Sarah Smarsh writes: Last March, my 71-year-old grandmother, Betty, waited in line for three hours to caucus for Bernie Sanders. The wait to be able to cast her first-ever vote in a primary election was punishing, but nothing could have deterred her. Betty – a white woman who left school after ninth grade, had her first child at age 16 and spent much of her life in severe poverty – wanted to vote.
So she waited with busted knees that once stood on factory lines. She waited with smoking-induced emphysema and the false teeth she’s had since her late 20s – both markers of our class. She waited with a womb that in the 1960s, before Roe v Wade, she paid a stranger to thrust a wire hanger inside after she discovered she was pregnant by a man she’d fled after he broke her jaw.
Betty worked for many years as a probation officer for the state judicial system in Wichita, Kansas, keeping tabs on men who had murdered and raped. As a result, it’s hard to faze her, but she has pronounced Republican candidate Donald Trump a sociopath “whose mouth overloads his ass”.
No one loathes Trump – who suggested women should be punished for having abortions, who said hateful things about groups of people she has loved and worked alongside since childhood, whose pomp and indecency offends her modest, midwestern sensibility – more than she.
Yet, it is white working-class people like Betty who have become a particular fixation among the chattering class during this election: what is this angry beast, and why does it support Trump?
Hard numbers complicate, if not roundly dismiss, the oft-regurgitated theory that income or education levels predict Trump support, or that working-class whites support him disproportionately. Last month, results of 87,000 interviews conducted by Gallup showed that those who liked Trump were under no more economic distress or immigration-related anxiety than those who opposed him.
According to the study, his supporters didn’t have lower incomes or higher unemployment levels than other Americans. Income data misses a lot; those with healthy earnings might also have negative wealth or downward mobility. But respondents overall weren’t clinging to jobs perceived to be endangered. “Surprisingly”, a Gallup researcher wrote, “there appears to be no link whatsoever between exposure to trade competition and support for nationalist policies in America, as embodied by the Trump campaign.”
Earlier this year, primary exit polls revealed that Trump voters were, in fact, more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000 – higher than that of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters. Forty-four percent of them had college degrees, well above the national average of 33% among whites or 29% overall. In January, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams reported findings that a penchant for authoritarianism – not income, education, gender, age or race –predicted Trump support.
These facts haven’t stopped pundits and journalists from pushing story after story about the white working class’s giddy embrace of a bloviating demagogue. [Continue reading…]