Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Sunday, August 28th, 2016.

The Collateral Damage of Neoliberalism

Obama Administration

A professor emerita of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley spends time with Trump supporters in Louisiana and forms a hypothesis about why they support Trump, which actually is interesting and insightful. Read “I Spent Five Years With Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans” by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

The capsule version is that there are pockets of white culture that have developed a huge ambivalence, shall we say, about government. I can remember when people of the same demographic were excited about Ronald Reagan because they believed he would “kick all the bums off welfare,” as one woman told me then.

Hochschild’s hypothesis is that these white people consider it shameful to take government assistance and resent the “undeserving” types who are in an imaginary line ahead of them and soaking up all the benefits. “Shaming the ‘takers’ below had been a precious mark of higher status.”

But then she says,

Trump, the King of Shame, has covertly come to the rescue. He has shamed virtually every line-cutting group in the Deep Story—women, people of color, the disabled, immigrants, refugees. But he’s hardly uttered a single bad word about unemployment insurance, food stamps, or Medicaid, or what the tea party calls “big government handouts,” for anyone—including blue-collar white men.

In this feint, Trump solves a white male problem of pride. Benefits? If you need them, okay. He masculinizes it. You can be “high energy” macho—and yet may need to apply for a government benefit. As one auto mechanic told me, “Why not? Trump’s for that. If you use food stamps because you’re working a low-wage job, you don’t want someone looking down their nose at you.” A lady at an after-church lunch said, “If you have a young dad who’s working full time but can’t make it, if you’re an American-born worker, can’t make it, and not having a slew of kids, okay. For any conservative, that is fine.”

But in another stroke, Trump adds a key proviso: restrict government help to real Americans. White men are counted in, but undocumented Mexicans and Muslims and Syrian refugees are out. Thus, Trump offers the blue-collar white men relief from a taker’s shame: If you make America great again, how can you not be proud? Trump has put on his blue-collar cap, pumped his fist in the air, and left mainstream Republicans helpless. Not only does he speak to the white working class’ grievances; as they see it, he has finally stopped their story from being politically suppressed. We may never know if Trump has done this intentionally or instinctively, but in any case he’s created a movement much like the anti-immigrant but pro-welfare-state right-wing populism on the rise in Europe. For these are all based on variations of the same Deep Story of personal protectionism.

It struck me while I was reading this that white folks didn’t have problems with the New Deal. I know I’ve written about this in the past, but the anti-government thing really didn’t start until Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. Then, all of a sudden, white people who had been helped enormously by many New Deal programs, and who had received subsidized mortgages and college educations thanks to the GI Bill, were against government programs.

But they might have gotten over that by now had the Democrats remained committed to working class Americans. But in the 1980s neoliberalism became the new, shiny thing among up-and-coming Democrats, and neoliberalism threw working people under the bus in favor of of investors and entrepreneurs. The neolibs were even anti-union.

Red states are, in fact, a lot stingier with benefits, and “welfare reform” didn’t help. (See also.) In the poorer states, white people are either hanging on to a middle-class lifestyle by their fingernails or have fallen out of it. And once you’ve lost your grip, it’s close to impossible to climb back up.

Hochschild’s hypothesis is also interesting because it tells us that Trump voters are rejecting right-wing “small government” ideology. Maybe the tipping point has finally been reached at which enough red-state whites are hurting enough to admit they need help, but they are still too racist to accept help if it puts them in the same welfare line, so to speak, as nonwhites.

Well, it’s a start. But see “Trump a Working-Class Hero? A Blue-Collar Town Debates His Credentials.” Here it’s blue-collar workers in Youngstown, Ohio, who have watched their community get poorer and poorer.  Trump appeals to many of them because they think he will take charge and actually do something, as opposed to the nothing they’ve gotten from either the public or private sector for a long time. Of course, one would hope a more pro-active and progressive government would have done something to keep Youngstown from stagnating in the first place. But government hasn’t been pro-active and progressive for a very long time.

A number of people interviewed in this article are Democrats who plan to vote for Trump. Hillary Clinton isn’t mentioned. But note that all the polls show Clinton beating Trump in Ohio.

Share Button