Trump supporters are not the caricatures journalists depict and native Kansan Sarah Smarsh sets out to correct what newsrooms get wrong
Last March, my 71-year-old grandmother, Betty, waited in line for three hours to caucus for Bernie Sanders. The wait to be able to cast her first-ever vote in a primary election was punishing, but nothing could have deterred her. Betty a white woman who left school after ninth grade, had her first child at age 16 and spent much of her life in severe poverty wanted to vote.
So she waited with busted knees that once stood on factory lines. She waited with smoking-induced emphysema and the false teeth shes had since her late 20s both markers of our class. She waited with a womb that in the 1960s, before Roe v Wade, she paid a stranger to thrust a wire hanger inside after she discovered she was pregnant by a man shed fled after he broke her jaw.
Betty worked for many years as a probation officer for the state judicial system in Wichita, Kansas, keeping tabs on men who had murdered and raped. As a result, its hard to faze her, but she has pronounced Republican candidate Donald Trump a sociopath whose mouth overloads his ass.
No one loathes Trump who suggested women should be punished for having abortions, who said hateful things about groups of people she has loved and worked alongside since childhood, whose pomp and indecency offends her modest, midwestern sensibility more than she.
Yet, it is white working-class people like Betty who have become a particular fixation among the chattering class during this election: what is this angry beast, and why does it support Trump?
Not so poor: Trump voters are middle class
Hard numbers complicate, if not roundly dismiss, the oft-regurgitated theory that income or education levels predict Trump support, or that working-class whites support him disproportionately. Last month, results of 87,000 interviews conducted by Gallup showed that those who liked Trump were under no more economic distress or immigration-related anxiety than those who opposed him.
According to the study, his supporters didnt have lower incomes or higher unemployment levels than other Americans. Income data misses a lot; those with healthy earnings might also have negative wealth or downward mobility. But respondents overall werent clinging to jobs perceived to be endangered. Surprisingly, a Gallup researcher wrote, there appears to be no link whatsoever between exposure to trade competition and support for nationalist policies in America, as embodied by the Trump campaign.
Earlier this year, primary exit polls revealed that Trump voters were, in fact, more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000 higher than that of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters. Forty-four percent of them had college degrees, well above the national average of 33% among whites or 29% overall. In January, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams reported findings that a penchant for authoritarianism not income, education, gender, age or race predicted Trump support.
These facts havent stopped pundits and journalists from pushing story after story about the white working classs giddy embrace of a bloviating demagogue.
In seeking to explain Trumps appeal, proportionate media coverage would require more stories about the racism and misogyny among white Trump supporters in tony suburbs. Or, if were examining economically driven bitterness among the working class, stories about the Democratic lawmakers who in recent decades ended welfare as we knew it, hopped in the sack with Wall Street and forgot American labor in their global trade agreements.
But, for national media outlets comprised largely of middle- and upper-class liberals, that would mean looking their own class in the face.
The faces journalists do train the cameras on hateful ones screaming sexist vitriol next to Confederate flags must receive coverage but do not speak for the communities I know well. That the media industry ignored my home for so long left a vacuum of understanding in which the first glimpse of an economically downtrodden white is presumed to represent the whole.
Part of the current glimpse is JD Vance, author of the bestselling new memoir Hillbilly Elegy. A successful attorney who had a precariously middle-class upbringing in an Ohio steel town, Vance wrote of the chaos that can haunt a family with generational memory of deep poverty. A conservative who says he wont vote for Trump, Vance speculates about why working-class whites will: cultural anxiety that arises when opioid overdose kills your friends and the political establishment has proven it will throw you under the bus. While his theories may hold up in some corners, in interviews coastal media members have repeatedly asked Vance to speak for the entire white working class.
His interviewers and reviewers often seem relieved to find someone with ownership on the topic whose ideas in large part confirm their own. The New York Times election podcast The Run-Up said Vances memoir doubles as a cultural anthropology of the white underclass that has flocked to the Republican presidential nominees candidacy. (The Times teased its review of the book with the tweet: Want to know more about the people who fueled the rise of Donald Trump?)
While Vance happens to have roots in Kentucky mining country, most downtrodden whites are not conservative male Protestants from Appalachia. That sometimes seems the only concept of them that the American consciousness can contain: tucked away in a remote mountain shanty like a coal-dust-covered ghost, as though white poverty isnt always right in front of us, swiping our credit cards at a Target in Denver or asking for cash on a Los Angeles sidewalk.
One-dimensional stereotypes fester where journalism fails to tread. The last time I saw my native class receive substantial focus, before now, was over 20 years ago not in the news but on the television show Roseanne, the fictional storylines of which remain more accurate than the musings of comfortable commentators in New York studios.
Countless images of working-class progressives, including women such as Betty, are thus rendered invisible by a ratings-fixated media that covers elections as horse races and seeks sensational b-roll.
This media paradigm created the tale of a divided America red v blue in which the 42% of Kansans who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 are meaningless.
This year, more Kansans caucused for Bernie Sanders than for Donald Trump a newsworthy point I never saw noted in national press, who perhaps couldnt fathom that flyover country might contain millions of Americans more progressive than their Clinton strongholds.
In lieu of such coverage, media makers cast the white working class as a monolith and imply an old, treacherous story convenient to capitalism: that the poor are dangerous idiots.
Poor whiteness and poor character
The two-fold myth about the white working class that they are to blame for Trumps rise, and that those among them who support him for the worst reasons exemplify the rest takes flight on the wings of moral superiority affluent Americans often pin upon themselves.
I have never seen them flap so insistently as in todays election commentary, where notions of poor whiteness and poor character are routinely conflated.
In an election piece last March in the National Review, writer Kevin Williamsons assessment of poor white voters among whom mortality rates have sharply risen in recent decades expressed what many conservatives and liberals alike may well believe when he observed that communities ravaged by oxycodone use deserve to die.
The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles, Williamson wrote. Donald Trumps speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.
For confirmation that this point is lost on most reporters, not just conservative provocateurs, look no further than a recent Washington Post series that explored spiking death rates among rural white women by fixating on their smoking habits and graphically detailing the haggard face and embalming processes of their corpses. Imagine wealthy white woman examined thusly after their deaths. The outrage among family and friends with the education, time, and agency to write letters to the editor would have been deafening.
A sentiment that I care for even less than contempt or degradation is their tender cousin: pity.
In a recent op-ed headlined Dignity and Sadness in the Working Class, David Brooks told of a laid-off Kentucky metal worker he met. On his last day, the man left to rows of cheering coworkers a moment I read as triumphant, but that Brooks declared pitiable. How hard the man worked for so little, how great his skills and how dwindling their value, Brooks pointed out, for people he said radiate the residual sadness of the lonely heart.
Im hard-pressed to think of a worse slight than the media figures who have disregarded the embattled white working class for decades now beseeching the country to have sympathy for them. We dont need their analysis, and we sure dont need their tears. What we need is to have our stories told, preferably by someone who can walk into a factory without his own guilt fogging his glasses.
One such journalist, Alexander Zaitchik, spent several months on the road in six states getting to know white working-class people who do support Trump. His goal for the resulting new book, The Gilded Rage, was to convey the human complexity that daily news misses. Zaitchik wrote that his mission arose from frustration with hot takes written by people living several time zones and income brackets away from their subjects.
Zaitchik wisely described those he met as a blue-collar middle class mostly white people who have worked hard and lost a lot, whether in the market crash of 2008 or the manufacturing layoffs of recent decades. He found that their motivations overwhelmingly started with economics and ended with economics. The anger he observed was pointed up, not down at those who forgot them when global trade deals were negotiated, not at minority groups.
Meanwhile, the racism and nationalism that surely exist among them also exist among Democrats and higher socioeconomic strata. A poll conducted last spring by Reuters found that a third of questioned Democrats supported a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. In another, by YouGov, 45% of polled Democrats reported holding an unfavorable view of Islam, with almost no fluctuation based on household income. Those who wont vote for Trump are not necessarily paragons of virtue, while the rest are easily scapegoated as the countrys moral scourge.
When Hillary Clinton recently declared half of Trump supporters a basket of deplorables, Zaitchik told another reporter, the language could be read as another way of saying white-trash bin. Clinton quickly apologized for the comment, the context of which contained compassion for many Trump voters. But making such generalizations at a $6m fundraiser in downtown New York City, at which some attendees paid $50,000 for a seat, recalled for me scenes from the television political satire Veep in which powerful Washington figures discuss normals with distaste behind closed doors.