In This Review

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
480 pp, Viking, 2016
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Most Americans are optimistic about their futures—but poor and working-class whites are not. According to a recent analysis published by the Brookings Institution, poor Hispanics are almost a third more likely than their white counterparts to imagine a better future. And poor African Americans—who face far higher rates of incarceration and unemployment and who fall victim far more frequently to both violent crime and police brutality—are nearly three times as optimistic as poor whites. Carol Graham, the economist who oversaw the analysis, concluded that poor whites suffer less from direct material deprivation than from the intangible but profound problems of “unhappiness, stress, and lack of hope.” That might explain why the slogan of the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump—“Make America Great Again!”—sounds so good to so many of them.

A stunning U-turn in the fortunes of poor and working-class whites began in the 1970s, as deindustrialization, automation, globalization, and the growth of the high-technology and service sectors transformed the U.S. economy. In the decades since, many blue-collar jobs have vanished, wages have stagnated for less educated Americans, wealth has accumulated at the top of the economic food chain, and social mobility has become vastly harder to achieve. Technological and financial innovations have fostered economic and social vitality in urban centers on the coasts. But those changes have brought far fewer benefits to the formerly industrial South and Midwest. As economic decline has hollowed out civic life and the national political conversation has focused on other issues, many people in “flyover country” have sought solace in opioids and methamphetamine; some have lashed out by embracing white nationalist rage. As whites come closer to becoming a plurality in the United States (or a “white minority,” in more paranoid terms), many have become receptive to nativist or bigoted appeals and thinly veiled promises to protect their endangered racial privilege: think of Trump’s promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and his invocation of an unspecified bygone era when the United States was “great,” which many white Trump supporters seem to understand as a reference to a time when they felt themselves to be more firmly at the center of civic and economic life.

Trump also loves to tell his audiences that they are victims of a “rigged” political system that empowers elites at their expense. On that count, the evidence supports him. Consider, for example, the findings of a widely cited 2014 study by the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who researched public opinion on approximately 1,800 policy proposals (as captured by surveys taken between 1981 and 2002) and found that only those ideas endorsed by the wealthiest ten percent of Americans became law. This domination of politics by economic elites has produced the de facto disenfranchisement of everyone else—a burden experienced by the entire remaining 90 percent, of course, but perhaps felt most acutely by those who have fallen the furthest.

For poor and working-class white Americans, the profound shifts of the past few decades have proved literally lethal: beginning around 1999, life expectancy—which had been increasing dramatically for all Americans during the twentieth century—began to decrease for less educated middle-aged whites. Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who discovered this trend along with his wife and collaborator, the economist Anne Case, speculated that this demographic group is “susceptible to despair” because they have “lost the narrative of their lives.”

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash aims to uncover the historical roots of this social calamity and explain its political effects. It’s an ambitious book that doesn’t quite succeed but that is nonetheless frequently revelatory. Isenberg braids together political philosophy, popular culture, literature, and cultural studies to examine the importance of class in the United States and to demonstrate how lower-class white Americans have been kicked around by elites and mistreated in myriad ways since the founding of the republic. Her main objective is to bury the myth “that Americans, through some rare good fortune, escaped the burden of class that prevailed in the mother country of England.” In Isenberg’s rendering, for poor whites, the American dream has always been a bit of a nightmare.

A woman smokes a cigarette on a front porch during flooding in Louisiana, August 2016.
Edmund Fountain / Reuters

WHITE PLIGHT

The title of Isenberg’s book is just one example of the many ugly epithets that have been applied over the centuries to poor and working-class whites. The book offers a more complete list: “Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.”

Most middle-class, wealthy, and nonwhite Americans are familiar with the stereotypes these terms evoke; many even traffic in such derogatory language, if only under their breath. And even Americans who harbor no prejudice against poor whites tend to misunderstand them, seeing the emergence of a white underclass as a relatively recent phenomenon brought about by deindustrialization, immigration, and globalization. Isenberg sets out to correct that misimpression by helping readers unlearn what they think they know. “Historical mythmaking,” Isenberg proclaims, “is made possible only by forgetting.” Her narrative is a myth-busting tour of American history that recasts it into a brutal tale of domination, subordination, and class conflict.

For poor and working-class white Americans, the profound shifts of the past few decades have proved literally lethal.

In Isenberg’s telling, the Puritan leader John Winthrop—whose image of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a charitable, compassionate “city upon a hill” has become a leitmotif of American exceptionalism—was no democrat; rather, he was an elitist who felt no pity for the poor, whom he termed the “scum of the land.” Winthrop’s colony, Isenberg writes, was not an incubator of egalitarianism but a repressive, insular community obsessed with the maintenance of a class hierarchy. She also casts a critical eye on the ideas of a number of figures who shaped the American Revolution, including John Locke and Thomas Paine, who were both dismissive when it came to the plight of the poor. The central figure of early American mythology is the landowning yeoman, most prominently hailed by Thomas Jefferson. But during its first few decades of existence, the United States offered little to the poor and landless, scratching out lives on the margins.

The first national political figure to break this mold and rally the political power of poor whites was Andrew Jackson. Jackson, whom patrician elites considered crude and uncivilized, embraced the impoverished migrants who in the beginning of the nineteenth century had started to settle the “frontier”—the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. These landless “squatters” had long been viewed with disdain by city-dwelling elites and wealthy landowners; during (and especially just after) the Jackson presidency, they “morphed into the colloquial common man of democratic lore,” Isenberg writes. Jackson drew poor whites into the Democratic Party by promising to root out corruption and challenge entrenched elites. However, the first version of American populism to achieve electoral success on a national level was also infused with racism, establishing a pattern that persists today. Jackson, a slave owner, strongly opposed abolition and backed the policy of “Indian removal”—positions that assured many of his poor white supporters that he would protect them not only from elites but also from those lower than them on the social ladder.

Indeed, during the nineteenth century, poor whites were hardly the only group that struggled: blacks and Native Americans suffered even more. Regrettably, when it comes to the connection between discrimination against poor whites and the oppression of other groups, Isenberg’s book is less than insightful. It hardly explores how slavery, segregation, and nativism (a subject she does not consider at all) shaped the U.S. class system, or how politicians (populist and otherwise) used appeals to racial solidarity to block the potential development of class-based alliances that would cross racial lines. Isenberg instead delves into a novel but not particularly illuminating argument that poor whites have come to constitute something akin to a distinct racial category, which some elites believed needed to be “bred” so as to supply a steady source of cheap labor.

Because “white trash” has so often referred to the landless poor, the book becomes less satisfying as it moves closer to the present, chronicling a nation whose people are drifting further from their sense of attachment to the land. Isenberg mostly skips the white working class’ experience of the postwar boom; her exploration of that era is dominated by a set of ruminations on Elvis Presley and the television show The Beverly Hillbillies. Likewise, her cursory treatment of the civil rights movement focuses on a small number of white reactions to the famous school desegregation campaign in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Reviewing the second half of the twentieth century, Isenberg touches only fleetingly on how, during the 1970s, the embrace of a “redneck” identity became an acceptable, even celebrated, aspect of working-class culture and politics. And although the travails of Bill Clinton get plenty of attention (Isenberg writes that his presidency resulted in a “white trash outing on the grand national stage”), the book has virtually nothing to say about the Obama era, which has witnessed the rise of two distinct but related political movements that draw the support of poor and working-class whites: first the Tea Party and now the Trump candidacy.

A broader problem with White Trash is that although Isenberg chronicles how poor and working-class whites have been seen by others, she doesn’t offer much insight into how they have seen themselves or the rest of society. In the most famous examination of poor whites, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the writer James Agee strove to do justice to his subject by revealing “the cruel radiance of what is.” Isenberg is astute enough to recognize the challenge Agee set forth, but it’s difficult to preserve much depth over her book’s broad historical sweep. There are too few anecdotes, quotes, or accounts of how members of these groups have viewed their own lives or conceived of politics.

Also absent are accounts of all the ways that lower-class whites have fought back against efforts to keep them in their place. White Trash has nothing to say about the agrarian populism of the nineteenth century, which saw small farmers confront powerful banks and railroads over exploitative loans and rates. Similarly, there is nothing in the book about the great textile strike of 1934, when “lint heads” walked out of mills across the Piedmont region, demanding better pay and working conditions and the right to form a union. Isenberg’s approach winds up flattening all historical eras to accommodate her overarching themes of impoverishment and dispossession, so that even the postwar era—in which inequality abated, expectations rose, and poor and working-class whites shared in the prosperity—seems no different from any other time.

In a tent city, outside Sacramento, CA, March 2009.
In a tent city, outside Sacramento, CA, March 2009.
Max Whittaker / Reuters

FROM OBAMA TO TRUMP

Democrats and Republicans are fond of blaming each other for the plight of poor and working-class whites. The reality is that both parties have failed to look out for these groups, as Barack Obama pointed out while running for president in 2008:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton admin­istration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not.

The next part of Obama’s statement got him into political trouble: “So it’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter—they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations.” This smacked of condescension, and it foreshadowed how difficult Obama would find it to reach out to poor and working-class whites as president, even when his policies explicitly sought to benefit them. And his intentions aside, those groups have not fared much better during his presidency. Meanwhile, the growth in the nonwhite portion of the electorate has allowed the Democratic Party to win in reliably “blue” states without making inroads with less educated white voters. This year’s Democratic National Convention presented a beautiful multicultural tableau. But at a number of points during the event, some viewers might have felt that the subtext was: “We’ve completely given up on white guys.”

By contrast, the Republican Party—or at least the subset of it that has propelled Trump’s candidacy—often seems to be appealing to hardly anyone other than white men. In an analysis that compared county-level demographic data with results in the 2016 GOP primary elections, Neil Irwin and Josh Katz of The New York Times found that the level of support for Trump in any given county correlated strongly with the percentage of its residents who were white and did not finish high school, the proportion of inhabitants who reported “American” ancestry on census forms, the percentage who lived in mobile homes, the percentage who identified as evangelical Christian, and the percentage who had supported the segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. But support for Trump also correlated strongly with high levels of dependence on “old economy” jobs and with low levels of participation in the labor force. That is why Trump’s campaign has also featured elements of economic populism, centered on trade protectionism and a commitment to federal entitlement programs such as Social Security—an agenda that Trump promises will afford working-class whites the security and prosperity their parents and grandparents enjoyed during the postwar era.

Even if Trump loses, his campaign seems likely to have a profound impact on the Republican Party. “Five, 10 years from now—different party,” Trump mused during an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek in May. “You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.” Trump has said some outlandish things during his campaign, but he may very well be right about that. Liberals, along with many conservatives, see Trumpism as a disease afflicting the American body politic. In fact, it is a symptom of a deeper pathology whose roots, as Isenberg’s book shows, extend far back in U.S. history. The Trump campaign is filling a long-standing void in U.S. politics: the space where the interests of poor and working-class whites used to be. Trump himself might pass from the political scene. But until one or both parties find a way to address the problems faced by poor and working-class whites, Trumpism is here to stay.

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