The Rust Belt and The Deplorables
In November 2016, 63million Americans voted for Donald J Trump to be the forty-fifth president of the United States, shocking those who had written him off as a joke candidate and appalling those who interpreted his election as victory for racism, sexism and general awfulness. During the campaign itself, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had denounced half of his supporters as ‘the Deplorables’. The election exposed the reality of a country divided along deep cultural and political fault lines, particularly between the cultural and political establishment on the one hand and sections of the middle and working class, especially poorer white people who feel abandoned by the Democratic Party. Now the spotlight is on the latter: those Americans in the Rust Belt and the so-called flyover states who voted for Trump, with some suggesting they have legitimate grievances that have been obscured by those who dismiss them as bigots.
There is no doubting the reality of insecure jobs, stagnant wages and debilitating working conditions, particularly in those areas that benefited the most from postwar industrialisation. As the economic heyday of the early 1970s ended and decline continued through the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent sluggish recovery, the American Dream appeared to slip further from the grasp of many Americans. Mortality rates of whites with no more than a high-school degree grew from being 30 per cent lower than blacks in 1999 to 30 per cent higher in 2015. At the same time deaths by drugs, alcohol and suicide among whites have increased in all parts of the country and at every level of urbanisation.
Books like JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land have won a more sympathetic audience for the plight of those left behind by the Obama years. But why is the sense of despair particularly intense amongst white working class men and women? Is white the new black? Or are poor whites simply suffering the loss of the privilege they once enjoyed in relation to minorities? In any case, is Trump really the answer? And even if the answer is no, is there a positive kernel to the populist sentiments expressed by support of Trump in the election?