The text that my spouse got when the election returns first started rolling in was an early harbinger of the brutal rout to come. His friend “Ted”, a white former union leader who’d been downsized a decade ago in his small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, proclaimed that he was voting Trump. “Build the f—-ing wall,” he railed, invoking his veteran status and visceral disgust with “sanctuary cities”.
On election night, Ted and his ilk flipped the bird to the nation, making good on the white nationalist rhetoric of 2009 when the Tea Party barnstormed across Middle America exhorting the Obama administration to take its “government hands off of [our] Medicare”. Trump’s epic reversal victory is a vindication of that backlash and a stunning rebuke to the infamous “autopsy” the GOP did after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to President Obama. The autopsy suggested that the GOP would need to ramp down its dog whistle racism and snag more votes from people of color. Trump’s shock troops are using the autopsy for toilet paper. Now that the Republicans have locked down Congress, their post-2016 mantra will be we-don’t-need-to pander to-ya’ll-token-minorities-to- get-over-anymore. And while you’re at it, get back on the plantation.
The formidable Latino, Asian and African American voting bloc that many had prophesied never materialized for this election. Hillary Clinton’s towering negatives, coupled with the fait accompli aura her candidacy assumed in the media, kept some people of color at home feeling angry, disgruntled and taken for granted. According to early exit polls, “only 65% of Latinos supported her, while 29% cast their votes for Trump”. In 2012, Obama won 71% of the Latino vote compared to Romney’s 27%. More frightening still, Trump succeeded in winning 8% of the African American vote, improving on the 1% he was pulling in early estimates. Blinded by the “inevitability” of demographics, many liberal and progressive pundits simply assumed that the white nativist backlash was a fringe resistance movement, the last desperate gasp of a Tea Party that fundamentally defied modernity and common sense.
A recent L.A. Times article on bullish Trump support among white steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, scene of a popular Bruce Springsteen ode to the declining steel industry, highlighted how deep and divisive white angst is in the so-called Heartland. Trump victories in formerly blue states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin all reflected these racialized class resentments. According to a CNN survey, a majority of white working class folk believe that their children will be worse off in the future. They contend that trade agreements have eroded U.S. jobs and that the government is shafting them. Ironically enough, the poll also indicated that this same bloc believes government should provide more assistance to the (white) working class. Most of these “hard working whites” (the ones Hillary Clinton tried so hard to court with bigoted appeals in 2008) believe the government is already doing too much for “minorities” at their expense.
If the coronation of Trump and Trumpism illustrate nothing else, it’s that the left wing dream of interracial working class solidarity will continue to be a delusion in the face of the “wages of whiteness”. In this regard, the ghost of the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia (site of a near upset by Trump) resonates in Trumpist propaganda about making America great again. Bacon’s Rebellion laid the groundwork for white solidarity across class lines. This multiracial uprising of poor whites and black indentured servants prompted the Virginia landed gentry to confer poor whites with greater civil rights in order to suppress a potential long term working class alliance against the white elite. As historian Ira Berlin notes, the Virginia Assembly “enact(ed) laws which say that people of African descent are hereditary slaves. And they increasingly give power to white independent farmers and land holders. We see slavery and freedom being invented at the same moment.” For the majority of whites of all classes, white supremacy will always be the most invaluable wage.
Trump’s shock troops, the GOP, and corporate Dems are heirs to Bacon’s Rebellion. Far too often, liberal-progressive whites seeking to forge coalitions based on workers’ rights disingenuously disregard this legacy and their own complicity in white supremacy. As people of color organize against the coming Trump regime’s mandate for increasing criminalization, mass deportations and depletion of black and Latino wealth, the reinvigorated white working class will continue to regard equity and justice as a zero sum game.