I live in a Post-Explanation America and so do you. This is a country where if you are wondering about how a real estate developer and television personality with virtually no qualifications for elected office (outside the Constitutional requirements) ascended to the Presidency of the United States, you are liable to be sitting like Rodin’s “Thinker” wondering for all time. There a million theories as to how this happened and regrettably even more finger-pointing and blame than theories. Since Election Day, progressives have been groping for answers as to why so many white working-class Americans, once Democratic mainstays, voted overwhelmingly for a man who shows little interest outside of media stunts in pursuing policies that will work for their economic benefit. But maybe that was never the basis for their vote. Maybe all of us, sitting on our high horses with our fancy educations, completely misunderstood these people and what motivates them.
The following was reprinted with permission from John Paul Brammer, a writer, speaker, and activist based in New York City. His work has been published in The Guardian, Slate, Vox, BuzzFeed, NBC and many other outlets. According to his website, “His work blends the deeply personal with the political.” Mr. Brammer brings personal experience and profound insight to help answer a question that all of us need to consider at length. Follow him at johnpaulbrammer.com and on Twitter @jpbrammer.
How Poor Whites See Themselves
So I’m a Mexican-American from a poor, rural, mostly white town in Oklahoma. What’s missing from this debate? How poor whites see themselves. If you’re wondering how poor, exploited white people could vote for a guy with a golden elevator who will fuck them over, here’s how.
They don’t see themselves as poor. They don’t base their identity on it. They see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”. The stigma against poverty is incredibly strong. It is shameful to be poor; to not have the comforts of the middle class. So they pretend that they aren’t poor. They purchase things to make it seem like they’re not. They are willing to lie to make it seem like they aren’t poor. In my town, wealth wasn’t associated with greed, but with hard work and inherent goodness. You are blessed if you have material wealth. When they see Trump, they don’t see an extortionist who is rich because of the very conditions that keep their own communities in poverty. They see someone who worked hard and was justly rewarded with wealth. Most men, especially, think they too could be Trump were it not for the unfair obstacles put in their way. White men who don’t consider themselves successful enough have so many excuses for their “failures”. The idea that immigrants are the reason they are poor and not wealthy like Trump is so appealing. It takes all the shame and blame away. And here we have a man who, they think, “tells it like it is” and is willing to name the things stealing prosperity out of their hands. If these people saw themselves as an exploited class of people, if American culture didn’t stigmatize poverty so much, it might be different. But America has so entangled wealth with goodness and poverty with moral deficiency that they can’t build that identity. They won’t.
Trump is rich, and so according to American criteria, he is also:
He has to be.
Capitalism and the American Dream teach that poverty is a temporary state that can be transcended with hard work and cleverness. To fail to transcend poverty, and admit you are poor, is to admit that you are neither hardworking nor clever. It’s cultural brainwashing. So if an exploited class of people doesn’t want to admit that they’re exploited, to blame themselves for their oppression, what manifests? Xenophobia. Hatred of anyone who is “different”: queer people, people of color. These people are eroding the “goodness” of America. And if they would just stop ruining America, then the perfect design of America could work again and deliver prosperity. I’m telling you, as someone who has spent almost his entire life in this environment, that if you think cities are a “bubble”? Good God. But the reality is, of course, that these exploited people are indeed exploited, even while they victimize others, when they victimize us, they are still victims. How do you balance those realities and what conclusions do you reach to improve the lives of both? Well, I’m not smart enough to have the answer. Still, we need to understand that the identity white working class people have built for themselves is diametrically opposed to, well, reality.
Because Trump won’t make them rich. Even if he deports all the brown people, it won’t bring them what they’re hoping for.
The original piece, written as a series of Tweets, can be found at https://storify.com/positiveforcedc/how-poor-whites-see-themselves