It is by now a truism that Donald Trump poses a knotty conundrum for his competitors in the Republican Party, who can attack him and his retrograde sentiments only at the cost of alienating Trump’s supporters, whose votes they need to win.
Less obvious, or at least less discussed, is the parallel conundrum Trump poses for self-styled progressives. How far can they go in decrying Trump’s support among white blue-collar workers without seeming to write off what was once regarded as a core progressive constituency?
It could be argued that the writing-off has already occurred. There has long been a shift in left-liberal politics away from any broad identification with “the workers” — narrowly conceived as white, male and straight — in favor of specific social and environmental issues that pose no threat to existing economic structures. In that regard, Trump’s blue-collar support might be viewed as a vindication: Workers of the world, take a hike. We never liked you much anyway.
Still, there remains the vexing question of how a billionaire demagogue can win the loyalty of the very people whose class interests he opposes. What possible sense can we make of blue-collar workers of any age, gender or race supporting a man whose very existence rests on their exploitation and, increasingly, on their obsolescence? It boggles the mind, or so we like to pretend.
The usual answers — fear of terrorism, resentment of immigrants, disgust with the Washington establishment — are sound enough, but they don’t go very deep. It’s as if the impossibility of depth were a given.
Imperialists and vivisectionists used to argue whether their victims had souls. The argument of the 2016 presidential campaign seems to be whether white blue-collar workers do.
I talked to a friend not long ago who cited Trump’s supporters as a reason for rejecting left-wing politics. “These people don’t want a classless society,” he said. “They want to belong to the upper class. They want to be Donald Trump.”
There is undoubtedly some truth to that. How could it be otherwise, given that such aspirations are fostered by virtually every institution in our society having a name. We literally go to school to acquire them. Never mind the minions of Wall Street; when writers like me discuss a new book, is our primary focus on its literary merits or the size of the author’s advance?
But that recognition takes us only so far. How many of those who attend Trump rallies actually believe they are going to get rich? Trump and his class have made sure the dream of getting solvent or staying employed is wild enough for any imagination. Something else is at work here, something to which the typical progressive pays too little regard, perhaps because it’s too alien to his or her own mind-set.
I’m referring to the refusal to be envious, which I would argue is a longstanding act of moral resistance on the part of working- and lower-middle class people. What seems on the surface like the numbest failure to reckon with the dynamics of winner-take-all capitalism is at bottom a principled, if ultimately ineffectual, act of defiance. One may lack the wherewithal to bring the aristocrats to the guillotine, but at the least one will not pay them the homage of envy.
A man like Trump is savvy enough to turn that refusal to his advantage. The refusal to hold his wealth against him can be manipulated into a willingness to hear him out. It’s hardly the same thing as winning the blue-collar vote, but it’s a significant first step.
Linked to the basic question of “Why Trump?” — and far larger in scope — is the question of why so many Americans continue to view government, as opposed to corporations, as their enemy. Or to put it another way, how could a small-business owner ever view a corporate pasha like Trump as her friend?
Here too the answer has more to do with soul than logic. It has to do with which political positions allow you to retain your sense of self and which threaten to shake your self-image to its very foundations.
To declare that government is your nemesis is to declare yourself a victim of oppression — not the most heroic identity, granted, but still in keeping with the Minuteman mystique of a ragtag militia outgunned but unbowed by regiments of bureaucratic Red Coats. On the other hand, to declare that Trump and his ilk are your nemesis is to declare yourself a failed competitor in the sacred contest of the Almighty Market. In the first mythology, you figure as Prometheus; in the second, as Willy Loman. In the first you get to have muscles and keep all your hair.
Given the choice between victim and loser, the citizen steeped in the competitive values of the marketplace will always prefer the former. Trump is “a winner,” for sure, but he has not “won out” against me; he has merely prevailed more often than I have against a regulatory government that tries to keep both of us down. Essentially, we’re on the same side.
This bogus solidarity comes with tempting psychic consolations. It also comes with implicit corroborating testimony from those on the left too timid to identify the evils of the present plutocracy and the radical steps needed to destroy it. If progressives continue to insist that a bit of legislative tweaking is all that’s required to cure the body politic, are people unjustified in blaming “government” when they find themselves choking to death?
The very terms of our questions betray the inadequacy of our answers. Instead of asking how come a billionaire like Trump can be running successfully for the highest office in the land, why aren’t progressives asking how come there is such a thing as a billionaire? Calling Trump a Neanderthal is how cowards avoid asking why his species is not extinct.
Which brings us to the last if not the most interesting reason for Trump’s support among blue-collar workers, a reason that might be more apparent if more progressives had done a lick of blue-collar work.
Working with matter as opposed to manipulating information requires one to acknowledge certain material facts. Water runs downhill. Electricity always takes the shortest path home. Money talks. A good mechanic doesn’t write code to repair your car. He tears down your engine and takes hold of the filthy thing that’s making all the noise. If billionaires are calling the shots from behind the scenes of our political process, it makes a kind of gut-level practical sense to have one out in front where he can wield his influence with all the ruthlessness required by a ruthless world. Why elect a puppet to run the show when you can have the puppeteer?
The working-class voters who support Trump are not so much ignoring the class differences between themselves and their candidate as acknowledging those differences with perverse candor. Class differences exist everywhere and all the time. They determine our lives, our liberties and our pursuit of happiness. It’s polite not to say so, of course — just as it’s polite not to mention the Clinton administration’s support of welfare “reform” and NAFTA.
Part of Trump’s appeal is that he is not polite. His remarks about Mexicans, women and Muslims are nothing less than outrageous. That some blue-collar workers allow such remarks to pass and even applaud them is disgraceful. We can only shake our heads in righteous indignation at the gross insensitivity of people whose livelihoods have been shipped overseas year after year, with nary a peep of objection from the rest of us, cheering Trump’s call to do the same thing to their neighbors. Then again, maybe they think the deportees are lucky to be going where the jobs are.
People who support Trump, however unrealistic and unsavory his pronouncements, are making a blunt assertion of what’s real. Many of them will say that the reality they’re asserting is Islamic State terrorists or hordes of undocumented workers, but at bottom, the reality is none other than Trump himself, the capital that trumps everything.
It should come as no surprise that I will cast my vote in my primary for Bernie Sanders. I believe he would make a good president, certainly the best president of anyone currently in the field. My hope is that some of those who now support Trump will come to see their real interests with Sanders, and Sanders’ real allegiance to them. Minus the bigotry and fear, he is in many obvious ways one of them. You can take the boy out of working-class Brooklyn, but you can’t take … etc.
If I have any tactical worry about the Sanders campaign, it is that his relentless and admittedly overdue focus on the depredations of “the billionaire class” will resound in working-class ears as an enticement to envy. This will not do. What’s needed now is not so much a denunciation as an evocation, a vision of a more egalitarian society in which people have a better chance of becoming their best selves.
Peter Maurin, who together with Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s, spoke of the need to create a society in which “it is easier for men to be good.” At bottom that is what most men and women want, including some of those whose hate-twisted faces appear screaming at Trump rallies. They want to be good.
Liberals and progressives would want the same thing except that — as they will be the first to tell you — they already are.
Garret Keizer is the author of “Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher.” His essay on revolution is published in the current Harper’s Magazine. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.