Steven Shakespeare: Trump and Left Mythmaking

From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Treme Slave Monument. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

There is a mantra going round some parts of the left, that the Trump vote was an antiestablishment rebellion against neoliberalism and globalisation by the disenfranchised ‘white working class’.

But this is untrue and dangerous. Here’s why:

1. It ignores the actual demographic of the vote which shows a much more complex picture. Trump was carried to the White House by affluent whites, with CNN exit polls suggesting that 54% college educated white men and 52% white women across economic backgrounds voted for him. By contrast, Clinton attracted 89% of the black vote (94% of black women) and 66% of the Latino vote. Race cannot be ignored.

Perhaps most strikingly, Clinton actually got a majority among those earning under $50,000 a year (she did, after all, win the popular vote). During the Republican primaries, the median income of a Trump voter was around $72,000, contrasting with $61,000 for Clinton and even less than that for Republican rival Kasich.

And there’s more: young adults overwhelmingly supported Clinton; older people backed Trump by a wide margin. Trump got 80% of the evangelical Christian vote, but lost heavily among Jews. There are clearly dynamics going on here which defy capture by a simplistic class/anti-establishment analysis.

2. It turns the issue of race into a vanishing symptom of a supposedly deeper economic truth. This ignores both the intrinsically racialised nature of capitalism, especially in the US, which was built on slavery; and it ignores, or wilfully refuses to see, that racism has its own force and dynamic which cannot be translated into economics without remainder.

Modern capitalism was built on colonialism and slavery. They are part of its DNA, not separate concerns. In fact, the attempt to separate them is itself part of the way capitalism works: it generates and feeds off forms of competition, exploitation and scapegoating. What we are seeing now is not a turn to ‘real’ issues, but the victory of those who have longed for permission to mark, blame and scapegoat those who do not fit a world of white national power. If the left abandons this terrain and embraces this fascist surge as ‘anti-establishment’, then it colludes with the violence which ensues.

3. It denies black and minority agency. Think about it: the “white working class” are seen by many on the left as responding to the correct set of problems, even if their solution is misguided. So where does this leave the, for example, 89% of black and 66% of Latino voters who backed Clinton? Presumably, they have failed to identify the problem as global capitalism, and have supported the establishment for their own sectional interests.

See how this works out? The Trump voter’s racism is excused as a superficial gloss on what is deemed to be really a universally valid revolt against capitalism. On the other hand, the black/Latino voter’s intentions must ultimately be reduced to racial partisanship: they are voting based on their (partial, inessential) identity, rather than as representatives of universal humanity. The white working class acts for us all; the black worker remains trapped in identity politics. The upshot is that an old racist theme is dusted off and presented as a new truth: only the white man, standing in for all humanity, can save us.

So need I point out any further why this is all a crock of white supremacist shit? When leftwingers loftily dismiss race as superficial or a distraction from the *real* issue, they are helping to make the deeply entrenched racism of modern capital invisible. And in the process, they are throwing black and brown bodies under the bus.

  1. Nice post Steven. A point that you make, but I think a bit tangentially, is that "the white working class" is not an economic class, but a racialized category of its own. It's a construct that only takes on meaning in the context of white racism. In the US, Blacks, Latinos and south Asians are strongly over-represented in the working class. As a staunch and unrepentant leftist of many decades, I'm shocked that the left generally ignored the rank and file participation in the election. Its focus stayed on the candidates and their failings ... and on the media Spectacle. But whenever the cameras were turned around, on the floors of the conventions or on the volunteers walking the streets, it seemed pretty clear to me where the American working class was. (Not that plenty of workers didn't vote for Trump ... after all, the vast majority of Americans are workers. But it seems from the data that these were not preferentially the people impacted by economic inequality ... rather they were people who were culturally predisposed to blame inequality on other workers.)

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