The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the right wing fell for its own fables about the working class

A conservative publication fell for a hoax by a fake construction worker, but the real fiction is much more widespread.

Construction workers from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development on Tuesday in St. Rose, La. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
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Archie Carter, a construction worker from Queens, is a self-described Marxist-Leninist. Not long ago, he joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), only to be repulsed by its overeducated, elitist members who cared more about “feminist procedures” and “fashionable intersectionality” than “real people” like him.

At least, this is what Archie claimed in an essay titled “DSA is Doomed,” published last week — and retracted soon after — by the commentary site Quillette. For the right-leaning pundits who deride today’s socialists as politically correct coastal posers, this narrative resonated. Archie Carter — a “real live worker (!)” as Sam Adler-Bell cheekily put it — had confirmed what they had long suspected.

There was just one problem. Archie Carter was neither real nor live, nevermind a worker. The essay was a hoax perpetrated by a 24-year-old “left populist” in Illinois, who later told me and other journalists that he intended to reveal the right-wing bias of Quillette, which brands itself as an unbiased, nonideological “platform for free thought.”

But this isn’t just a story of a clever guy outwitting lax fact-checkers and revealing a site’s conservative biases. It also sheds light on the way right-leaning commentators depend on the voice of an imagined white working class to legitimize and advance their own viewpoints — viewpoints that are often opposed to those of the real working class. And it’s not just websites like Quillette that fall for that hoax. Politicians and voters buy into this imagined narrative, too.

As Tom Scocca wrote in Slate, political commentators across the media spectrum regularly invoke the concerns of “real” or “ordinary” people in response to progressive policy proposals deemed to be too costly or too radical or — implicitly — too anti-racist for “the heartland.” This framework is so common that it is almost invisible. But we can still glimpse it when, for example, CNN’s Dana Bash asks Democratic candidates whether providing undocumented immigrants with free health care and free college might “drive even more people to come to the U.S. illegally.” Or when Bret Stephens writes in the New York Times that immigrant-friendly policies make “ordinary people” feel like “strangers in their own country.”

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The implicit — and sometimes explicit — assumption buried just below the surface of such questions and claims is that politicians only need to care about the supposed silent majority of white working-class Americans. The thinking also seems to suggest that these Americans are inevitably racist. Read mainstream conservative writers such as the Times’ Ross Douthat (“There’s another America. … It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.”), or the Atlantic’s David Frum (“If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will: We need to make hard decisions now about what will truly benefit current and future Americans.”), and you’ll start to hear the supposed voice of an average, middle-of-the-road America that sounds little different from the suspected El Paso shooter. Before the gunman killed 22 people, authorities believe he wrote, “I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”

This polity — white working class, racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic — is just as imaginary as Archie Carter.

There’s no precise metric for defining the “working class,” but studies show that among workers without a college degree, whites are underrepresented — their share is rapidly declining — and women make up nearly half of the group. A report from the Working Poor Families Project shows an even starker gap between media rhetoric and reality: People of color make up 58 percent of low-income families. And the working class is increasingly made up of nurses and waiters rather than construction workers like the imaginary Archie. Seventy-six percent of the group are in the service industry, while only 21 percent work in the industrial sector.

The political and social views of the real working class could not be more out of step with how they’re often portrayed by the right: According to a recent poll by the Economist, low-income Americans are more likely than their middle- or upper-income counterparts to disapprove of President Trump’s immigration policies or call him a racist. They are also less inclined to think Trump cares about them at all. In 2016, working-class Americans swung for Hillary Clinton by a margin of roughly 10 percentage points.

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If the Archie Carter stereotype of a bigoted working class is nothing more than fiction, why does it persist so stubbornly across the media spectrum? Because it allows the right to ascribe its own, often unpopular, ideas to an invented working class, hoping to rally broader support around what this fabled community of “real” Americans wants.

This strategy is nothing new. As Corey Robin, a scholar of conservatism, has argued, this goes back to the advent of modern democracy, when conservatives first struggled with the paradox of how “to make privilege popular.” This project can be felt around some of the most defining moments of recent America history, from the popular but bogus narrative that the working class supported the Vietnam War to the myth that Ronald Reagan represented the neglected interests of the everyday working American. (Reagan actually lost union and low-income households to Jimmy Carter.)

As Dylan Matthews wrote in Vox on the “Archie Carter” hoax, media outlets — even those with better fact-checking procedures than Quillette — are always at risk of publishing hoaxers. But Archie Carter did much more than reveal a website’s conservative tilt: He reminded us of the implicit bias, and fabrications, contained in so many of the political assumptions about the working class we hear across the media. Indeed, it was surely because his story aligned so clearly with the right’s fables about its supporters that his own fictions passed muster. Publishing a stupid article about a fake construction worker isn’t great. But signaling to an invented group of “real” Americans to bolster racist views? That’s the real hoax.