Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Following Donald Trump’s ascent to the U.S. presidency, both liberal and conservative pundits and commentators have circulated a dangerous myth that the white working-class propelled Trump to the White House. This has led the media to blame poor and working-class whites for the rise of Trump, which is an oversimplification and misevaluation of how we arrived at the current political moment.
As data from NBC indicates, during the 2016 primaries, more than one-third of Trump supporters had incomes of over $100,000, and two-thirds of Trump supporters earned over $50,000 a year, or above the median national household income. In other words, Trump’s base is not the working class, but what might be called the petit bourgeoisie: small-business owners, property owners and inheritors, technicians, electricians, plumbers, policemen, firemen, and other highly skilled workers.
The definition of working class is fluid and is more than a measure of income or wealth. But if, as the data indicates, over two-thirds of Trump supporters earn above the median national income, and if many live in small towns and rural areaswhere the cost of living is lower than the national average, it follows that the overwhelming majority of Trump supporters are relatively wealthy compared to the average American.
Part of the confusion around the socioeconomic status of Trump supporters stems from the fact that 69 percent of Trump supporters did not have college degrees, as the Washington Post reports. But education is a distorted and insufficient measure of class. In fact, around 60 percent of white Trump supporters without college degrees made above the median national income.
This is not to say that poor and working-class whites didn’t turn out for Trump in large numbers—they did—but rather that working-class whites should not be seen as the core of Trump’s constituency.
Here are seven commentators and outlets that have mischaracterized Trump’s electoral base.
1 and 2. Matt Flegenheimer and Michael Barbaro, New York Times, Nov. 9, 2016.
On the day after Trump’s stunning victory, the New York Times declared on page A1 that Trump’s victory could be attributed to a backlash among America’s neglected white working-class communities.
Trump’s victory “was a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters who felt that the promise of the United States had slipped their grasp amid decades of globalization and multiculturalism.”
In reality, Trump made his most significant gains among the white middle class.
3. Ronald Brownstein for The Atlantic.
In his much-circulated article from September 2015, Ronald Brownstein made an early case that Donald Trump’s base was the white working class: “The billionaire developer is building a blue-collar foundation.”
4. Kevin D. Williamson for the National Review.
Neocon political correspondent Williamson conflates Trump supporters with poor and working-class whites, arguing that their communities are negative economic assets to the country, and therefore, should not exist.
“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin… the truth about these dysfunctional downscale communities is that they deserve to die.”
5. Markos Moulitsas for the DailyKos.
DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas rides on assumptions similar to Williamson’s, blaming poor and working-class whites for electing Trump, and essentially saying they deserve to die for doing so.
“Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They’re getting exactly what they voted for.”
6. Kyle Smith for the New York Post.
In a recent Post article, Smith argues that Trump won over his white working-class base by pandering to their experiences of economic stagnation and cultural decline, but he fails to mention that many of these so-called working-class supporters made over $100,000 a year.
“That Trump declined to back down from his more colorful statements made him seem courageous and honest to the [white working-class], and they share his loathing for political incorrectness. The more he was attacked for being ‘offensive,’ the more they were reminded of themselves.”
7. Joan C. Williams in White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.
In her book White Working Class, Joan C. Williams defines the white working class as white Americans without college degrees who fall within the $43,000-$123,000 income bracket. But since when does the working-class category extend to Americans making over $100,000 a year? In an attempt to explain the sociocultural phenomenon behind Trump supporters, Williams exploits the term “working class,” extending it to high-income earners.
Trump “was felt to be a way for the white working class to kind of stick that thumb in the eye at the elites and let them have it.”
Who got it right?
Here’s a list of recommended reading for more nuanced reporting on Trump’s base and the working class.
1. On Trump supporters and the working class: “Who Put Trump in the White House? Kim Moody, Jacobin
2. On race and the working class: “Why the White Worker Theme is Harmful,” William E. Spriggs, American Prospect
3. On reviving the Democratic Party and the working class: “The Democrats’ ‘Working-Class Problem’ Is Worse Than We Think,” Stanley B. Greenberg, AlterNet
4. On defining the working class in 2017:“The New Working Class,” Gabriel Winant, Dissent
5. On bridging the working-class divide:“The Great God Trump and the White Working Class,” Mike Davis, Jacobin
Lauren Kaori Gurley is a freelance writer and master’s candidate in Latin American studies and journalism at New York University. Her work has been published in In These Times, the American Prospect and the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Follow her @laurenkgurley.
This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.