“So much of Donald Trump’s politics is symbolic,” Gest explained. “They’re symbolic in the sense that this is what people want to hear and if it doesn’t get done, it’s almost beside the point because he’s elevating the prerogatives of his constituents to the national stage after having been relegated to the fringes of American politics for decades.”
“When Donald Trump went up in Cleveland and said messianically,’I am your voice,’ that’s precisely what people heard,” Gest continued. “The sense of having a voice suddenly, after feeling voiceless for so long is powerful. It’s not in their cultural interests to vote against him, no matter how little he has delivered to actually help them in any kind of material way.”
Working-class whites feel not only voiceless, but also silenced, especially in matters involving race. “The way they understood racism is different from the way we understand racism,” said Gest. “For them, racism has become an instrument of silence. It is a way of invalidating people. By saying someone is a racist, it means they cease to matter. Don’t listen to them.” Gest spent three months in Youngstown, Ohio, and three months in East London, England, conducting interviews and researching his book. “So, when people said to me, ‘Now, I’m not a racist but …,’ what they were actually saying to me was, ‘Listen to what I’m about to tell you, and don’t dismiss me.’ ”
That doesn’t mean race doesn’t play a major role for the white working class. “Much of white working-class politics has been to create distinction with a group that they thought they were above,” Gest told me. “So much of American history has been white voters seeking to reinstate ways to subordinate people of ethno-religious and ethno-racial difference.”
Listen to the podcast to hear this important and provocative conversation about how economic dislocation and demographic changes are fueling discomfort and desperation among white working-class voters. While Gest says that both Republicans and Democrats have exploited these voters, he sees a way forward.
“The only way of addressing their plight is a form of political hospice care,” he said. “These are communities that are on the paths to death. And the question is: How can we make that as comfortable as possible?”
“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever else you listen to podcasts.