Working-class whites get conned
On Tuesday (Oct. 24), Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, delivered a stunning rebuke of President Donald J. Trump, excoriating his isolationism, his divisiveness, his disregard for truth, his debasement of democracy, his “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior.” The speech by Flake, a longtime critic of Trump, added to the catalog of recent denunciations of the president by prominent Republicans.
Not that it matters much. While Trump’s overall approval rating is among the lowest in modern history — only 8 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of independents approve, according to an October Gallup poll — the president continues to enjoy overwhelming support in the GOP. Eighty percent of GOP voters are still squarely in his corner, Gallup says.
(Flake knows that. That’s why he also announced that he would not seek re-election in 2018.)
Trump has taken over the Republican Party, and his rise shows, once again, that blatant appeals to race can dupe less-affluent whites into serving the interests of their wealthy masters, as has happened throughout American history. The ascendance of Trumpism is the triumph of tribalism over self-interest, the victory of racial resentment over patriotism and even practicality.
Of course, Trump, one of the nation’s one-percenters, has long had an uncanny understanding of that bit of cultural psychology. He came to the national political stage spreading the noxious lie that President Barack Obama was not born in this country — a way of signaling that he, too, saw a black president as a usurper. And his presidential campaign was based on incendiary stereotypes about Muslims, Mexicans and urban precincts that were home to large numbers of black people.
When Trump was elected, many political commentators insisted that his victory was more a consequence of economic stagnation than a fear of cultural change. And Trump did give lip service to the economic fears of his base.
He campaigned as the person who would boost Main Street while cutting Wall Street down to size. He told working-class whites that he would lift their economic prospects, deliver a glorious low-cost health care system, curb the opioid epidemic and restore well-paying jobs in manufacturing and coal mines.
But he has done none of those things.
In fact, every major initiative that the president has championed has enriched the wealthiest sector of America. He has boosted Wall Street and deceived Main Street. He has attempted to destroy Obamacare, which has benefitted many whites without college degrees.
And he is going all out to push through a huge tax cut, which will bestow most of its largess on the rich, including Trump and his family. An analysis of the tax plan by a nonpartisan group of tax experts shows that 80 percent of its benefits — 80 percent! — would go to the richest one- percent of households. Those earning more than $900,000 a year would see their taxes decline, on average, by about $200,000 annually, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. But almost 30 percent of households earning between $50,000 and $150,000 would see a tax increase, according to the report.
Will any of that matter? When GOP voters finally figure out they’ve been scammed, will they back away from Trump? Perhaps not. The president has always had a handle on the primal instincts that move his constituents.
He continues to win their undying and unadulterated affection by threatening to toss undocumented immigrants out of the country, by promising to build a wall on the Southern border, by indulging in Islamophobia, by supporting police violence against people of color. Trump may not know much history, but he knows what works.
Blatant appeals to race and tribe worked during the Civil War, when poor whites in the Deep South took up the cause of the Confederacy even though they weren’t slave owners. They were duped into becoming cannon fodder for rich men who were taking advantage of them.
And so it continues today. Back in January 2016, Trump declared, “The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. . . Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”
It may be incredible, but it’s hardly unprecedented. Racism remains a powerful siren call.