This year’s Democratic National Convention consisted mainly of endorsing Hillary through bashing Trump, a tactic employed by the Republicans just a week earlier for rallying behind Trump. Of course, dismantling Trump’s campaign includes dismantling his mantra, as President Obama tells a crowd of fervent supporters that, no, we don’t need to “Make America Great Again”, because “America is great already”; similarly, First Lady Michelle Obama echoed her husband’s sentiments, saying, “don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great.”
The question is, is America already great? Clearly not, for the camp that Hillary is trying to win over – the white American working class struggling under poverty, lamenting a bygone era of glorious economic prosperity and more simplistic social orders.
The white American working class lives at a strange intersection of privilege and oppression – they are told by today’s society that their skin color is a sign of privilege built on the sufferings of others, yet the harsh reality of financial despondency seems to signal otherwise. They are often invisible – and when they are visible, it is in stereotypes – uneducated, poor, God-fearing, drug-abusing “rednecks” – they could be openly mocked with no apparent repercussions. They are not a group to be even “pandered” to; to them, both the Democrats and Republicans have done very little to assuage their economic and social crises.
Simply put, the white working class exists in a society that often overlooks their problems and treats them with hostility – as long-time Republican and fellow Yale alumnus J. D. Vance puts it, “the two political parties have offered nothing to these people for a few decades” – from the Left, they receive “smug condescension” that the white working class is voting against their own economic prospects due to social issues, and from the Republicans, a rather basic Republican reform of neoliberal tax cuts, deregulation and free market – policies which ultimately backfired on their economic wellbeing. According to Vance, author of the white working class memoir Hillbilly Elegy, and hundreds of former laborers on the Rust Belt – Trump is the only person who indicated a concern – genuine or not – for their economic and social well-being. He promised to bring jobs back to America – it is yet unclear how he will be achieve this, yet he promised, with the directness and plainness that are appreciated by these communities.
Trump addressed, in clear terms – albeit crudely and undiplomatically – issues that ring to the woes of the white working class spiraling into cycles of poverty, shorter lifespan, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse... Trump spoke boldly in everyday layman’s terms – considered undiplomatic, crude, divisive, bigoted – but plainly, in a spirit that resonate with the laborers who have gone out of employment as the economy of their industrial hometowns withered and died. The laborers have found a voice that echoed theirs – someone who didn’t come to shove esoteric economic policies down their throat, or mock them as ignorant and stupid, or call them racist; someone who had the guts and audacity to do what no Establishment politician dare to do – and, perhaps, bring real change.
Cambria County, PA, one of the many great industrial towns during the 1940’s, suffered significant financial losses when cheaper steel was starting to be produced by overseas mills. In 1973, Bethlehem Steel cut a third of its workforce; within six years, local unemployment topped 23 % and since 1980, the county’s population declined by a quarter. Similar fates were met by counties across the country – industrial towns whose competitive edges were outshone by factories overseas, and whose growing pains were met with very little attention from both parties.
Cambria, PA was significantly Democrats until 2012 – EPA’s new environmental regulations, endorsed by President Obama, left very little choices for Cambria’s working force, whose economy depend so vitally upon the continuously shrinking coal industry. This year, many white working class citizens were Sanders supporters, regarding Sanders as an outsider who could fundamentally challenge the current political system that has given them little attention, yet when Sanders failed to clinch the nomination, they switched to Trump – Trump was also an outsider, who at least openly acknowledged their hardship. Clinton was for clean energy; Trump, on the other hand, was all for expanding heavy industry, and that was all they need to hear. Trump brushed away the lofty talks and focused on economic prosperity for white working class, and he talked like a businessman who might just fulfill the promises Establishment politicians failed to deliver.
For a long time, the white working class identity was threatened – at the intersection of privilege and victimhood, it is sent scrambling for reconciliation in a society increasingly practicing “identity politics” and coming to terms with diversity and multiculturalism. Many times, they are told, mostly by the American Left, that their voices don’t matter, or that they are already beneficiaries of “white privilege” – a term that is foreign and strange when contrasted with real poverty that seems to be the antithesis of privilege. For many white working people, this is a threat and a crisis; whether the sense of threat is entirely “reasonable” or not is another story, yet elections have never been about reason. Trump speaks their language – a certain anti-intellectualism that bashes the elites who have been oblivious or condescending towards their causes. Trump acknowledges their existence and their hardship, and that alone is enough to drown out no matter how many facts or figures his opposition may present.
I have always admired Hillary’s vision, persistence and her consistent fight for the greater good; she is without doubt exponentially more experienced, more competent, and will make much better of a president than Trump can ever hope to be. Nonetheless, I remain pessimistic that preexisting Trump supporters would ever change their minds and voter for her after DNC; the entire conference screams “Establishment” and it endorses tirelessly a candidate who grew and nourished within the existing American political system and who in turn shaped it into what it is today. Her years of experience as a lawyer, a politician and an activist will not matter to the white American working class Trump supporters; she is a product of the same system that has condescending pretended to care for them, yet never did.
I’m not saying it is, by any means, justified to be racist, xenophobic, sexist, anti-intellectual – as Trump has tireless proven himself to be. A Trump presidency would be incredibly dangerous for not just the U.S., but the rest of the world. All I wanted to say is just – in today’s world, it is perhaps far too easy to label someone a bigot, a racist, an ignorant, uneducated brute – it is easy to throw labels around and ascribe people’s decision to the race, gender or socioeconomic group they belong to – and then shut them down and refuse to listen. It is easy to obtain your news from social media, associate yourself with friends from similar backgrounds sharing similar political views, and dismiss the voices of those who hold different opinions.
Unfortunately, this is what Trump fuels on, and he’s succeeding.