White Trash author Nancy Isenberg
Whatever else you might say about him, Donald Trump knows his audience. “I love the poorly educated,” the Ivy Leaguer crowed in February to a crowd in Las Vegas.
In most elections, describing one’s constituency this way would be insulting, but not in this presidential race. Trump’s supporters don’t begrudgingly identify themselves as lacking education; they do so with pride.
Mainstream media outlets have obsessed over the question: Who are these people? What do they want? Who could possibly see Trump’s buffoonery, his braggadocio, his explicit racism as presidential? The explanation has been class-based: Trump supporters are economically insecure, and are latching onto the possibility that someone will represent them. They believe in Trump because he professes that he is beholden to no outside interests, no highfalutin’ philosophy or economic power that will stomp on them.
This very vocal constituency has brought into the spotlight a new genre of historical and sociological investigations. One of the most influential is Louisiana State University historian Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Isenberg states her intention clearly: to upend our national myth that we live in a classless society.
While we tell ourselves that the American story is one of opportunity for all, the United States has always been defined by class distinctions based on land ownership. White poverty is not an accident, but an integral part of the structure of American society.
“Far more than we choose to acknowledge,” Isenberg writes, “our relentless class system evolved out of recurring agrarian notions regarding the character and potential of the land, the value of labor, and critical concepts of breeding.” Poor whites, she notes, have been with us from the beginning. “Embarrassing lower-class populations have always been numerous,” a reviled yet necessary underclass. To pretend otherwise is to fool ourselves about our national identity.
Although White Trash does not and is not meant to specifically address Trump’s campaign, reviewers and pundits have drawn obvious parallels between the disenfranchised white poor that Isenberg describes and Trump’s constituency. What can we learn from this book and others like it?
Isenberg’s narrative begins with the very first European settlers on the American continent. While we are taught to believe the New World was seen as a land of freedom and possibility, at the time it was widely viewed as an unproductive wasteland, an ideal place to ship undesirables. Some Europeans did cross the Atlantic to seek religious or political freedom; many more came as convicts, prostitutes, orphans, and indentured servants.
From there, Isenberg marches the reader through American history, demonstrating repeatedly that class has played a dominant role, in ways we have ignored.
Our Founding Fathers, who supposedly cherished the creed of equality for all, had far less faith in the “common man” than we suppose. Benjamin Franklin opposed giving alms to the unemployed poor, fearing it would encourage them to be idle. Thomas Jefferson urged the creation of a uniquely American stock of hardworking, virtuous citizens, and thought that those who did not measure up were, like livestock, unfit for breeding. The poor were seen as expendable, deserving of scorn.
Isenberg argues that the Civil War was far less about slavery and states’ rights than the preservation of a class system. The Southern aristocracy fought the war to continue exploiting poor white tenant farmers as well as slaves. Its members defended keeping a large white underclass of tenant farmers as part of the natural order, one that low-class Northerners threatened with dangerous calls for equality.
Isenberg goes on to discuss the eugenics movement advocated by Teddy Roosevelt, which guided policy well into the twentieth century. To eugenicists, poor whites were a congenitally licentious, lazy, and criminal breed that should be prevented from procreating further, and ideally be sterilized. In the era of relative prosperity that followed World War II, government relegated poor whites to trailer parks, the quintessential symbol of “white trash,” rather than the emerging suburbs.
The story diverges in the 1950s with what Isenberg terms the “white trash makeover,” which began with Elvis and continued with figures like Dolly Parton, Andy Griffith, Tammy Faye, and Lyndon Johnson. Middle- and upper-class whites could enjoy white trash culture while still feeling superior. “Folksy” became a socially acceptable temporary class diversion. Reality television à la Duck Dynasty and Sarah Palin’s Alaska has carried this class voyeurism into this century.
At the end of the 400-year history she outlines, Isenberg concludes that the people regarded as white trash “are renamed often, but they do not disappear. Our very identity as a nation, no matter what we tell ourselves, is intimately tied up with the dispossessed.” To acknowledge this past is to have clearer insight into our present.
Isenberg adeptly situates class in its rightful place in our national memory, showing that sharp class divisions were explicitly promoted and indeed vital. She lets her sources do the talking; they provide colorful illustrations of class divisions and document prevailing notions about social stratification. This is the strength of the book.
But Isenberg is better at finding evidence than putting it in a compelling context. The chapters are more like snapshots of different moments in American history than a coherent narrative. The prose is occasionally clunky, and Isenberg’s tendency to go on tangents often clouds her message. Her sources, although rich, occasionally lead her into less relevant territory, like John Winthrop’s exile in England or the history of Philadelphia’s Quakers.
Despite this, Isenberg’s research illuminates our nation’s history, and is useful in understanding aspects of the world we currently inhabit.
White Trash and other books that examine the state of poor, white America—J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Carol Anderson’s White Rage, Robert P. Jones’s The End of White Christian America—are getting a lot of attention as pundits, reporters, academics, and other members of the liberal elite scramble to understand the appeal of Donald Trump.
“Who are all these Trump supporters?” George Saunders asks bluntly in a recent piece in The New Yorker. After talking to people at numerous Trump rallies, he concludes that the Republican nominee’s followers share a profound feeling of loss, or fear of impending loss, which Saunders calls “usurpation anxiety syndrome.”
These are people who think of themselves as the “real Americans”—hard-working, law-abiding, unsophisticated, pushed aside by multiculturalism and “political correctness.” Neglected by those with power in politics, economics, culture, and media, the members of this self-proclaimed (but obviously misnamed) Silent Majority have banded together around the one political figure who gives them a sense of power.
Saunders insists it is the feeling of being left out that fuels support for Trump—not, as often claimed, any real material deprivation. Although some Trump backers are economically deprived, many are not—or they experience this lack in a different way. “Standing in line at the pharmacy in an Amarillo Walmart superstore,” he writes, “I imagined some kid who had moved only, or mostly, through such bland, bright spaces, spaces constructed to suit the purposes of distant profit, and it occurred to me how easy it would be, in that life, to feel powerless.”
And powerlessness can have a sort of perverse appeal. In June, NBC’s number crunchers analyzed votes for Trump by county, considered at different points in primary season. In the first elections, his supporters came primarily from counties with low workforce participation, low education levels, and falling or stagnant incomes. As primary season continued, he gained support from the more “well-heeled” areas that had initially rejected him.
NBC’s data shows that Saunders overstates his point somewhat—poverty, or at least stagnation, did provide an impetus for backing Trump among his earliest supporters. But Trump’s backers, Saunders wisely reminds us, are not those who have nothing; historically, that group does not vote. Rather they are people united by the cultural shunning of “white trash” Americans—from politics, from education, from media.
While some members of this group are suffering real economic hardship, “usurpation anxiety syndrome” may be more related to cultural (real or imagined) disenfranchisement, a sense that the system works for some but not for them. Trump’s supporters define themselves as being against the generally liberal elite in control of most sectors of society—pride in being “poorly educated,” for example, whether they are or not.
Saunders recounts an interaction with one agitated rally-goer who, when challenged on his opinion, shouts, “Do you know what’s going on in the world, man? You’re not fucking educated.” Though this man will seem humorously mistaken to Saunders’s readers, this accusation makes sense in light of Isenberg’s explanation of class division. Concludes Saunders, “Our two subcountries . . . draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems.”
White Trash demonstrates compellingly that there has always been an American underclass, perpetuated by the privileged upper class, often explicitly. Isenberg proves there have always been at least two white Americas, with separate identities and experiences. By showing their drastically divergent histories and mentalities, Isenberg helps explain how this creates an opportunity for a candidate like Trump.
But what might be more important are the ways that Isenberg’s book does not help us understand the Trump movement. Her lens is not fine-grained enough to see how differences of income, region, occupation, religion, or cultural practice create strata within the designation of “white trash.” Her narrative leaps across time and space, transporting the reader from Appalachian squalor to Honey Boo Boo without much distinction.
Moreover, the “white trash” folks she describes—the outcasts, the struggling tenant farmers, the “trailer trash”—seem to understand that they live in a world separate from the upper class, with no hope of mobility. Trump’s followers, on the other hand, are in thrall to the myth of a classless society in which they are destined to thrive. They want to make America great again. In an odd way, they persistently believe in opportunity for all.
When liberal elites investigate the phenomenon of white poverty in the United States, they study it in a detached, sociological manner. White Trash is part of this tradition. The book includes minimal first-hand accounts from the underclass it tries to understand. It is built around sources from the elite.
That academics don’t seem to have personal access to the white underclass (and, of course, vice versa) actually substantiates Isenberg’s arguments. There really is a sharp class and cultural divide in this country, which draws upon separate histories and is perpetuated by a failure to invite the voices of the underclass.
Isenberg’s White Trash will edify, shock, horrify, and challenge. It is a bracing reminder that the chasm that divides us as a people is no accident. As a textbook for understanding the roots of Trumpian populism, however, there may be better sources. Pick up the book. But, as always, don’t forget who’s telling the story.
Regina Munch is editorial assistant at Commonweal Magazine. She lives in Manhattan.