The gap between the wealthy and poor in the United States is disturbingly greater than most of its residents realize. The Walmart family alone claims more wealth than 42% of American families combined, and younger Americans do not have the same certainty of earning more money than their parents’ generation did. As the middle class shrinks and the wealth gap widens, the country faces increased economic unrest. The recent presidential elections occurred amidst — and in the face of — these inextricably intertwined processes. The predominantly white middle-aged Americans seemingly embracing the Trump campaign’s populist movement, which rejects the established “elite” and the college educated, in an existential pursuit of solutions by people who they consider might better serve the plight of the common person — those who are part of the shrinking middle class — or the lower classes.
In the past, during times of extreme economic disparity, the people have revolted against the wealthy class with socialist ideals, such as in the revolts of 1848 against European monarchies in France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. So why now are these self-identifying marginalized people turning to populism and not socialism, like they might have in the past? As minority identities are politicized and identity politics, notably on the left, are increasingly salient both politically and demographically, the white working class now alleges to feel ignored, however inaccurately, by the media and government in ways they haven’t before. It is thus the xenophobic discontents of minority identity movements and progress that orient the movement towards populist rhetoric despite it being steeped in capitalist ideals, and away from socialist solutions.
The rise of populism seems not to be a rise of the general working class, which is composed of huge numbers of Blacks and Latina/os, as one might expect during a time of severe economic inequality. This movement seems to be specifically led by the white working class of middle America. A map of the 2016 election by county compared with a map of wealth (households worth more than $150,000) in the US bear shocking resemblance.
While not identical, most of the counties colored Democratic blue are also colored wealthy light green. The working class in swing states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan must have seen Donald Trump as their savior moreso than Hillary Clinton. It could also be that the new rise in technology — Netflix, smartphones, readily available wifi, and TV programs — have brought new awareness to homogeneous white communities about all the “minorities” who have always occupied this country, but that they are just now finding out about. It’s unlikely that they’ll turn on Fox News without seeing a black or brown face flash across the screen and be placed under scrutiny. Or as Hollywood drudgingly diversifies and more casts of color dominate Netflix shows and movie billboards, perhaps they feel the brown populations of America, that have existed all along, are suddenly more present in their lives than those living in homogeneous white communities would have liked. The most rural areas on the map are the most heavily Republican, while large metropolitan areas where white people would have interacted with minority communities long before the rise of technology voted almost exclusively Democratic.
This trend further emphasizes the idea that socio-political fears and inclinations, steeped in xenophobia and in reaction to a perceived fear of disenfranchisement and loss of social capital in the face of progressivism and demographic shifts, overpower rational economic realities. The plight of the economically marginalized ought to — both according to history and as evidenced in contemporary lower-class demands made across the world — orient these communities towards socialist ideals like subsidized education and health care. And yet, leaders have been elected who would actively like to dismantle wider access to healthcare and the public education system in America, among other socialist-esque programs. These white, middle-class workers voted for Trump despite his anti-socialist economic agenda, and because of his populist rhetoric, revealing a fundamentally xenophobic but nonetheless palpable perception that overpowers reality.
The demographic breakdown of Clinton voters versus Trump voters further establishes the profound irony of white working- and middle-class support for populism and rejection of socialism. Clinton’s campaign spent a lot of time trying to win over black voters who felt alienated by Clinton’s original hesitance to say that Black Lives Matter, the detrimental 1994 Crime Bill she stood behind, and her toxic previous use of the word “superpredator” to describe “gangs of kids,” or rather, young black boys. And yet, 94 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton as opposed to only 47 percent of white women; this means that 53% of white women who voted chose Trump.
These white, middle-class workers voted for Trump despite his anti-socialist economic agenda, and because of his populist rhetoric, revealing a fundamentally xenophobic but nonetheless palpable perception that overpowers reality.
Black voters were able to swallow their pride and vote for a leader who did not necessarily position herself as a champion of race relations but who at least did not actively run a campaign based on racial antagonization. But the results of white women voting would suggest that 53 percent of white women still put their issues as white people before their issues as women. With each move our government tries to make away from the white male perspective, homogeneous white communities try harder to push back to the old ways. The election reflected a rise of populism or nationalism and not socialism because it was not really about economic or social policies, but rather economic and social identities. Many more groups than just white people have economic issues, but only white people are in a position to think that something is wrong with the country’s political system if their perspective isn’t dictating the main topics of discussion, as it has for much of the country’s history.
But although we spent the last eight years with a black president, and although same-sex marriage has been legalized, and although there is a growing movement to support Syrian refugees and black victims of police brutality, the white working class was never actually being ignored. On the contrary, many of the Obama administration’s most loathed policies actually benefited the white working class most directly. For instance, the Affordable Care Act provided insurance coverage to 2.8 million people with substance abuse problems, 220,000 of whom suffer from opioid addiction. And yet many of the states hit hardest by the heroin epidemic largely voted for Trump: West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. The same working class white Americans most affected by the heroin epidemic would have benefited most from the “liberal” policies they rejected at the voting booth.
Ironically, the white majority’s calls for populism, for an end to elitist Washington dominance, and for “draining the swamp,” ended up electing a billionaire with investments tied up in the Wall Street financial institutions they claimed to despise, and one who nominated the wealthiest cabinet in history. While shunning Hillary for being a career politician, they managed to elect the career wealthy: those who inherited their wealth and have done little else but multiply it. Thus, it would seem that the portion of Americans who voted for Trump are not attracted to him for his economic policies. In fact, they’re attracted to him despite his economic policies, which often directly undermine their well-being and opportunities. It’s their fear of political disenfranchisement and delusions that success between races is mutually exclusive that led to the election of a regressive fake-populist white businessman.
Perhaps the idea was that banning Muslims and Mexicans from the country would bring the focus back to the white working class, or that the establishment had become too focused on minority issues and needed a rude awakening. Whatever the case, the rising wave of white populism is not isolated to the US alone. Whether it is David Cameron in England, Francois Hollande in France, or Matteo Renzi in Italy, many European nations are rejecting the sentiments of old leaders and electing new ones in a wave of what looks like a mash between populism and nationalism but ultimately centers on xenophobia. As more people emigrate from the Middle East and South America, more white people in France, Germany, England, Italy, and the United States feel that their culture is being threatened — that their identities, long exalted, are now being ignored. Policies have not changed in a way that pose any threat to the white demographic, and those in positions of power in Europe and the United States are still by and large white males. But as the media and social justice activists focus more on the plights of people of color and less on the plights of lower middle class white people, xenophobia is creeping into the voting booth with a vengeance.
The wave of xenophobia hitting the polls may not be anything new, at least not in the US. When masses of European immigrants flooded Ellis Island in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was overwhelming discrimination towards Irish and Jewish immigrants as a part of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant backlash. And of course, when African-Americans who had been living in the US since its conception were finally allowed to live as actual free citizens, a century of Jim Crow and structural racism followed. Yet, it could be that the internet boom and saturation of smartphones and social media has given people in traditionally isolated, homogeneous white communities access to new information and correspondingly, new groups of people to fear. The wave of xenophobia and rise of a populist movement seems to be a result of the working class white demographic feeling ignored. In the future, it will become vital to reconcile leaving a large portion of the electorate ignored, while, at the same time addressing the pressing issues that do not center solely on white people.