Several friends who voted for Trump have reacted to my short Morning After Thoughts article. They are among those who agree with the woman who wrote about being shoved around and ignored for the last eight years. They have lamented the wrong direction in which the nation has been going, and are hopeful that Trump might get it going in the right direction.
What is the right direction? Well, they protest, it certainly isn’t about making America white again. Despite their earnest protest, I think it is, at least in part. I’ve talked with them. They don’t mean to exclude others exactly. They do mean that the standards of the white middle class culture should again, and always be, the standards by which America is defined. To put it bluntly, working middle class white people have been the center of political attention since FDR’s New Deal. Every national campaign catered to their interests in the pursuit of votes. Genuine or not, campaign promises were crafted to appeal to them. That’s eighty-four years of concentrated attention from which flowed significant benefits: Social Security, wage and labor laws, FHA and VA housing loans, paved highways, rural electrification, and all the others were designed and delivered with white working middle class people in mind. The emphasis on the white middle class was often enforced through Jim Crow laws, “red lining”, and other practices that prevented others from having equal access, or any access at all.
Eighty-four years were not without change. I need not remind you of the cultural earthquakes that accompanied integration of the armed forces, school integration, civil rights and voting laws, nor of the social upheaval experienced through anti-war protests and the rise of feminism that coincided with the Viet Nam War. Amidst it all, we continued to identify America with the white working middle class, the standard bearers of what it meant to be American. Assimilation meant to become like them, even if you didn’t look like them. It couldn’t last.
While my friends vehemently deny that they are racists, and I think they are being as honest as they can about that, everything changed in 2008. Parenthetically, our acquaintances (not friends) who have always been full blown racists now feel free to let it all out, while disingenuously denying that they are. It’s a little scary. It was’t just that a black man was elected president, although they can’t say it wasn’t important. What happened over the next eight years, and was seen to continue into the 2016 election, is that the white working middle class was no longer the center of political attention. National candidates, except for Trump, and sometimes Sanders, did not cater to them. They weren’t ignored, but neither were they catered to; they were not the center of attention, nor were they acknowledged as the authentic bearers of what it is to be American. Like an only child who has been thrust into a blended family and expected to take a place, not as first among equals, but as just another family member among new siblings they don’t know, don’t like, and who define what it is to be family in alien ways, they rebelled. They saw the new siblings as elbowing their way into getting benefits they had never worked for and didn’t deserve. Freeloaders who upset the stable patterns that had assured them that everything was in its right place. Divisiveness of the worst kind.
Their candidate, odious as he is, won the electoral votes needed, even as he lost the popular vote. He did it by appealing to their anxieties and fears, and by naming the upsetting changes out loud. It helped that almost half the electorate stayed home, did not vote. It’s the old story of getting the government you deserve. Post election riotous protests against Trump have simply proved to his supporters how right they were. It’s opened the gates for them to express their deepest fears and imagined grievances in ways that many progressives find appallingly ignorant and prejudiced, which, when we smugly say so, further fuel the divide. What are we to do?
My guess is that four years of the incoming administration will be a bitter disappointment to his supporters. They honestly believe the man is on their side. So did the students at his fake university. My hope is that he will do as little damage as possible to the fabric of American life. A younger generation, four years older, will exert more political influence. All those step siblings who used to know their places will continue to confound the old order as they establish their own places on their own terms. Some of the nearly fifty percent of eligible voters who did not vote may come to their senses and cast their ballots. As for me, if his tax plans see the light of day, I will do quite well, thank you very much. Most working class Americans will not.