scale back Medicare which strikes at the core of the Trump base.  While manufacturing jobs have actually increased by 800,000 nationally since 2010 and are expected to rise 17,000 locally the next five years, will the Trump administration address age discrimination or skill training required for older whites to be hired for these jobs?  Does not seem likely.  Meanwhile, America will continue its inexorable change into a more diverse society.

Personally, I find this change refreshing.  Why would I want to be locked in the social norms of a particular ethnic group?  I’d rather choose my own destiny. There is a cliche that the white working class votes against its own interest.  On a macro scale that can be true.  On a micro scale, some individuals view the ability to discriminate (or to be non-PC) as protecting their economic safe space.  What has happened is that space is growing smaller by the day and will continue to do so.

This election was not about inducing change but avoiding it.  And avoiding that change, regardless who is president, is not possible.   A common comeback from the most strident Trump supporters is “F*** you, we won.”  It’s the same yelp I heard decades ago from those who had little power in their lives.  The reality is, by insulating one’s self to change, you risk being left behind.  And that’s not the direction to go, either personally or the nation as a whole.

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