Among the many ugly epithets being thrown at the millions of Americans who support the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, “white trash” may not be the most hate-filled and overwrought. The prize on that score goes to the term “Nazi.” But it is among the worst in terms of its smug condescension, its belittling of our common human dignity, and its indication of ill will. The term has been applied to Trump supporters by myriad leftists and also by establishment Republicans and neoconservatives prone to sympathy with the #nevertrump movement currently buoying Hillary Clinton’s chances of extending the Obama presidency into a third term.
It is not my intention here to defend Mr. Trump or his candidacy. Rather, I want to examine who it is that is being labelled “white trash” and why. The term itself has its origins in the early nineteenth century, when slaves, particularly in the South, began using it to refer to poor whites, especially white servants. The term was picked up by rich whites as well to describe the white Southern underclass generally recognized as ill-educated, ill-mannered, and clannish. This group was desperate to maintain cultural cohesion in a society that sought to replace them, as a class, with black slaves and succeeded in demeaning their condition and social standing, though never to the extent or with the brutalities visited upon African Americans.
So who are today’s white trash? According to critics of Trump supporters they include most inhabitants of what used to be called Middle America. It is politically useful for Mr. Trump’s opponents to label all his supporters white trash because this obscures how wide his support really is, in socio-economic terms and in terms of educational levels. All that is required is that the accusers ignore the fundamental characteristics of the people involved and focus on the aesthetic elements to which urban elites are so hostile. Trump supporters wear the wrong clothes—t-shirts and baseball caps; they drive the wrong cars—domestic or (heaven forfend!) motorcycles; they listen to the wrong music—classic rock or (again, heaven forfend!) country; and they waive the wrong flag (generally the American flag, not the Confederate battle flag so many observers seem to wish they would see at such rallies). Statistically speaking most of them also are white, which is taken as a clear sign of racism among the left, even when members of minority groups (Ben Carson comes to mind, but there have been many other examples) seek to point out this assumption’s insulting falsity.
The point is to treat the variety of people supporting Mr. Trump as a nefarious, or at least stupid, uneducated, and violence-prone unit. This is achieved by taking harmless personal preferences, universalizing them, and ascribing them to all Trump supporters in a way that identifies them with the white underclass—the last group liberals at least are willing to vilify with abandon. Ironic, here, is that Trump supporters tend to eschew the more obvious aesthetic choices of white trash—tattoos, piercings, and drug use; then again, such choices are part of a more general trend positively embraced by Hollywood and arguably sold to poor people as a cheap way to show they are as cool as their pop culture heroes. Were white trash thin and rich, they likely would be deemed “cool” instead of “losers.”
Clearly, then, the term white trash is an insult being hurled at Trump supporters in an attempt to make anyone politically undecided recoil from identification with them. (“You don’t want to be one of those people, do you?”) It is, then, a demeaning (and racially charged) term used to denigrate people for political ends—much as the left today accuses all opponents of massive immigration or affirmative action of inserting covert racial bias into the public debate.
But what about the people being so used? Who really are the so-called white trash? What kind of people are they? If we take the term in its historical context, white trash would be today’s white underclass, especially in the rural South and Midwest. And it is true that, statistically, people within this defined group have higher than average rates of crime, drug use, violence, out-of-wedlock births, low education rates, unemployment, dependence on public assistance, and lack of home ownership. They tend to be overweight, to smoke (or chew) tobacco, and to drink a fair amount of beer and other alcohol.
These people are blamed for their poverty and social pathologies in a manner we would find morally repugnant in regard to any other group of people. But the insults go further. In a kind of guilt by association, we see the label white trash applied also to people of various Eastern European ethnicities who live in formerly prosperous working class industrial areas. These are the blue-collar workers who have seen their standard of living plummet over the last several decades as industrial jobs have disappeared or gone overseas. They are blamed not only for their own pathologies but for their presumed hatred of immigrants who might take their few remaining jobs. These Americans, too, tend to lack college educations and to have some of the cultural habits urban elites associate with ignorance and squalor—from beer drinking to smoking to watching professional sports. We are getting farther and farther from the kinds of behavior that deserve blame, but this is the logic of stigma, here, not reasoned normative analysis.
One problem with the white trash attack on Trump supporters is that most of them do not fit the stereotype one might build from these characteristics. Another problem, however, is the intentional ignorance of how the genuine social pathologies of white trash have been made measurably worse where not actually produced by both liberal and establishment Republican attitudes and policies. Poor white people suffer from the same pathologies as poor people of different skin colors. Differences in culture are not unimportant. But it is important to note how all poor people in America have been damaged by decades of ignorant paternalism.
Like poor people of differing skin colors, poor whites for at least two generations have had to send their children to terrible public schools. Our Social Justice Warriors decry rural school districts for their occasional insistence on maintaining traditional cultural and even religious identities. But these schools are run by the same kinds of educrats as in most urban school districts. They teach out of the same dumbed-down, politically correct textbooks and achieve the same abject failure in preparing students for life and employment as adults. Like inner city kids, poor rural children have been taught that their country and way of life are wrong. The mainstream of their civilization has been pilloried or ignored and they have been denied decent educations in favor of hair-brained schemes of brain reformation. The old new math was almost as bad as the new new math, and basic English grammar is taught badly and in only rudimentary form. What do these children learn in school? Most of them learn to despise educators, to see learning as a fraud, and to look for approval among peer groups rather than the leaders of their Potemkin schools.
Then there is the job market. It has become popular to blame working-class Americans, and especially Eastern European ethnics (once dubbed “Reagan Democrats”) who once held down high-paying jobs in factories, for killing off American industry. We have had no shortage of corrupt union bosses in this country. But neither have we had a shortage of “vulture capitalists” like #nevertrump’s Mitt Romney. The “deal” that is driving illegal and crony capitalist immigration in Silicon Valley today is much like the deal that destroyed American manufacturing: bosses pay however much is necessary to keep labor quiet, support increased government spending, then seek to replace their laborers, either domestically or more often through outsourcing.
For decades now supposedly conservative corporate heads have pushed counterproductive government “safety net” programs so that they can ignore their own duty to act responsibly as employers and members of their communities. Of course, heavy-handed regulation has made it much more expensive to run a business, siphoning off funds better used to keep the business going. But, instead of working to limit such expenses and otherwise maintain a decent level of employment, corporate heads have thrown tax money at enervating programs so they can gut their payrolls without guilt. Small wonder union bosses found willing allies among workers thrown to the beasts of deprivation or dependence on government by those with the means and the duty to wisely shepherd their industrial capacity and the social capital of their communities. And then there are the rural poor, whose former way of life on small family farms has all but disappeared due to overregulation and various subsidies built into our bureaucratic structure that favor corporate agriculture. “Progressive” government has helped destroy what once was a functioning working-class economy, and now we blame those whose way of life we destroyed for feeling and acting displaced.
All this has been made far worse in recent decades as American meritocracy has been transformed into blind credentialism. Where once people of average (or even below average) intelligence could apply themselves and achieve a decent life in skilled labor, today’s “knowledge economy” values only degrees. Those, especially working-class young men, who do not want to sit for hours on end in classrooms run by people who hate them and seek to make them into Social Justice Warriors see nothing to value in this experience. If they do manage to survive and graduate they will end up with a useless degree, qualifying them to sit in a cubicle for low wages as they try to pay off their crushing debt. Or they can accept one of the few jobs available at such a low level that it still does not require a college degree.
Hope has become a scarce commodity under these conditions. It is made even scarcer by the hostility and blame coming their way from educators, mass culture, and the mainstream media for not “getting with the program” of hating their heritage and accepting a new status as wards of the state. I do not mean to imply that white trash do not accept public assistance, many do. But, from my own observation and from their dominant patterns of life, it seems clear that there remains an attempt to maintain independence that is resented by those who seek to “help” them. These people are called “trailer trash,” but they choose to live in mobile homes because they do not want to be mere apartment dwellers. They want to actually own something and to have the independence of their own home, however humble it may be. This is something worthy of respect, not insult.
Many of the pathologies associated with white trash have at their root a refusal to accept client status. From subsistence farmers and industrial laborers, too many Americans have been reduced to casual laborers who have trouble valuing their jobs or shepherding their resources. Conservatives in particular should insist that these Americans are not trash. They are children of God who have been degraded by progressive politics in the same way as most poor Americans. They have resources in their churches and communities that could be used to help them reorder decent lives. But we must reorder our political and economic priorities to make family, faith, and freedom work for them as it once did and as it can again for poor people from whatever racial background, whether living in urban or rural areas. It is time for our political elites to recognize that the system they so love, that massages their vanity and feeds their pocketbooks, is destroying real, live people who have the capacity to contribute to the common good, if only we will show them and their way of life some respect; if only we will stop moving their jobs elsewhere, stop making it too expensive to employ them, and stop denigrating hard work in favor of the intellectual cunning that passes for education today.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.