The Rust Belt, the White Working Class, and Trump

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The American Rust Belt has been on my mind. Trump’s campaign has targeted the Rust Belt as necessary if he is to win the presidency. And with good reason. There have been a lot of debates about the nature of Trump’s support, but these are confused about the relevant question. Some emphasize that most of his support is white, live in segregated communities, and tend to be affluent. These analyses are answering the question: who supports Trump? The answer, predictably, is Republicans. This is neither an interesting question, nor an interesting answer. The more relevant question is: what is distinctive about Trump’s support relative to other Republican candidates? The answer here is: more support from white Rust Belt communities, less support from Mormons, and less support in diverse and economically successful communities in some traditionally Republican states, particularly in the South.

Luckily for Trump, this relative strength should enable him to outperform McCain and Romney in some Rust Belt states and indeed he does. West Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut are all states where he outperforms. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire are all states where his campaign thinks he should ourperform, but he doesn’t seem to be. The question is: why not? I attempt to explain this in a piece posted on the LSE US Centre blog and attached on this blog. One question is why these traditionally democratic voters are available to Trump. The answer is, simply, union decline and the changing composition of union membership. Unions have been anchoring white workers in the Democratic coalition since the New Deal, but that effect has been diminishing for decades as unions are busted and unions increasingly represent more educated people of color who are likely to vote Democrat anyway. The second is the changing demographic and economic profile of the Rust Belt. Sure, there are still plenty of industrial towns that are suffering mightily from deindustrialization, but many towns are transitioning to a different economic base that is often related to manufacturing but relies on much more specialized work.

Nonetheless, the Rust Belt contains hundreds of communities that have been devastated by economic transition. West Virginia is basically an entire state that has suffered in this way. In this piece, posted at New Politics (also here), I draw upon my experience organizing in the Rust Belt to understand why these communities are drawn to a billionaire New Yorker. People have spoken to interest, namely his emphasis on trade deals, the fact that Trump, more than Hillary, speaks to the concerns of these communities, and the racism of the white working class of the Rust Belt (probably the favored theory among academics and the punditocracy, but one that ignores the specificity of Rust Belt racism, which is often tied to a working-class idea of worth. This is different from genetic conceptions of race or moral conceptions that are explicitly built on racial difference. The distinction isn’t meant to say some racisms are better than others, but to work with the fact of episodic class solidarity in the Rust Belt.). I argue in the New Politics piece that interest-based explanations are more limited than their advocates often think, especially in the Rust Belt and it is possible to construct the issue in combative terms.

One important missing perspective here is the working class that isn’t white, which is now nearly the majority of the American working class. Indeed, if there is one group more ignored by both political parties right now than the white working class it is the black working class. The working class in general has confronted a policy consensus which has been monumentally destructive in Rust Belt communities. Black workers relied heavily on manufacturing jobs and union contracts for social mobility, even more than whites did. But given that the Republican party has been, implicitly or explicitly, the party of white supremacy since the Nixon presidency, African-Americans have mostly had a one-party system which has been notably unresponsive to their policy preferences. White workers, on the other hand, are frequently pandered to even as both parties support policies that wipe them out in economic terms. One of the most important mechanisms for pandering is the creation of a racialized criminal class system that continues to confer relative status on whites even as the “wages of whiteness” decline in literally economic terms. Unsurprisingly, this caste system is now the primary target of black mobilizations, but this also ensures that the defense of the working class as a working class is pushed even further into the background.

The essential missing ingredient here is organizations and associations that build cross-race class solidarity. Unions, or some unions anyway, once provided this function. But so did movement mobilizations and, briefly, the Democratic Party did. But in the absence of such a political project it is unlikely that the working class can overcome the inherent elitist biases of American politics.


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