I think we could already feel it on Tuesday afternoon, even as we kept reassuring one another that we had it in the bag—the rising dread of an intuition that something we'd deemed too horrible and absurd to happen was about to happen, as when a dark logic suddenly twists a dream into a nightmare.
From The Daily Show to our Facebook pages, we'd spent a year laughing off a lunatic fringe gathered in a pair of tiny hands, certain that our creed—love trumps hate—was self-evidently persuasive. But as the results came in, the gloating sarcasm and pious homilies that had filled our feeds plummeted into bewildered panic. How could half the country be racist? Who were these people? I felt the same disbelief, revulsion, and terror. I also thought our collective shock revealed a less examined layer of privilege, one that played a key part in getting us here.
Many of Trump's supporters, especially poor white men, are indeed virulent bigots, and those who are not still endorsed one. That is truly shocking and irredeemable on moral grounds. We can never normalize, compromise with, or assimilate bigoted views in our civil society; we must actively confront them at every incidental and structural turn.
But bigotry without context is not a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of Trumpism, and I think it's time we were more mindful about projecting it onto entire abstract classes of people. When we paint voters motivated by bigotry and those willing to swallow it for other reasons with the same broad brush, we also paint over our own cultural and economic status's inextricable link with theirs. Our mockery was not up to the task of defeating them, and that we were caught by surprise is symptomatic of the overconfident condescension with which we blanket rural America.
It's understandable that we often turn a blind eye to white poverty in our moral and political calculus. The emblematic poor white man is outrageously wrong about so many things. America was never great in the way he means—he misses his unquestioned supremacy, not some fallen agrarian utopia. Rural people are not the "real America" any more than urban elites are. Immigrants aren't dangerous job-stealers. Muslims aren't terrorists. Mexicans aren't rapists. One could go on and on.
The horrific extent to which he is wrong on these points makes him seem like a creature of pure error, so it's easy to ignore the things he is right about. Globalization and the body politic really have left him behind, with little use for his outsourced skills and no coalition save guns, God, and social conservatism to represent him. We really do think we're smarter than he is, and we don't even try to hide it. He is reviled, patronized, and ignored, and we don't seem very interested in the structural causes of his misogyny and homophobia, which are also present in other identity groups we don't exclude from our sympathy. Because he is a bigot, we see and treat him differently than we do others mired in intergenerational poverty, underemployment, housing precarity, and addiction. I'm not sure we've even conceived of what his place in our diverse Democratic technocracy would be, let alone made that case to him.
The decimation of American industry and the concentration of wealth in cities, the former a direct conduit to the latter, has bred a deep-seated animus across a deeply ingrained divide. It manifests as resentment in rural America and scorn in urban America. In "Unconnected," a recent New Yorker article, George Packer gives a sweeping account of how the Democratic Party lost the white working class, a concept that "mixes race and class into a volatile compound, privilege and disadvantage."
"A great inversion occurred," Packer writes, summing up a story that has played out in North Carolina and across the country. "The dangerous, depraved cities gradually became safe for clean-living professional families, while the region surrounding Greensboro lost tobacco, textiles, and furniture-making, in a rapid collapse around the turn of the millennium, so that Oxycontin and disability and home invasions had taken root."
We all know this story, but we seem little moved by it. Instead, we drink expensive cocktails in shining glass buildings and publicly scorn whole swaths of people mired in desperate poverty, these Pennsylvania steelworkers and West Virginia coal miners we admit we've never met. We downplay the role our privilege plays in breeding our progressive views and the role systemic neglect plays in breeding their reactionary ones—that we live in places where progressivism confers social benefits, not censure. That's no excuse for, or comprehensive explanation of, bigotry, but it's an important piece I don't think we'll ever solve this puzzle without.
If we want to fully understand why an individual chooses bigotry, we need to consider the available choices. As it stands, former industrial towns across the country are trapped on the wrong side of "an economic and geographic divide that is baked into the deep structures of the knowledge economy," as the urban studies theorist Richard Florida recently tweeted. How are we proposing that a single parent in rural Missouri scraping for odd jobs and food stamps should come join our progressive project in our expensive urban centers? And if that isn't our appeal, are we, the beneficiaries of dying industry towns' demise, simply asking them to stay put and make a moral vote for a technocrat who represents a status quo that has economically failed them?
If the elite's only response to this populist uprising is to call them racists in loud public conversations with itself, we are ignoring a chink in the armor of conservatism where we might make some headway—the poor person who voted against his economic advantage (the rich person who voted for it is a separate problem). Our echo chamber of mocking self-congratulation has failed to eradicate bigotry and has perhaps strengthened it in its dug-in defensive positions. This is so clear we must all recognize it, and if we do it anyway, we are clearly not serious about solving a problem. We are concerned with differentiating and exonerating ourselves.
I am not even talking about loving people whose views we find repugnant. It's too hard, and love is too abstract and evanescent a force to address a socioeconomic breakdown. But the poor white man's resentment of the cosmopolitan elite is, in some ways, justified, and its time we added our advantage over him to our list of sins to be shriven as we continue the work of unpacking privilege in all its guises. We—some of us, anyway—must do this no matter how much bile-swallowing and radical empathy it takes. It's not for them or for us, but for the compound of them and us. The fate of the republic is in the balance.
White men are a huge problem, one that the white male progressive elite must start by solving among ourselves. There's a part of Adrienne Rich's poem "The Phenomenology of Anger" that I always carry inside me; it sadly remains as much of a lodestar for men today as it was when she wrote it decades ago. In a dream of meeting the "true enemy," Rich unleashes a torrent of white acetylene, "raking his body down to the thread/ of existence/ burning away his lie/ leaving him in a new/ world; a changed/ man."
When I discovered those lines years ago, they became a white-hot lens to focus a conviction that was already developing. They used to make me cry every time I read them, and sometimes they still do. Through Rich's clarity and power, I could almost feel the lines as an assault on my actual white male body. Thus, I gained a little more empathy for how it feels for your body to be a symbol, subject to destruction by others. Gradually, my relationship with the poem shifted from one of sorrow to acceptance of guilt and strength of purpose. Rich's words became the fixed image of my belief that the lineaments of white manhood needed not to change, but to burn away, however painful it was, for our world to go on.
The work those of us in progressive areas have been doing to break down white male supremacy is necessary and still in process. The dispersion of our hoarded power along a continuum is important. But we must also remember that the capacity to deconstruct privilege is a form of privilege, as is my capacity, as someone who is not directly threatened by bigotry, to even think about it in terms of its causes rather than its effects.
Though he did not create them, Trump has unleashed terrible forces in the world. Violent bigots are coming out of the woodwork, and for them we can spare no sympathy. Our priority is to form coalitions with people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and women against toxic forces, from our civil discourse to the streets. They are the most directly threatened, and they have been marginalized for longer and more insidiously than the white working class.
This mandate especially applies to those of us who remain safest: white men. But this doesn't mean stepping in as leaders or saviors. I think it means being quieter, retracting, listening carefully, and asking questions about what we can do to help, rather than swooping in with our own bold and uninformed solutions.
I know that might sound counterintuitive. We've been taught to take up a lot of space, one of countless ways even the most professedly feminist man operates by enculturation since birth. Swallow the shame of rooting them out and get on with it. We have to vigilantly work to divest ourselves of privilege without mistaking the effort for actually getting rid of it. We have to take ourselves apart from the inside out, without making allowances for deep-seated supremacy with good intentions.
And we have to do it all in a spirit of responsibility and recompense, not absolution or heroism. This is especially urgent after white men turned out in enthusiastic numbers to elect a sexual assaulter and bigot, when we know that an appalling number of our female friends have experienced sexual violence and all our friends of color have experienced bigotry.
In most ways, white men need to follow now, but this is one area in which we might have to lead, no matter how distasteful we find it. We can't ask people who are the direct targets of bigotry to have any congress with bigots. But eventually, the white male progressive elite has to expand its deconstruction of privilege to include the poor white men we revile for their social views. We should never compromise with bigotry, even if it were the majority, but we have to find the curiosity and compassion to learn who these people are and address the economic straits in which they live.
I grew up close enough to the rural white man to know something of him. In Hillsborough, I certainly learned things I had to work hard to unlearn. But Hillsborough is solidly middle class, near thriving cultural centers, not some decayed Rust Belt dungeon. I grew up in a socioeconomic and aesthetic environment that prized diversity, that made room for and stimulated imagination and empathy. When you try to divide up privilege between the poor white man and other compounds of race, wealth, gender, and class, things get murky fast. But when I compare my privilege to his, it is stark.
So it feels incumbent on people like me to address the concerns of the poor white man, because we are most like him and safest from him. Invective cannot be our sole response to people trapped in abject systemic poverty unless we want to embrace open classism as a value. We need to go beneath the surface of his words and try to understand his life and mind, and admit how little our political preferences consider his basic well-being.
Make no mistake: we have a lot of mutual animus and class-based prejudice to work through. When he dreams of white America, I am not what he dreams of. I do not love him. I sometimes hate him. But at my best I know he is a person shaped by his circumstances, not by some evil inner nature. That is a fundamental belief I have about people, from which I cannot exclude him. I can almost imagine how it would feel to live in his world, so alien to me—stuck, maligned, ignored by coalitions, and desperate for relief. We hate him so much that our only appeal to him is to cease to be. "Destroy yourself," we offer, like Adrienne Rich, without offering the context of privilege and social approval in which to do it.
I strongly believe that my views on social justice are, in fact, just, but I can't be as smug about them when I consider the relative luxury in which they flourished, and how luxury always comes at someone's expense. My views are constructs of my time and place, and when we live in unequal privilege, there is no objective standard of justice to rely on in our appeals to the other side. We have to prove to the poor white man that tolerance and diversity are subjectively better ways to live, and that there is a place for him in them. This problem goes deeper than a root you can dig out all at once. The soil must be cleansed and fortified so that the next generation can grow better, and we must vigorously defend the targets of bigotry until then.
In any case, it's become clear that we are not going to change minds with words, whether hostile or conciliatory, if they gloss over deeply rooted issues of fairness, privilege, and social standing. Come the next election, I'll be looking for a candidate whose platform has strong planks for people of color, LGBTQ people, women, immigrants—and, yes, the poor white people strangled in the Rust Belt. America's long nightmare of two sides in an eternal war has come to a head, but that doesn't mean it's going to end. You can't escape from a nightmare by dreaming it more and more furiously, fighting fire with fire until everything burns. You can only escape by waking up.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Poor White Man"