Poor White Politics

tags: election 2016, Trump

Nancy Isenberg is a professor of history at Louisiana State University. Her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (Viking) will be published later this month.

Donald Trump’s success has forced the pundits to talk about class. Using statistical analyses, journalists have contended that his core of support comes from those who possess a high-school degree or less, and who live mostly in the South. They have observed a high correlation between Trump backers and mobile-home residents. Others, less circumspect, have dismissed his constituency as "white trash" or "trailer trash." Trump has even been called "the revenge of the lower classes." Nate Cohn of The New York Times has found that Trump’s "best state" is West Virginia.

A strong undercurrent in news coverage and commentary is the notion that poor whites don’t deserve a political voice — they are either too ignorant or too primitive (as conduits of "white anger" and racial bigotry) — and that they fail to see Trump as a mere carnival barker, a con man. This is not to say that Trump doesn’t use racist appeals or feed on anger, but that is not the whole story.

Contrary to the patriotic script that Americans believe all men are created equal, class prejudice has a history at least as old as the Jamestown settlement. Long before the term "the one percent" was coined, and long before Karl Marx divided labor from management, a colonial British vocabulary that centered on "wastelands" and "breeds" directed American thought.

In the United States, an agrarian nation for more than half of our history, land and property ownership have constituted powerful emblems of civic belonging and social mobility. But failure and landlessness were just as common — in fact, rampant. Poor rural whites have occupied not only the fields and backwaters where they toil, but also a sizable space in the American imagination. They were known to the earliest English colonizers as "waste people," which later morphed into "white trash." Americans’ obsession with the unwanted lower classes has survived for 400 years in the various derogatory names such people were given: "offscourings," "rubbish," "lazy lubbers," "squatters," "crackers," "tackies," "sandhillers," "rednecks," "brier hoppers," "low-downers," "hillbillies," and "trailer trash." Berated for their sloth and stigmatized for producing defective children, they have been branded for their inability to assimilate into "normal" civilized society.

Class taxonomy was rooted in topography and in the firm belief that rich soil and well-tilled fields nurtured a healthy and productive people. The worst people were seen as weedy extrusions of scrubby, barren, and swampy wastelands from which they could never escape. Husbandry held that wasteland produced inferior breeds of animals and humans alike. Inheriting this thinking, the American Dialect Society, in 1904, offered a definition of two groups of "uncouth" country people: "hill-billies came from the hills, and the rednecks from the swamps." ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

comments powered by Disqus