The same dynamic that Du Bois grappled with is on display today. In breaking for Donald Trump and the GOP, working-class white voters are manifestly undercutting their economic self-interest. To be sure, Trump didn’t campaign like an archetypal GOP plutocrat. He railed against free trade and immigration, policies that many white working-class citizens believe, with some justification, have hurt their communities. He promised to bring back manufacturing and coal mining jobs, eliminate generous tax loopholes for wealthy families like his own, and—like Andrew Jackson, after whom he has patterned his presidency—privilege the many over the few.
But Democrats and Never Trump Republicans shouted at the top of their lungs that Trump’s campaign promises either weren’t possible or that they wouldn’t help working-class voters as much as he pledged. And they appear to have been right. The president recently signed into law a tax bill whose benefits, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center and the Congressional Budget Office, accrue principally to corporations and super-rich individuals; many middle-class and working-class families will ultimately face a tax hike. The administraton and its congressional supporters have also taken steps to make health care less affordable or altogether inaccessible, destabilize retirement security for working-class families, and allow industrial polluters to despoil the air they breathe and the water they drink. Despite what Trump said on the campaign trail, his agenda does little to help and much to hurt struggling white families.
Of course, whiteness still delivers other dividends—as it always has. It makes one less likely to be killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. It enables white men to carry assault weapons (including long guns) in places of public accommodation, while a black man might be shot and killed by law enforcement officials merely for picking up a BB gun displayed on a sales rack at Walmart. It affords working-class white families the peace of mind that the government won’t invade homes or hospitals in pursuit of undocumented children or grandparents. Whiteness, in other words, continues to pay tangible benefits, and for right or wrong, it makes some sense that its primary beneficiaries are loathe to support candidates who expressely promise to disrupt this privileged status.
Yet Trump has also, arguably more than any other candidate for president in the last hundred years (excepting third-party outliers like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace), played to the purely psychological benefits of being white. From his racially-laden exhortations about black crime in Chicago and Latino gangs seemingly everywhere, to his attacks on an American-born federal judge of Mexican parentage and Muslim gold star parents, he has paid the white majority with redemption and revanchism. Trump might be increasing economic inequality, but at least the working-class whites feel like they belong in Trump’s America. He urged them to privilege race over class when they entered their polling stations.
And it didn’t just stop there. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues, Trump swept almost every white demographic group, forging a “broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker.” It’s not just blue-collar white people who seem blithely willing to sacrifice economic rationality for racial solidarity. After all, it arguably took a special kind of stupid for upper-middle class suburbanites in high-tax states to support a party that just raised their taxes. (No, this wasn’t a bait-and-switch. The GOP leadership has talked openly about eliminating deductions for state and local taxes since 2014.) Unless, that is, you account for the wages of whiteness.
If there's a sentence that sums up 2017 politically, it's "It’s not just blue-collar white people who seem blithely willing to sacrifice economic rationality for racial solidarity."
This is why "Democrats must push the class argument" will never work and it's the best argument that I've heard this year as to why Democrats need to stick with voters of color and stop chasing blue-collar whites at the expense of voters of color. It hasn't worked in the past, it won't work now. Class arguments, pocketbook politics, dinner-table finance discussions, these don't work in 2017 as long as a majority of white voters ignore them in favor of racial solidarity.
And as you've seen so many times, I end with this from Lyndon Johnson, who knew what was up almost 60 years ago when he spoke to a young staffer by the name of Bill Moyers in 1960 during a motorcade in Tennessee:
“I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,” he said. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Onward to 2018.