The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 2 (Summer 2018)

White Tribe Rising

James McWilliams

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 2)

Someday, when we—or our descendants—have enough distance from the present to contemplate who knows what this country will have endured, the presidential election of 2016 will evoke three words: basket of deplorables. This ill-conceived phrase, delivered by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at a Manhattan fundraiser two months before Election Day, was the rhetorical flashpoint of a broader takedown:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?… The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.1

Those comments marked the moment when an apparently new white identity—though in fact an amalgam of new and older white identities—was ingloriously named. Within hours, thanks largely to Donald Trump’s Twitter-driven spin machine, the insult became a mobilizing emblem of grievance, victimhood, and defiance for legions of white people who felt ignored and disrespected by the well-heeled liberal elite. Before Clinton realized she had stumbled, and well before she could offer a semiapologetic qualification, the “deplorables” followed a time-honored tradition of co-opting the insult and investing it with in-your-face agency.

As an emblem of identity, “deplorables” harnessed white anger and anxiety emanating not only from trailer parks, small towns, and the hollows of Appalachia, but also from well-off suburbs, gated communities, and quite a few swank downtown neighborhoods as well. It wasn’t merely the people who were already scorned as white trash, hicks, rednecks, yokels, or hillbillies. The anti-Semitic, pro-Trump troll account known as “Ricky Vaughn” was recently unmasked as a Middlebury College graduate who had worked as a consultant in New York while tweeting caricatures of Jews—hardly a member of the “forgotten white underclass,” but somehow identifying himself as such. The designation “deplorable” appealed, in other words, to whites who knew daily scarcity as well as those who experienced, in the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s description, “freedom from necessity.” A label of disapprobation had become a defiant badge of honor.

What Accounts for White Tribalism?

And with this curious transvaluation came the dawning realization—at least among some pundits and scholars—that this newest twist in America’s identity politics needed to be taken seriously, beginning with an effort to understand it. Not that there wasn’t resistance even to that among many right-thinking liberals, who deemed any effort to understand it as an attempt to legitimate it. Interviewing the sociologist Robert Wuthnow for the Vox news site, Sean Illing complained that the title of Wuthnow’s book—The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America—“rubbed [him] the wrong way”: “It seems to me that many of these people haven’t been left behind; they’ve chosen not to keep up.” Referring to Wuthnow’s depiction of rural Americans’ widespread sense of moral decline, Illing asked, “Am I supposed to take this seriously?”2

Incredulity aside, the tenor of Illing’s questions typifies one of three now well-established responses to white tribalism. The first, as exemplified by Clinton’s own comments, is to dismiss this white tribe as inherently bigoted rather than attempt to make sense of the racial animosity—its motives, its extent, and even its applicability to all so-called deplorables. Such dismissals rely on generalizations no less crude than the one candidate Trump drew on in 2015 when he declared that Mexico was “not sending their best” to the United States, but, instead, “criminals” and “rapists” (along with, Trump conceded, “some…good people”). Clinton’s observation that “there are people like that” also implicitly rejected the idea that even the most hidebound bigots could be led to think otherwise—effectively denying the power of constructive argument and education, those bedrocks of a liberal democracy.

The second approach is to characterize the white tribe as irrational. Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? starts with the premise that these are people who vote against their own interests. But this assumption ignores the possibility that working class whites might be more concerned about respect, tradition, and the collapse of their communities than with their declining economic prospects, even though the two are in fact inseparable. The problem with Kansas, it turns out, might be better explained by anthropologists than by economists.

The third way of explaining white tribalism is to subsume it under the broad and expanding rubric of populism, which, however useful for connecting it with other populist movements around the world, is ultimately a kind of evasion through labeling. Even close scholarly interpretations of populism are so equivocating and qualified that they end up obscuring more than they illuminate.

None of this is to deny that the white tribe can behave in ways that are bigoted, irrational, or populist, much less to excuse such behavior. But instead of stopping there, it behooves us to consider the deeper historical sources of deplorable-ness: why poor and downwardly mobile whites have internalized an aggrieved tribal identity, and why many well-off whites are so eager to appropriate it.

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Notes

  1. Seema Mehta, “Transcript: Clinton’s Full Remarks as She Called Half of Trump Supporters ‘Deplorables,’” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/trailguide/la-na-trailguide-updates-transcript-clinton-s-full-remarks-as-1473549076-htmlstory.html.
  2. Sean Illing, “A Princeton Sociologist Spent Eight Years Asking Rural Americans Why They’re So Pissed Off,” Vox, March 13, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/3/13/17053886/trump-rural-america-populism-racial-resentment.

James McWilliams is a professor of practice in the history department at Texas State University.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.2 (Summer 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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