The election of President Donald J. Trump prompted the media to confront the white working class, whose economic anxieties allegedly secured him the Oval Office. By Nov. 9, 2016, the New York Times had already diagnosed the election, publishing “Why Trump Won: Working-Class Whites.” In doing so, the Times ignored its own exit polls; the vast majority of all low-income demographics voted for Hillary Clinton. Trump’s advantage came instead from middle- and upper-class voters. By popularizing the working-class narrative, the Times and other media outlets made several mistakes: assigning blame to the white working class, homogenizing the motivations of that group and describing them as purely economic. Academics and journalists have been working hard to correct those errors — if America is to learn anything from Trump’s election, we must reject the media’s half-baked stereotyping and pay more attention to individuals writing about the nuances of inequality.
The Times’ poor analysis of the 2016 election shaped much of its reporting that followed. The paper has since published numerous pieces on the white working class and the “Trump Country” they occupy. These range from an editorial condemning the potential impact of repealing the individual mandate on Trump Country to an op-ed recounting Trump voters’ reactions to budget cuts. These pieces repeated the same mistakes the Times started making in November 2016: “Trump Country” is still credited with Trump’s election and is constructed as poor, white and driven by economic anxiety.
To its credit, the Times has also published pieces that criticize the media’s approach to Trump’s election. Author Sarah Smarsh used her white, working-class Kansan background to describe the region’s inhabitants as they actually are, arguing that most mainstream media coverage misconstrued the working class as driven by uniform motives, excluding discussions of working class moderates and progressives to build a more compelling narrative.
It’s not ideology that separates the Times’ coverage from people like Smarsh’s — it’s distance. Though the media has been grappling with the phenomenon of drive-by journalism for some time, it continues to write this imaginary Trump Country into the public consciousness.
Fortunately, Smarsh and others, including members of the Emory community, are hard at work dismantling the mythical homogeneity and economic anxiety that the media presented as reality. Charles Howard Candler Professor and Chair of African American Studies Carol Anderson’s book “White Rage” details how concerns underlying the resurgence of right-wing politics following President Obama’s 2008 election were more racist than economic. Anderson traces the history of racial progress in America, focusing on how the reforms of Reconstruction, school desegregation and the civil rights movement met with repeated white opposition, not just from the Ku Klux Klan and demagogues like George Wallace, but also from Citizens’ Councils and moderate politicians that constituted broader white America. Anderson’s book categorizes Obama’s presidency and Trump’s subsequent election into a broader narrative of white opposition to racial progress.
Most notably, “White Rage” wasn’t written in response to Trump’s election. It was commissioned after Anderson penned an op-ed about the 2014 violence in Ferguson; her scholarship anticipated, rather than reacted to, the rise of Trump. The media can stand to learn a lot from Anderson’s work. For instance, by identifying economic anxieties as the reason why voters’ backed Trump election, the media ignores his exploitation of the racial fears Anderson names. Also, the media’s concentration of blame on low-income individuals traditionally associated with racist institutions like the Klan fails to consider the actions of equally racist members of higher classes, especially those involved with the same institutions. So what should the media do instead? Anderson’s more recent op-ed, which argues that agents of racism are too easily forgiven, suggests that concrete actions, like the prevention of voter suppression, must be taken to end the cycle of progress and backlash; that’s something the media should push for instead of perpetuating false narratives about Trump voters.
Anderson isn’t alone in challenging the media’s misconstruction of America’s political landscape. Keri Leigh Merritt (03C) is an independent scholar who writes about the history of inequality in the American South. On Sept. 1, at this year’s Decatur Book Festival, she gave a talk on her book “Masterless Men,” which discusses the dislocation of poor whites by the South’s transformation into a slave society. The piece challenges the notion that the South cleanly integrated whites, both poor and wealthy, into white supremacist hierarchical structures because opportunities for social mobility were heavily limited and justice was distributed unequally along class lines.
Readers should juxtapose the mechanisms that trapped poor whites in poverty with those that kept slaves in bondage — Merritt is careful not to equate the two, but considering them alongside each other is necessary to understand how Southern hierarchy operated. “Masterless Men” offers a lesson for the media, as well, as Merritt’s layered narrative seeks not to homogenize the South’s historical working class but to comprehend them, while simultaneously detailing the ways wealthy Southerners exploited and excluded different groups.
Reading Smarsh, Anderson and Merritt alongside each other adds much-needed nuance to the media’s ongoing discussion of contemporary white America. Both the scapegoating of poor whites for Trump’s election, and the shallow drive-by interpretations of that demographic miss an opportunity to confront the racism and economic self-interest of who really put Trump in office: white middle- and upper-class voters. If America’s national media organizations ever want to write about the world as it is, they need to better engage with contemporary historians.
Isaiah Sirois is a College Junior from Nashua, N.H.