America’s white working classes have suffered. But it shouldn’t be taboo to call voters out for falling for racist and sexist messages
By Hadley Freeman, columnist and features writer
The Guardian, November 10, 2016 —
‘‘Grab ’em by the pussy” was the line that was supposed to have ended Donald Trump’s campaign for presidency. Instead it turned out to be one of the most astonishing and successful strategies for the highest office. In a campaign based on racism, misogyny and bullying, Trump proved that boasting about sexually assaulting women, far from ruining a man’s career, can boost it; and white women voted for him in droves. Grab ’em by the pussy, indeed. The first black American president will now be succeeded by a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. This, according to Trump and his supporters, male and female, is what the American dream actually looks like.
A lot will be written about how Trump’s victory represents a backlash of rage from the white working classes. The election of Trump, this narrative goes, proves how these people feel ignored by the elite politicians and metropolitan media. We need to hear more from these people, the argument continues, and how they have suffered because of globalisation, the demise of industry, the opioid crisis, the death of the American dream.
It’s interesting, this take, not least because, far from being a “working-class revolt”, 48% of those who earn more than $250,000 and 49% of white college graduate voters chose Trump. But even leaving that aside, to say that no one took notice of the angry white vote in this US election is awfully reminiscent of British politicians saying “no one talks about immigration”, when it feels like – you know what? I think we got that base well and truly covered.
Far from ignoring the white working class during this election, they were written about so extensively by nervously placatory liberal journalists that these articles became a genre unto themselves, satirised perfectly by Benjamin Hart last week (“I couldn’t help but notice that people in Bleaksville are angry … I wanted to hear more but Ed explained that David Brooks had scheduled an interview with him to discuss whether he ate dinner with his family every night, and what it means for America.”)
The linking factor in Trump voters is not class but race
So here’s an alternative take: we’ve heard enough of white rage now. Oh sure, listen to the grievances of enraged voters. But understanding them is different from indulging them, and the media and politicians – in the US and UK – have for too long conflated the two, encouraging the white victim narrative and stoking precisely the kind of nasty, race-baiting campaigns that led to Brexit and Trump (as the voter demographics have proved, the linking factor in Trump voters is not class but race).
Both campaigns promised to turn the clock back to a time when white men were in the ascendence, and both were fronted by privately educated false prophets such as Nigel Farage and Trump, absurdly privileged buccaneers who style themselves as friends of the working classes while pushing policies that work against them. They have bleached language of meaning, boasting that they aren’t “career politicians” (now a negative thing as opposed to someone who has devoted their life to public service), and they scorn “experts” (who are now apparently the biggest threat to democracy).
Trump’s supporters, like Brexit supporters before them, will say that these are merely the bleatings of the sore losers – the Remoaners, the Grimtons, or whatever portmanteau is conceived next. This objection always misses the obvious point that these people aren’t mourning for themselves. Whereas those who voted for Trump and Brexit did so to turn time back for their personal benefit, those who voted for remain or Hillary Clinton did so because they know time only moves forward, and this benefits society. To try to force it back hurts everyone.
To call out voters for falling for such damagingly racist and sexist messages is viewed by politicians as a vote-killer and dangerously snobby by the media, as though working-class people are precious toddlers who must be humoured and can’t possibly be held responsible for any flawed thinking.
There is no doubt the white working classes in the west have suffered in recent decades, yet no other demographic that has endured similarly straitened circumstances is indulged in this way.
For decades, American politicians have demonised the black working classes who suffered far worse structural inequalities and for far longer – and Trump continues to do so today.
And yet, as Stacy Patton wrote, only the white working classes are accorded this handwringing and insistent media empathy. No one is telling these voters to pull up their boot straps. The much-discussed American Dream is only considered “broken” when it’s the white working classes who are suffering. When it’s African-Americans, they are simply lazy and morally flawed.
But Clinton, according to the politicians and journalists who indulge inverted narratives, was seen as simply too corrupt and establishment by these voters. “Trump’s election is an unmistakable rejection of a political establishment and an economic system that simply isn’t working for most people,” Jeremy Corbyn said, as though the election of a racist property billionaire who inherited his wealth was the class warrior triumph we’ve all been waiting for. But if anyone thinks that, it is because the media promoted false equivalencies throughout this campaign to a degree never before seen.
On Tuesday, the Times headlined its editorial about the election “Tough Choice”, as if the decision between a woman who used the wrong email server and a racist, sexist, tax-dodging bully wasn’t, in fact, the easiest choice in the world. Clinton’s private email server was covered more ferociously than Trump’s misogyny. That Clinton had talked at Goldman Sachs was reported as a financial flaw somehow analogous to his non-payment of tax. However much people want to blame the Democrats, their voters or Clinton herself, the result of this election is due at least as much to anyone who pushed the narrative that Clinton and Trump were equally or even similarly “bad”.
Shame on them. The most qualified candidate in a generation was defeated by the least qualified of all time. That is what misogyny looks like, and, like all bigotries, it will end up dragging us all down.