Since Donald Trump’s election, big media has made big efforts to send reporters to the hinterlands — like Wisconsin — to better understand the white working-class voters who proved pivotal in last year’s shocking outcome.
The New York Times’ latest installment is impressive. Its headline: “Trade Worries Led Wisconsin Mill Town to Trump. It’s Still Uneasy.” The article is about the people of Neenah, in Winnebago County, whose votes last year flipped the area from blue to red and helped Trump to a razor-thin victory here.
After some scene-setting, the author delivers what journalists call the nut paragraph: “There is a creeping sense of having to work harder just to stay in place, as salaries and lifestyles erode amid pressure from globalization and the unceasing demands for ever-rising profits in corporate America.”
The article describes a Marine veteran laid off from his job winding paper rolls at an Appleton mill. The father of two toddlers, one with cerebral palsy, he is attending technical college classes to get a commercial trucking certificate.
The stories of job loss and reinvention reminded me of the courage and perseverance of the men and women who lost their jobs several years ago when General Motors closed its Janesville plant. Washington Post journalist Amy Goldstein told their stories in her award-winning book this year titled “Janesville, An American Story.”
In Neenah, the workers talk about what they see as unfair competition from China and India, where labor is much cheaper and where companies distribute face masks instead of spending on the air-pollution technology required for worker safety in the United States.
Another foundry worker eloquently summarized life there: “People in the Midwest don’t ask much,” he said. “They want to take a vacation once a year, have decent health care and enough money to pay their bills and save for retirement. That’s our life, but pretty soon there will be no middle class.”
Like many others, this story paints a nuanced picture of white Americans who are confused and struggling, people who just want a fair shake and yearn for earlier times.
Some of us may regard their support of Trump as wildly ill-advised, but I think, increasingly, we get this fundamental reality — that if you cannot provide for and protect your family, other issues are secondary.
This year has been chock-full of books and articles like that in the Times telling stories of struggling nonurban whites; it feels like one gigantic mea culpa by the white professional class, the media especially.
It is timely and journalistically justified, of course, in the aftermath of the Trump victory enabled by such voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.
But what about working-class African-Americans? They are also the victims of globalization and avaricious capitalism, with what seems to be a deteriorating racial climate added for good measure.
Blacks failed to vote in anything like the numbers they did for Barack Obama twice, another factor boosting Trump. But on that theme, the media has done little, presumably because the overwhelming African-American preference for Obama over Hillary Clinton was dismissed as predictable.
Is there a double standard in all of this? Are working-class whites seen as entitled to and justified in their resentments in a way blacks are not?
For example, when African-Americans see racial animus as the main thing that lifted Trump — reasonable from their standpoint — they get pushback from presumed allies. Take a recent magazine article and the fallout from it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a pre-eminent journalist who covers race relations, wrote a powerful story in The Atlantic headlined: “The First White President: The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.”
Coates writes in part: “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.” And later: “To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”
Put another way, Trump traded the racial dog whistles of Nixon, Reagan and Bush for a bullhorn. “It almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally,” Coates wrote.
Then came the “yeah-but” responses to the article from a slew of letter writers in this month’s print edition of The Atlantic.
A letter writer from California responded by also casting Trump as our first “male” president. The writer said he canvassed for Clinton in Nevada and often heard how people would not “vote for that bitch.”
A writer from Canada criticized Coates for further dividing people: “By reducing Trump’s success to yet another apprehension of insidious white privilege, Coates ensures further Trump support among embittered whites, and by slandering legitimate cultural debate as a coded expression of racial allegiance, Coates entrenches stereotypes that well-meaning citizens of all races still seek to overcome.”
George Packer, a writer for The New Yorker, took issue with Coates after Coates criticized his essay on the white working class. Wrote Packer: “When you construct an entire theology on one cause — even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism — you face the temptation to leave out everything that complicates the thesis.”
And Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, demanded more nuance of Coates: “You can’t devise a politics that deals effectively with the temptation of white identity politics if you don’t take seriously the other forces, economic and cultural and sociological and religious, that make identity politics and racial chauvinism seem appealing.”
In my view, these critics make reasonable points, but I couldn’t help but think of Coates’ trenchant description of the resistance to confront systemic racism — that there is a disturbingly deep-seated belief that “black workers suffer because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry.”
So, when it comes to understanding and seeking to act on behalf of struggling working-class whites, the rest of us increasingly are, as they say, “woke.”
For African-Americans, I’m not so sure.
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