Trumpism and the White Male Working Class

by Raka Ray, University of California, Berkeley, USA

It has become commonplace in both media and scholarly writing to describe many of the people who voted for Trump, and who show up in large numbers for right-wing protests like that in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “angry white men.” The Washington Post asks, “Why are so many white men so angry?” Sociologist Michael Kimmel suggests that “aggrieved entitlement” unites them. When all the votes after the last US elections were counted and analyzed, a very particular constituency became obvious: 71% of white men without college degrees voted for Trump, while more than half of white men with college degrees (53%) also voted for Trump.

While much has been made of what both the left and the right often term the “Angry White Male” vote, I suggest that we need to closely examine each element of this. This group of voters is simultaneously white and male and working-class; thus race, and class, and gender must be analyzed, and understood, together.

In the US, the decline of Fordism and the corresponding decline of “good” jobs were not simply an issue of class. Between the beginning and the end of the twentieth century in the United States, Fordism provided good jobs involving assembly line manufacturing of standardized goods, afforded higher wages so that workers could afford to buy the products they made, and promised relatively continuous employment. But Fordism, in reality, meant more than that. Premised as it was on large-scale industrial production and domestic consumerism, Fordism was never just a feature of the capitalist economy. It simultaneously reflected patriarchy: the ideology of Fordism subsumed within it the family wage – the idea that one income alone can support the entire family. The family wage, in turn, assumed a division of labor in which men took care of production, while women took care of consumption (and also subsidized the nourishment and social reproduction of workers). That men rather than women would work the good jobs stemmed from gendered assumptions about the right place for men and women, and also from the fact that (in the absence of any provision for equal pay between men and women) it made sense that women, whose earning capacity was far lower, should be the ones to stay at home. Indeed, at the very heart of many men’s understanding of themselves as men, lies their capacity to provide for their families.

Excluded from the family wage compact were men whose wages were not high enough: blacks and immigrants. Fordism thus privileged white, skilled blue-collar male workers. Also excluded were women who were not attached to men, and women whose men would never earn enough to support their families by themselves. This being also an era when state investments were made in healthcare, education, and old age, a good life was imaginable and well within the grasp of white working-class men.

The decline of Fordism coincided with waves of social movements by women and people of color demanding equality, equal wages, reproductive rights, rights of free speech, against war, and for sexual freedom. Simultaneous with the decline of Fordism and the decline of the family wage, came the rise of dual-earner families and a shaking up of the very ideology of the family wage. Within the present regime of globalized and financialized capitalism manufacturing has been relocated to low-wage regions of the world, and many jobs have simply disappeared because of automation. The new regime has both recruited women into the paid workforce, and promoted state and corporate disinvestment from social welfare.

For over 40 years, white men’s median income, adjusted for inflation, has remained virtually stagnant, while that of white women nearly doubled. Median incomes of black women more than doubled, and black men’s median incomes have gone up somewhat. Even with the Great Recession and modest economic growth, white women, black men and black women have made some progress. But any increases in white men’s incomes have gone mainly to the wealthy.

Because Fordism was simultaneously about class and race and gender, the reaction to decline has been premised on all three: when white working-class men lost their jobs, they lost their sense of masculinity, their control over women, and their previous advantage over people of color. They lost who they thought they were. While the term “aggrieved entitlement” may seem appropriate, it is, I believe, inadequate.

Philosopher Nancy Fraser’s description of two sorts of recent political struggles in the US – struggles over redistribution and struggles over recognition – provides a useful way to think about the politics stemming from these losses. Fraser defines struggles over redistribution as struggles over material inequality – income and property ownership, access to paid work, education, and health care. Redistribution, then, refers to socio-economic injustice. Struggles over recognition, on the other hand, refers to symbolic injustice such as cultural domination, non-recognition, and disrespect, as marginalized groups – those who are gay, or Trans, or black or women – struggle for respect and inclusion.

While Fraser analytically separates struggles over redistribution and recognition, however, in practice, in people’s lives, these things are usually intertwined. White men without college degrees voted in 2016 for recognition and redistribution: they wanted to be recognized as men who could no longer be the breadwinners in their family and who therefore feared they were being denied the right to be men. Many in this category felt their whiteness was being mocked, their people considered bigoted, women gaining power, and the state apparently favoring people of color through affirmative action policies.

The right wing in the US has been more adept at understanding this dynamic than the left, and has been able to capitalize on and promote available American cultural narratives such as:
• The Deserving versus the Undeserving poor (the idea that some have become poor because their jobs have been taken away from them, versus those who simply do not want to work);
• Nativism (an anxiety that immigrants are not just taking away jobs from the Deserving, but also, through their numbers, turning America into a less white place); and
• Men should be breadwinners (implying that women who try to lead or compete should be put back in their place).
This successful deployment of discourses of recognition and redistribution creates and sustains a politics of resentment that marks white working-class men.

With few exceptions, left-wing American discussions involve a greater disconnection between the politics of redistribution and recognition. The politics of economic justice, the politics of cultural justice (for example, trans-friendly bathrooms) and the politics of the environment are put forward by movements which are often hostile to each other. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, which do combine the politics of recognition and redistribution, have not resonated as yet with a wide audience. While it is always harder to unite the left — for many reasons, both discursive and material — this concatenation of factors brought the right to power and caused working-class white men to become absorbed in its promises.

Direct all correspondence to Raka Ray <rakaray@berkeley.edu>

United States, Volume 7, Issue 4

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