The almost pathological suspicion

Fareed Zakaria is also somewhat baffled by J D Vance’s explanations for why impoverished white working class people love Trump. He’s not as baffled as I am, and he’s more polite about it, but he sees some holes in the argument.

The other, larger gap in Vance’s book is race. He speaks about the causes of the anxiety and pain of the white working class, but he describes the causes almost entirely in economic terms. Their jobs have disappeared, their wages have stagnated, their lives have become more unstable. But there is surely something else at work here — the sense that people who look and sound very different are rising up. Surveyspolls and other research confirm that racial identity and anxiety are at the heart of support for Trump.

Vance touches on this sideways, when speaking about the almost pathological suspicion his hillbillies have for Barack Obama. Vance explains that it is because of the president’s accent — “clean, perfect, neutral” — his urban background, his success in the meritocracy, his reliability as a father.

Wait. What? Vance “explains” that Obama’s reliability as a father is a reason for working class people to be pathologically suspicious of him? Why? Do they consider that “elitist” too? Is it snobbish and latte-sipping to be a good parent? If that is what he’s saying it’s just horrifying. It’s a Iago-type reason to hate someone – “He hath a daily beauty in his life/ that makes me ugly.” Apparently Obama makes people feel bad by being a good parent – and instead of trying to be good parents too, they respond by resenting him and supporting a man with no apparent morals of any kind.

“And,” one wants to whisper to Vance, “because he’s black .” After all, over the years the white working class has voted for plenty of Republican and Democratic candidates with fancy degrees and neutral accents. That’s not what makes Obama different.

The white working class has always derived some of its status because there was a minority underclass below it. In his seminal work, “American Slavery, American Freedom,” Edmund Morgan argues that even before the revolution, the introduction of slavery helped dampen class conflict within the white population. No matter how poor you were, there was security in knowing there was someone beneath you.

The rage that is fueling the Trump phenomenon is not just about stagnant wages. It is about a way of life under siege, and it risks producing a “politics of cultural despair.” That phrase was coined by Fritz Stern to describe Germany a century ago. The key to avoiding that fate is not a series of public policies — whether tariffs or tax credits — but enlightened politics, meaning leadership that does not prey on people’s fears and phobias.

Preying on people’s fears and phobias is all that Trump does.

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