by Sarah Wilkinson
“What the fuck just happened?”
When I woke up on November 9th, that was the only thing running through my mind. Hillary Clinton had seemed like a guarantee; many on the left had thought so. From my college campus in Burlington, Vermont, I lived in a liberal bubble, taking comfort in the swelling numbers of people around me who were speaking out against Donald Trump. We couldn’t fathom it. Why couldn’t the millions of people supporting Trump see that they were being racist with all their talk about building walls and making America white again? How could they ever excuse the video evidence of him talking about sexually assaulting women? He was a bigot, a liar, a manipulator, a xenophobe, and a fascist, and in my mind, there was no way my America could ever fall for it.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I grew up in rural Indiana, a Republican strong-hold, and my own father had transferred his support from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump after the primaries. He and his friends, mostly comprised of working-class white men and women who ride Harley Davidsons, could never support Hillary Clinton. They hated her, and I knew that. I knew that his group of friends wasn’t unique and was, in fact, representative of the wider working-class voter base. But in my mind, it didn’t seem like a possibility that we could elect a man like Donald Trump to be the President of the United States. Watching the numbers trickle in on election night, I lived wholly in a state of denial. Just wait for California to come in. She will win.
Of course, when California’s votes were counted, it was already too late. Donald Trump had won the election even though he’d lost the popular vote and our new reality was set. I went through shock, grief, anger, and denial all within the 24 hours after the results had been announced. When the dust settled, I wanted to know what so many of us on the left had missed. The truth is, I, like so many others, misunderstood what was happening on the American right. I had only ever looked at them through my own lens, never trying to look at their choices through theirs. The reason it didn’t make sense when looking through the lens of my own beliefs is that my beliefs never would have led me to the conclusion of Donald Trump. I needed to find a way to see their choices through their eyes.
As it turns out, spending so much time calling people on the right racists and xenophobes was missing the point in a big way. The only way to understand what is happening on the American right, I quickly realized, was to put myself there in a lawn chair at one of my dad’s biker cookouts. I had to shed my own experiences and beliefs to the best of my ability and try on something new: empathy.
The Deep Story of the Deep South
The Republican Party has changed a lot over the years according to Vox’s Andrew Prokop. For one, it started in the North strongly opposed to the expansion of slavery, less because they championed racial equality and more because they feared that the South would overpower them if the pro-slavery mindset continued to proliferate. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president and originally had no intent to free the slaves. When the South seceded from the Union, not keen on the new Republican leadership, the Civil War began. The goal of the North was just to get the South to rejoin the Union, but the abolition of slavery became increasingly appealing because it would undermine Southern power. Quickly, the Civil War became a battle between the Moral North and the Immoral South.
Immediately after the North won the Civil War, they began writing the rules, expanding protections and rights to the newly-freed African Americans. Many of these changes, like allowing black men to vote, were radical even for Republicans and the South was forced to embrace these new laws if they wanted to be part of the Union again. The federal government that grew out of this Reconstruction would forever be known to the South as a largely Northern entity. As the North continued to industrialize, select elite Republicans started to get very wealthy, which foreshadowed changes to the party. Feeling like they’d done enough to help black people in the South, Republicans shifted their attention toward developing Northern business interests. Once this happened, Southern states began reclaiming white conservative power, focusing on states’ rights and weakening the power of the federal government.
Once the party of a strong federal government, the Republicans at first tried to limit the power that corporations could have. When Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected and began limiting corporate powers, the Republicans quickly shifted away from their original aims to accomplish the very same thing, arguing that it expanded federal power too much. Republicans were henceforth the party of business, and Democrats—formerly the party of rich southern plantation owners—slowly transitioned into the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who expanded the federal government and social services under the New Deal. Southern Democrats weren’t happy with the New Deal policies, and they began to swing toward supporting Republican ideologies. The shift between parties was cemented in 1964, when Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Black voters, originally freed by Republicans, switched their loyalty to the Democrats, and in response, many white southerners shifted their support from the Democrats to the Republicans. In 1972, 41 percent of whites where Democrats; by 2014, that percentage had fallen to 24.
Today’s version of the Republican Party can be entirely traced back to the roots planted during the Civil War. Their platform revolves around the following:
- Preference for a small federal government and strong states’ rights, which relates back to the experience of Southerners during and after the Civil War when the federal government greatly expanded their powers while curtailing the rights that Southern states had to determine their own affairs.
- Strong support for free market capitalism and policies that support businesses, which stretches back to the days when the South was dominated by plantation owners, whom the white working class looked up to as models of success.
- Disdain for welfare or other social services as well as regulation of industry, both of which are seen as over-reaches of a federal government wanting to take power away from the free market.
- Hatred for taxes, which are seen as forcing the white working class to support federal programs that rarely benefit them.
- Resistance to the moral compass set forth by the North, who have long believed themselves to be morally superior to the backward South.
Though not the only beliefs, these are the core tenets that describe the modern Republican Party, which just elected Donald Trump to the presidency and cemented their power within both the House and the Senate, as well as in the majority of governorships across the country. Every Republican who is elected runs on a platform of shrinking federal power, pulling on the wounds of century’s worth of Southern disdain and disconnection from a federal government who was Northern in belief, policy, and location.
The Tea Party, part of what gave rise to the current Republican domination at all levels of federal and state government, was a movement born of this anti-federalism. Back to our earliest days as a country, we have been fighting this same federalist versus anti-federalist battle, and the Tea Party—backed by the billionaire Koch brothers—has succeeded in beginning to shift the locus of power away from Northern interests, back to the long-neglected and original power of the South. The movement has succeeded largely because it understands something that we on the left don’t: how working-class whites think.
In the 1860s, when the bricks were being laid that would define American politics for centuries to come, the plantation system dominated the economy, in many ways mirroring the modern capitalism that defines our country now. Class divisions were stark, from slaves all the way up to plantation owners. But the group in the middle—the original middle class—was often overlooked.
These were the working-class whites who often worked for plantation owners. In her book Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild thinks of them as standing in a line. In front of them, they can see all the joys and privileges that come with being a plantation owner. More than anything, they want to be that successful too, and they respect the hard work it has taken these wealthy land owners to achieve their triumph. Behind them in line, they see the slaves who have no rights or freedoms, and don’t even get a wage at the end of the day. They decide there’s nothing worse than moving backward in line, toward the misery of the slaves. They face forward, working hard, hoping they too can someday achieve this American Dream of prosperity.
Generally speaking, the ideas and beliefs of this original middle class have shaped the ideas and beliefs held today by the modern white working class. Now, as then, they identify with the success of those in line in front of them, people who have already reached the American Dream. They don’t identify nearly as much or at all with the people standing in line behind them, even if those people are suffering. They believe that hard work is the way forward and our place in line directly correlates to the amount of hard work we have put in. Liberals often try to tell these working-class whites that they should feel sorry for the people in line behind them because many of them have faced disadvantages, but they don’t want to be told how they should feel. Besides, they’ve also suffered setbacks and they’ve worked hard throughout them, and are now patiently waiting in line for their turn at the American Dream.
President Obama was not viewed as an ally by many of these working-class whites. He supported a strong public sector with robust healthcare, welfare, and other social programs that were inevitably paid for by the white working class. Even though they paid for it, however, they rarely qualified to use its services. It felt as though the white working class was being held personally responsible for the fact that people were poor, and they didn’t feel like it was their fault or their problem to fix. Many struggled to make ends meet without any government handouts; meanwhile, at the grocery store, they saw people paying for steak with food stamps when they themselves couldn’t afford it even though they worked full-time. They got tired of these people, whom they perceived to be lazy and sponging off the government, cutting in front of them in line. They believed they should have to wait their turn just like the rest of the working class had to.
When the 2016 presidential election rolled around, people on the left were furious at working-class whites, calling them racists, sexists, and xenophobes for their belief that everyone needs to wait in line for their turn at the American Dream. The left—on a mission to level the playing field for everyone else—told these conservatives that they were blind to how cruel they were and how much privilege they had. But the working- class whites didn’t know what privilege the liberals were talking about. They struggled from pay check to pay check. Good-paying jobs had all but disappeared. Opioids and other drug addictions were ravaging their towns. They didn’t feel like they’d had advantages that black people or immigrants or gay people hadn’t. All they knew was that they were trying to wait patiently for their turn in line, but the federal government kept letting people cut in front through programs like affirmative action, welfare, and Obamacare.
Which is why, when it came down to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the choice for most working-class whites was obvious. They overwhelmingly chose Trump.
The Appeal of Donald Trump
When liberals think about how anyone could have supported Donald Trump, it’s what Hochschild calls “The Great Paradox,” or the belief that conservatives often vote against their best interests. In our eyes, they support candidates who destroy the environment (particularly in the south, where regulation is weakest), favor tax cuts for the wealthy, support the rights of businesses over the rights of workers, and want to privatize all social services that a good number of conservatives rely on. Because many of us on the left are so focused on social justice and taking care of those who are disadvantaged, we don’t always see where working-class whites are coming from when they vote for people like Donald Trump.
His appeal to them is multifaceted. As a rich white man, Trump is the epitome of the American Dream, and he tells working-class whites that he can help them achieve it too. It’s what they’ve been working their whole lives for, and they can’t help but be drawn to a man who promises to restore respect to the working class. To be a plumber, electrician, or farmer used to be a dignified career, but now liberals seem to look down on them, including Hillary Clinton. That doesn’t make sense to working-class whites when liberals are quick to support people who don’t even work. At least they have jobs, even if they’re not glamorous. The left spends so much time getting mad at the 1 percent, to which Trump belongs, but working-class whites don’t get that. They respect the hard work the 1 percent have put in to get what they have, and they don’t see why the liberals are always going on about how the 1 percent only makes it worse for poor people. We’re all waiting our turn in line. Donald Trump, for one, understands that.
The white working class loves how Trump speaks. They like how he says what he thinks and doesn’t get worked up about offending people, which is exactly how they speak to their friends. Liberals have, for a long time, tried to tell them how they should feel and who they should feel sorry for, but they’re sick of it. Donald Trump shares that belief, encouraging them to have faith in their own values, and to be guided by those rather than what liberals tell them they should be doing. Many don’t necessarily care if people are gay, for example, they just don’t want to be told that they have to agree with it and if they don’t, they’re homophobic. They hate that. They don’t want to be made to feel guilty for discriminating against gay people just because they don’t support the cause. They don’t think they’re bad people for believing what they do, and Donald Trump ensures them that they’re not.
He believes in supporting the free market, and working-class whites see that as their ticket to the American Dream. They often side with industry over anyone else, even when factories with minimal regulations pollute their own towns. Industry gives them a paycheck, and so that’s where their loyalties lie. Trump also understands that middle class jobs have disappeared, and he vows to help. This is more than Hillary Clinton does, who offers no plan to help working-class whites who are struggling against falling wages. They don’t blame these falling wages on their employers; instead, they blame over-regulation by the government and the tax squeeze that pulls so much money out of their paychecks to support people who don’t have jobs at all. Liberals want to raise the minimum wage, saying it will help poor whites, but working-class whites don’t work minimum wage jobs in most cases. They don’t think Burger Bob should make $15 an hour when they’ve been making just slightly more than that for much harder work. Besides, it won’t raise their wages at all, even if it is sold as a way to help the working class.
Donald Trump understands the value of hard work. He wants people to stop cutting working-class whites in line, which is why he wants to build the wall between Mexico and the U.S. border, and why he won’t support federal programs that give black people and women advantages. He’ll also get rid of Obamacare, which working-class whites hate because they primarily fund it but miss the cut-off for affordable premiums. So while Poor Penny can have health care on their dime, working-class whites can’t have it for themselves. They’re tired of everyone else saying “poor me” until the government decides to help them at the expense of working-class whites. They’re also feeling a little “poor me” but they would never say so. They don’t want handouts. They want opportunities. They want everyone else to wait their turn in line for the American Dream.
Traditional values and gender roles are under attack by liberals. Donald Trump gets that. Women are angry that they’re not making as much as men are, and the liberals are focused on passing a bathroom bill so that transgender people can use whatever bathroom they want. Working-class white men—and often women—don’t want these kinds of changes. Men are the breadwinners, and that’s how they want it to remain. Their masculinity is under threat, and they just want to return to the time their fathers and grandfathers lived in, when men worked and women took care of the home and children. The inclusion of new gender identities feels like a threat to this desire, and also seems suspiciously like liberals trying to tell working-class whites what values they should have. These are men—and women sometimes—who feel gender equality has already been achieved, insofar as it should, and many feel that women and everyone else have it much better than white men do now. To liberals, this seems like a blatant disregard of their privilege, but to working-class whites it just feels like the truth.
Hillary Clinton failed on all fronts to appeal to working-class whites. She stood for all the liberals before her—stretching back to the Civil War—who disapproved of them and what they believed. It didn’t help that she was a woman, just one more person who had seemingly cut working-class whites in line and now wanted to disrespect them by calling them a “basket of deplorables.” Liberals revolted, calling the working class’s support for Trump racist, sexist, and other offensive, unflattering things. But they didn’t identify with these names. They didn’t even have the same definitions for them. Working-class whites think being racist is using the N-word, and most don’t do that. So how can they be racist? And how can they be sexist when they love women? It just doesn’t make sense, and whatever message liberals are trying to send only infuriates working-class whites more. But Donald Trump gets that. He doesn’t think they’re racist or sexist. He justifies them. He believes in them. He says he wants the best for them. He might not be perfect, and many Republican politicians have screwed them over in the past, but he’s better than any Democrat and at least he understands what they want.
Line-Cutters: A Revised Theory
To those of us on the left, the line to the American Dream looks a little different than what working-class whites see. Being in line means you are able to provide for yourself and participate in the economy. The line used to be made up predominately of white men; if women and people of color were sprinkled in, they were always near the back of the line. But now the economy has changed. Women, people of color, and other groups who formerly weren’t able to participate in the economy are now a major part of it. This means there’s greater competition for jobs—competition that didn’t used to exist at all for white men.
In their eyes, a rush of new people are moving up from the back of the line to the front. Some of these new people are now standing in front of them, closer to the American Dream even though it’s not their turn. How did this happen? Working-class whites know. They think it has a lot to do with federally-supported programs like affirmative action, which have helped integrate these new people more fully into the economy. For those who have been excluded from economic participation stretching all the way back to the days of slavery, such programs seem fair. Their time is long overdue, and the white men who have always dominated need to step aside. For those working-class whites who believe that everyone has disadvantages that we just have to deal with on our own, this looks a lot like the federal government playing favorites.
In my eyes, those of us who have historically been excluded—not only from economic participation, but from social and political participation as well—are not cutting in line at all. In fact, we’re not even standing in the same line that working-class white men are, even if we are competing for jobs in the same market. In our line, we’re not even waiting for the American Dream; we’re not there yet. We’re waiting in line for the day when we’re recognized as people who have the same economic value as white men do. We’re waiting, still, for the equal right to participate. In order for these things to happen, our entire society must structurally shift. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all other forms of discrimination—as academics define them, not as working-class whites do—must stop before this is possible. It will require white men to recognize their privilege.
Which is to say, we’ll be waiting for a long time still just to be able to enter the same line as working-class white men. No one is cutting them in line to the American Dream. But, it’s true that things are changing and dominance is shifting away from whiteness. The working-class whites are going through real, tangible changes, and the way things have always been is no longer how they are. Yes, there is privilege associated with working- class whites that translates into advantages that not all of us have, but they are suffering too.
And to see that, we must traverse the empathy walls we have built between us.
We don’t see ourselves in the pictures we have created of each other. I have my own idea about who Trump supporters are—racist, xenophobic people who love violence, guns, and people who look like them. They surely have an idea of who I am too, as evidenced by one of Hochschild’s interviews with a Tea Party member, wherein they said to her that they would have to come to Berkley, California, sometime to visit her and see all the “naked hippies.” Just as I don’t recognize myself in that description of liberals as “naked hippies,” working-class white conservatives don’t recognize themselves in descriptions of racists or bigots.
What stands between us are what Hochschild calls “empathy walls,” or misguided and incomplete judgements about each other that we accept as the full story of who others are and can be. We can’t see or hear each other through these walls. We can only grow more suspicious, more angry, and more hateful. We assume the worst about those on the other side, and we cling to stories that reveal the worst parts of them, just as they do for us. These empathy walls don’t serve us. They separate and limit us, and that only makes it easier for our governing structures to abuse their power. It also makes it easier to justify violence and vicious rhetoric pointed at one another. In many cases, these walls are both psychological and physical. We tend to live in places where people think and believe what we do. And that means we entrench ourselves deeper behind these empathy walls, surrounded only by people who compound our fear and anger rather than those who might challenge us to rethink our assumptions.
I too have struggled to traverse these empathy walls and to have compassion for the white working class and others who voted for Trump. It doesn’t seem fair that we should have to empathize with them when they have privileges that many don’t, even if they don’t recognize them. It’s not fair. But the alternative is to be mad at them, and that’s much less productive than trying to understand them. If we make the effort to break out of our bubble and ask them who they are, showing them who we are in the process, we’re likely to bridge the empathy wall that we’ve built between us. It’s easy to think we have nothing in common or that we care nothing for each other when we never try to make those connections.
It bothers me deeply that it wasn’t a deal breaker for millions of voters when Donald Trump was caught on tape talking about sexually assaulting women. I was even more shocked when he tried to pass it off as “locker room” talk, and that still wasn’t a deal breaker. It frustrates me that so many working-class whites don’t seem to recognize that they have advantages that come with whiteness, Christianity, heteronormativity, and other traditionally accepted social identities. It saddens me that they seem to care more about taking care of themselves than taking care of others, as though you can’t do both at the same time. I’m disgusted that a border wall or a Muslim ban looks like a solution. I’m sad that the environment, even though many working-class whites say they care about protecting it, is so often offered up as a sacrifice to industries that fuel middle class jobs. It infuriates me that so many of them criticize us for wanting safe spaces when Make America Great Again is itself a rallying cry to make America one giant safe space for white power.
No one ever said that empathy would be easy. If it was, we never would have felt so bitterly divided. The place working-class whites come from seems incredibly small-minded, heartless, and selfish, but sitting in that lawn chair at my dad’s cookout with all this biker friends, these judgements seem a little less true. It can be easy to forget, when surrounded by stories of hate speech scrawled on subway walls, that most conservatives don’t mean to hurt anyone. I look at my father and see someone who loved Bernie Sanders, who rallied behind his message of strength to workers and acceptance of all people. And I also see how he settled for Donald Trump when that didn’t work out, choosing to look past all of the things he didn’t like.
My father grew up racist; everyone in families like his did. It’s a hard thing to overcome, the lessons you grow up with. He doesn’t think he’s a racist, but he will always care more for his “own” than for anyone else. He doesn’t mean it to be hurtful, though. He wants everyone to be happy; he just knows he has more control over and stock in what happens to his family and friends, all of whom are white. A lot of his long-held beliefs about people of color revolve around a fundamental misunderstanding of their struggle. He knows about the ghetto, but he doesn’t know the governmental, economic, and social conditions that were there to create it.
But it’s a mistake to write millions of people off as though they disregard the humanity of those with diverse identities. Misunderstanding is different than thinking a person doesn’t deserve basic human rights, though some people certainly believe that. It’s also a mistake to think that people like my dad want us to fail, or that they want to rip families apart, or that they want us to suffer. It’s a mistake to think that it’s always us versus them. We come from different places. We see with different eyes. We process the world through different beliefs and values.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. I think we’re heading in a direction where, more and more, people from all sides of the political spectrum will begin to recognize privilege and how it works in our society. I think we’re moving toward a place of acceptance and open-mindedness, but I also know we won’t get there in a single generation. These types of changes take a lot of time. As of now, it’s a nasty cycle: a white man is likely to inherit more privilege and more economic power than anyone else, setting him on a path to greater success. In order to create a place of real acceptance and equality, we need to shift the way that privilege compounds, allowing others a shot at that success. In order for that to happen, we need people to recognize that it’s happening at all. And then we must make structural changes through legislation that levels the playing field.
All of this terrifies the white working class, who cling to the way things used to be. Any of us would likely do the same thing in a similar situation, raised in a comparable way with the same ideals. It’s truly an uphill battle, and if we think about the roots that many working-class whites come from, stretching all the way back to the Civil War, we’re fighting centuries of ideology that favors white dominance and an insular focus on individuals and families rather than communities. I think empathy is the best weapon we have to fight what we on the left perceive to be bigotry and hatred for one another. Fear of the Other is just as powerful and prevalent as ever, and the only way to fight the Other is make it familiar. It’s harder to fear that which you know. It’s easier to accept that which you don’t fear.
Take it from former-President Barack Obama, who, in his farewell address, said:
But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change. We have to pay attention and listen.
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.
For every conservative who refuses to listen to us, there are five others who will invite you into their biker cookout, pull you over a lawn chair, and even offer you a prime slice of their roasted hog. It’s a matter of asking, of being the one to show up first. For those who say the oppressed should no longer have to meet their oppressor half way, I say you’re right. But to truly end our oppression, we need the white working-class to come with us, for they hold the privilege that is key to our release. And as people often known for their hospitality, I think kindness and empathy might just be the best hope we have of changing their hearts.
Author’s Note: This essay includes some generalizations that I want to address. First, the core of the essay revolves around the idea that the white working class elected Donald Trump into office, and while they accounted for part of the electorate, they weren’t the right’s entire voting base. Second, this essay is mostly about working-class white men in particular, which I outline in places, but want to make clear. I don’t speak for all working- class white men, but to the generalizations (backed up by field research) that Arlie Russell Hochschild outlined in her book Strangers in Their Own Land. Third, I wrote this piece, which talks about the importance of empathy in bridging the divides between us, from a perspective of white privilege. Approaching people who voted for Trump in the hopes of making a personal connection with them is possible if you’re white, but could be down-right dangerous if you’re a person of color. Fourth, I want to make it clear that feeling empathy for one another is not the same as forgiving. You can question why someone believes what they do, try to deeply understand what gives birth to that belief, and still fundamentally disagree with it. You can empathize and still hold people accountable for their prejudiced views. Empathy isn’t about changing the Democratic platform to convert conservative voters, because that will only lead to changes that hurt the voting base already on the side of the Democrats; a much better plan is to create a platform that better speaks to Democrats who voted for Obama but not for Clinton. This essay isn’t about empathy for empathy’s sake; it’s about empathy for the sake of finding a way forward. It’s about understanding precisely what is broken in American politics—as told by real people—so that we can fix it.