On a humid day in the summer of 2010, amidst the lingering fallout from the financial crisis, I entered New York’s Penn Station and boarded a train headed for northwest Ohio. For the next fourteen hours, the train snaked its way across upstate New York and into Pennsylvania, through a landscape of small, impoverished towns that seemed to have been forgotten by time. I had never been to these places, but they all seemed familiar to me, even strangely comforting. My recognition was dim but instinctual—like having a word on the tip of my tongue, except instead of a word it was an entire way of life. The quiet struggle. The taunting but always elusive promise of success. The loneliness masquerading as prideful self-sufficiency. I knew these places, even if I didn’t know their names.
During the 1980s, my family lived in a mobile home on Ohio Township Road 215, a desolate stretch of pavement between the small city of Findlay and the much smaller village of Arcadia.1 At the time, we belonged to the “working poor,” predominantly lower-class families still struggling from the recession earlier in the decade. My mother worked a variety of part-time jobs: seamstress, waitress, door-to-door saleswoman for Mary Kay cosmetics. My father worked at a wholesale pizza outlet and a bottling factory, and in his spare time he wrote letters to the local newspapers championing a socialist politics critical of Reagan and his conservative acolytes. (More than 70% of each party’s campaign contributions come from corporations, he wrote in one prescient, Sanders-esque letter from 1988. The implications of this fact are staggering. The rampant greed and short-term profit motive of corporate elites have moved industry out of the country and forced remaining labor wages to decline with the cost of living.)
Despite our financial struggles, our life, at least as I remember it, was simple. During the summer, my sister and I ran wild and swam in a small pond behind our trailer. Our father took us for rides on an old John Deere lawnmower. We had cookouts and parties with relatives. The whole world seemed to smell like beer and charcoal and freshly cut grass, though it also sometimes smelled of dead leaves and gasoline and fertilizer from the nearby farms. Occasionally, the sulfur in our water made everything stink like rotten eggs, but we learned to accept this as a part of life. It was just the way things were.
Two decades later, as I peered out from the train, my recognition of rural life was much more complicated. I’d been living in New York City, for the past few years, as a graduate student with plans to publish a novel that never materialized. I survived for a while on student loans, and eventually took part-time gigs working at a small bookstore in Brooklyn and as the personal assistant for a critically acclaimed poet. It was a month-to-month existence—one that had forced me to return home—but nevertheless it allowed me to live out a certain fantasy of the intellectual aesthete. I may have been no richer than in Ohio, but I had access to a wealth of social and cultural capital that had never been available to me, and that acted as a marker of class difference. I shopped at co-op food markets and spent afternoons contemplating works of art. I wrote poetry in artisanal coffee shops and was surrounded at all times by a rich, diverse community of writers and actors and artists, many of whom shared my interest in radical politics and phrases like “the negation of the negation.” Giving this up meant more than moving from an apartment in Brooklyn to my mother’s spare bedroom in Ohio. It meant losing the cultured veneer that separated me from my past.
The train arrived the following morning in downtown Toledo, a once thriving city that had since been transformed into an almost haunted afterimage of prosperity, a sprawling, desolate mass of concrete and steel. There were few cars on the road, and even fewer people walked the streets. The desperation of the city was palpable and bleak. Like Detroit to its north, Toledo had absorbed the brunt of globalization and neoliberal trade policies. Heading south, away from the city and into the farmland many associate with Ohio, things seemed to get worse, or maybe just desperate in a different way. As I drove through the mixture of small towns and villages and in-between places that make up most of the area, I saw the depressing, unrefined image so many have of the rural Midwest: miles of corporatized farmland, cheaply built houses and decaying trailer parks, supermarkets and chain restaurants smashed into sprawling strip malls. I was in the middle of Nowhere, a flat, boring landscape occupied by nothing but sameness, variations on a late capitalist theme.
You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe wrote. After living in New York City, this seemed especially true. Despite its familiarity, rural Ohio now struck me as foreign, even strangely hostile. There was nothing there—no bookstores or bodegas, no literary events packed full of eager young writers attempting to impress agents with the details of their satirical novels. There was just the horizon, and the telephone poles, and the neighborhoods of mobile homes and prefab houses that had all been built somewhere else. All of the things that once seemed comforting about my simple, Midwestern upbringing now stirred in me only disgust and condescension. It was all a trap, I insisted, one orchestrated not by any one person but by a monstrous network of exchange that cared only for maximizing profit. Anyone who couldn’t recognize this was de facto complicit.
Like many homecomings, mine was marked by an impossibility to recognize it precisely as home, as a place deserving of such a name. But putting it this way is too simple, and risks missing the point. Home, as the rest of Wolfe’s passage expresses, is not so much a place as it is an ideological framework the place reifies: You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood […] back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame […] back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time. Writing in the 1930s, Wolfe was witnessing how the Great Depression, directly following an opulent era of glamor and wealth, forced the country’s population to reevaluate its ideas of prosperity as guaranteed by the free market. More than an economic crisis, it was an identity crisis that left many Americans wondering what had become of the country they thought they knew, with its old forms and systems of things which once seemed so everlasting.
Although the particulars have changed, America is undoubtedly experiencing a similar identity crisis today. The bootstrapping ideology of self-made success, romanticized in the old narrative of the American Dream, has been gradually stripped to its ugly core after policies of austerity have pushed millions into a life defined by financial precariousness (and the wealthiest have shown, with remarkable disregard,2 how they benefit from these very conditions). As of 2014, almost 52% of Americans make less than $30,000 each year, and a sobering 31% bring home an annual income of less than $15,000.3 In an economy boasting an $18 trillion GDP, the vast majority of Americans are working paycheck to paycheck, many with little to no benefits. And while it is true that things aren’t quite so simple as tallying up the amount of capital flowing through our economy, the point nevertheless stands: in the wealthiest country in the history of human civilization, most people have very little. Whatever idea they may have once had of a prosperous future has since been crushed by a bleak reality that suggests only failure—economic, social, and implicitly moral.
The 2008 financial crisis brought much of this to the forefront of public debate, laying bare the contradictions of neoliberalism and America’s Protestant work ethic, but for many this struggle, and the personal toll it takes, is nothing new. The American ethos (responsibility and hard work lead to success) is failing miserably, my father wrote in 1991. People are working, but more and more of them are unable to get ahead, are often unable to afford basic necessities just to live. According to the Current Population Survey, as of 1990 some 56 million people—23% of America’s population—had fallen into the abyss of the working poor. To “have a dream” may be the core of American ideology, but tucked neatly within its tale of hope is the necessary footnote that, should you fail to obtain this dream, the fault (and accompanying shame) is certainly your own. My father knew this very well, and struggled with it for much of his short life. In addition to his many letters to the editor, he kept a journal for my sister and me detailing our everyday life. He wrote candidly about my mother’s inability to find consistent work, and about his own failures to succeed. I don’t want my children to grow up in a trailer park, he wrote in one entry. Despite his politics, and his profound concern for the poor and underprivileged, the fact that he did live in a trailer was a source of great shame. He was an educated man, a man of ideas with ambitions to write the next great American novel. His own poverty, however, was not something he could learn to intellectualize, or accept in a gesture of solidarity with those he proudly championed.
My father did, eventually, get us out of the trailer park, but in a tragic irony befitting the Greek plays he loved to read, he never realized any of his dreams, and became at the end of his life the very person he once so passionately defended: unemployed, homeless, and demoralized by his destructive alcoholism. His last years played out like a fable he might have written in one of his letters to caution against the acceptance of an unfettered free market. In 2004, he lost his job and benefits in a wave of corporate downsizing, and a few months later his second wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Without insurance, they drifted around in search of treatment, members of what he called the “forgotten underclass” of America. Ultimately, they were unable to get much help. She died in 2006, and he spent the last year of his life unable to accept her disappearance, embracing his pain and bitterness and hopelessness as though it might magically bring her back. He binge drank for weeks at a time, until he ran out of money or wound up in a hospital. His last months were spent living with his parents in the small village of North Baltimore, Ohio (“hicksville,” as he called it). He struggled to stay sober, and in his last journal he wrote, again, of his shame. How, he wondered, had he found himself here? He was better than this place, with its simple people and their feeble minds, with their podunk gossip and backwoods ideas. He was back in rural America, stuck in a trailer park town with trailer park people. Or, as they’re often called: white trash.
Few disparaging expressions are as socially accepted as those used to speak about poor white communities. White trash. Hick. Hillbilly. Redneck. Like other stereotypes, they are used to routinely, often gleefully mock the perceived failings of those living in poverty. In cinema and on social media, depictions of rural white poverty encourage cheap laughs at the stupidity and lack of culture scripted as somehow representative of rural life. In political discourse, the terms are often tossed around, somewhat ironically, by educated liberals who praise things like multiculturalism and the vague academic concepts of “difference” and the “Other.” Some use the terms as metonymic for something less specific: depravity, abject poverty, right-wing conservatism (the implicit suggestion being that education and enlightenment lead to more tolerant, liberal views). Others reserve the terms for criticizing those whose views they find facile or backward. But regardless of how they’re used, they reveal an aporia in the ways we continue to think about race and class, and do nothing to address suffering and systemic inequality. Instead, they normalize the social conditions that make possible the very forms of life so often criticized for their ignorance and vulgarity. Joking about white trash is, at its core, a joke that makes light of demoralizing poverty, one that serves no other purpose than that of an economic palliative: at least we’re better off than that.
Looking back, it is easy to see this as the source of my own disgust and ambivalence upon returning home in 2010. The problem wasn’t really that my rural past appeared different to me, that it had somehow failed to match the nostalgic image of my childhood I cherished. The problem wasn’t, either, that I saw in everything how surplus can be extracted, or how privatization invariably leads to austerity. While these were certainly factors, the real problem was that I saw my home for what it really was, which is to say the way it had always been. I saw the class into which I’d been born, freed from the intellectualizing that had made it easier to understand and accept. I finally recognized, and had the adequate language to express, the shame I first experienced as a poor kid in elementary school, recognizing on some instinctual level that I needed to disguise my origins, that if I didn’t I risked ostracization. It was the same shame I had unconsciously attempted to escape by “becoming a New Yorker,” by performing a caricature of the hip, cultured intellectual with hopes of passing as a member of a more desirable class. Like my father, I was willing to do anything that might throw off the stench of my rural, trailer park past. I wanted to escape, and the easiest way to do this was not through direct access to finance, which I knew I would never have, but through certain cultural markers that would mask or cover up the truth of my class position. In other words, I had unconsciously accepted the ideology of liberal politics: It’s not about what you have, but who you are: power is not a problem of class, but a problem of identity.
Identity has become fundamental to contemporary politics. The crucial question, one that lacks an answer with any consensus, is how to recognize or incorporate identity, and how to reconcile its particularity with projects of emancipation that insist upon a more universal framework. One of the fractures in the very broad spectrum of left politics today is between those who prioritize class as the constitutive element of social relations, and those whose privileging of identity either refuses to accept or overlooks the ways in which things like race and gender are rooted in material conditions. I associate the former with a broader marxist critique of liberalism, and for the sake of convenience will call the former “marxist” and the latter “liberal.” For the marxist, a politics that sacrifices class for identity merely reproduces market logic: capitalism is happy exploiting all kinds of different people, and in fact should work much better without racism or sexism or ableism, when identities are respected equally and antagonisms are removed from the equation. For the liberal, a narrow emphasis on class ignores the particular experiences unique to different identity positions, experiences that are not always so clearly determined by one’s standard of living (e.g. persons of color, even those with access to wealth, experience discrimination on a regular basis).
The white, rural poor don’t fit neatly into either framework. Through the lens of liberal identity politics, these individuals are subsumed into their whiteness—they are privileged, structurally, by mere fact of their skin. They may be poor, but so are millions of other people, many of whom do not have the advantage of being white. Through a marxist lens of class, less problematically (but problematically nevertheless), the white rural poor become simply “poor,” or more commonly “working class.” The particulars of their experience not only cease to matter in a meaningful way, but often become a kind of problem that needs to be solved—a fact that is most pointedly realized in those who happen to have the wrong politics: it is very easy to champion blue collar workers who support unions, but much more difficult when such workers “vote against their best interest,” or are religious fundamentalists who may or may not hold contemptible, conservative views about women and minorities.
This is not to excuse contemptible views. The point is that, if the broader spectrum of left politics is going to succeed in its ultimate aim—the creation of a more just society for all people—it needs a more nuanced approach to class and identity, one that, as Adorno would insist, does not subsume the particular entirely under the universal. The flaws of identity politics are obvious, not least the tendency for reactionary liberal moralizing and campaigns of shame masquerading as social justice. But to praise and champion only those members of the working class with the correct politics, as some marxists and many liberals do, risks repeating the same flawed logic of identity politics. The difference between a conservative Trump supporter and a liberal Sanders supporter, for example, is often not a difference of class, but rather a difference in certain cultural markers—and access to certain institutions—that are used to obscure class. It is the difference between an artist in Brooklyn who has turned poverty into a chic lifestyle, a commitment to his or her radical politics, and a struggling factory worker living in a rural community that has never heard the word “dialectical” and is perfectly fine living without a pair of vegan shoes. These may be somewhat caricatural examples, but they lay bare the ways in which identity splinters the working class into antagonistic communities, ignoring broader class disparities that perpetuate real inequality.
For many living in impoverished rural communities, identity is not a meaningful category, and insofar as they have one it is much more difficult to celebrate. One of the crucial aspects of identity today is to be able to demand recognition, to insist that others do not overlook or disregard the particularity of your experience. For oppressed groups, this is the locus of the subversive move: to embrace what has, historically, been the constitutive element of one’s oppression and champion it. It is black power. It is gay pride. Even the bohemian, embracing a life without wealth, falsely imagines a similar kind of freedom, and even resistance to the capitalist economy, in resignation of symbolic currency. But for a poor, white man, living in a mobile home in Fostoria, Ohio, this liberating form of reappropriation is complicated. Embracing his whiteness, or his masculinity, merely repeats an ugly legacy of racism and misogyny. And it is difficult to have pride in a humiliating, low-wage job that offers little prospect for advancement or stability. He has no union membership, no labor collective to provide a sense of belonging. Even if he did, he may ultimately feel too ashamed of his perceived failures to embrace this fact.
What remaining part of his identity can offer the same liberating force, can legitimately allow him to demand recognition from others and insist his experience of poverty and hardship matters? He is a Christian, perhaps, or a devoted fan of an Ohio sports team. But are these identities that even count, or do they simply reaffirm the “uncultured” or “ignorant” rural stereotype held by many in the liberal class? Is he a Midwesterner? Perhaps, but living in a small town in the middle of nowhere, it can be difficult to imagine “belonging” to the community around you—particularly when that community is profoundly impoverished, or is located in a place either no one has heard of or everyone assumes somehow doesn’t register as significant. For most people, the rural Midwest—and most of rural America generally—has very little to offer. It’s a place they’ll do just about anything to get away from, a place they fly over, literally, to get to more interesting places, to historic cities with meccas of art museums and cultural icons. Poor, rural communities are not places that anyone really thinks about, at least not outside of election years.
This election year, in particular, has seen two dominant narratives that effectively disregard the importance of poor white voters. As Connor Kilpatrick has noted in Jacobin, Sanders’s overwhelming support from white, working-class people has been either dismissed as not diverse enough or openly criticized as “racist,” a symptom of resistance to a true working-class political movement. But while his analysis of liberal disdain is correct, it nevertheless focuses mainly on those white working-class voters who support Bernie Sanders (which makes sense, given the scope of the article). What is missing is the other narrative of this election season, the ugly correlate, one that is not only accepted but forcefully repeated by liberals: Trump’s support from white, working-class people reaffirms the terrifying collapse of American democracy, an infestation of ignorant, angry trailer-park mobs that want to turn back the clock on civil rights and establish a fascist idiocracy.4 What a bunch of inbred morons, good liberals bemoan in Facebook comments. Or, as the title of one Salon article gently put it: “Hideous, Disgusting Racists: Let’s call Donald Trump and his Supporters Exactly What They Are.”
There is no doubt that some of Trump’s supporters are racists. There is also no doubt that some of Trump’s supporters are “ignorant,” which is of course another way of saying they happened to have been born into a set of material conditions that barred access to institutions liberals otherwise praise, such as a high quality education. And at the risk of belaboring the point, I am not supporting the rhetoric of Trump or his supporters, nor excusing it reductively as a “product of inequality.” But the fact remains that there is real pain and suffering behind much of the support for Trump, ignored by liberals who, more than not, support only those identities and cultural markers that count as symbols for their cause. When my father used the phrase “the abyss of the working poor” in his letters, he was describing the disappearance of an entire class of Americans. The word he chose, abyss, is crucial: defined more by what it isn’t than what it is, an abyss is a non-place. It is the impossible depth and darkness of our world that seems almost impossible to conceptualize. In a similar way, “white, rural, and poor” has become a kind of non-identity, rooted in a way of life many simply can’t or choose not to understand. In an era that has placed identity at the center of political life, such a life is not something that counts. More often than not, the liberal class sees it not as a positive identity worthy of respect or understanding, but either disregards its politics as reactionary and militant or blatantly derides its views as ignorant and disgusting.
In a time of austerity, criticism is the one of the easiest things to offer. It is easy to point out flaws in things that don’t work, to critique those whose ideas we find problematic and dangerous. It is another thing to offer ways to change those ideas, or perhaps more radically—and problematically—understand them. Despite some of his own flaws as a presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders has been attempting to do precisely this with his oft-misunderstood call for a “political revolution.” When he insists his campaign is about “bringing people together,” there is, yes, the waft of romanticism and idealism rooted in manufactured images of the powerless conquering the powerful (complete with powerful ads set to iconic music). But for one thing, a little bit of idealism in a world of cynical resignation and ironic posturing goes a long way. More importantly, Sanders’s wish to “bring people together” represents a sincere, if difficult to realize, desire to overcome the kinds of contradictions that structure our discourse of identity. It’s not surprising that many otherwise stereotypical “right-wing conservatives” find his candidacy so appealing. For once, he manages to represent a left politics that is not condescending, that doesn’t preach about working-class people in the same breath as it mocks their beliefs and daily practices.
I myself am very conflicted, torn between my own political convictions and the instinctual recognition I experience when I see footage of a Trump rally. It horrifies me to see their hatred and their anger, to see it manifest in the violence and rhetoric that has come to dominate our sensationalized election coverage. I am saddened, and at times disgusted, that people find in an obvious snake oil salesman like Trump a political savior. At the same time, a part of me feelsfor these people. I look at them with the same shame I had growing up, and then I can’t help but think: I know them. They are, I am humiliated to say, my people. And if it weren’t for a number of utterly contingent facts, I could have become one of them. My father, in the last years of his life, was on his way to becoming one of them. I witnessed his political convictions disappear into bitterness and outrage as he was unable to come to terms with the loss of everything that had made his life meaningful. He wasn’t conflicted about this loss of idealism. It felt good for him to be angry and resentful. It was absolutely effortless.
More than once I’ve been asked if I understand how people can be drawn to Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and more than once I’ve responded that, yes, I absolutely can. Come to parts of Ohio, or West Virginia, or Indiana, and see what it is like to live there, to carry with you the knowledge that where you live, and what you cherish, doesn’t matter to most people. When Trump shouts about “making America great,” what many hear is that you can, in fact, go back. You can go home again, back to a world and system of things that seem everlasting, back to a world where you matter. His supporters believe this. They want, desperately, for it to be true, because if it isn’t true they have nothing left. And though I may disagree with everything they believe, I can’t blame them.
- In 1990, we moved to a small yellow house in a working-class neighborhood on the far north side of Findlay, located right beside the Dow Chemical factory (now called Valfilm since its closing in 2014).
- In Illinois, for example, governor Bruce Rauner (whose net worth is north of $100 million) has held the state budget hostage for the last year in an attempt to weaken bargaining rights and effectively eliminate public-worker unions. By denying funds to many public services, including colleges and mental health programs, his ultimate goal is to force the democratically controlled congress to sacrifice unions in exchange for the funding to those programs.
- According to the Social Security Administration’s Average Wage Index. Admittedly, this data looks at individual incomes, and doesn’t reflect household income or those with temporary or part-time jobs. But it also doesn’t look at those who hold multiple jobs, or whose income, even if above poverty level, is insufficient with respect to cost of living, e.g. those who live in major metropolitan areas like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (https://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year=2014)
- It is important to note that Trump has considerable support from wealthy, college-educated whites as well. This fact, however, is typically overlooked by political pundits, most of whom favor the narrative of white working-class voters, often in rural areas, disenfranchised by bad trade deals and the effects of deindustrialization. While this narrative is undoubtedly true for many of Trump’s supporters, it would be reductive to suggest they are his only supporters.
ContributorAdam Theron-Lee Rensch
Adam Theron-Lee Rensch is the author of the Field Notes book No Home for You Here: A Memoir of Class and Culture (London: Reaktion/Brooklyn Rail, 2020). He lives in Chicago.