I have a friend I grew up with in white, working class rural Nevada. He was one of the coolest guys I knew, and I admired him. We reconnected a few years ago, and he has become a rightwing warrior, filled with rage and spouting a startling amount of hate for Mexicans, Muslims, the government and most especially Barack Obama. He has advanced little in his career, and because of my public embrace of liberalism, we aren’t friends anymore. I still check his Facebook page on occasion, because I want to understand what happened to him, and what happened to people like him, with whom I share a common past, but a very different present.
A recent, shocking study has laid bare the cost of his (and many others) nonstop, futile outrage. Middle-aged, white people between ages 45 and 54, and specifically those with a high school education or less, have seen increased sickness and early death. This is the only demographic to see this kind of increase in mortality anywhere in the first world. They are dying sooner than they should in a merciless war they’ve declared on themselves.
The much-covered study has generated plenty of chattering among fancy people about underlying causes, from economics to failing masculinity, demographics and divorce, to a growing powerlessness among the white working class, but I think most of the answers have failed to nail it. Middle-aged white America is reaping the fruit of two decades of outrage and hate aimed at minority groups, government programs, unions and anyone who dares to point out the dysfunction of “wholesome, Christian” America. They vote against any program that aims to tackle our social or financial problems as a society, instead opting for the same bootstrap, libertarian, anti-government rhetoric that has failed us since the days of Ronald Reagan. In short, they are committing suicide en masse via the voting booth.
“White America,” just like any other demographic group, cannot be reduced to stereotype or characterized as a whole (even though they do it all the time to minority groups). There are liberals, moderates, socialists and libertarians, but the elevated death rates are being driven by a small subset of the white working class. There is an underlying hopelessness and rage in parts of this demographic. I know because I feel it, even though I don’t “fit” into this group anymore. I came to liberalism late, and I still feel the nagging rage and resentment of my working class roots, even though I am very disconnected from this community now.
There is no better example of extremism and hopelessness of the white working class than the current standard bearer in the GOP primary. Donald Trump leads with less-educated, working-class white people—the same group that is driving the increased mortality overall. Like a half empty bottle of Scotch, they are reaching for Trump out of desperation, outrage and xenophobia, because they have no idea what else to do. Their jobs are gone, wages are flat and the very idea of building a middle class life with a high school education is folly these days. Thus they have turned to ever more extreme rightwing politics, and with every win things only get worse. They keep going further into crazy town in desperation for a savior—a search that leads inevitably to someone like Trump.
The saddest part is working class America benefits the most from an activist, effective and liberal government, something they fight hardest against. Poor white people use food stamps, pay exorbitant rents and suffer from a lack of educational opportunity. They continue to lose the economic advantages they previously enjoyed, and their rage has turned into irrational and self-defeating behavior.
It’s not all their fault. They’ve been fed a steady stream of total nonsense that both enrages and distracts them from reality. I don’t know what might be happening on the day this essay is published, but whatever the news cycle, those on the “Trump” side of the right will find someone or something to be outraged at. From coffee cups at Starbucks to the removal of Confederate Flags to Syrian refugees, it doesn’t even matter so long as we fit in our two minutes worth of hate. It’s all an elaborate stage production, manufactured by Fox News, talk radio and rightwing politicians, that fills the lives of the working class with terrorists, feminist, atheists and gay people, convenient groups used to distract from who is really screwing them over this week. The votes of the working class have been neutralized or co-opted with tidy scapegoats, the Second Amendment, Jesus and white victimhood.
Like so many working class white people, I once blamed government for all my woes. Only when the evidence became too much to ignore or explain away was I able to let go of my own stubborn beliefs. The government is a tool, and it has been hijacked by rich people with the willing consent, even assistance, of poor white people. White people are dismantling the one institution that could help level the playing field.
Working class white people thought they were immune to the pains and struggles that most often ravaged some minority and immigrant communities. As a voting bloc white America turned the reins of society over to angry assholes, out-of-control corporations and pandering politicians thinking their community would be spared, but once the beast was unleashed, it was never going to be satisfied. You can be sure that if Trump or someone like him prevails in electoral politics, all demographics will suffer equally—except perhaps very rich people who never suffer under any circumstance.