People have asked me how this election could happen, because they think I should know. I am one of the border crossers: my roots are definitively working class. I had the poor luck to come of age in a rustbelt city just as jobs were disappearing; more than once, my father showed up for work to find a padlocked factory, because the company had moved out overnight. I attended a school where virtually every child qualified for free lunches. For much of my childhood, we lived below the poverty line.
Today, I have a mortgage in a pretty suburb. I hold the kind of job where I don’t need permission to go the bathroom; no one docks my pay when I fall ill. I am treated as a professional. Yet I still live in the area where I grew up. My relatives are still working class. I’ve spent more than twenty years paying off my fancy education, and I’m not done yet. One disaster, one bad car accident or serious illness, could knock me back where I began. I ought to be perfectly situated to explain the Trump victory. And yet it puzzles me as much as it does you.
In part, it puzzles me because we were never the lucky ones—the skilled laborers, the tradespeople, the automobile workers—those elites of the working class who supported Trump. But it troubles me more because the very parts of working-class culture that I valued, that I have tried to keep in my newly middle-class life, should have made this outcome impossible.
Maybe my class-crossing experience is part of the problem. When I was young, I met my share of spoiled rich boys―and so they hold no mystique for me. I learned quickly that anyone who told you he made it completely on his own had undoubtedly inherited a company, a trust fund, a house. His father had connections. His mother knew someone at the bank. And if he claimed his wealth was his reward for making all the right choices in life, while others goofed off—well, that just meant that whenever he screwed up, his father bailed him out, and scrubbed his record.
So I didn’t see Trump’s allure as a millionaire businessman. But neither could I find him convincing as a man of the people.
On the campaign trail, Trump sounded like he was playing at being a working-class man, without knowing the rules. Trump insults and provokes in a way that suggests he is up for a fight. That’s why Joe Biden, rustbelt boy that he is, publicly longed to take Trump behind the gym and teach him a lesson. But Trump has paid defenders to ensure he can run his mouth without risk. Remember the campaign event where a man rushed the stage? We all saw the indelible image of Trump ducking behind a secret service agent, clutching his sleeve the way a toddler clutches his mother. “I was ready for him,” Trump said afterwards, “but it’s much easier if the cops do it.” By that point, his bluff had been called—but he didn’t seem to know it.
The very parts of working-class culture that I valued, that I have tried to keep in my newly middle-class life, should have made this outcome impossible.
Sometimes, Trump’s performance looked like parody. Along with the tough guy act came the crassness, the casual sexism and racism, the profanity, the baseball hat. All seemed over the top. That toxic mixture does appeal to some Americans, to our shame ― but they are not limited to members of one class.
Then there are the virtues the working class prides itself on ― even if they are no more innate to that class than any other. One of the commonest forms of disparagement a working-class man can utter is, “He’s never done an honest day’s work in his life.” What sentence better describes Donald Trump? A working-class man, some say, works hard because he believes in paying what he owes. When has Donald Trump ever been troubled by any such obligation?
Even Trump’s version of family loyalty is off. When Ivanka Trump was a young woman, her father said on a national radio show that it was fine for the host to call her “a piece of ass.” You know how the men I grew up around would respond if anyone referred to their daughters that way? Far from consenting, they would have knocked him down. Call it retrograde, but that’s still my image of how a father ought to behave.
It’s no surprise that the one part of working-class culture Trump never attempts to imitate is its interdependence. When you can’t afford to buy everything you need, or pay for every service you need done, you rely on others. You borrow a ladder; you get together on a Saturday to fix the car. That’s why the poorest twenty percent of Americans donate the most, proportionately, to charity. They understand the day will come when they need the help of someone else. Trump not only acts as if he can afford to alienate everyone; he works to divide all Americans, and divorce us from the rest of the world.
In total, Trump’s performance was so unconvincing, it casts doubt on any claim that working-class people mistook him for one of themselves. He didn’t crack the secret code for talking to the working class. Instead, he exploited already existing fault lines within that class, to divide it against itself. Despite all we hear about a working-class landslide for Trump, among individuals who earn less than $50,000 a year, Clinton won. For some brief periods in our history, working-class people found ways to work together, across divisions among skilled and unskilled, decently compensated and poorly paid ― sometimes even across lines of race and gender. The final fracturing of that fragile class unity may be one of the more destructive results of the Trump victory.
Lisa Orr, a professor of English at Utica College, is the author of “Transforming American Realism: Working-Class Women Writers of the Twentieth Century.” Her novel, Sweatshop Cinderella, is represented by Shannon Hassan of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Follow her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/LisaOrrWrites.