Scholar Justin Gest on the white working class: "They feel they are being punished" for the past

Author of a new study of the white working class says Trump voters concluded they had nothing left to lose

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 29, 2017 5:00AM (EDT)

Justin Gest (Getty/eclipse_images/
Justin Gest (Getty/eclipse_images/

The epitaph for the 2016 American presidential election will likely read "this was a tragedy born of the white working class." The narrative that it was that demographic and its "economic anxiety" that swept Donald Trump into the White House was widely circulated by the mainstream American news media and is now firmly embedded in the collective consciousness.

In many ways this narrative is undermined by the facts. Donald Trump's election was not a "populist" uprising. Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote. Trump has not "drained the swamp" of influence peddlers, lobbyists, millionaires, billionaires and interest groups who serve the rich and not the American people. Instead, Trump has transformed the swamp into an overflowing political latrine.

The median household income of the average Trump voter is $72,000 a year, well above the national average). Trump's supporters are not predominantly poorly educated, dentally challenged folks living in trailer parks in the mythic hinterlands of "Trumplandia," as so many journalists and others would like to imagine.

But sometimes facts are insufficient to explain social and political reality. The narrative that the 2016 presidential election was a cry of anger or a temper tantrum by the white working class is compelling precisely because it reflects a deeply held feeling by the American people that something is wrong with their country. The signs of this crisis are everywhere. Indeed, its most obvious symptom is the way tens of millions of white Americans were so easily seduced by the fascist and racist campaign of Donald Trump.

Did angst among the white working class lead to Trump's election, and what was the nature of that distress? What does it actually mean to be "working class" in America, and how does whiteness intersect with class and economics? Has the white working class become alienated from the mainstream of American civil society and civic life? How is Donald Trump's rise reflective of a broader right-wing movement in Europe and elsewhere?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Justin Gest. He is a professor of public policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Gest is the author of the new book "The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality."

Considering your work on the "white working class" in the United States and the United Kingdom, how would you explain Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 election?

Trump won because he was able to assemble a large coalition of people to back him. But  what’s so miraculous is that not only did Trump win the white working class, he did so without alienating traditional Republican moderates. This was a function of how polarizing Hillary Clinton is among Republican establishment figures and moderates.

The "white working class" has become a catch-all concept that the news media and others used to craft a very specific narrative. But what does it mean? How do you define who belongs to the white working class?  

The most conventional way of defining the white working class is that they do not have a college degree. But other people have used income as a measure. Others define "working class" as a matter of class and self-definition and culture. In my own research, I tend to use a very broad definition because I’m much more interested in how people define themselves. I also make this choice because in the United States class is something that is akin to a hierarchy of cash. You could be born poor, but that doesn’t mean you stay poor your whole life. If you get really wealthy then you’re not poor anymore. You are rich. You are not working-class.

But in Europe -- and particularly in Britain -- the idea of class is something that is inherited by birthright. If you are born into a working-class family, you stay "working class" no matter how well you do in life.

How do race and class intersect in that definition? Of course if Trump's win had really been about the "working class" he would have had much more support among nonwhites. Moreover, what about the fact that the average household income of a Trump voter was slightly above $70,000 a year?

Remember, Trump voters are a mix of all those traditional Republican voters. Many of them are homeowners because they have lived in communities for long periods of time.

Because they inherited the property from their parents or grandparents.

That’s very possible but it can also be quite deceptive. What I think is important here is, first off, that whiteness itself is an amalgamation of sorts. I mean if we went back 60, 70, 80 years, would Jews be considered white? Would Italians be considered white? Would Greeks be considered white? Would the Lebanese be considered white? In very few communities would they be considered white. Whiteness has changed. Also there is a long history in the United States where different groups are set against each other.

That’s what we see in the United States, because the realities for brown and black working-class people in the United States are not actually all that different from the realities faced by white working-class people. They share a great deal in common related to the structural challenges of the American economy and society. They both have issues getting good health care. They are both enormously in debt. They both have issues with the educational system and finding good schools for their children. These are issues that cross racial and ethnic boundaries. Yet it is very difficult to bring people together because of social divides.

How would you suggest talking across lines of race and class to the average Trump voter? Their anger and alienation and resentment seem absurd to me. There is no area in American life where being white is a disadvantage. In that and many other ways, to my eyes, Trump supporters are delusional.

I think the first step is not to get into these conversations about who is more reliant on welfare and who is more reliant on benefits or who had it worse. These are the kinds of conversations that end up being very unproductive. Not only with white working-class voters and Trump voters, but also I think with whites who are not members of the working class. It’s a race to the bottom that keeps spiraling downward. I think everyone loses when we’re talking about who’s had it worse, because everyone feels like they’ve had it worse.

What everyone is ultimately seeking is a sense of empathy. White working-class people feel that in the same way as black and brown people. They want someone who will actually understand and listen to what they’re going through. Rather than actually say, “All right, I’m going to put you on a rating scale and see actually how hard you had it and how vulnerable you really are.”

The key is to actually just listen. You introduce yourself. You’d become very transparent, but also empathizing, trying to understand what’s frustrating people. What are the struggles and the challenges that they are addressing and confronting in their own lives? This creates a sense of shared humanity despite whatever differences are out there.

So much of what you are seeing in this most recent election cycle is about the reaction to an uncertain American social hierarchy. With all the progress that has come from the civil rights movement over the decades, with all the potential progress that has come with increased awareness about prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. and other societies, there has also come a sense of disorientation for the average white person. That disorientation hails from the fact that for centuries there was a clear social order and there was a clear structural advantage rendered to white people and American society. This is slowly disappearing.

If you were to talk to some of my subjects back in Youngstown, Ohio, and say, “Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand people like you are subject to all this white privilege? The invisible wages of whiteness that you benefit from, just from walking around? You are basically born on third base and you think you hit a triple.” My subjects would say to you. “I am an unexpected medical bill or one car accident from that trailer park down the street. What privileges are you talking about? What invisible wages are you referring to?”

People who have privilege, by definition, do not feel like they have privilege. For the white working class, where is their empathy towards the black and brown working class and poor? 

I think there is a sense of vestigial guilt about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States. In doing my research and talking to people for my book, I have come to believe that white working-class people feel that they are being punished and penalized for the sins of earlier generations. They think that they had no hand in the slavery or the oppression of people of color in U.S. history and yet are being forced now to suffer the consequences of some sort of compensatory action.

But here is a contradiction. What drove so many people to Donald Trump’s message was a nostalgia for those times. Many white working-class people do not associate the past with structural advantage or prejudice and discrimination. What they associate the past with is industrialization, stable manufacturing work and a sense of community -- and without knowing it, there is clearly that sense of a clear social hierarchy too.

In America, the white working class has so much more in common economically with people of color, but has consistently chosen to side with white elites. As a matter of practical politics, how would you then suggest finding areas of overlap across lines of both race and class?

More unites brown and black working-class people with white working-class people than separates them. I mean, right now brown and black working-class people are in a coalition with a lot of cosmopolitan urban elites who economically don’t necessarily agree with what might actually be best for those working-class folks.

I don’t think that any big-tent party like the Democrats can willingly simply relegate and dismiss an enormous group of people, particularly one as enormous as white working-class people, and have national aspirations. They risk becoming a regional party that is basically confined to a bunch of urban cosmopolitan hubs, little nodes on the map. There are a lot of voters who did go from Obama to Trump, and they are really centralized in the regions of the Rust Belt that Hillary lost, where I did my research.

What did you discover about voters who switched from Obama to Trump? 

The people who I encountered in Youngstown and its surrounding areas were people who voted for Trump not because they thought he was brilliant or he was a once-in-a-generation politician. It was because they had a sense of desperation. They voted Democrat before. They voted Republican before. They had just sat out before as well. They tried everything and they couldn’t get their way. They couldn’t get someone to pick up their issues, to actually empathize with their plight. Because, remember, in Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin they have been feeling a Great Recession way before 2007, going back to the '70s. Yet no one has come to rescue them. They said, “Hey, what do I have to lose?”

I don’t think white working-class people thought the Democrats gave a damn about them in 2016. You know what the truth is? They were right. I don’t think white working-class voters are necessarily "low information." The truth is, they could easily discern that Republicans didn’t care about them. They were right, which is why they voted for someone who is effectively neither a Democrat or a Republican. That is why I bristle a little bit at the narrative that white working-class people vote against their interests. They are just not voting in their material interests. They’re voting in their cultural interests.

How can we bring people to understand that our shared cultural interest is in greater unity and greater equality and greater meritocracy so that everyone has a chance to move up? Because I think a lot of white working-class people are feeling much like a lot of minorities did previously. They don’t think they have a level playing field. It’s insane, I know, to think about these things. These are words we hear from the civil rights movement. Yet, so many of my white working-class subjects I talked to, not only in the United States but also in Britain, use that same language, that language of equality: "Can’t we all just get an equal shot?" White working-class people feel like they are now the subjects of discrimination. I think that could be a way to bring people together and consolidate a coalition.

Trump's rise is part of a global movement of right-wing "populism." How does this moment in America compare to what is occurring in Britain?

What lead to Brexit was precisely the same sense of nostalgic deprivation that infuses American politics in the era of Trump. What we’re seeing is a dangerous and fascinating convergence of issues on both sides of the Atlantic.

How did those class tensions cascade in the U.K. for Brexit, as opposed to how they played out in the United States?

Well, Brexit was not really about a class-oriented campaign. It was much more about race and nationality than anything else. For Brexit, the driving issue was immigration. There is this frustration with the carte blanche manner in which immigrants could enter the United Kingdom. Many of the Brexit voters were precisely interested in ending this, the economic arguments and the normative arguments aside.

In the United States, one of the key findings from the 2016 election is that those white voters who live in communities where there are fewer immigrants were the most fearful of demographic change. They also thought that immigration had a negative impact on the country, when the data tells us precisely the opposite. Is that similar to what is happening in Britain?  

It is very similar, actually. Almost precisely. We see the backlash among communities that have zero contact and interaction with immigrants, and among communities that have had large amounts of contact but very, very quickly and very, very recently. Both of those things make people uncomfortable. That’s why the more gradual change is, people feel more in control of it and they feel like they have a sense of ownership over it.

That is why Trump was able to paint himself as this messianic figure. He said, “I am your voice.” He presented himself as the figure that was going to come in and reestablish control and order in a society that feels out of control.

After studying the white working class in both America and Britain, what are you thoughts about the future?

If we can create a sense of empathy and consolidate that into a more unified coalition of people, we can fight against this rising tide of authoritarianism. This moment may also be a wakeup call to the Democratic Party and to the left more broadly.  In addition, we have become more sensitized to those sharp edges of globalization. We have left large communities of people behind. How can we make globalization work for everyone? How can we create safety nets and ways for all people to prosper? How can they fully participate in political and civic life? That’s a problem that we really don’t see good solutions for right now. It takes time for elites to change and restructure economies. These are not easy challenges, but that’s precisely why they are so pivotal.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega