March 8, 2016
By Neil Cosgrove
Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America teaches us that the pundits, political operatives and academics should have been paying attention to the “white working class” long before 2016, for what that now closely examined cohort can tell us about America’s past, present, and future.
Rather than a “classless society,” Isenberg says, America’s upper crust aimed from the beginning to sustain a clearly demarcated set of classes, habitually justifying the consequent lack of social mobility among the poor by characterizing them as “waste,” “trash,” “listless,” “inbred,” and so on. Ever since the 17th century, impoverished Americans not in bondage have been exploited by their “betters,” first when colonizing and settling the eastern seaboard, then during territorial expansion. Following the Civil War, a southern elite chose to preserve a semblance of their former “way of life” by keeping both freed slaves and poor whites “in their place,” through tenancy, substandard sanitation, and inadequate education.
The parallels between Isenberg’s historical narrative and recent economic and political trends are readily apparent. Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, following a near-miss in 1824, was a class rebellion situated in what was then the West, and is now the “rust belt” Appalachian and mid-section of the country, against effete coastal elites who had ruled the country for the previous forty years. Jackson’s forced expulsion of Native Americans is described by Isenberg as a way to make room for the “waste” population of poor whites too troublesome and socially irritating to leave landless in the more built-up areas east of the Appalachians.
Tensions between poor whites in the Confederacy and a planter class which, like their wealthy northern counterparts, purchased exemptions from the bloody Civil War battlefields, is an unfamiliar story worthy of Isenberg’s scrutiny. The failure of Reconstruction, she argues, owed at least as much to keeping southern white “scalawags” out of power as to the physical intimidation of now-free Blacks and northern “carpetbaggers.”
A chapter on the Great Depression of the 1930s is equally revealing. Southern politicians balked at federal efforts to provide the impoverished with indoor plumbing, expressing fears of the debilitating effects of a “hand out” even while the privileged among them were born into property, trust funds, and access to the most refined education. Those same politicians also made sure that farm laborers were excluded from the Social Security system, a gross inequity that persists to this day.
Present-day Republicans have mirrored the tactics of earlier Democratic politicians by directly appealing to racial fears, status anxiety, and related feelings of economic precariousness. Present-day Democrats, allegedly representing a bi-coastal elite of technocrats, academics, and privileged professionals, have too often ignored or been dismissive of the political acumen and general intellectual capacities of poor rural whites, despite the obvious political damage it has done on regional, state and now national levels. In Isenberg’s view, the party’s greatest electoral successes came during the Roosevelt and Johnson presidencies, when “poor whites were the beneficiaries of rehabilitative effort during the New Deal and in LBJ’s ‘Great Society.’”
Isenberg spends time at both the beginning and the end of her book examining the persistent ridicule and humiliation inherent in caricatures of “trashy” rural whites. Television’s initial wave of situation comedies contained the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres, where Arnold the pig is the smartest resident of the hick town of Hooterville.” Recent depictions have evolved from fictional narrative to so-called “reality” programming in the mode of Honey Boo-Boo and “Duck Dynasty.” While 2008 witnessed Obama’s ascendancy, it was also when Sarah Palin became a national figure; her tortured syntax and wildly improvised policy analyses became the stuff of Saturday Night Live parody. Writing of Palin, Isenberg is ominously predictive: “When you turn an election into a three-ring circus,” she observes, “there’s always a chance that the dancing bear will win.”
Extrapolating from Isenberg’s history can yield some useful insights. Take, for example, the reactions of rural and “working class” whites to the starkly contrasting personalities of Obama and Trump. Trump’s persona in his rallies and incessant tweets is a highly theatrical representation of his audience’s frustrations and resentments. Obama’s, despite his apparent decency and desire to connect with people very much like the grandparents from Kansas who helped raise him, has elements that made him suspect. Racial identity makes up a significant part of that suspicion, but not the only part. His coolness, his deliberate approach to whatever problems confronted him, and his hyper-articulate manner of expressing himself, all suggested a member of the Ivy League elite, the kind of person who had been ignoring or laughing at the “waste” white population for decades.
Confronted with Obama’s initial success, Republicans knew it was time to stoke class resentment and anxiety once again, and that the best way to do so was to make the discussion all about Obama. It was the Obama stimulus and Obamacare. Personalize, then demonize, and if you’ve got suspicious, frightened voters who have endured centuries of class-based abuse and ridicule, you’re in business.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center Board.