ON THE FRONTLINE: Trump and Working Class Distress

ON THE FRONTLINE: Trump and Working Class Distress

Monica Prasad

I’ve heard several plausible explanations for Donald Trump’s popularity, including that it all boils down to racism, or that people appreciate his willingness to say things that other politicians are not willing to say.

But a social phenomenon is never just one thing.  Ronald Reagan was popular because he was funny and optimistic and because he was a devoted cold war warrior and because he told people they could have tax cuts.  Franklin Roosevelt won election four times because his government programs helped people and because he embodied strength over adversity.

Similarly, Trump is popular for many different reasons, and it does not diminish the importance of racism in this election cycle to note that Trump is most popular among the white working class, and at the heart of the Trump phenomenon is very real working class distress.

A recent study by the Economic Innovation Group found that the economic recovery had bypassed the poorest parts of America, where businesses are closing, housing vacancy rates are in the double digits, and more than half of adults are out of work.  Death rates for non-Hispanic whites in America have actually increased slightly in the last decade and a half, even though in other countries they have dropped 30% over that period.  Trump support is highest where death rates among white working class voters are highest—that is, where the working class has been most devastated by deindustrialization and the toxic social problems it has created.

Since 2004, two colleagues and I have been interviewing white working class voters about their voting preferences and behavior.  I wish I could say we predicted the rise of Trump, but we were as flabbergasted as everyone else.  But what we did do is publish articles that show the economic basis of white working class support for Republicans.  We argue in particular that Republican voting is part of a strategy of focusing on morality and personal responsibility as a means of prospering economically—what we call “walking the line.”

Consider the case of one of our interviewees, Evelyn Wells (a pseudonym) who is raising her grandson, Ross (also a pseudonym), in a small deindustrializing town in downstate Illinois.  When my colleague Steve Hoffman (University of Toronto) interviewed her, she described her family as embodying a morality play in which one daughter, Rebecca, is good at walking the line and the other daughter, Susan, is not:

EVELYN WELLS: I have two daughters, one grandson that I have raised since he was three. He is now 16 years old and such a good boy gets straight A’s and B’s and is just a good person.

SH: Why did you raise him, he lived with you?

EVELYN WELLS: He has lived here since he was three. I have custody. His mother was hooked on drugs and alcohol and still is. Thirteen years I have been dealing with her. She is a very gorgeous girl if you want to turn around and look at her [indicating a photograph]. My younger daughter has been married for two years and they both have their Master’s degree and work with computers at [an insurance company]. No children, very happily married.

The older daughter, Susan, was working at the large factory in town.  When the factory was shut down in the late 1990s, a result of automation, she lost her job.

EVELYN WELLS: They closed the plant and 300 people lost their jobs there and then [Susan] went downhill. … I sent her to beauty school which cost me $15,000. She got to where she was trading a haircut for a joint. Trading a haircut for some pills.  And then I just closed up her shop because I couldn’t afford it anymore….I finally stepped in and took Ross because at three in the morning she was driving with her drunk and on cocaine. The cops stopped her, took him, and took her.…And I don’t want him to hate his mom, which he does tell me he hates her. I say honey you don’t.  You hate the stuff she does. Because, you know, I am not going to be here forever.…I don’t want him to think that he can go out in the world and do what he wants and be taken care of by the government like his mom. He knows that she is getting the [name of public aid program], the public aid. I don’t think he likes that because his Aunt Rebecca, whom he idolizes, he goes and stays with her once a month for the weekend and hangs out with her and Steve.  They work hard for what they got.

While the loss of the factory job kicked off Susan’s downward spiral, the comparison case of Rebecca and her husband, who “work hard for what they got,” leads Evelyn and Ross to focus not on larger structural forces, but on Susan’s individual failure.

As Evelyn tells it, 16 year old Ross is also starting to learn how to walk the line:

EVELYN WELLS: I don’t keep any alcohol in the refrigerator because that upsets Ross. Michael [Evelyn’s current husband] will go turkey hunting, in fact he leaves next week for two weeks, and sometimes he will bring back some beers that are left over from the turkey hunt and the first thing Ross will say if he sees it, we hide it in the refrigerator in the garage. He does not like it. It reminds him of his mom. So I don’t really look for him to be an alcoholic or pot smoker.

The loss of manufacturing jobs is felt across the nation as a moral drama around the issue of being a good worker.  Susan’s downward spiral has overshadowed Ross’s childhood—it is the central fact about his life—and he is drawing a clear lesson from it, not a lesson about deindustrialization, but a lesson about working hard like Aunt Rebecca, “whom he idolizes.”  In school, Ross has started to think about and compare the two parties: “he knows the difference between the Democrats’ side per se of giving stuff away free and the Republicans trying to be a little more, and he knows Obama and Romney, of course they discuss it now in school like you wouldn’t believe.”

In Ross’s situation it makes no sense at all to vote for the party that is all about “giving stuff away free.”  And if you’re in this situation, you want someone who makes “bringing back jobs from China” such a central concern.  The Trump circus is a distress call from the heart of the American white working class.

If you take this distress call seriously, it leads to two conclusions.  The first is that Trump himself has feet of clay.  If at least part of his popularity is the promise that he’s the one who can rescue the middle class, it’s worth pointing out that he hasn’t been the great businessman he claims to be.  As the National Journal noted recently, both Trump and Warren Buffett had about $40 million in 1974.  Trump turned it into $3 billion (if you believe outside analyses) or $10 billion (if you believe him).  Meanwhile, Buffett turned the same amount of money into $67 billion.  That’s what real business skill looks like.  Some analysts argue Trump would have made more money if he had just put that $40 million into the stock market back in 1974.

But the more important conclusion is that the American middle class is in distress, and if this election does nothing else, it must force a serious reckoning with that.  Trump’s antics help to hide a fundamental truth that should be familiar to at least some of this year’s campaigners for President: for at least parts of America, this year it’s the economy, stupid.


Monica Prasad is Professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago.  Her areas of interest are comparative historical sociology, economic sociology, and political sociology. She has published books and articles on the rise of neoliberalism, the development of tax systems, the effects of carbon taxes, and the persistence of poverty in America.

Image: Dragan Brankovic ‘Along the line’. CC-BY 2.0