Neglected by Republicans and Democrats alike, vilified by the culture, and preyed upon by globalization, white working-class voters in 2016 cast their lot with the one candidate in a generation who remembered them, and thus became Donald Trump’s base—a constellation of blue, white, and pink collar laborers. This spark ignited what was supposed to be a revolution in party politics and carried Trump into the White House.
The truth about white “dysfunctional, downscale communities,” Kevin Williamson informed us in a March 2016 National Review article, “is that they deserve to die.” A year into Donald Trump’s presidency, an unrepentant Bill Kristol quipped that the “lazy” white working class should be replaced with immigrants. The mask was off what had been the prevailing attitude among establishment conservatives and Republicans until Trump.
And so it was that the cultural, political, and economic depredations these Americans suffered formed the chord of grievance Trump struck to resounding success.
“For white men without a college degree,” Stephanie Mencimer writes, “the average growth in median wages between 1979 and 2017 was a negative number (−0.2 percent a year), even as median hourly earnings for all white workers grew by 11 percent in the same period.” Deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related disease among middle-aged white men and women have soared over the last two decades. Despite popular narratives, whites are actually the biggest victims of interracial violence and police shootings. It seems like maybe there is something to their grievances.
But something changed not long after Trump assumed control of the White House. In the aftermath of the 2020 runoff against Joe Biden, conservative pundits and Republicans appear relieved that Trump’s support among the white working class has slipped.
Trump may have lost, Ben Shapiro cheered, but at least we can declare victory over the “quest by Democrats and the media to paint Americans into racial categories and then declare demographics destiny.”
Shapiro is jumping the gun here, and no one should believe that the wide brush of supposed “bigotry” with which Democrats and the media paint their enemies will require replacement with something finer. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), eager to jump on the bandwagon, heralded the rise of a more diverse “multiethnic, multiracial, working-class” party to Sean Hannity.
Rubio and Shapiro both act as if the mere fact of diversity is, in and of itself, a political good and fail to acknowledge that whites remain the largest component of this coalition or ask why their support is slipping.
Asked why the Trump campaign conspicuously neglected its white base in Florida (and everywhere else), one Republican operative said: “you’ve got to kind of recognize that old white men are dying.” The spiteful spirit of Williamson and Kristol-style “conservatism” evidently also haunts many supposed champions of the new “populism,” and not just in Florida.
“The decided view internally was that white working class men lacked an alternative,” a senior White House official told American Greatness. “There was no need to develop policy that would improve the social or economic conditions in America’s industrial communities. They voted for Trump once, they’d do it again,” this official said of the campaign’s thinking. “From late 2017 foward, the goal was to make the Republican Party the vehicle for blacks and Latinos. They wanted to build off of white working class men and discard them, not build an electoral coalition around them.”
The white working-class “is the ‘forgotten man’ demographic,” A Republican close to the campaign told American Greatness. “The focus on left-wing identity politics has already robbed these people of a home in the Democratic Party, but now also the GOP,” the source reported, referring to the campaign’s pandering. “In the final critical week, instead of holding events focusing on mobilizing cops, miners, steel workers, the campaign focused on PRIDE events in blue-collar areas under Richard Grenell and Jared Kushner, which actually alienates many of these people.”
The contradictions between how Trump won and how he governed and campaigned suggests perhaps the campaign did actually adopt this cynical strategy.
By 2017, the economic populism that attracted working-class whites gave way to a tax cuts plan formulated by Gary Cohn. He served as president and Chief Operating Officer of Goldman Sachs for a quarter-century. Cohn’s gift to Trump’s base was a zero percent tax rate on many profits generated by corporate offshoring, which some have argued incentivized the practice. Roughly 1,800 factories between 2016 and 2018 and 740,000 manufacturing jobs since February 2020 vanished. Naturally, Cohn was among the first to congratulate Joe Biden this past week.
The promise of law and order that appealed to these voters gave way to criminal justice reform. White House advisors Brooke Rollins, Ja’Ron Smith, and Jared Kushner, spurred along by lobbying efforts of Charles Koch and George Soros, pushed the First Step Act as the crown jewel of 2018, surpassing infrastructure investment as a priority. That bill ultimately released thousands of dangerous criminals.
When rioting erupted across the country over the summer, that same trio urged Trump to sit on his hands. They said that stopping the riots would make him look racist in the eyes of an unproductive criminal class. Instead, Kushner invited rapper Ice Cube to the White House, soliciting his input for what became the “Platinum Plan.” The rapper, not exactly known for his love of police, asked Kushner for a $500 billion capital infusion exclusively for blacks. He got his wish, with the added promise of more criminal justice reform in the “Second Step Act.”
Trump’s immigration agenda was regularly undermined. Chad Wolf, formerly a paid immigration lobbyist, became acting Secretary of Homeland Security. From his perch, Wolf pushed for bringing in more visa workers up to and even during the pandemic’s early days. Elevating Wolf to helm DHS, after demonstrating that his mentor and boss Kirstjen Nielsen was a complete failure, is akin to firing James Mattis at the Pentagon only to promote Michelle Flournoy: it is impossible to drain the swamp when you keep pumping more of it back into the mix. Today, Wolf reportedly defied Trump’s order to terminate election cybersecurity official Christopher Krebs.
Thus, talk of eliminating birthright citizenship fell silent to amnesty proposals because the former was said to risk alienating Latinos. Then came the “American Dream Plan,” the equivalent of a Platinum Plan for Latinos, the architect of which was Jenny Korn. An alumnus of the Bush public liaison office, Korn argues contra Trump that the GOP must soften its “harsh tone on immigration” to attract more Latinos.
Thus an administration created by tapping into the legitimate hopes and fears of America’s disaffected white middle class ended up excluding them from programs tailored to securing the “American Dream.”
More to the point, an infrastructure plan producing high-paying jobs for all would have eliminated the need for any group “plans” as it would have promoted jobs that elevated Americans of all ethnicities. It would have been in keeping with the president’s admonition that “Success will unite us.”
Gallup polling in early 2017 found two-thirds of Americans said “it is ‘very important’ for President-elect Donald Trump to keep his campaign promise to enact major spending on infrastructure renewal.”
In 2016, Trump said he would “save your Social Security without killing it like so many people want to do.” When the pandemic hit, Kushner sent a proposal to the White House Council of Economic Advisers to provide Americans with stimulus in exchange for delays or cuts to their Social Security benefits—something that made older white voters, concerned about their declining retirement accounts and health, recoil. Though the Platinum Plan and American Dream Plan promised billions to specific minority groups, the administration failed to secure a second stimulus package to benefit all struggling Americans.
“Since assuming office,” Mencimer wrote months before the election, “President Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate have single-mindedly pursued policies that will harm white working-class voters, through cuts in social welfare programs like food stamps and Medicaid and by allowing huge corporate mergers.” Nevertheless, she wondered why the same sick and dying white working-class voters seemed to want nothing to do with the Democratic Party.
It appears Mencimer may have been wrong to be concerned in the end.
“A lot of people, I don’t think, are voting for Biden, they’re just voting against Trump,” said Chuck Jones, former president of United Steelworkers Local 1999 in Indianapolis, which represents workers at Carrier and Rexnord. In an interview with a labor magazine, Jones said Trump’s base rallied to him in 2016 because “he was on a roll” with his rhetoric about the working-class, about how they had been abandoned. “He said,” Jones recalls, “‘vote for me; what do you stand to lose?’” That message resonated—until Trump began to govern.
Warning signs emerged in the lead up to the election. An array of polls pointed to a troubling trend: Trump’s white support was slipping. Moreover, decreased support among whites for Black Lives Matter after months of rioting did not translate into increased support for Trump, as his advisors had cynically hoped.
“Losing a significant portion of the college-educated white vote is devastating to any Republican candidate’s presidential prospects,” political consultant Ryan Girdusky told me on the eve of the election. “Doing marginally better and increasing turnout among white working class is more likely to give Republicans wins in the Rust Belt, the northeast, and even parts of the sunbelt than increasing the black, Hispanic, or Asian vote by 5-10 percent.”
Girdusky appears to have been on the mark.
Trump ultimately underperformed with whites relative to 2016. As a result, he either legitimately lost the election or put himself within striking distance of the margin of fraud because Biden cut into Trump’s white base in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. “The percentage of white working class men voting Democratic increased from 23% in 2016 to 28% in 2020, while among white working class women, support for Democrats increased from 34% to 36%,” Joan C. Williams wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “These voters played a key role in delivering victories for Biden in the Rust Belt states where Clinton lost the presidency in 2016.” If the numbers hold up under scrutiny, two-thirds of the Michigan counties that swung toward Trump in 2016 turned Left in 2020.
A comparison of the comprehensive Fox News Voter Analysis, conducted in partnership with the Associated Press, and data from CNN’s 2016 exit polls and the Pew Research Center sketches the national picture.
Trump scored roughly 64 percent of non-college whites in 2016, compared to 62 percent in 2020. Among non-college white men, the gap is even more profound: 71 percent in 2016 versus 64 percent in 2020. By contrast, the same data show Trump won between 6 percent and 8 percent of black voters in 2016 and 8 percent in 2020. After the First Step Act, the Platinum Plan, a soft touch on riots, and a Republican National Convention heavily focused on courting black voters, Trump improved his share of the black vote by just 2 to 4 percentage points. Trump improved with Latinos by 7 percentage points, though they constituted a smaller share of the overall electorate compared to 2016.
Put simply, while minorities supplement the coalition, this is still mainly a white working-class movement, something Shapiro, Rubio, and much of the GOP appear eager to downplay or dismiss.
White working-class Americans continue to constitute the largest component of America’s broad mass who do the work, hold the country together, and sustain the ruling class that despises them—all things Trump acknowledged on the road to the White House. Yet no one seems to remember them now, except to celebrate the fact that Trump won fewer of them this time around—a testament to the Republican Party’s diverse bona fides.
Now we are the “coalition of the ascendant,” elite Republicans crow, breathing a sigh of relief in the hope that maybe people won’t call us racist anymore. “That new coalition will be central to continued Republican success in the state,” Matt Dixon and Gary Fineout wrote in Politico regarding Florida, where Trump’s success with Latinos has been an occasion for a ticker-tape parade. White men, after all, are going extinct.
But those dying white men punched Trump’s ticket to the White House and, ironically, are likely the most significant reason Trump won Florida. “Trump’s largest base of support was, again, with white voters, who helped him outperform his 2016 showing in 32 mostly rural, white counties across the state,” Dixon and Fineout noted. “That support squeezed an additional 153,000 votes out of areas of the state that already backed Trump by wide margins.” That Biden underperformed with Latinos sealed the deal in the Sunshine State.
As many examples as there are of Trump picking up nonwhites in the Rust Belt and Sun Belt, there is substantial counterevidence that these same groups of voters helped Biden in those critical areas.
All of this is not to say that the 2016 election was a complete failure. It showed that it is, in fact, possible to run and win on the issues both parties eschew, that there is a broad desire for economic populism, immigration restrictionism, foreign policy restraint, for law and order, and for a president who is strong rather than effete. Trump single-handedly brought about the beginning of a realignment capable of achieving lasting dominance, regardless of whether his administration effectively prosecuted the mandate of that realignment.
America’s white working class continues to wait for a champion, someone who will not take the political capital their votes buy and squander it on progressive projects and old dogma by another name. Trump’s moment could be the beginning of something far more significant than the man himself if we are willing to hammer it free of the dross so that the mandate does not become a mausoleum of hope and desire.