This is a very interesting article by Jesse Myerson, which addresses something that’s irritated me about the discussion of Trump’s “white, working class” base. Leaving aside the sloppy definition of “working class” by the proxy of lacking a college degree, the implicit thesis embedded in the terminology is that Trump’s support reflects the economic anxieties of people who have been left behind by the transforming post-industrial economy.
This explanation has always seemed a bit pat and ready-made to fit a media template, to wit, that “both sides” have failed in roughly equal measure to represent the interests of working-class Americans. Factually, this narrative is a dud, erasing the mass of the U.S. working class that is not white, that is not Protestant, that lives in large coastal metros and is of color, immigrant, and female, and that went for Clinton. It also erases the most economically disadvantaged whites in Trumplandia who also went for Clinton. But rhetorically, it’s worse, because it has worked to facilitate a preemptive rehabilitation of Trump as a tribune of the common man instead of a reactionary bigot. Check out the work done by Salena Zito, for example (or let Roy Edroso do it for you). It’s not incoherence or a bumbling search for approval; it’s honesty!
And it doesn’t jibe with some of my scholarship which, building on the important work of many others (Kevin Kruse, Matt Lassiter, George Lipsitz, Paula Ioanide, David Freund, and others I’ve missed), identifies the rise of white reaction in the post civil-rights era with the grievances of relatively privileged suburbanites. In Myerson’s terms:
Trump’s real base, the actual backbone of fascism, isn’t poor and working-class voters, but middle-class and affluent whites. Often self-employed, possessed of a retirement account and a home as a nest egg, this is the stratum taken in by Horatio Alger stories. They can envision playing the market well enough to become the next Trump. They haven’t won “big-league,” but they’ve won enough to be invested in the hierarchy they aspire to climb. If only America were made great again, they could become the haute bourgeoisie—the storied “1 percent.”
When that ascendancy seems thwarted (particularly through stagnant property values or rising property taxes), the search begins for explanation, and, in lieu of structural analysis of an oligarchic political economy, scapegoats will suffice. As I’ve argued, and as Sam Rosen also does in a recent Atlantic article on metro Atlanta’s cityhood movement, that search may begin relatively close to home and focus on the impact others (racial, linguistic, national, gendered, partisan others) exert on one’s property through federal, state, and local government. And, as the scholars I’ve noted above have argued, the racialization of the housing market means that perceived threats to the value of property are often entwined not just symbolically but in quantifiable economic terms with racial transition. Here’s Myerson’s analysis:
In recent decades, rising urban rents have been pushing lower-income people to more peripheral locations. As suburbia has grown poorer, the more affluent homeowners have fled for the even greener pastures of exurbia. Everywhere they turn, their economic anxiety follows them (my emphasis).
Historically, this is bitterly ironic, for the anxieties related to seemingly imperiled suburban privilege rely on an erasure of the past and ongoing racism embedded in institutions like the real estate market and the property tax. To sum up part of my argument about an explosive 1991 tax revolt in Fulton County, Georgia, “sticker shock” over higher property appraisals (and thus higher tax assessments) ignored the fact that the explosive development of mostly-white suburbs for the three prior decades had created a new form of white privilege: property’s market value soared significantly due to racial homogeneity in the surrounding areas, but its value for tax purposes (and low taxes were another support for high market value!) was suppressed by outdated assessment rolls.
Just in the past month other publications have underscored deep inequities in the housing system. Sociologist Matthew Desmond has argued in a very good New York Times Magazine article that the mortgage interest deduction is a potent engine of continued racial inequality; the mortgage interest deduction allows buyers to pay more, meaning that mostly affluent whites benefit from home equity as a financial asset. Meanwhile, poorer renters, more likely of color, accumulate debt to afford rent in a market where only a quarter of poor people get housing assistance. Moreover, since the mortgage interest deduction does nothing to alleviate the down payment barrier to home ownership, it rewards those with personal or family wealth. Richard Rothstein’s forthcoming book makes an explicit argument that a racially stratified housing market was and remains a matter of intentional public policy choices.
It’s true that another recent report by Emma Green using Public Religion Research Institute datahas showed “cultural anxiety” as a wellspring of Trump support in some areas, which one might reasonably translate to Islamophobia and racist nativism. But clearly, anxieties over the cultural and economic qualities of a community are not neatly disentangled, perhaps especially for the educated and affluent. As Myerson notes, such
seamless transition from “anxiety” to “hardship” betrays the assumption that haunted the entire discussion: that the only form of economic anxiety is deprivation.
That many liberal analysts make a cognitive leap from the observed phenomenon of racist “cultural anxiety” to a caricature of its origins with poorly-educated “hicks” perhaps says more about the blinders they wear about suburban racism and the “normalcy” of a racist property market than anything else.
Note: political prognostication is not my forte. However, given the attention to the Georgia 6th District special election, it’s worth considering Myerson’s warning that elevating the media’s preferred symbols of Trumpism while ignoring its structural roots in aggrieved privilege threatens to hamstring efforts to build broader and winning coalitions. If Clinton campaign advisers expected to win twice as many votes in the suburbs as they lost in factory towns, an Ossoff victory may reinforce the strategic wisdom of targeting suburbs for the midterms and the 2020 presidential campaign. But it seems to overlook two factors: that many affluent and white suburbanites may be as uncomfortable with the Democrats’ emerging multiracial coalition as are rural and rust-belt whites, and that Trump’s relative underperformance in places like the Georgia 6th (which Tom Price won handily even as Clinton won it narrowly) indicates less a sweeping change among affluent suburban voters than their acute discomfort at racism dragged into the open.