I have been mystified by the seemingly bizarre phenomenon of the rise of Donald Trump. Here is a man who is (or at least claims to be) a multi-billionaire, who lives a sexually immoral life and boasts about it, who makes racist, misogynistic remarks, who mocks those he considers losers, who contradicts himself constantly (sometimes in the same sentence). And yet he is adored, even worshipped (?) by a large number of the American people who are ready to make him our next president.
Even if we ignore the large number of blindly committed Republicans and the power greedy religious leaders, we are still left with a huge number of devoted trumpists. Who are these people? Are they really just "a basket of deplorables" as Hillary Clinton says?
When I heard about the book White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America, I felt I might find some answers or at least insights. I was not disappointed. This is an alternative history that ranks up close to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and while it does not go into the depth of detail of Zinn's book, it does fill in much detail and gives a different perspective from the history we learned in school.
The author, Nancy Isenberg, is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at LSU and is the author of other non-fiction books as well as a regular writer for Salon.com. Though the book covers much material in its 300+ pages, reading it was never boring. In fact I found it a real page-turner.
This is not a book about heroes. It does not paint our founding fathers as exemplary. It does not glorify the "American dream." We are not, nor were we ever, a "city on a hill." Rather we are given a history of the underclass, of those who are to a great extent, ignored by the writers of history. It is as well, a history of the attitudes of those who did "make history" toward those regarded as inferior.
The underclass has always been with us, and we might even say that our nation was begun as a dumping ground for the poor of England and elsewhere in Europe. They were always there - on America's frontiers, fighting her wars. As Ms. Isenberg tells us, "Long before they were today's 'trailer trash' and 'rednecks,' they were called 'lubbers' and 'rubbish' and 'clay-eaters' and 'crackers' -- and that's just scratching the surface" (page 2).
The author traces the history of these people through the centuries -- and they were and still are, as she reminds frequently, still with us; and they are us. The colonizers and early settlers, the squatters on the frontier were there at the beginning and were part of the westward movement of American "civilization."
There were periods of our history when these people were looked down on as an inferior breed; racism and classism were not that far apart. The history goes on through the frontier settlement, even our first (but not our last) white trash president, Andrew Jackson. The antebellum south was populated with these, and it was there when racism and classism were played against each other. It seems that one way of keeping the lower classes in line was - and still is - is to give them some to look down on.
The author relates the history of the eugenics movement in this country and the talk of "good breeding." It seems that Hitler was not that far removed from some of the thinking in America. While no one would advocate his extreme "solution," it was thought that the problems of the lower classes could be dealt with by proper breeding, even "eugenic sterilization."
The history is traced through the depression, the dust bowl, the "war on poverty," but always bringing to mind those on the bottom rungs. Though at times the "country boy" or the "redneck" gained popularity, such as with country and country rock music, it was often double edged. Much of our pop culture was thinly disguised mockery. TV programs such as "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Dukes of Hazzard," even "Andy Griffith" portrayed the lower classes as ignorant and uncouth.
So where is this book going? Ms. Isenberg in her final chapter tell us, "If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders' ingenious plan, or that Jacksonian democracy was liberating, or that the Confederacy was about states' rights rather than preserving class and racial distinctions" (page 313).
As far as the question I raised at the beginning of this post, she answers it well. I asked "who are these people (the followers of Donald Trump)?' Her answer: "Today as well we have a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest" (page 313).
We have people in America - white people - who feel beaten down. They feel the system has failed them. The political party that at one time was their hope, has ignored them. They, as we all do, "need" someone to look down on, someone to blame. And we have a demagogue who has found a way to take advantage of this need. It has worked many times in the past. They are taught to fear and at the same time to revile Mexicans, Moslems, blacks, gays, feminists and that black man in the White House.
But these are not people to look down on as simply "a basket of deplorables." They are real people with real needs. They are a part of my background, even my family. What this book has done for me is convict me of my own classism. In my abhorrence of racism I have found myself using derogatory terms such as are used in this book, to put down those I consider racist. How often have I referred to them as rednecks or crackers or hillbillies or trailer trash?
When Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves, He was clear that that term "neighbor" included everyone, even those who are unloving and unlovable.
Father forgive me for not loving my neighbor.