If there is one thing everyone should be able to agree on about the past seven months, it is that the white working class can no longer be described as “forgotten.” Beaten-down? Racist? Mistreated? Angry? Victimized? Sure. We have read and heard the white working class described in all of those ways. But the election of Donald Trump has ensured that we are discussing this group ad nauseam.
In a new book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, Joan C. Williams argues that much of the analysis of this class has been misguided and condescending. So too is the general cultural attitude toward the white working class from society’s more fortunate members. The result, Williams says, is a white working class increasingly isolated from the Democratic Party, with dangerous consequences for our politics.
I spoke recently by phone with Williams, who is also a distinguished professor of law at University of California Hastings College of the Law. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Trump’s view of his own voters, the role of racism in class resentments, and whether there is any way to avoid being “condescending” to Trump’s supporters.
Isaac Chotiner: What aspect of this subject did you feel like was not being understood when you decided to write this book?
Joan C. Williams: I think my book differs from a lot of what’s out there, and that it really talks about a broken relationship between two different groups: the professional managerial elites and the white working class. The argument I make is that the broken relationship between these two groups has driven the United States further to the right and ultimately into the arms of President Trump.
And you think that the relationship is broken because of what you see as condescension from elites, and a dismissiveness about white working-class culture?
Although in the past four years we’ve learned not to make disrespectful comments based on race, gender, and LGBTQ status, we haven’t learned the same lesson about class. So I think we see open class insults in American popular culture and everyday speech. The most dramatic examples are the “White Trash Bash” fraternity parties. But these insults are all over in terms of “flyover states,” “rednecks,” “plumber’s butt.” They’re also in popular culture. I was just reading a study of sitcoms over the past 40 years, and the image that we see of the white working class in sitcoms is overweight, flabby, dumb, maybe racist and sexist. Very consistently. So I think when you insult people, they get insulted.
Why is it that when the condescension comes from someone like Donald Trump, who gets up at his rallies and says things like, “I don’t have to be here, I have better things to do,” who brags about how rich he is, who has his own products made overseas, none of that sticks? Trump embodies everything people claim to hate about the elite as much as anybody I can imagine.
He just completely bald-facedly lies to them as if they’re morons.
I think you make some really good points, and I’ve been very open that I’m not a fan of Mr. Trump. I think that Trump is brilliant at channeling the anti-elitist theory of the white working class, and I think the reason he’s so good at that is because he felt condescended to his whole life. Now, how could that be: He’s a “self-made man” who started out with nothing but a little more than a $14 million loan from his dad?
Donald Trump is from Queens. Queens is not a fashionable borough. Trump’s casinos basically would be looked down upon as the epitome of garish bad taste. And so I think Trump has been so effective at channeling this elitist fury because he feels it himself. And I also think he’s been so effective because Democrats have been completely unaffected.
One of the most important quotes I think about the election was from an Ohio voter, if I remember correctly, and he said we voted with our middle finger. I think that Trump, like Bernie Sanders, was attractive to people just because he was so transgressive within his own party. And he was felt to be a way for the white working class to kind of stick that thumb in the eye at the elites and let them have it.
And I think Democrats didn’t do anything effective in response to that. What the Clinton campaign did, and at last what I see all too many Democrats still doing, is just attacking Trump, attacking Trump, attacking Trump. Which, in my view is just going to make Trump stronger among this key group of voters. I think what we need to do, and what this book is designed to help people do, is to identify what is a legitimate economic grievance that the white working class has.
I think you and I both agree that the role of politicians is not to get up and call half the country stupid.
Yeah probably not a great idea.
But as for people like us, we should have some commitment to honesty. What attitude should we be taking toward people who voted for a racist buffoon that is scamming them?
Here’s the absolutely sobering truth. A lot of them saw those aspects of Trump, and yet they thought he was the best candidate. Democrats have given the Republicans the precious gift of being the party that’s out there talking about jobs for people who lack college education. Two-thirds of Americans aren’t college graduates. And sometimes the message that they have heard is, “if you want a future, graduate from college.” Two-thirds of Americans are not college graduates, and what Trump said was, “I am going to offer you good jobs even if you don’t have a college degree.” The policy solutions he proposed were supply-side economics, bringing back coal, and chitchatting with a few employers. Those are not effective policy solutions, but as long as Democrats don’t say anything but that you guys are racist, are voting for a racist, they’re going to keep on voting for Trump.
I watched a lot of campaign speeches last year, and I can tell you the single biggest topic of conversation in Trump campaign rallies was Donald Trump. And if you tallied up the time that Hillary Clinton spent talking about jobs for the American people versus Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton spent way more time. And if you look at their websites Hillary Clinton has more plans, or had, for Americans without college degrees than Donald Trump does, and the more sensible plans, at least by my analysis and I think your analysis. Don’t “average people” have some responsibility to learn this.
No I think that’s completely unrealistic.
I agree it’s unrealistic, but I am not sure whose fault that is.
I am. I think the Democrats are—I’m damn sure they are at fault for that. The reason that Trump won was about 80,000 voters in Rust Belt states. Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and others were begging that Hillary Clinton campaign in those Rust Belt states and talk to those people about jobs and about other concerns that blue-collar Americans feel very, very strongly about, and they were told no. And they were told to adhere to a script of Donald Trump is unqualified, and Hillary Clinton is super qualified and wouldn’t it be awesome, and a progressive gesture to vote for a woman for president. Let’s break the glass ceiling. That is an incredibly well-designed message to alienate these voters. And if you are interested I can explain why.
The glass ceiling is a very ineffective message. Not only for the men, but also for the women, because what does glass ceiling mean? It means women like me, born with a silver spoon in my mouth, get to have jobs like the jobs my husband and father had. Why should working-class people care? You know, newsflash, they don’t care. Also Donald Trump is a, what did you call him, a buffoon?
Attacks on Donald Trump are perceived as the elite attacking the person who is transgressive and is standing up for us, the forgotten people. So that didn’t work.
Donald Trump is a con man who is taking advantage of his voters and using them to enrich rich people and himself, while doing nothing for them. I’m sitting here saying Donald Trump is a con man, and he’s doing this, and it’s really bad because people in this country need help, and he’s not going to help them, and instead he’s using them. And it seems like what you’re saying is that I’m somehow being more disrespectful to those voters than he is, even though he is the one using them.
Donald Trump has a long line of blue-collar–trades people, who he has stiffed and not paid. Or paid pennies on the dollar. One of those people should have been at every campaign rally possible. That is a really different message than, “Donald Trump is taking you for a ride, and Hillary is super qualified, and breaking the glass ceiling would be awesome.” Just calling the guy a buffoon is not calling him on it effectively.
If a Trump voter asks me what I think Trump is doing for his people, and I say that I think he is conning them, how does that conversation progress? It is inherently judgmental about those voters. It’s a hard conversation.
I don’t think it’s a hard conversation at all. Just imagine that this is a conversation within your family. Either you can say, “You’ve got it all wrong: Your anger is misplaced.” Or instead you can say, “I’m hearing you’re really angry because you feel the American Dream slipping out of reach. Have I got that right?” You can have the one conversation or the other, but I think the second conversation is going to be far more useful in healing the political dynamic we face today.
It’s harder to have that conversation if you’re married to a Muslim or an immigrant, and you are bringing them into the family, and maybe you think your Trump-fan relatives should be the ones reaching out.
I’ll tell you what I think about that. I think that there’s a broken relationship between rich white people, middle-class white people, and guess who’s paying the price?
Uh, all of us, when the Earth melts etc.
My attitude is if you think this is working for the climate, for immigrants, for Muslims, for people of color, I disagree. I think this is why people should get their act together so that we change this dynamic, so that these groups aren’t being so openly targeted and living in fear.
Let’s switch to race. If we have a country where 46 percent of people are willing to vote for a racist—again, I get the political strategy of not wanting to say to everyone, “you’re a racist,” but how are we supposed to talk about that? How are we supposed to think about that?
I think that, actually one of the things that a number of sociologists have pointed out is that often elite whites displace blame for racism onto less elite whites. And I think for privileged whites to be refusing to listen to the legitimate economic woes—and they are legitimate—of working-class whites on the grounds that those other whites are racist is truly off. Now I’m not saying that we should accept racism, sexism, or homophobia from working-class whites or anyone else. I’m not saying that. I think that using the charge of racism to turn your ears off to legitimate economic concerns from less privileged people, is kind of not where we want to be as progressives.
These folks, what they care about is jobs. Jobs that yield their version of a middle-class standard of living. Which, by the way is what the professional managerial elites already have. I care really deeply about trans bathrooms. Partly because I’m incredibly alarmed and upset at the high suicide rate among trans youth. But I have a good job, and my kids have good jobs, and if they didn’t, and if I didn’t, I don’t think that would be my first priority.
Do you really think Donald Trump could’ve ever gotten the kind of support he got from the white working class if he had not shown himself to be a bigot?
I don’t know. I’m kind of a data girl, and I just don’t know. He definitely approached a whole group of voters and brought out their worst selves. That’s for sure. The question is if Democrats had addressed the economic concerns and spoken to them with dignity, and attempted to bring out their best selves. I think we would’ve seen, not among everybody, but among a lot of these voters we would’ve seen something very different.
So Trump won by appealing to people’s worst instincts, but Democrats could have beaten him by appealing to their better instincts?
We’re not going to stoop there. Our only interest is in appealing to people’s best sides, right?