Class confusion is everywhere in the news today. Fox News can’t seem to mention class without jumping immediately to the dire prospect of “class warfare.” Journalists on the poverty beat since the ’60s have tended to equate it with one race only. Yet almost half—42.1 percent, or 19.7 million Americans—of those below the poverty line are white. In the South, more than half of the poor are white. Anxious academics, even when they’re trying to describe class more broadly, are more comfortable highlighting “white privilege” than looking down at the bottom of the ladder to see who’s been left out.
The derisive language of class pervades explanations of the Trump phenomenon. The less circumspect journalists have reduced the Republican frontrunner’s constituency to “white trash” and “trailer trash,” and cast their protests as the “revenge of the lower classes.” Kevin Williamson of the National Review dismissed Trump’s followers as refuse drawn from dying communities; to him they are an inferior breed of American whose discontent resembles, in his words, the “whelping of children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog.”
When class is mentioned in stories about the 2016 campaign, Trump’s constituency is the only slice of the population cast in negative terms. For Hillary Clinton, the focus is on “working families.” In going after the Wall Street 1 percent, and announcing a free college tuition plan, Bernie Sanders mostly appealed to the children of the middle- and upper middle-class. In his imprecise pandering, even Ted Cruz bemoaned the demise of the middle class. But as they cling to the mighty balm of the middle class, our politicians ignore the one thing Trump has uniquely capitalized on: an outright celebration of those who don’t fit the ideal of middle-class attainment.
Why are Americans so reluctant to talk about the real and enduring character of our class system? What has muted class as a meaningful category? In short, the American Dream. From the Revolution forward, citizens have been told that the promise of upward mobility is quintessentially American. In fact, though, we inherited the British fixation with idleness, whereby the poor are blamed for failing to work hard, buy land, produce healthy heirs, and have an economic stake in society. While land was the source of wealth and class status in early American, landlessness was rampant. The word “white trash” evolved by the mid-19th century from the term that British colonizers had used to describe the worthless dregs who were dumped in the New World: “waste people.” Both Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams unhesitatingly described the poor that surrounded them as “rubbish.” And what of the noble pioneers? Our landless migrants were called “squatters” and “crackers.” Trespassing on public and private lands or in Indian territory, they were routinely dismissed as “vermin,” the women as “idle sluts,” who lived in “grotesque log cabins,” surrounded by their ragged brood of “yellow” children.
Americans continue to tell themselves that they believe in social equality, but history tells a different story. Southern slave owners who lived lavishly convinced themselves they were descendants of Cavalier stock—aristocrats. The most articulate defender of the southern class system, Alabaman Daniel Hundley, laid out seven different classes in 1860. At the bottom he placed “bullies” and “poor white trash,” the latter who he claimed traced their degenerate lineage back to the wretched poor from the back alleys of London. (His “bullies” today would be called rednecks.) Well into the 20th century, the conventional wisdom was that class identity was inherited from parent to child, that “like breeds like.”
Class has never been simply about wealth or occupation alone, but about pedigree and breeding. It has and still is measured according to how a person dresses and talks, the amount of education, expressions of taste. The home and neighborhood where one lives matter, and today so does the car one drives. Since the ’50s suburbanization increased residential class stratification, and gave rise to trailer parks known as “hillbilly havens” and “trailer trash.” Class unquestionably shapes identity. And yet, the news media only chooses to break down voter demographics into categories of race, religion, gender, and political ideology.
To attack Donald Trump as a racist and sexist is justified and easy. His campaign manager admits that he is “projecting an image.” Who’s surprised? Electoral politics has always encouraged con artists, and abided identity politics. An Australian observer described the phenomenon succinctly in 1949, and it’s true today: Americans have a taste for a “democracy of manners,” he insisted. But this was different from real democracy. Voters accept huge disparities in wealth, while expecting their elected leaders to “cultivate the appearance of being no different from the rest of us.” By talking tough, by boasting that he’d love to throw a punch at a protester, Trump pretends he is stepping down from his opulent Manhattan penthouse to commingle with the unwashed masses. Wearing his bright red Bubba cap, and crooning at one rally, “I love the poorly educated,” he has built upon a familiar strain of American populism. Which is to say, a dose of redneck bluster goes a long way. It helped that Bill Clinton called himself Bubba and played the saxophone. It helped, too, that journalists dubbed him the “Arkansas Elvis.”
Beyond his riches-to-rags stage act, Trump’s message is that he is a headstrong businessman who will not only create jobs, but also make sure the government defends hard-working Americans. As he exploits the fear of labor competition from immigrants, he taps into the anxiety produced by the erosion of unions and manufacturing jobs and the increase in low-paying service jobs that is shifting the ground beneath working-class Americans. In the game of identity politics, complex social processes are reduced to a convenient bogeyman. Trump’s mostly symbolic wall represents the imagined power to keep immigrants out, but for many of his followers who hate free trade globalism, it really means keeping jobs in the country.
Oddly, Bernie Sanders voiced the greatest blindness to class when he said in one debate, “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in the ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.” He’s dead wrong, denying the long history of white poverty. Sanders is not the Left’s version of Trump, because Trump’s supporters want class security, not revolution. They want more blue collar male jobs, not equality, not social justice. They want to turn the clock backward in order to regain the male pride that comes being the family breadwinner. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a nostalgic appeal to the golden age of the ’50s and ’60s, when America was an industrial power and working-class jobs were plentiful. Until we understand our class system, warts and all, we will be saddled with an anemic democratic system that only makes our class resentments worse.
Nancy Isenberg is the author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in Biography and won the Oklahoma Book Award for best book in Nonfiction. She is the co-author, with Andrew Burstein, of Madison and Jefferson. She is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at LSU, and writes regularly for Salon.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Charlottesville, Virginia.