We are quickly approaching the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
Having grown up in a white working class neighborhood dominated by oil refineries, commercial freight trains, landfills and waste water treatment facilities in West Tulsa, Oklahoma, I know the mindset and feelings of the white working class who voted for Trump all too well.
Oklahoma is no longer my life, nor is its conservative mindset my current reality. I now live in Boulder, Colorado and, like the majority of Americans, I awoke surprised and appalled by the reality of Donald Trump as our President-elect—a rich, nativist-Republican from New York City as President of the white working class and America, really?
I accept the result of the election, and now that I’ve had time to reflect on the outcome, I’d like to share a few insights. My goal is to help folks understand what’s going on in the minds of those who voted for Trump. Admittedly, I ignored the white working class as much as most and I failed to remain open to their plight during this election. This was despite the fact that nearly everything I’ve done over the last few decades was to improve my life, the lives of those I grew up with in Oklahoma, as well as the lives of all. How could I have ignored them? How could they have betrayed me, and those like them, by voting for the last person on Earth who will actually help them?
During the first two decades of my life, I grew up with the white working class in West Tulsa, Oklahoma, the setting of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Unlike a lot of people I grew up with, I actually listened to the words of our elders and took individual responsibility and pulled myself up by the ol’ bootstraps, eventually leading me to complete a PhD at the University of Cambridge in England—one of the furthest places on Earth from West Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Having pursued education and hard work to avoid being a “Greaser” for the rest of my life, I seemed to have forgotten how prevalent and real the mindset of the white working class is in America. During this election, I underestimated the persistent power of the myths I had grown up with in my early life. Donald Trump didn’t, even as a wealthy blue-blooded white man from New York City. He managed to tap into the white working class’ material and emotional angst for his own gain, and at their eventual expense (e.g. repealing Obamacare). And, it worked. He won!
One of my first thoughts after Trump’s election was, what the hell is the white working class thinking? Then, I remembered, I know exactly what they’re thinking; that’s where I’m from. The white working class in the neighborhoods of West Tulsa had pride in hard work and their cultural traditions, which mostly included church, rituals like football, and patriotic military endeavors deeply rooted in nationalist tendencies.
All of us lived together: poor whites, Native Americans, Hispanics and Vietnamese immigrants who were given refuge in the United States during the Vietnam War. West Tulsa was also home to African American families who left the segregated confines of the North side where I spent the first five years of my life living in the Francis Willard Home for Girls; it was administered by my dad in the 1970s.
In this sense, the “white working class” is often a misnomer. It creates an image of communities where all the working folks are white. But, the white working class in my neighborhood was more exposed to and intimate with people of other races and ethnicities than the folks in my life today. Boulder isn’t the most diverse city in America.
Although most of the people on the West side were white, everyone was the working poor: oil refinery employees, firefighters, policemen, teachers, blue-collar laborers like welders, among others. The difficulty of life for most people around me was always obvious given the suicides, violence, drug addiction, and the lack of good educators to help us navigate the treacherous waters of an impoverished life. So, I am familiar with the white working class, way more than I’d like to be at this stage, but to pretend like I didn’t know why they voted for Trump would be delusional and dishonest.
For this reason, the surprise of Trump’s election was to my own chagrin. The mistake that I made, like many others, is that I viewed my old life and mindset, the white working class mindset, as outdated, bigoted, close-minded, and intolerant. It’s as if I began to believe that the Oklahoma mindset that I had escaped ceased to exist at all simply because I earned an education and chose a different path in life. Unfortunately, reality came back with a vengeance to remind me how wrong this assumption was.
While growing up, a common refrain on the porches of our white working class neighborhood was, “Don’t forget where you came from, boy!” Folks used this rhetorical phrase as a way to keep me, and others, focused on pride in the West side, or on the nativist mindset that has traditionally underpinned the core of white working class identity, at least in West Tulsa. It was a means to communicate that neither government nor corporations were ever going to take care of us; we’d always be ignored and screwed when it came to either.
So, we had to have each other’s backs, the tribe’s back, the West side! Yet, if we did achieve the American dream, we’d owe it to where we came from, rather than to the true reason for America’s success, classical liberalism. Nor could it be attributed to our own willpower and determination to succeed outside of our community, or outside of conservative America.
The phrase, “Don’t forget where you came from,” was a way for the tribe’s members to hedge against the bet that we might see our life for what it was, and then choose a different life outside of the tribe—a choice that would negate the value of those left in the future’s wake and give validity to those who didn’t live like the tribe. We had to defend the tribe.
Folks didn’t own, or know, much, but folks had pride, so the biggest insult to us came when other folks devalued the few things we valued, like God, family and country. The reaction was even more visceral when the insults came from those so-called liberal elites on the coasts, or in places like Boulder. And, after a few solid decades of educated elites making fun of folks on television, in movies, and through mainstream media, it’s not surprising that some folks chose to say, “Screw you man,” even though voting for Trump was against their own interests. Trump was one of the biggest FUs from any group in American history, and it was actually logical if you’re a part of the working class in America.
Although the liberal cultural commentary, and parodies, sometimes offer valid insights, when you’re a part of the white working class, it just feels like adding insult to injury. Folks may not have much, but at least folks have pride and a worldview that makes their lives feel less brutal at times. So, when the educated elites attack the basis of folks’ pride and threaten that which makes life less brutal, what options do those folks have to defend themselves? Not much, with the exception of a bright and shiny Trump card, the last card available to play in this round of American history.
What Trump, or at least his advisors, knew was that God, family, and country was always the order of loyalties for large parts of America, with family being more broadly conceived as “our people”: neighbors, friends, and fellow churchgoers. In other words, family came after God and before the nation because the tribe matters more than the nation, and pride in the tribe matters almost as much as God.
Trump’s campaign understood the reality of this nativism. I had forgotten its power, while his campaign used it to his advantage by working feverishly to reinstate folks’ pride after four decades of Reaganomics and an ascendant cultural liberalism that clobbered into submission every bit of the narrow identity that remained for these folks. If the last four decades have been defined by anything, it’s that classical liberalism won in every aspect of American lives: economically, politically, socially, and culturally.
What the white working class were hearing as they continuously tried to crawl out of the agonizing pit of American exceptionalism on their way to work was that they were irrelevant, a punch line, a joke, or the “has beens” of American history. To make things worse, the television slapped the label of white privilege on top of agony, which seemed absurd given that the majority of the poor in America are uneducated whites.
They thought, “How’s this white privilege?”
Privileged over whom? Not the minorities with whom they worked with day in and day out. And, given the destitute feeling that had crept into every aspect of their lives over the last few decades, and an increasing focus on multi-cultural attitudes and American pluralism, they couldn’t help but think: WTF is wrong with America? Conversely, a segment of America was thinking: WTF are they thinking? That’s about as far as those inquiries went.
Both Reaganomics and an ascendant cultural liberalism over the last four decades left folks feeling humiliated, and even worthless—not only the white working class but also the minority groups with whom they worked.
It’s no surprise that suicide, opioids and crystal methamphetamine have overtaken a lot of communities, like they have in West Tulsa. Folks had been losing their livelihoods for years, at least since Ronald Reagan began off-shoring their jobs, while working with his fellow Republicans to dismantle their communities and labor unions so that the wealthy elite could make more money off of their backs. And then, Republicans got really good at blaming everyone else for the white worker’s plight. What better way to do that than to blame Mexicans and Muslims, hence America’s wars on reasoned approaches to immigration and terrorism.
In addition to the impact on their livelihoods, the cultural foundations upon which folks’ lives had meaning, God and tribe, were simultaneously being undermined by science in liberal institutions, like universities, that were hell bent on “destroying real America” by converting youth into liberal pansies with safe zones and trigger warnings.
In other words, over the last few decades, and for the first time since before World War II, the white working class’ two means of security—their economic livelihoods and cultural identity—have been under a relentless assault that left them feeling as excluded as other traditionally marginalized groups in America: African Americans, Hispanics, and the LBGT community, among others. Trump spoke to them when no one else would, and then he began playing them like a fiddle when he realized how easy it was to fiddle with America. And now, he’s playing his fiddle for us all.
The fiddler fiddles because we allow him to fiddle when we ignore each other, or write off segments of America as un-American. I too fell into the mindset that leads to any form of social exclusion in America, sadly, by patronizing. I attribute this to my own biases, biases that I continuously seek to uncover and eradicate to the extent possible. I am human. The task for all of us is to recognize our biases and the worldviews in which they’re situated and do our best to overcome them.
I am aware that my biases sometimes prevent me from demonstrating compassion and understanding in the best ways possible, but it is my desire to be inclusive of all. More than anything after this election, I want to understand all of our heartaches, pain, and stories so that I have a full picture of America and can act on conscience to defend what it is that we collectively want as a nation. I want to attempt to transcend squabbling over a single ideology, while recognizing that America is a multitude of ideas, beliefs and perspectives that make our nation diverse and resilient.
Self-reflection is difficult, and it’s an act that, if done consistently, can alleviate suffering, while cultivating awareness and understanding. The unknown will always remain a barrier to insight, and continually drive humanity’s deepest fears. But, until we come to know others, and have compassion for their circumstances, we will always be confined to the prison of fear that comes with uncertainty and not knowing.
More importantly, so long as we are trapped by fear, “fascist” elitists, like Trump, will remain capable of exploiting our fears as they pursue wealth, power, and prestige at our collective expense. I’m not allowing it, and neither should you; we’re all West siders in one way or another and we’ve got to have each other’s backs, especially over the next four years.
So long as we continue to look outside of ourselves for someone to solve our problems, or someone to blame for them, we’re destined to be let down. What we need has to come from within, and then we have to come together. On that note, I’ve got your back, and you don’t even have to have mine.
Author: Dr. Matthew Wilburn King
Image: Jamelle Bouie/Flickr
Editor: Travis May
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