We all kinda know what’s going on here. (And by “we all” I’m speaking generally about people of color, African Americans in particular, and woke whites — “the new American majority,” as author Steve Phillips puts it.) It’s fear, anger and economic insecurity mixed with anxiety over the browning of America and the subsequent loss of preferred status that this will naturally entail. A new book by Justin Gest, assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, takes that gut feeling reinforced by an overflow of anecdotal evidence and grounds it in research.
“The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality” is the result of three months in East London and three months in Youngstown, Ohio. Gest strives to put the folks who voted for President Trump and those who voted to leave the European Union with their Brexit vote into dispassionate perspective. It’s a perspective we’d all do well to try to appreciate because we’re going to have to deal with it. Starting now would be perfect.
Gest told me via email that the research he conducted for his resultant book didn’t start off this way. “I started my fieldwork when Trump was still a reality TV star! But the people I studied evolved into Trump and Brexit voters before my eyes,” he said. “Their political capital was harvested.” And it was harvested by appealing to their sense of losing power and their mindfulness that minority status won’t treat them kindly.
Gest writes that working-class whites feel they “have been demoted from the center of their country’s consciousness to its fringe.” They “are consumed by their loss of social and political status” and are motivated “by a nostalgia that reveres and seeks to reinstate a bygone era.” And Gest boils down the predicament facing Trump’s supporters that the nation neither recognizes nor has plans to deal with — yet.
Poorer white people are subject to the same elite classism that subordinates poorer ethnocultural minorities, but due to their status as an in-group, poorer whites exist without widespread recognition of the structural circumstances that entrench their deprivation.
Given what he has written, Gest is not at all surprised by the recent stories of Trump supporters sticking by the president despite his policy choices, including Trumpcare and the draconian “Skinny Budget.” He told me that folks who have been waiting for those die-hards to “see through” Trump “misunderstand the nature” of their support for him.
“In many cases, this is a constituency that has felt marginalized from American politics and society. Donald Trump was the first presidential candidate to make a direct appeal for their votes in a generation and, in the process, he elevated the plight and power of white working-class people,” Gest told me. “His attraction is therefore not merely substantive, but rather symbolic. So it will take more than canceling a social program to shake their allegiance.”
This is in line with what Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, told me on my podcast “Cape Up” in January. Trump won because he “taught people their own dignity or spoke to people about their dignity,” Brooks said. Or as Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, succinctly explained the die-hard support of Trump on the podcast last month, “the man fights.”
And what about the survey showing racism was a motivator for Trump voters? “The only real way to know how powerful race is would be for Donald Trump to run again without the Islamophobia, without the xenophobia, without the half-hearted disavowals of supremacist support,” Gest said. “But since that won’t happen, we can rely on survey after survey exhibiting the power of feelings of social and cultural threat.”
“There is a real feeling in the United States and Europe that people are losing control over their countries,” he continued. “And a prolonged sense of economic immobility and inequality leaves everyone searching for scapegoats and quick fixes. In this way, the economic is entangled and inextricable from the social.”
Don’t get me wrong. The racism undergirding the upset of white working-class Americans is significant and hard to read in Gest’s book. Some of the comments from Youngstown in particular will engender no sympathy from more than a few people. Their distress over being marginalized and their impending minority status very well might spark a bit of schadenfreude from the targets of white working-class prejudice. I totally get it. But I also recognize that we all have to start understanding what they are saying and the roots of their rage.
According to Census Bureau estimates, the United States will become “majority-minority in 2044.” It also notes that “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group” by the time of the 2020 Census. Whites won’t be the majority, but they will be a big part of the minority. Dealing with that change in status should force a nation that either ignores race or addresses it through code words, dog whistles and stereotypes to seriously engage in an uncomfortable conversation. We must figure out how to deal with real problems facing all Americans, problems that have become inextricably linked with intolerance and hate.