As this awful disaster of a year moves towards its end, I keep reading articles talking about the election as being about class and education. To some extent this seems true, but only to some extent. As others have pointed out, the supporters of Trump are not exactly white trash. What they are instead are primarily people who identify as men.
I think this is important. Trump is hideous. He is corrupt, racist, sexist, violent, and abusive. His foreign policy is a return to the era of “Woe to the Conquered.” His clear contempt towards everyone who isn’t a heteronormative white male is incredible. I see him as an oversized avatar of the brash confident american man.
This is where the fact that it is primarily lower middle and middle class white men supporting him becomes so important. For Trump’s supporters, this election is certainly not about his policy or about where America fits in the world or even truly about economics. It is about the fact that we the societal room for a version of masculinity that believes in its own superiority has been shrinking slowly (far too slowly!) for a century now.
I see the defining feature of what I think of as traditional american masculinity as a belief in the exceptionality and superiority of a proper american man. There are many forms of this proper man, but they all rely on the idea that they are better than at least some other class of people.
Hence, sexism and racism, among other social constructions, are core requirements for such masculinity to function. The man needs to be clearly better than other people. To be an “alpha” rather than a “gamma,” to use the so called Mens Rights Activist’s bullshit terms, he needs to show his strength, his ability to bully others either physically or through words. He cannot show weakness. He must be strong. He needs to be virile and have a family to protect. So on and so forth.
And the easiest way to show this is to have things that you can clearly point to as making you superior to others. For the people at the top of the pecking order, this is easy. Well off College educated men can point to their degrees, their trendy clothing, their luxurious cars, their fancy houses, and so on. They can aim their need to be superior at men lower than them on the totem pole. They can be manly men while still proclaiming that they are not racist or sexist, because they can replace the racism and sexism with open classism. Part of why Trump’s support is “only” around even with college educated men may be because the college educated men can point their fingers at “white trash” and talk about how good they are in comparison.
The middle or lower middle class suburbanite, on the other hand, has fewer people to look down upon and to demonstrate superiority over. Sure there is a certain amount of attacks on the management and the effete latte sipping liberals, and so on. But the further down the class equation you get, the harder it is to believe that you are special and good. So, you find a different group to attack. People who don’t look the same. People who don’t talk the same. So on. But it seems to me that the target for most of this superiority complex is women.
These are the people Trump appeals to. The white men who believe that they are inherently better than women just because they are men, and who use that horrifying belief to hide from their own self doubt, are the core of his support. Them, and a smaller number of white women who have internalized their own oppression.
These are not, however, despite the many media reports about them, “white trash.” Unless we believe that a third or more of the voting population can possibly qualify under that label. The sob stories about the horrors of heroin ridden rural towns are often documenting real problems, but that is not by any means the core of Trump’s support. The core of his support is not doing anywhere near so poorly, as the Vox article I linked earlier pointed out.
The core of his support is white men of all stripes. Men who appreciate the old school James Bond sexuality. Men who approve of his bullying attitude. Men who believe firmly in a version of machismo that equates personal strength with power and effectiveness. And the vast majority of these men are suburbia’s dads and granddads.
The common element, the core thing that is absolutely required for anyone to not absolutely despise Donald Trump, is a belief that brash heteronormative white masculinity is a good thing. Racism and sexism correlate closely with this, but they are symptoms of a much deeper problem.
I see the attempt to move the target away from it being masculinity that provides Trump’s core support as an attempt to not deal with this problem. If our college educated and Hillary Voting “Good men,” mostly writing from urban settings, can make the story be about white trash rather than asking whether there is something inherent in our construction of masculinity that causes the toxic behavior, then they do not have to confront their own problematic behaviors. They don’t have to ask how much of their own self worth is based on an idea that they are somehow naturally superior to other people.
If we can keep it focused on the -isms and not the core belief that causes the -isms, then we are safe from having to ask ourselves about our own core beliefs and whether they are also problems. But that isn’t good enough for me. I want this election to be a referendum on the masculine ideal that Trump represents. I want to see white American masculinity broken, so that something far less toxic can rise from it’s ashes.