While doing fieldwork in Tennessee for his eye-opening and often harrowing new book, Dying of Whiteness, Vanderbilt University Professor Jonathan M. Metzl met Trevor. A 40-something-year-old former cab driver (who used to “party pretty hard”), Trevor needed a walker to get around; his skin was “yellow with jaundice” from hepatitis C and an inflamed liver. Trevor is dying, yet he is opposed to the Affordable Care Act, even though it would provide him with the medical care he needs and can’t afford. “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it,” he explains to Metzl. “I would rather die. We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”
In the wake of the 2016 election, scholars and commentators worked overtime to understand people just like Trevor: to explain their anti-statism as well as the near certainty of their support for Trump. Some crunched poll numbers and turnout reports. Others turned to Thomas Frank and the thesis developed in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Repackaging the Marxian concept of false consciousness, Frank argued in his trademark witty, cosmopolitan, sometimes condescending voice that conservative politicians distracted working-class voters from their economic self-interest with endless talk of abortion and affirmative action. In other words, these officeholders and candidates stoked the fires of the cultural wars while passing legislation that stuffed the pockets of the rich with cash and pushed the rest of the nation deeper into poverty and despair.
Metzl, along with the qualitative social scientists Francesco Duina and Robert Wuthnow, rejected this approach as well as its tone and analysis. Like Arlie Hochschild, author of the award-winning book Strangers in Their Own Land, and others in a growing anti-Frank camp, Metzl, Dunia, and Wuthnow each tried to get to really know their subjects and what motivated them at the polls by spending time with them on the ground, in their small towns and blue-collar enclaves in flyover states and other out-of-the-way places. Based on these conversations, the authors insist that poor, working-class, and lower middle-class whites—though it isn’t always clear in the books who belongs to what class category and why—aren’t being duped. They aren’t voting against their economic interests because they have been misled. They haven’t, as Frank maintained, been enlisted in an endless series of meaningless cultural skirmishes in order to divert their attention from what really matters: paychecks, benefits, and household budgets.
Instead, in Metzl’s, Dunia’s, and Wuthnow’s portraits, economically distressed Tea Party and Trump supporters appear as thoughtful, rational, decent folks, with coherent worldviews and a deeply rooted culture. This often sympathetic perspective might in part be a product of these three writers’ method, drawing many of their insights about white voters from interviews in church basements, laundries, and fast-food outlets.
In some ways, this immersive method of identifying with the people they are writing about makes it hard for Duina and Wuthnow (but much, much less so for Metzl) to see what is right in front of them—to really see people like Trevor and get at their politics: their clear understanding of the past, their fierce determination to hold on to their class and race advantages, and their equally firm resolve to blow everything up if they don’t win.
At the end of the day, each of these authors wants to wake up Trevor and the other people they met along Main Street and inside their modest homes. But the political path away from Trump, away from self-destruction, is sometimes hard to see, because it is too often obstructed by false distinctions between race and class, culture and economic self-interest. Some scholars and pundits might recognize these distinctions as significant, but Trevor probably wouldn’t.
An odd correlation stuck out to Bates College sociologist Francesco Duina. He read several reports saying that poorer Americans were more likely to be strongly patriotic than more economically successful Americans. This national faith remained steadfast despite the fact that, as he notes, it is harder to be poor in the US than in almost any other industrialized country in the world, where benefits are more generous and the stigma associated with failure is not as great. But still, as Duina writes, “impoverished Americans are highly patriotic.” “By any measure,” he continues, “a stunningly strong … 80–90% of America’s poor … hold the United States in high esteem.”
What accounts for this blue-collar patriotism? What beliefs are behind these numbers? To find the answers, Duina took to the road. Between 2015 and 2016, he did 63 face-to-face, 30-to-60-minute interviews with low-income Americans in Alabama and Montana. What he recorded in nearly nine hundred single-spaced pages of notes was that the poor had absorbed some of the most enduring “narratives”—the phrase Duina uses—about America. These stories framed how they saw the nation. Dismissing Thomas Frank, Duina maintains that he “met reflective, intelligent, and wide-reaching minds who were aware of their situations and deeply felt a true sense of appreciation for the United States.”
Duina does not ask what kind of patriotism his interviewees believe in, nor, crucially, whether other kinds of patriotism might exist in the country. Although his book is full of fresh observations and deep compassion for its subjects, he never distinguishes between poor whites, African Americans, Latinos, and Native peoples, and how members of each group define their love of country. He never really interrogates the politics of his story: what is meant by “America” and what those “USA” chants mean at a Trump rally. Nor does he examine how this expression of patriotism differs from, say, what the flag-waving at the victory celebrations for the US women’s national soccer team last summer might mean.
Duina’s “patriotism” unites people along racial and gender lines. But in the past—say, during the New Deal era—America has seen other kinds of patriotism that imperfectly united communities around economic concerns. Isn’t the real question not who is patriotic but, rather, how the version of patriotism that Duina studies so seamlessly morphed under Trump into a nationalism based on the exclusion of others? Isn’t the right question why this patriotism, and why now?
Princeton University Professor of Social Sciences Robert Wuthnow has spent much of the last decade studying the small towns and rural hamlets of Kansas, where he grew up. In the aftermath of the 2016 election—in which, he notes, the farther someone lived from a metropolitan area, the more likely they were to cast a ballot for Trump—he returned to his home state (and places like it) with a team of research assistants. They were committed to listening: to making sense of the political behavior of those he calls “the left behind.”
Right off the bat—on page 2 of the book—Wuthnow dismisses Thomas Frank’s and others’ “caustic criticisms of backward voters in rural areas.” Economic issues, he contends, can’t explain the political behavior of white voters in the flyover states. Nor can the overly simplistic idea of white male anger. It is deeper than that. Rural Americans, he argues with a whiff of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, live differently than those from other parts of the US. According to Wuthnow, they live in communities bound together by mutual obligations forged among a group of people who chose to stay in these places, even when they knew that their communities weren’t going to grow and prosper like the nation’s cities and suburbs. To them, the sacrifices required to live in a place of like-minded, familiar, and caring people are worth it.
Wuthnow, however, suggests that small-town residents feel that their common-sense values have been left behind, displaced by big-city thinking and a “federal government [that] is more intrusive than ever, raising taxes and imposing regulations that seem incommensurable with how things should be done.” This alienation, in turn, seemingly explains how Trump could win in 2016. It also allegedly explains how Hillary Clinton, with her support for economic issues like extending Obamacare and raising the minimum wage, couldn’t even muster 10 percent of the vote in eight rural, “left-behind” Oklahoma counties or 30 percent of the vote statewide. But did Wuthnow simply discover what he was already looking to find? Where is Trevor and his piercing anger in this account?
Jonathan Metzl, trained as both a sociologist and a psychiatrist, followed the same research path as Duina and Wuthnow. He went to red counties in Kansas, Missouri, and Tennessee; he drank coffee with people in support group meetings and in their trailer park living rooms. Metzl intersperses his analytical chapters on gun rights, opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and hostility toward government support for education with transcriptions of his interviews, so that readers can hear the everyday voices of the resistance to government action.
Metzl’s narrative asides, his use of the somewhat squishy term “heartland,” and his occasional lumping together of working-class and middle-class whites into one uniform group sometimes distract from the powerful message of his book. But only sometimes. There is a propulsive force to this account that is hard to shake.
That’s because of the data Metzl assembles: compelling, grim, and arresting data, presented in clear prose and heartbreaking charts and tables. The data from Missouri show that gun deaths climb as more guns are available and politicians block gun control measures and federally funded research into shooting deaths. Comparing data from Kentucky and Tennessee, Metzl shows that mortality rates are significantly lower in states that opted into Obamacare than in those that didn’t. He presents numbers gathered from Kansas, in the aftermath of a Tea Party takeover of the state, that make clear that as dropouts from education increase, so do mortality rates.
In the end, it is Metzl’s shocking conclusions that keep ringing in your head long after you put his book down: no matter where they got their ideas and whether they genuinely believe them or not, poor, rural, working-class whites are dying because of their opposition to state action and social inclusion. Unlike what Frank’s analysis would suggest, the threats to poor whites in the red states are under their own control. Again and again, Metzl’s data show economically strapped white voters across the South, Midwest, and West opposing gun control, the broadening of health care coverage, and adequate support for public schools. Why?
According to Metzl, the answer is simple. White people reject taxpayer-supported schools and health care because of racism. As he explains it, they have long imagined themselves as masters of their own worlds. They made it on their own, and when they didn’t, they dealt with the consequences of their failures and pulled themselves back up by their bootstraps. But these days, they believe, too many people—people not like them, not as “American” as them—want something for nothing. In the eyes of Metzl’s informants, these freeloaders tend to be black and brown. Yet to anyone listening, they would insist that they aren’t racist for pointing out these facts. For Metzl, Trevor, the gravely ill man who opposed the ACA even though it would save his life, is the alarming new normal: a poor man willing to die on the sword of his whiteness.
Metzl points to a “seeming contraction” in Trevor’s politics. But that’s probably not how Trevor and his “heartland” neighbors see things. They don’t think they are voting against their class interests. They are sure they are fighting for them. They are battling to get back what they had—the full support of the government and of Hollywood for the economic and social dividends of whiteness. This is what they believe is slipping away, and why when the president tells them that he is going to “Make America Great Again” and vows to “Send Them Back,” they rise to their feet. They are cheering because maybe yesterday is just around the corner, and if it isn’t, they’re going to make damn sure no else get the spoils of a system they once had all to themselves.
Fueled by a sense of having been shoved to the side, Trevor and those like him have enlisted in a political movement to “reclaim” the “ownership” of an identity and a security that was once exclusively their own.
In other words, without coming out and saying it, the president and his blue-collar backers like Trevor have something quite specific in mind when they talk about returning to the past. They aren’t just alienated or deeply patriotic or feeling left behind. They want to go back to what the historian Robert Self has labeled “breadwinner liberalism.”1
This social compact provided white working-class men with a living wage, one that didn’t require a second income or a college degree (and the huge debt that now goes with it). In addition, breadwinner liberalism told white men that they, and they alone, controlled their families. It put them at the center of the social imaginary: as cowboys, cigarette pitchmen, and flyboys with the “right stuff.” Many union leaders and leading liberal politicians of the day did not challenge—and, in fact, often encouraged—government-backed segregation in schools, housing, lending, and jobs, all while covering up this “affirmative action for whites,” as the political scientist Ira Katznelson has called it,2 with endless platitudes about the hard work, sturdy individualism, and patriarchal valor of white men. For “heartlanders,” this world came under attack by a newer, more inclusive post-1960s version of liberalism that promised (without always delivering) a color-blind society; open competition for jobs, education, and housing; and the tolerance, even the occasional celebration, of difference.
This is the world that the Midwesterners and Southerners whom Metzl, Duina, and Wuthnow interviewed want to destroy. (The metaphors of siege and violence are key here, but not always acknowledged in these books.) As Trevor made clear, he would rather die than let newer permutations of liberalism continue to take shape, expand his notions of democracy, or let other people replace him and his white male peers as the most American of Americans.
The fear of losing something essential is what gives the politics of today its heavy overtones of desperation and meanness. Fueled by a sense of having been shoved to the side, Trevor and those like him have enlisted in a political movement to “reclaim” the “ownership” of an identity and a security that was once exclusively their own. Steve Bannon actually celebrated Trump’s election as “a restoration,” ominously echoing the history of European monarchies returning to power after short-lived experiments in representative democracy. That same determination to take the nation back (again) can be seen and felt at the president’s rallies, in online scorn and manifestos, and in mass shootings that target Jews, the LBGTQ+ community, and people of color from Orlando to Pittsburgh to El Paso.
The quest to overthrow the current order by any means necessary points to one other critical matter. In those long, early days after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, moderates like Chris Matthews and even some more progressive observers insisted that the Democratic Party needed to recalibrate its message. To win back the White House, according to these observers, Democrats needed to highlight bread-and-butter issues like health care, infrastructure, and jobs. Emphasizing these policies, they believed, would lure blue-collar voters back into the fold. But this advice was also about what not to say. Don’t mention trans rights. Forget about mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. Squash any conversation about reparations. Avoid talking about immigration reform. Push the discussion of the nation’s racial past and present down the road for another day.
But this strategy of avoidance is built on its own version of false consciousness, and even more, on a willful misreading of history. Just as Frank argued that poor white voters were being duped to vote against their economic interests, some commentators now believe that these same voters can be duped right back. Their strategy of putting lunch pail politics first presumes that economic interests are the truest and most honest kind of interests and can somehow be isolated from race and other forms of identity.
Yet in the US, these aren’t either/or concerns. They are and have always been the same. Building a new and durable electoral coalition to defeat Trumpism requires confronting the nation’s past of government-backed whiteness, as well as breaking the recurrent cycle of racially infused backlash politics now as old as the Watergate building and misty memories of Woodstock. This new coalition demands deeper thinking than the formulations about false consciousness. It demands that we unpack the connections between patriotism and prejudice, violence and alienation, gender and nationalism, and, most of all, white privilege and how the state has long exercised power on its behalf.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.