An Academic Redneck for Trump

If anything qualifies me for fish-out-of-water status in academia, it’s confessing to being a Donald Trump supporter. You see, I am an academic redneck, that one person in the group of college instructors at the upscale Japanese restaurant silently wondering if the sashimi would be better if it were fried and served with French fries, coleslaw, and hush puppies. Most social gatherings with co-workers are awkward this political season, particularly if the conversation turns to politics. When my colleagues say they plan to move to Canada if Trump is elected or joke that our neighbor to the north should build a wall to keep out Americans seeking political asylum, I interrupt (after all, this is what rednecks do, even academic ones) and say, “At least you have someplace to flee. Those of us who actually like the United States in all of its unwieldy, bad-ass, gun-toting glory will be the real refugees if the country fully embraces democratic socialism. You can move to Canada, England, Germany, and many other places. Where will the rest of us go?”

To be fair, most of my progressive friends are nice about my Trump predilection. They teach community college, so they maintain an Open Door friendship policy towards me. They pause politely from expressing their opinions (consistent with Cher’s and Lena Dunham’s) that Trump is a mere celebrity beguiling the unwashed masses that seek a cult-of-personality savior. They sincerely want to know why I would vote for someone they consider vulgar, offensive, and bigoted. They are too smart to resort to the “Trump is Hitler” cheap shots (unless they’re tired or have had too much to drink), but I do often hear, “Doesn’t he remind you of George Wallace?” Being an academic redneck from Alabama, I’m all over that question: “Which George Wallace?” I ask, “the one who stood in the schoolhouse door, or the reformed one who won the 1982 Alabama gubernatorial race with about 90 percent of the African-American vote?” I make sure to use my southern drawl to optimal effect when I say the word  “guuu-ber”natorial.

Without becoming too wonky, I explain that my southern working class roots run deep, and my voting preferences tend to correspond with those of the folks back home. They look at me skeptically, but by that time the next round of drinks and an order of fancy fish bait shows up, and we change the subject.

In truth, my academic friends are far more open-minded than many progressive elites in the rest of the country. Northeastern liberals in particular convey a provincialism about blue-collar workers that they would be loath to admit, though they are getting called out a little more often these days. Writing last month in Vox, Emmett Rensin identified a “smug style” common among liberal Democrats, in a party that once embraced the white working class but now shuns the formerly important constituency. Rensin explained pompous liberal attitudes toward working-class whites: “The trouble is that the stupid hicks don’t know what’s good for them. They’re getting conned by right-wingers and tent revivalists until they believe all the lies that’ve made them so wrong. They don’t know any better. That’s why they’re voting against their own self-interest.”

Not to be outdone, the New York and D.C. conservative elite are just as disdainful of the white working class. National Review’s Kevin Williamson spent the last half of 2015 bashing brain-dead “Trumpkins.” Recently, he argued that Trump supporters are a lost cause:

If . . . you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. . . . The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. . . . Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. . . . The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.

Before Trump’s ascendancy, Williamson and his fellow conservative journalists could tolerate the “vicious, selfish” white working class voters as long as they knew their places and supported the Republican Party’s sanctioned candidates. Now that a large segment of conservative white voters have logically and justifiably rejected establishment politicians, Williamson and others need no longer hide their contempt for ordinary citizens.

Political writers like Williamson have little knowledge of the Trump voters they vilify. Without question, desperate people do exist in rural and working class America (as they do everywhere), but most of them aren’t Trump supporters.  The drug-addled, welfare dependent individuals Kevin Williamson describes are actually creations of the federal government, in cooperation with liberal progressives and “compassionate” conservative politicians who have ghettoized the poor and perpetuated desperation and misery through never-ending social welfare programs that undermine initiative and self-reliance.

Trump supporters are typically working people who have no idea what politicians are talking about when they say that illegal immigrants are “doing the work that Americans won’t do.” Those of us hailing from the ranks of the lower-middle-class have plenty of family members who toil as maids, gardeners, farm workers, and in other entry-level jobs. My own mother worked at a chicken plant to put me through Auburn University. Working side-by-side with African-American and Mexican women, she and her co-workers didn’t need a diversity seminar to teach them how to get along. The sharp knives they wielded put them all on equal—and friendly—footing. A lot of blue-collar people would rather do without than accept charity. If they lose their jobs, they find another one; they know they have to. Nobody is going to bail them out. They are not too proud to do any kind of work.

What’s more, they are thrifty, knowledgeable, and practical. They can grow their own food, sew their own clothes, and make their own way. They don’t need sustainability lectures to teach them about not wasting precious resources. That makes them gravely concerned about the rapidly expanding welfare state that requires more and more and more financial resources to maintain. That doesn’t make them cold-hearted toward the poor and suffering. They simply know when they hear platitudes like “everyone should have affordable health care!” and “it’s time for free community college for all!, they can anticipate paying more for poorer quality medical care and education. They know from experience that “free” doesn’t exist. Sandwiched between the upper classes with tax attorneys at their disposal and the extremely poor who have politicians in both parties pandering to them, they would naturally be receptive to Trump’s “make America great again” message. Finally, a candidate for national office is speaking directly to them about their unique concerns.

They also ignore criticisms of Trump’s alleged racism and xenophobia, because similar accusations have been leveled against them for years, even by the president of the United States. Barack Obama, who talked of unity and “no red states and blue states” in 2004, later described small-town people as “bitter . . . and cling[ing] to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” They find it amusing that the Democrats’ primary attack dog on race will be Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose specious claims to Native American ancestry were used to bolster Harvard University’s diversity numbers. A good portion of people born in the Southeast (including me) can brag of as much Cherokee blood as Senator Warren, but not a single one of us would even be permitted to borrow a book at Harvard’s libraries. Apparently, erecting some walls and barriers are acceptable after all.

The white working class also dismisses criticisms that Trump is not “presidential” enough because he says inappropriate things. They think that ship sailed back in the 1990s, during the soap opera over Bill, Monica, the blue dress, and the cigar. They note the contradiction that it’s presidential to do inappropriate things just as long as you don’t say anything mean or inappropriate.

Also, working-class voters aren’t supporting Trump in opposition to their interests. They don’t like the “everybody is the same” rhetoric of Bernie Sanders because they don’t buy it. They want to get ahead themselves. Even though Senator Sanders’s personal income pales in comparison to Trump’s net worth, they know they won’t see the Vermont senator standing in the Walmart line or using coupons to get a discount on laundry detergent. Blue collar Americans are highly suspicious of people who get rich from being public servants. They aren’t put off that Trump is a billionaire. Over-the-top bling isn’t as threatening to them as someone who is quite open that he would use the power of the state to take people’s money for the “greater good.”  Sure, Senator Sanders claims he will tax the rich the most, but they know how that promise always works out.

Just as it was foolish for pundits to have underestimated Trump in the Republican primary races, it would be equally unwise to dismiss his supporters. We’re not stupid . . . even if we are rednecks.

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