They thought this was their moment. After decades of feeling politically marginalized, a significant bloc of white working-class Americans saw Donald Trump as their long-awaited standard bearer. True, Trump was imperfect, with all his unfiltered arrogance, but he seemed to understand their plight and exasperation.
The Republican presidential nominee’s spiraling demise, however, likely spells continuing political exile for his most frustrated supporters.
“I am your voice,” Trump memorably asserted at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, speaking directly to a substantial portion of the American public he calls “the silent majority.”
One key reason this constituency has felt silenced is that both Democrats and Republicans, over the past 30 years, were cautious about making direct appeals to white working-class constituencies in national elections.
Both parties stopped short of Trump’s overt nativism and bigotry because they can turn off growing ethnic and minority voting blocs. They also avoided direct support for Trump’s economic protectionism because it worries the centrist business lobby. Democrats and Republicans both likely calculated it was not worth alienating ascendant constituencies to attract one in decline.
Consider: Barack Obama won both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections with more than 50 percent of the vote, despite double-digit defeats among white voters without college degrees. Before the 2016 cycle began in earnest, the party establishments viewed working-class white voters as, at best, a destabilizing force on attempts to assemble broad, centrist coalitions and, at worst, a diminishing, enigmatic afterthought.
Trump’s revolutionary nomination returned working-class white voters to broader consciousness. But based on my recent book research on this demographic, it is not clear that Trump’s policy agenda is actually what attracted these voters to his campaign.
Rather, for many of his supporters, Trump represents a powerful protest vote – a middle finger to political elites in both major parties that have ignored, dismissed or condemned working-class white people and failed to deliver meaningful change for decades.
Indeed, what does it say about the state of working-class white political representation when the best “voice” these voters could find for the past few decades is a wealthy, jet-setting, Manhattan real estate developer with no clear party affiliation?
Still, many working-class white voters believe Trump’s improbable ascent embodies their own resurrection to political relevance. But his flagging campaign has reinforced the perception in Washington that it is impossible to make this populist appeal without repelling the New America coalition that elected Obama – single women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, working women, younger voters and gays.
When political insiders dismiss Trump’s populism, it often plays directly into a pervasive moral narrative about working-class white people in the United States. Many commentators broad-brush these voters as antagonists who cling to the unfair advantages of an earlier time. They are cast as resistant to progressive changes and intent on maintaining power over women and minorities who challenge them not only in the workplace but also in their personal lives.
Poor white people are conventionally portrayed as a last vestige of the era when white men regarded professional advantages and personal privileges as their due – with Trump as its last gasp. White working-class people are often treated as cultural deviants, whose earlier work ethic has decayed along with their moral scruples.
Many white elites, descendants of men who achieved through prejudiced systems of promotion, now vilify poor whites, perhaps to distance themselves from the past.
Meanwhile, working-class whites can only embrace the past. The mid-20th century was the last time politicians purposefully sought their vote, the last time full-time jobs were well paid and reliable, the last time their families were whole.
Since then, members of the white working class have experienced a steady drift to precariousness. Reliable, well-paid, full-time work for Americans without college educations has become harder and harder to find. Jobs became increasingly contingent, and so did other relationships that defined white working-class lives. Divorce rates skyrocketed, drug use became epidemic, more children were born out of wedlock.
The problem for white working-class people is that the past of economic stability and togetherness is inextricable from the outdated manufacturing economy and racial division that Trump’s candidacy has also promised to restore.
It will likely be easy to dismiss a Trump defeat as a rejection of his protectionism and bigotry, which would ignore the structural factors that increasingly entrench poor Americans – white and nonwhite.
With his decline in the polls, Trump may have only deepened the marginality of these supporters. Rather than build the foundation for a future political movement, he has sought to set fire to what he calls a “rigged” democratic system by questioning its integrity.
It is the belief in such conspiracy theories that kept many discouraged white working-class voters from participating in elections. In decrying democracy itself, Trump only weakens the system further by alienating a substantial portion of the electorate going forward.
The silver lining for Republicans is that, in doing so, Trump may return the party to them in its state before June 2015, largely unaffected by a deflated fringe of white working-class people grumbling on the periphery.
They can then pretend that 2016 was all a bad dream, and that the structural forces that led to Trump’s rise don’t really exist.