Nancy Isenberg says the media got the profile of the average Trump voter wrong

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016, Trump

This election cycle has been rife with punditry on the anger of the white working class, supposedly fueling Donald Trump’s rise to prominence. But like many of the overblown narratives rounding out the cable news cycle in this bizarre election, it’s not quite true.

In White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America (2016), Nancy Isenberg attacks the myth of America as a nation without class, carefully reviving the history of America’s “waste people”—the white working poor—from the earliest period of colonization to contemporary politics. We talked with Isenberg, a professor of history at Lousiana State University, by phone on October 21. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, which has been condensed and lightly edited.

Emily Carroll: Given the data proving that the majority of Trump supporters are middle class or wealthier voters, why is it that the pundits cannot give up this narrative, that the anger of the white working class is what’s fueling Trump’s rise?

Nancy Isenberg: Most journalists are middle-class. So it’s easy for them to look at this group historically and to see them as the group that’s most likely to be racist. And I think the other thing that’s fueled this has been the portrait of Trump’s rallies. We all remember the incident where the white man with the ponytail and the trucker’s cap sucker punched one of the African American protestors at a Trump rally. So it’s almost like that image has come to document or symbolizes who’s supporting Trump. And I think that’s a real misunderstanding. A recent survey described the people who make up the Trump camp as coming from a group called “the disinherited.” And I thought that was a really accurate description. Because they’re not necessarily literally the poorest, but they’re people who see themselves as losing ground, and they resent social elites, elites in the media, liberal elites. They resent them not only because they feel they don’t have anything in common with them, but because they feel these elites look down on them. And they also resent them because they think that social elites are the ones that are elevating certain disadvantaged groups, and here’s where the racism comes into play, that the elites are elevating African Americans and helping to propel African Americans in front of them. So they really view the class system as a zero sum game. They view themselves as losing ground because they can’t compete against the social elites, and the social elites are changing the rules of the game. They believe that they’re hard-working Americans, they play by the rules, and they want to move up the social ladder, but that the game’s been rigged. That’s why when Trump starts talking about the “rigged” elections, it fits into the way these people already look at the class system. ...

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