Columnist Joe Gannon: Exploited proletariat now ‘basket of deplorables’

  • President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One as he arrives for the G7 Summit on Friday at Canadian Forces Base Bagotville, Canada.  AP PHOTO

Friday, June 08, 2018

“How do you even know this guy?”

It was a question hurled at me by an old friend I’d met at the University of Massachusetts in the 1980s. He was asking about a Facebook friend I grew up with in my working-class town outside Boston.

They were trading insults over a post I’d made. But my college friend’s question has stayed with me — he truly had no idea how I might know “someone” like that. It begs the story — among many stories — that we no longer tell each other. It’s the story of class in America.

It’s not a story America was ever very good at telling itself (unlike, say, Europe). And decades ago we stopped telling it all.

The world used to be divided into blue-collar working class or white-collar middle class. Literally. It was the color of the collar you wore to work. These classes were once called the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Your position in society was identifiable by the clothes you wore: collars, shoes, hats. So, when in the presence of a different class, you had only to look to know where you belonged.

And never the twain did meet. Except on the picket line.

Back then the proletariat was the original exploited class and membership in it meant you were ipso facto, oppressed and in need of liberation. (Not saving, mind you.)

This was the Marxist analysis of the capitalist world, of course, but its terms were accepted by virtually everyone in the West: working-class unions, governments, academics and the bosses themselves.

But not so much here. America told itself a story of its “exceptionalism” that such old-world terms did not apply. (So, the world celebrates International Workers’ Day on May 1, but the United States does Labor Day in September.)

Still, those terms were how the Western world saw itself for over 100 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War.

Class, however, still very much exists. But with the collapse of our industrial base, class identifiers have shifted and class in now overwhelmingly not the collar you wear, but the degree you have on your wall. Education, not income, is what separates classes in America.

And that education/class divide is the single best explanation for Donald Trump’s presidency. True, he is a product of white America, but if you study that white vote, it is primarily divided by education levels, and not income, not region, not religion.

It is the town/gown divide that now separates the classes in America.

In all the counties over 50,000 people that went big for Trump — but more importantly that had gone for Obama in 2012 and either went to Trump or were won by Hillary Clinton but at a lesser margin than in 2012 — education levels were the overwhelming predictor of that vote. (For a statistical breakdown see Nate Silver’s at http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/education-not-income-predicted-who-would-vote-for-trump/.)

The town/gown divide today among white folks is the political fault line. It is one of the most important categories in our or any society. It is a near total bind spot in liberals, but a weak spot deftly exploited by the right to great effect for 40 years.

Ever since Ronald Reagan used it to create “Reagan Democrats” — those blue-collar folks who voted against their economic interests (Reagan invented tax cuts for the rich to “create jobs”) and in favor of social/emotional issues like patriotism, and the “god, guns and gays” GOP platform.

But that mind-set — siding with those who are your class enemies — used to be called “false consciousness” and the duty of lefties was to raise that consciousness. Now, it seems our duty is to condemn it.

The exploited proletariat has become a “basket of deplorables.” And, fasten your seat belts, liberals: It makes sense that they have!

By the end of the Cold War the liberals — personified by Bill Clinton — shifted to the center-right and began to court Wall Street, corporations and Hollywood, slowly leaving behind — in act and speech — the proletariat, just as its appearance was changing with the loss of our traditional manufacturing base. At the same time “identity politics” began to blossom in the absence of class.

And where else would a lot of white people go in a world of identity politics but to their whiteness? There was no other category — no class identifiers were available. Liberals want to protest: they should’ve become anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic.

But those “anti’s” are not a given, they are a journey of consciousness. And only those born to college-educated, middle-class parents would assume that progressive politics is a birthright. Or assume that everyone is raised that way. And to so assume is — I almost hate to say it — an expression of class privilege. And arrogance.

The old socialist in me — the working-class kid from the projects of Clinton who, after the Army, changed social classes through five years at UMass — cannot let go the knowledge that with a slight right turn I might have ended up very differently, had my consciousness not been raised.

Now, if I was African-American, or a Muslim immigrant, I might ask: So what?

But for white people searching for what to do in Trump Time, the mission is clear. First, check our justified disgust for Trump at the door. Do not fall for the GOP trick of mistaking attitude for knowledge. Then, try to recognize the subtle difference between outright racism (which must be beaten bloody) and political “false consciousness” which leads working people to side with their class enemies. (A good beginning is a recent New Yorker article “The Teaching Moment” about Oklahoma.)

It’ll be tedious and takes a saint’s patience — don’t expect gratitude, you’re not saving anyone. But you will be channeling your inner Bernie.

For me, I’m trying to get a “beer summit” between my town and gown friends. I’ll bring the beer, but also the Band-Aids, there’s gonna be some scrapes along the way.

Joe Gannon, novelist and teacher, lives in Northampton. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.