White Trash and Trumpism
Written in an email to the Bertrand Russell Society membership in 2016 as a rejoinder to comments on “white trash” and some sympathy shown for uneducated, white Donald Trump voters, with the idea that they need to be convinced they are voting against their interests.
I am going to give my friends, here, a short distance-learning course in "white trash." These are my people. And to some degree, their ethos continues to represent some of my own sensibilities. Put another way, you can take the boy out of the trailer, but it's hard to get the trailer out of the boy. There's been a lot of talk about class, white trash, Trumpers, the disenfranchised, and such––so perhaps you ought to hear from some real white trash.
I have nothing to hide, so let me give my bona fides to establish credibility. My mother was born of a chorus girl cum prostitute who gave her up at 1 and a half years old. Mom and I finally met her when she was 35 and I was 13. She gave away two other children, too. She would later commit suicide with a handgun, unusual for a woman. My mother's natural father was in prison in Indiana for counterfeiting money for many years. She was taken in as a foster child by an elderly woman who would eventually adopt her. My biological father was a womanizing, gambling, alcoholic who died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 38. I saw him no more than a dozen times after the age of 4, for after catching him in bed with another woman in our own house (he thought we were gone longer than we were), with me at her side, as I well recall, my mother divorced him. He didn't pay child support. She then married a Mexican-American man, a WWII vet who was not all bad by any means, and who I’d eventually come to love, but who nonetheless beat me black, blue, and bloody with some regularity. We moved a lot due to his work, and I lived in many different places. They lived check-to-check and were in constant debt. I was precocious and started college at 15. From age 12, I didn't have to take many classes due to my test scores, and I spent much of my time in the school library. At 14 I was entered into a program where one is tested periodically for having high test scores at an early age. I had a perfect 1600 SAT. I am no genius, however, and far from it, other than by a silly number described in an entirely dumb way to define that rarest of qualities. It is an overused, much abused term, but that's not our issue, here. Anyway, they didn't have special education for poor and working-class kids in those days. My folks didn't know what to do with me. I then devolved into juvenile delinquency (I was already on the edge when my natural father died when I was 14, which might have been a catalyst event) after starting college. I skipped school, illegally, since in CA minors had to be in school or were considered truant.
While I still read a lot, and liked to do math and science, I did not liking being ignored at my college, didn't fit in with older kids, and being generally disinterested, I opted to get into trouble, instead. I ran away from home for extended periods on numerous occasions, in part, because of difficulties with my stepfather. But I can't blame him entirely, for I was also out-of-control quite on my own. Among my other depredations, I have stolen cars, jacked hubcaps and radios, robbed, cheated, taken many kinds of drugs, hopped a train, and lived in Haight Ashbury for 2 months and then the Sunset area in Hollywood for another 2. I was in juvenile hall for 4 months (I'd already been in jail overnight a couple of times as a runaway---once in Flagstaff, Arizona when my friend and I were caught in a train yard), which, in my case, changed my life for the better. It was there I decided I would change and become punctilious with the truth and learn to be a good person. I have not always succeeded, but mostly I have. Why was I in juvy? I helped another kid rob a donut shop owned by a family we didn’t like in Campbell California by acting as his lookout. They caught him right away. The police showed up at my house later that night. A lawyer had my records expunged, as I was only 15 ½, which helped me immensely in the military not much later, for my military occupation enquired a security clearance. I was lucky the neighbors we were interviewed later in the process of investigating me were not forthcoming.
So, I joined the military at the height of the Vietnam War little more than three weeks after turning 17 on August 11, 1969. I did well on some tests with the recruiter such that I was offered a good positon. So they trained me in cryptography at Fort Gordon, Georgia after basic training in Fort Lewis, Washington. When I got out some 31 months later (due to troop reductions, earlier than my 3-year commitment) I was only 19, closer to the age of most incoming freshman, and I resumed college and finished undergrad school in record time. I started grad school with the idea of teaching philosophy or mathematics. By then, I had become a more or less decent person. I was lucky to have had good role models both in the military and in college, and in college, one professor in particular who nominated me for the Danforth scholarship. I eventually fell in love and found a mate better than me, her people being poor farmers who came to California in the Great Depression––Grapes of Wrath style, with a mattress on their car. I lucked into a job that gave me more opportunity than I could have imagined a few years before. I was very lucky.
So yeah, my point I this: as you can see, I was white trash and I came by it honestly. And to no small degree I am still white trash, deep down, even though I live well, have a good education from a leading university, have been exposed to worldly things, and I have had a reasonable amount of success due in no small degree to sheer luck. I can speak both languages; inhabit both worlds. So be assured, I know my white trash––and better than most intellectuals who write lengthy disquisitions about white trash, that's for sure, and from the inside out.
Let me make clear, white trash is not simply a matter of being a poor or working class, uneducated white person. There are other aspects and dimensions. Not all poor white people are uneducated or white trash. And not all white trash are uneducated and poor, either. Most are. Okay, with that said. I've read Vance's Hillbilly Elegy; Hochchild's Strangers in their Own Land; and Isenberg's White Trash (recently nicely reviewed by Phil). Each has merit, but they all miss the mark in various degrees in their attempt to rationalize and explain the conditions and sentiments of my people. For one thing, with the possible exception of Vance, there is an unwillingness to admit that white trash rather like being white trash ... we educated and pretentious people-of-letters folk need to get that through our heads: they like and prefer their white trash ways over the alternatives, though they might label themselves differently (not all!). Many intellectuals arrogate to themselves (even including people like me with a white trash heritage who only appear to escape the pull of its gravity) the "true" understanding of what they and others need, the world vision that everyone ought to share. Permit me to use some occasionally very crude language, along with some over-generalization, just to make a point that I think many here, who are probably not white trash, need to understand. I come now to the central feature of my course, and in one paragraph.
Here's a thought experiment. If I put "my people" into a Bertrand Russell Society annual meeting, how do you suppose they'd react? My people are Trump people, by and large ... those who'd bother to vote, anyway ... and many would have voted the very first time for him. You see, Trump is white trash. Or have you failed to notice his tastes and mores––interior decoration by some uncouth amalgam of Louis IV and Elvis, among other things, an interest in beauty pageants, crude jokes, machismo, and chasing and talking about grabbing pussy. But let's not get diverted by that. First of all, they'd be bored to tears in the meeting. They'd be sure to make fun of it, and trying to be polite, probably later. When it was over (not soon enough), they'd think and say among themselves what a bunch of useless and weird pussies who dress funny and can't look you in the eye, couldn't manage a copy machine let alone hotwire a car, defend your family, and worst of all, don't believe Jesus, Blood of the Lamb, is the Son of God. Probably Jews or something (oh yes, that sentiment certainly exists, do not kid yourself). Instead they admire some old beak-nosed, short fuck who ran with commie hippies and preached cowardice. You don't think so? Trust me, that is exactly along the lines of what most of them might think. Oh yes, you say, but that is because they are oppressed, uneducated in ways of the Enlightenment. If we told them what they need is more education to understand the right ends, the aspirations they ought to have for a Russellian "good life", to "conquer happiness" (as though Russell himself was happy when he wrote Conquest—most definitely not); and if we also explained that inequality and the malefactions of the ruling class is what really drives their privation and bigoted outlook, sows division and clouds their true interests, and keeps them down and out as surplus labor, etc.; and then if we were to extol the virtues of science, philosophy and reason––fine art and good literature––surely they'd see that these things are vastly superior to watching Hangover II, Celebrity Apprentice, or sitting 'round the local country-western roadhouse listening to Hank, Sr.; and it seems evident that by then we could show them the true merits and path to work for a classless, peaceful society (run by us, of course) and such. Ha! Not a chance. More likely they'd think, and if pressed (not very hard, either), they might say, "Fuck you, you atheistic, pacifist prick. By the way, did you serve your country? Fuck the rich people too. Except Donald, who is one of us. Give me their damn money and I will buy me my own, bigger roadhouse with better looking girls --- and a new crew cab sized, jacked diesel Ford truck, made in 'merica. Shit, I want to be in the ruling class dip shit. Get out of my face before I kick your spindly, sandaled ass. I'm going to World Wide Wrestling for better entertainment, right after I get my skull tat I've been planning." Oh, it might well get worse. You think I'm kidding or exaggerating? If you do, or if you think, my, he's doing a great disservice to them, well, you are in the clouds as to what they really think about you and your world view. You do not know white trash at all if you think that. Watch a Trump rally for heaven's sake. And be advised, they are on their good behavior, there.
Intellectuals are often not only deluded about what many who they classify as the oppressed, disenfranchised, or dispossessed really want––or they think that if only they had their superior tutelage, education, that they'd come to see the error of their ways, for after all, these poor people are the products of a system of unfair economic and social forces, etc., etc. They, on the other hand, would tell you to go fuck yourselves. And that's the truth. Yeah, they want more money. But certainly not so they can be like us or have our world. Unfortunately, these same intellectuals often lack the basic self-awareness to see their own arrogance in thinking only they know better––the philosopher king syndrome––assuming that they know what others ought to desire, and failing to admit that they really despise–––other than in an abstract, unreal, and disembodied form–––the underclass as they really are, and, I'm here to tell you, as they pretty-much prefer to be!! They seek to alter them, to turn them into what they want them to become, not to embrace them as they are. The truth of the matter is that the latter, the white trash, are in this instance the more honest bunch, for they'd tell you straight out they dislike the do-gooder intellectuals who'd seek change them in ways they don't want to be changed, in contrast to the intellectuals who often enough are simply being dishonest (or delusional) in disguising with paeans of humanitarian interest what really amounts to contempt for the underclass, laden with faux concern and patronizing attitudes, and the arrogance to think they know better about what preferences people should have.
Beginning in 1972 I became a political activist. I was the political education officer for a Bay Area chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and a youth campaign coordinator for the Democratic Party. Working for George McGovern's campaign for president, I helped register farmworker voters with the United Farm Workers. I had occasion to become somewhat acquainted with the great Caesar Chavez and several UFW principals over several months. I can assure you, Caesar was on to the subtle elitism of many liberals and their patronizing ways–––Anglo activists, many from the SWP, who'd deign to show how the downtrodden Mexicans should behave and believe, under their own noblesse oblige form of management, of course. Chavez shook up the structure to rectify this. Many intellectuals who declaim against the elitism and classism that they maintain oppresses the poor and working class, often with great, apparent concern, in reality are among the worst elitists of all, and that is because they would inform others what constitutes proper virtue and ends, the kind of world they should desire, a world they do not want, and they'd tell them their views are really all bogus traps set by other forces and powers to subjugate them. "You mean I want to have a life like Dukes of Hazzard or the Kardashians cuz the Koch brothers want me to?" Bullshit, they'll tell you. Oh, but then we'd say, well, that's because they don't have minds of their own, being tools of the masters of the universe from Wall Street, and if we only had them for awhile, we could get them oriented the proper way. And, to be perfectly frank, that is precisely one of the reasons they often despise people like us.
Let's be honest, many self-proclaimed, enlightened liberals don't really care for "the people" ... they only care for them insofar as they might become as they imagine they should be ... what they want them to be, and not as they are. Obviously, there are exceptions, and many do not think this way ... but there are plenty that fall into this camp. We need to understand that convincing many "core" Trumpers of our world view, which in broad outline, I myself, notwithstanding my roots, also want, is not going to succeed in the short term. It is a fool’s errand to think otherwise. That is a long term project, one that will take one or two more generations, ceteris paribus. But the latter point is the key qualification, for things may not remain the same, they could very well change, that is, if and as Trumpism, a species of Fascism, takes hold. Once it does, the world we in the BRS want, with some individual variations on the theme–––but certainly for most if not all of us, a world of liberty, peace, prosperity, where reason is prized–––will be lost for a long time, indeed, maybe forever. The starting place is not convincing the average white trash male to vote for a liberal Democrat or Green Party candidate. It ain't gonna happen. The starting place is to get the non-Trumpers to defeat Trump and Trumpism at the polls and in the courts. The white trash, my erstwhile brethren, will come along in time. But not anytime soon and maybe not in the current generation. In brief, first things first.
PS: I'm not running for the board again, and I'm ceding my official responsibilities very soon. So if you have second thoughts, now, given my youthful depredations and my deep-seated, residual, trashy sensibilities, you won't have to worry about it much longer. In the meantime, I hope everyone will do their part to ensure that Trump and his followers do not create exactly the kind of world that will prevent or long delay the world that most of us want to come about.