Donald Trump’s appeals to working-class white Americans have no doubt stoked racial tensions. But his popularity among these voters has also put an unexpected spotlight on their grievances—whether they feel left behind by globalization and immigration or resentful of an elite political class that seems to ignore them. Do poor white Americans suddenly feel more disgruntled than ever, or are the rest of us just now paying attention? How much of their pique has to do with economic factors versus matters of race or, simply, health? And what does it all mean for American politics—in 2016 and beyond? To answer those questions and more, Politico editor Susan Glasser and chief political correspondent Glenn Thrush convened four scholars from our Politico 50 list who have studied the history of white people in America and documented their recent troubles; Thrush also interviewed J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, a bestselling memoir about working-class white culture. In a way, they all said, the discontent that propelled Trump to the nomination has been a long time coming.
Susan Glasser: I’d love to just jump right in and ask each of you: What is going on with America’s white people, and how much is that driving the Trump phenomenon in this year’s election?
Anne Case, Princeton University economist: Angus and I touched a nerve last fall when we published a piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that documented that, among white non-Hispanics in middle age, mortality, after having fallen for large parts of the last century, actually turned up and started to go the wrong way. And, with the Centers for Disease Control also redocumenting what we had done, the big drivers in that trend are what we call “deaths of despair,” which are suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related liver disease. Partly the surprise is that it is not just men; it is men and women. And it appears to be happening all over the country. And that resonated in this political season.
Glenn Thrush: When I first read it, I was struck by the parallel between that and what happened to males after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why is this happening to these people?
Angus Deaton, Princeton University economist: Well, I don’t think we know the answer to that, and we’ve been very careful not to speculate beyond what we have the data on. Two things that are relevant for thinking about why, though, are first, that this started in the late ’90s. So, this is not something that happened after the financial crash, for instance. It’s a much older phenomenon, before the turn of the century. The second thing is that this is much worse for people who have a high school degree and no B.A. than it is for people with a B.A. So, we’re talking about white non-Hispanics without a college degree.
As far as the campaigns, the obvious story which everybody sort of seized on, including [the economist] Joe Stiglitz, who is advising Hillary Clinton, was this has to do with the stagnation of wages over a long period of time. But, you know, that’s happened in Europe, too. China and trade and globalization and slow wage growth have hit many European countries, and you just don’t see this increase in the death rate in Europe at all.
One thing about the Soviet Union, as many people have drawn that comparison, is that the trend there was men only. In the United States, this is not men only. The Soviet Union was largely alcohol-fueled. Alcohol plays a part here, but opioids and heroin play a much larger part. Also, I think the Soviet Union was a lot to do with the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev had had a very successful anti-alcohol campaign, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, the anti-alcohol campaign collapsed, too, so that if you look at mortality rates among Russians after the crisis, they’re not very far away from being on trend. A lot of what was happening in the Soviet Union was their mortality rates were artificially low before the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, I don’t think there’s that much parallel between the two phenomena.
When we try to create a voting bloc and we use one term to describe them—whether it’s ‘the black vote’ or ‘the women vote,’ now it’s ‘the working class vote’—I think that can be really misleading.”
Glasser: Angus, what is your view about how much Trump is successfully speaking to this demographic trend that you have identified?
Deaton: Well, we know that the Washington Post, bless them, did a very nice graphic in the primaries showing, county by county, the fraction of people who were voting for Trump and the fraction of people who were dying of what we call “deaths of despair.” And those are very, very highly correlated in most states. So, I mean, there is correlative evidence, at least, that Donald Trump is doing very well in the same areas that are hardest hit by this. I mean, I think it is pretty clear that Mr. Trump has locked into this group of people who are feeling a lot of distress one way or another. Beyond that, it’s very hard to trace the mechanisms very precisely.
Glasser: So, Anne and Angus point out that in white death rates, there’s not necessarily a gender division in the way that our politics have this yawning gender gap. But clearly, the numbers suggest that women, even less educated white women, are still less inclined toward Trump than white men. So, do you think that maybe we’re wrong and our conventional wisdom around women not wanting to vote for Trump is going to be upended in November?
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Nancy Isenberg, Louisiana State University historian and author of White Trash: Part of the problem is the way the media has constructed Trump’s following. Are they working class? We know the working class today has a large portion that are women, that are people of color. But when you look at the images at his rallies—you know, people in their Bubba caps and their truckers’ caps—that fits into a certain stereotype: poor white working-class men. Educated women are clearly turned off by Trump’s, you know, blatant sexism. Although, I also read an interview of Arizona women who were supporting Trump, and it’s very easy for women to make excuses for men. It’s like, “Oh, yes, we know he’s rude,” but women are taught to tolerate obnoxious men. So, I think it’s really hard to say exactly where women across the board will stand at election time, because I also think that, you know, not all women are feminists. Women can often be more critical of other women.
Carol Anderson, Emory University historian and author of White Rage: And what about the data that shows the average income for a Trump supporter was $72,000? What does that do to the narrative that is out there that this is really the working class? Because we don’t understand the working class as having an average income of $72,000.
Case: Yes, that was Nate Silver’s study. The people who are actually voting for Trump, he argued, were the higher class than the people voting for [Bernie] Sanders and Clinton. So, I think our data is very imprecise here, and then, when we try to create a voting bloc and we use one term to describe them—whether it’s “the black vote” or “the women vote,” now it’s “the working class vote”—I think that can be really misleading.
Anderson: I agree. You know, when you’re talking about the angst and anxiety and feeling of being stifled and that kind of despair, what I see is that, as African-Americans advance in this society in terms of gaining their citizenship rights, that there is a wave of what I’ve been calling “white rage,” which are the movements within legislative bodies and within the judicial sector in terms of policies and laws and rulings that undercut that advancement. We saw it after Reconstruction, during Reconstruction. We saw it during the Great Migration, then with the wave that we’re looking at right now, after Barack Obama’s election.
Thrush: I want to use this word gingerly, but aren’t we also talking about kind of the death of white supremacy in the most literal sense of that term, that there is no longer a premium that one gets because of the color of one’s skin in terms of better wages or better social standing? I mean, are we sort of seeing the death of this system writ large?
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Anderson: I would push back on that a bit. What we’re seeing is the death of it operating so visibly. But when you look at the differentiation in wages, for instance, when you look at the differentiations in wealth, when you look at who took the hardest hit and rebounded the least after the Great Recession, whiteness carries incredible value in American society. But you get this language of equality—I mean, this is why, to me, you get Abigail Fisher [the plaintiff in a recent Supreme Court affirmative action case] hollering that, because her father went to the University of Texas, she deserved to get in there. Now, the fact that she didn’t get the grades to get in there is irrelevant. The fact that there were a number of African-Americans and Latinos who had higher grades and higher scores than she had who also weren’t admitted is irrelevant. So, to me, it’s not the death of white supremacy. It’s the death of the visibility of whiteness carrying such incredible economic and political value in the American system.
It makes it even more curious, actually, following the Great Recession, that African-Americans continue to make great strides in terms of falling mortality rates; Hispanics have the best mortality rates of the three groups.
Deaton: It’s true that black mortality rates are falling very rapidly, but they’re still highest among the three groups.
There’s a national conceit that has prevailed … that America didn’t have classes or, to the extent that it did, Americans should act like we didn’t. Well, of course we had a class system.”
Isenberg: What we have to realize is that throughout history poor whites and slaves and then free blacks were pitted against each other, and that was used as a political tool. And it even goes back to the foundation of the colony of Georgia, in which James Oglethorpe refused to allow slavery because he assumed it would deprive poor whites of the ability to be independent, to make a living, because slavery led to the monopolization of land, the concentration of wealth into an elite. So, I think one thing we have to realize about white supremacy is that it leads to an advantage to the elite to pit these two groups against each other. And the poor whites don’t necessarily get all the benefits from their white skin.
Thrush: Joel Benenson, who is Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist and her pollster and was Barack Obama’s pollster in both of his elections, has said that in his polling and focus grouping, the thing that he keeps finding is that the two groups who are to some extent most disadvantaged economically, African-Americans and Latinos, are the most optimistic about the future. So, there is this paradox. Can you guys address that? Is that something you’ve seen in your research? And why do you think that phenomenon exists?
Anderson: I would say two things. One, you know, if you’ve always been privileged, equality begins to look like oppression. That’s part of what you’re seeing in terms of the pessimism, particularly when the system gets defined as a zero-sum game, that you can only gain at somebody else’s loss. The second thing is that when you really think about it—and I think about my father who fought in two wars but couldn’t vote legally—it’s that sense of hopefulness, that sense of what America could be, that has been driving black folk for centuries. There is an optimism there that is amazing and astounding.
Glasser: Do you feel like this set of macro, long-term trends for white people in America—Angus has pointed out it started really in the 1990s, even though we are seeing it more pronounced now—surprised people? And is that something that has to do with Barack Obama? Does it have to do with Donald Trump crystalizing and creating a conversation where one wouldn’t have been? Why were we overlooking this set of problems or not dealing with them up until this year?
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Isenberg: Well, again, I would say because we don’t like to talk about class. We like to talk about upward mobility, even though there’s been more downward mobility than upward mobility. It’s embodied in what Charles Murray wrote in Coming Apart, that there’s a national conceit that has prevailed from the beginning of the nation that America didn’t have classes or, to the extent that it did, Americans should act like we didn’t. Well, of course we had a class system. We inherited the class ideas from Great Britain. We’ve only had a stable middle class in this country historically since post-World War II, when the federal government made that possible with, you know, insuring mortgages for homes and businesses, the G.I. Bill that made it possible to achieve for some but, again, not for all. I mean, this is why I talk about the rise of trailer homes and trailer poverty at the same time the suburban dream is being put into place. And that’s why I think the media is caught off guard, because this is not what politicians want to talk about.
Case: Why did this happen now? I think in part because growth has been very, very slow. First there was the Great Recession and, following the Great Recession, there is slow growth and very slow wage growth. And I think when things start to look like a zero-sum game, then people also start to get incredibly anxious about who has got what.
Deaton: Yes, the slowing of economic growth—not just the U.S., it’s within Europe, too—has been a pronounced phenomenon for a long time. Decade after decade since the Second World War, the growth rate has been going down. And so, you do get to this position where, if there’s expanding inequality in a world with no growth, then the people who are left behind are going down. It’s just not possible for everyone to have something under those circumstances. It’s also true that wage growth has been worse for non-Hispanic whites for the last 15 to 20 years, which has not been true of African-Americans, not been true of Hispanics. I mean, again, the levels are different from the rate of growth, but the hope has something to do with the rate of growth.
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Glasser: Carol, back in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected, we had a very different narrative in mind—“we” collectively, right, and certainly “we” in the media—about what it meant in terms of the racial gap in American politics, the willingness and desire of white voters as well as African-American voters to support people outside of their own background. How does that look now, and how much do you see Trump and the broader conversation on the ills of white America changing our view of what it meant to elect the first black president?
Anderson: I think that the fault lines were already laid in 2008, if not before, so that by the time the election was done, only 27 percent of Republicans believed that Obama legitimately won the presidency; the insinuation was massive voter fraud, which is translated as black people, particularly, and Latinos doing something wrong in order to ensure that Obama was elected. And this was swirling around amid the delegitimization of his own identity as an American citizen. And then, shortly after that election, a group of Republicans got together and decided that the way that they delegitimize him is to block everything—just block every bill, every initiative—regardless of what is happening in the country. And so, this demonization of Obama—you see it in the kind of vitriol when we’re looking at the Trump rallies, but that vitriol was there with Obama’s election. We papered it over with this “We Have Overcome” narrative. But, in fact, the hatred and the seething resentment that there was this black man in the White House was very real, very palpable. We then see it with a series of policies, the most prominent one being the voter suppression laws, the ones that the federal courts are now trying to knock down in state after state because they are so blatantly racially discriminatory.
Isenberg: The backlash was also emphasized by Trump’s birtherism. I mean, Trump’s run was based on challenging Obama’s pedigree. And somehow assuming that he only inherited the thoughts and the traits from his father from Africa, which is what Newt Gingrich even emphasized. It was a class-based rhetoric and a racial rhetoric that had a long history in our country, and it was revived and used quite effectively by Trump.
When you look at who took the hardest hit and rebounded the least after the Great Recession, whiteness carries incredible value in American society. … So, to me, it’s not the death of white supremacy.”
Thrush: If we’re looking statistically—and who the heck knows what’s really going to happen, but Nate Silver is giving Hillary Clinton around an 80 or 90 percent chance of winning as of today—what becomes of these folks without Trump? How does this manifest itself in the political dialogue? Is this group going to go quietly into the good night?
Anderson: No, we are going to be dealing with it after Trump because Trump merely tapped into what was already there. What Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” tapped into was a layer of resentment in what was then the solid Democratic South, as well as the working-class white ethnic enclaves in the North and in the Midwest. It was very targeted. It stirred that pot. It told them that your ills, your stunted economic growth and opportunities, are because of them. And the “them” becomes racialized, and it worked so well that we get to this point where now you’d get a Paul Ryan who realizes that when they talk about “we couldn’t directly go after Trump because we were afraid of turning off his base, of getting his base to turn on us,” that base is what the GOP has been nurturing since 1968.
Isenberg: It is interesting because Trump is also drawing on Nixon’s “silent majority”—you know, that language, again, of pitting lower-class whites against people on welfare, people who don’t contribute to the country. And this has been a part of the Republican rhetoric for a long time, that there are people who just feed off the system. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Republican Party, because I think there is a kind of populism that is directed against the leadership of the Republican Party, as well.
Anderson: And I don’t think that we’re going to see a demographic eclipse when you look at what’s been happening on our college campuses, like here at Emory, where you have the Trump supporters just layering the campus with “Trump 2016” and going to the Latin American student organization and writing: “Build a Wall,” and over to the black student union: “Accept the Inevitable. Donald Trump 2016.” And when you have children at these rallies going, “Take the bitch down,” we’re seeing the kind of demographic transmission of that kind of we/them, that kind of white supremacy that is absolutely essential to what Trump has tapped into.
Deaton: Even if Trump were elected, this wouldn’t go away because he doesn’t have any policies that are going to help any of these people. But, you know, we’ve got this falling economic growth right across the rich world. We have rising inequality. You have a situation in the United States where it’s worse, but it’s similar in Europe, too, where we have a political system where it’s not responsive to the vast majority of people in the United States. Indeed, the presidency, as we are seeing now, is about the only part of this that is responsive to the people. The House and the Senate are basically so fixed, so gridlocked, so set up that they’re just not representing the will of the people anymore. This problem, I think—the death rates in the U.S.—would not have happened without the opioid prescription scandals. But you see throughout Europe this rebelling of the working classes that were against the elites, who they feel are not representing them, and I think that’s a very deep problem here. And unless we have higher economic growth or it’s better shared throughout the population, these problems are not going to go away, and I don’t see that happening anytime in the immediate future.
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Case: Certainly the Trump campaign is feeding off that anger, but so was the Bernie Sanders campaign, right? I know from Nancy’s work that race and class are so tightly bound together in this country that you can’t really talk about one without talking about the other. But I think that this, in particular, is about people who used to be able to get good jobs with a high school degree, or even less than a high school degree, and now with a high school degree you can work in any McDonald’s you want to with no chance of on-the-job training, no chance of moving up. And I think those people—the magnet of either Bernie Sanders, on one side, or Donald Trump, on the other—just took them by surprise. But I think it’s just a marker for how much despair there is out there.
Isenberg: Unless and until people begin to believe in their political parties again, we’re talking about working poor and poor people who have been entirely abandoned both by the Republicans and the Democrats, which is why they flocked to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. And unless they begin to see that the parties are working for them, Trumpism will be alive and well for a very long time.
J.D. Vance isn’t an academic with a 30,000-foot view; now an investor in Silicon Valley, he grew up in the depressed steel town of Middletown, Ohio, and saw firsthand the kind of white working-class despair that Anne Case, Angus Deaton and others have studied. That’s the subject of his bestselling book this year, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It was aptly timed amid the 2016 election, as frustrated white Americans turned in droves to Donald Trump, whose appeal Vance explains in a conversation with Glenn Thrush.
Glenn Thrush: Obvious question, but an important one: Why do you think Donald Trump’s tone resonates so much with white working-class people?
J.D. Vance: His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. The no-bullshit tone, the anger …
Thrush: Why don’t Democrats, apart from Bernie Sanders, seem to get it?
Vance: I certainly think a lot of liberals are able to see what these people are going through, but there is this weird obsession—a preoccupation—with the belief that the Trump movement is all about racism. The Trump people are certainly more racist than the average white professional, but it doesn’t strike me that this is the 1950s. There is a certain amount of racial resentment, but it’s paired with economic insecurity, and a willingness to believe Trump and a lot of the things that he says, despite evidence that a lot of it isn’t true. I really worry if this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he’s couching what he’s talking about in a racial resentment, and progressive elites are saying, “All these people are racist and xenophobic,” people’s attitudes are going to change and they are going to become more racist over time. That’s probably happening here. I actually think that Donald Trump is changing the way people think about other groups of people in a very negative way.
Thrush: But his negativity doesn’t seem to turn a lot of people off. They like it, and they like him.
Vance: Well, it’s because he actually conducts himself in a relatable way—just the way that he talks about issues and he speaks off the cuff and the way he just lights up Twitter. He’s articulating the way a lot of people feel. The hostility of the elites towards him just makes [his supporters] love him more. “They are just a bunch of stupid rednecks”—there’s this unwillingness to even consider that Trump strikes at legitimate things they feel. There’s a basic cultural disconnect.
The Trump people are certainly more racist than the average white professional, but it doesn’t strike me that this is the 1950s. There is … racial resentment, but it’s paired with economic insecurity.”
Thrush: The funny thing is that while everyone says Trump is unprecedented, there’s nothing new about this, right? This thread in American politics goes back to Andrew Jackson.
Vance: My parents were classic Blue Dog Democrats. Every person who was a bad person was probably rich [laughs]. Not all rich people are bad, but all bad people are rich.
Things aren’t as bad as in Jackson’s time but they are pretty bad. The basic social contract seems to have worked for the white poor for most of the recent past. World War II was fundamentally a multiclass thing with the rich fighting alongside the poor. There was an incredible sense of pride. And then for the next 20 years, everything seemed to work. There was a lot of shared prosperity. In the past 20 to 30 years, things have gotten much worse. 9/11 kicked the can down the road a few years—the country was basically united—but over time there was this sense that the wars were strategic blunders imposed by the elites on the working and middle-income people of the country. In the absence of any significant patriotic unity, a lot of these economic cracks are starting to come to the surface.
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The big red light to me is the way that these people perceive the military in comparison to the elites. They see it as their friends and neighbors, people they are proud of, people who have been wronged by the strategic missteps of the war. And then the [Department of Veterans Affairs] is not taking care of them. The elites are screwing them in two separate ways: starting wars, and then when our children are coming home, you are not taking care of them.
Thrush: Where does this visceral hatred—or at least distrust—of Hillary Clinton come from?
Vance: There is a sense that she’s on the other side of the cultural divide. I think that Hillary Clinton represents everything the working-class white hates about the political system in a way that Jeb Bush represents that on the Republican side. Here is Clinton, they say, doing pay-for-play stuff out of the State Department—she’s using her political influence to avoid the consequences—and we have one guy who tells an off-color joke, and he’s getting maligned for it. And she made those comments about putting coal businesses out of work. She meant well by that comment, but that’s not the way they heard it. It’s not just the elimination of a polluting energy source, but a liberal taking away a source of pride for people. People in Kentucky talk about how coal powers the United States of America.
Thrush: Is there any such thing as Trumpism after Trump?
Vance: People are not that strongly attached to Trump; he is a vehicle to attach that anger to, but they don’t especially love him. He’ll say something ridiculous or offensive, and they’ll be like, “Well, I mostly agree with him.” But it’s not a deep thing. What happens to Trumpism after Trump depends on how the Republican Party answers after Trump gets crushed. If it’s going to answer that the party wasn’t sufficiently ideological—or what you need is a true-blue rehash of Reagan’s ’80 campaign—Trump’s voters are going to be pissed and find someone to project that anger onto. And then it just keeps going.