I recently breezed through Nancy Isenberg’s recent White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (Viking Press), which is both imminently readable and immensely smart. It is also incredibly relevant. Her argument is simple: the image of a poor, lazy, and immobile class has long been a potent problem in American culture, a constant reminder that “the poor are always with us” and that class hierarchy is always present. This base of people–or at least the fear of them–has been a motivating factor since the colonization period through the present. As actors themselves, the “white trash” have both attempted, at various times and to varying degrees, to reclaim their identity and proclaim their heritage. And at certain points, they can be mobilized as a political force.
And Trump’s core message is nothing if not an appeal to the anxieties and desires of poor white people. Unlike Romney, he’s not explicitly drawing from rich Wall Street executives–as seen by Michael Bloomberg speaking at the DNC this year–nor is he pledged to mainstream conservative pundits, as seen by Ross Douthat’s disillusionment. Rather, he stokes the fears of those who have been cast as “losers” their whole lives, those who feel they have been disenfranchised, ignored, and dismissed. Trump promised them he’ll restore their honor and redeem their heritage. A common adage of his most devout followers is that Trump “says what he thinks,” which is of course rubbish–Ted Cruz said what he thinks–but they love to hear someone express the same concerns, judgments, and ideas that has been mostly banished from polite society.
The obvious irony, of course, is that Trump was born with a golden spoon and has made a career of taking advantage of the poor in attempt to cater for the rich. But this quixotic bedfellows relationship only proves both the malleability and potency of this cultural legacy.
By the way, I hope that the moniker “Age of Trump” won’t last that long. But even if Trump loses this Fall–far from assured, sadly–Trumpism will, just like the poor, always be with us.