A whole lot has been written about the election just past, and much of it has been couched in revolutionary language. Alec MacGillis’ “Revenge of America’s Forgotten Class” essay in The Star earlier this month is a good example. Well, to quote Richard Nixon, “Let me say this about that.”
Although the economic distress MacGillis highlights was certainly a factor in Donald Trump’s success, I cannot escape the nagging feeling that if Jeb Bush had been the Republican nominee and Trump had been the Democratic nominee, Trump still would have won if he had run his campaign as a Democrat the way he did as a Republican.
Because when Hillary Clinton inelegantly observed that half of Trump’s supporters fall into “a basket of deplorables,” she was only slightly off the mark.
It would have been more accurate for her to say that half were “a basket of the deplored,” for that is what they were and, from some of the post-election commentary, still are.
They are the white underclass, a group that American political elites and the people who support them have for some time either deplored or ignored.
Even books like Wayne Flynt’s Poor but Proud failed to get folks at the bottom much attention from the Southern Living and Garden and Gun set.
Instead, elites prefer books like J D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which is all the rage among people who think that those far down the socioeconomic ladder are there because, as a friend from childhood used to put it, “they are sorry as gully dirt.”
However, according to the National Review, Vance’s book can also be read for insight into the lives of “millions of white Americans who feel powerless as their way of life is devastated.”
If Trump read Hillbilly Elegy (and most likely he did not), he would have taken that from it.
Readers who want to get more academic about the matter can go to Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, also just out. Though this “untold history” has been told many times, leaders of both political parties — until Trump’s arrival — have been largely tone deaf to the needs and anxieties of the people she writes about.
Consider when Sargent Shriver of the Kennedy clan (Democratic establishment to the core) was campaigning as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972. Seeking votes, Shriver entered a workingman’s bar and called out “beer for everyone.”
Then he added, “I’ll have a Courvoisier.”
Just one of the boys.
Or George H.W. Bush (Republican establishment to the core), who boasted that his favorite food was pork rinds.
Man of the people he be.
(The Bush announcement resulted is a surge in pork-rind popularity. One Texas company had to hire 50 additional employees, so at least the people got something from it.)
But it is not only the party bigwigs who were out of touch with the culture of America’s white working class. Other “elites” — the ones Garrison Keillor described in a snarky post-election piece as “librarians, children’s authors, yoga practitioners, Unitarians, birdwatchers, people who make their own pasta, opera-goers, the grammar police, people who keep books on their shelves, that bunch” — were as ignorant of the underclass as the people they voted for.
To them, working-class folks were the ones who got into fights at Walmart. They deplored them as “Gumps” and “Spam-sucking trailer trash.” The “deplored” knew it. Trump gave them a way to get their revenge.
My buddy Sam, who lives in Decatur, came back from the polls to report, “I haven’t seen that many names on the voting sign-up sheet since the old wet/dry referendums down in Clarke County.”
The comparison is a good one.
Folks turned out for wet/dry contests because they felt the outcome made a difference in their lives. Folks turned out in this election for the same reason.
(Conversely, a low turnout in some areas suggests the feeling, expressed to me by a lady from down around Talladega, that “no president ever did anything for me.” She did not expect something different from the current crop of candidates.)
So, why didn’t pollsters pick up on this?
Why did they, and the pundits who rely on them, continue to believe that college-educated, suburban-living, economically secure folks would carry the day for Clinton?
One reason, it has been suggested, is that working-class voters had cell phones with unlisted numbers, not land lines with names in the directory. Hard to do a telephone survey of those folks.
Also, the election revealed that a lot of college-educated, suburban-living, economically secure voters preferred Trump to Clinton, but just didn’t say so. They were what one observer described as “leaners” — you ask them who was their candidate and they “lean” over and whisper the name. Not every Trump supporter had his sign in their yard.
More to the point, these folks also felt deplored and ignored.
They were, as another friend wrote me after the election, “fed up with being told they were stupid to care about illegal immigration instead of more critical things like making sure that a minuscule segment of the population would have restrooms to their liking everywhere they went.” They were tired of the “smug and condescending” attitude of the Clinton campaign, just as they would have been tired of a similar approach by an establishment Republican.
Then along came Trump, who neither ignored nor deplored them.
So they elected him president of the United States.
And everyone is waiting to see what happens next.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and occasional OpEd and Features writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.