Historians and journalists have scoured our recent past looking for precursors to the white working class grievance that fuels the presidency of Donald Trump. Surprisingly, none has explored a forgotten riot that may hold the answer.
It was 40 years ago this week when white-working-class anger spilled over in the unlikeliest of places: the streets of the Philadelphia suburb of Levittown, long considered a symbol of the American Dream. What happened during the Levittown gas riots — and why — offers much insight into Trump’s appeal to his base.
During the summer of 1979, two nights of rioting and rage unfolded at Levittown’s Five Points intersection. Dozens were hospitalized, nearly 200 were arrested, a post office was vandalized, gas stations were looted, abandoned cars and furniture were set afire, and police and firefighters were pelted with rocks, cans, beer bottles and firecrackers. “There’s a complete breakdown of law and order,” the local sheriff said.
The immediate cause of the riots was gas rationing and shortages, soaring pump prices and lines of people waiting hours to secure a few gallons. Independent truckers battered by the high cost of diesel were holding wildcat strikes across the nation, and on June 23, about 20 converged on Levittown, leaning on their air horns and tying up traffic.
It wasn’t long before they were joined by frustrated and angry white suburbanites whose lifestyles and livelihoods depended on cheap and plentiful gas. A month before, motorists riled by the long lines and a $5 maximum — about a quarter of a tank for the prototypical gas guzzlers of the era — waved fists and guns at Levittown gas attendants. The truckers merely catalyzed the fury.
At the height of the two-day riot, 1,500 to 2,000 Levittown residents — from a community of about 15,000 households — gathered in the streets. “We could have arrested 500 if we had the manpower,” one police officer said.
Levittown had become ground zero in a nationwide protest against gas rationing and price increases. Across the country, daily routines revolved around when and where to get gas, and random rage punctuated the news. In Los Angeles, one man deflated the tires of a pregnant woman who cut ahead of him in line. When she protested, he attacked her. Gas station workers in Washington reported violence, threats and verbal abuse.
House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) observed, “I’ve never seen the public so mad. You take away gasoline, and you destroy the family. That’s the way they feel.”
But as much as gas was the immediate cause, the riots reflected a deeper unease brewing among working-class whites. Levittown was a microcosm of tectonic shifts underway in the economy. Since the early 1950s, nearby steel mills had employed thousands of workers in good-paying jobs, enabling them to partake in the American Dream. They could afford homes, cars and a better life for their children, things that would have been far beyond the reach of their parents. Levittown had become an emblem of white-working-class success — and the white part mattered because Levittown mirrored most suburban communities in its fierce resistance to racial integration.
But as with much of America’s heavy industry in the 1970s, the steel industry began to rust. Layoffs, wage cuts, mill closings, jobs sent overseas — that became the unfolding reality beneath Levittown’s placid suburban image. “Suburbia’s symbol, the cul-de-sac, expresses America’s mood on the eve of the 1980s. A cul-de-sac is, after all, just a fancy dead end,” columnist George Will wrote after the Levittown riots.
All over the country, the American Century appeared to be fading. New York and Cleveland verged on bankruptcy. Chicago couldn’t clear the snow. Chrysler needed a bailout. Double-digit inflation ate away at paychecks. Love Canal — the community in Upstate New York made unlivable by toxic chemical waste — bared the cost of progress.
In the three decades after World War II, members of the white working class had grown accustomed to securing jobs and expanding opportunities. Yet as the 1970s ended, they began to feel they were falling behind, no matter how hard they worked.
Perhaps even worse, for years they had seen themselves as the lunch-pail heroes who built the American Century, but now the narrative started to change. Instead of celebrating their contributions to making America great, Time magazine decried their “prodigal way of life.” A bestseller called out the culture of narcissism, and popular essayist Lance Morrow labeled Americans “spoiled” and “the most appallingly wasteful people who have ever lived.”
But it was President Jimmy Carter whose words stung the most. In his address to the nation three weeks after Levittown, the president indicted America’s “self-indulgence” and chastised Americans for “piling up material goods” as a substitute for purpose or meaning. Carter called this a “crisis of confidence” and asked Americans to sacrifice. But what the white working class heard instead was a condemnation of their way of life and blame for the problems facing America. As Vice President Walter Mondale warned Carter before the speech, “you can’t castigate the American people, or they will turn you off once and for all.”
What white-working-class Americans wanted was an advocate, a voice, someone to defend them and recognize their achievements, not blame or belittle them for the modest lifestyle they worked hard to acquire. If anyone deserved blame, they said, it was all the freeloaders who took government money and never earned a dime of it — as well as the politicians who coddled and enabled them.
In Levittown, the local paper was filled with letters and quotes defending the riots as “the only way the silent majority has to fight back” and “the only way the federal government would pay attention to the average people.” They expressed contempt for an “unconcerned government” and for leaders who “couldn’t care less for the people.”
These working class whites didn’t necessarily embrace ideological conservatism. Rather, they backed politicians who gave them voice, who defended them against what they perceived as disdain coming from the new elites: educated liberals who, they believed, looked down on them, didn’t respect their hard work and instead lavished attention and benefits on whom they viewed as undeserving others.
Ronald Reagan understood the power of this grievance, much the way Richard Nixon had a decade before when he baptized the “silent majority” and appealed to their resentments and fears. Running for president in 1980, Reagan railed against “welfare queens” and told white-working-class voters that they shouldn’t have to sweat and toil just to pay tax dollars that liberals would give away to those who didn’t work for it. Summoning the golden era of the 1950s, when these white-working-class voters predominated, he promised to “make America great again.”
And this message connected. In 1980 and 1984, it was the white-working-class voters in communities like Levittown who would come to epitomize the political phenomenon known as Reagan Democrats.
So when Donald Trump appealed to “forgotten Americans” at his 2016 convention and declared “I am your voice,” he was channeling the same rage, indignation, grievance and identity that roiled the streets of Levittown and continued to pulsate through white-working-class America over the next four decades. Just as for Reagan, a pledge to “make America great again” bonded Trump to these voters. He may not know much, if anything, about the Levittown gas riots, but his campaign and presidency sprang from the same cultural and political sources that powered the only American riot in the summer of 1979.