By Patrick O’Donoghue, First of May Anarchist Alliance member
“The thing to remember about people like Trump is that they offer false solutions and scapegoats to real problems- like the Klan did and still does, like the Commission on Public Safety did here in Minnesota during World War One, like the anti-refugee/anti-immigrant crowd does in stirring up hate against Somalis and Hispanic people in St Cloud and around the Twin Cities. The solutions Trump peddles don’t work. Deporting Mexicans can’t bring back jobs that got replaced by machines. Profiling Muslims can’t bring us security when the main domestic terror threat is white supremacists. You can’t reverse the stagnation of wages by busting unions. You can’t stop outsourcing by trying to stop other countries from developing.”
The night Trump got elected, I did a lot of soul searching, because the work I do as a revolutionary and an organizer involves, a lot of the time, trying to help and support people who… probably voted for Trump.
The place I work is mostly white, with coworkers that, like me, come from rural and blue collar backgrounds. It’s a place of contradictions, where rants about the boss getting rich off your labor comes as easily off of people’s lips as rants about ‘welfare queens’ coded in the tired language of black bashing, where nobody likes a cop until the issue of protesters and ‘thugs’ comes up. It’s a place where machismo is key and being “not PC” is part of being a man. A number of my coworkers are in that strange, almost fabled breed of voters who were excited about Sanders, then after he lost the primaries drifted towards Trump- more didn’t bother voting at all. It’s a racially divided workplace, and the black section, which has a union, is under attack from the company. Our section, mostly white, is non-union, and so far hasn’t gotten involved. Most aren’t even aware of the contract disputes; the two sections don’t talk much.
I was sitting on leave, thinking about my work, and wondering how the hell I could bring myself to go into work again and keep trying to talk to, and listen to, and support people who were fine with throwing my Muslim and queer family members and friends, and our immigrant and black coworkers, under the bus for a guy who made a lot of promises he can’t keep about making America great again. I knew, intellectually, why I had to- because after decades of neoliberal policies by a Democratic Party that abandoned the Great Society vision, of mechanization and outsourcing, of the Farm Crisis, and of the weakening of unions and the left, has left a lot of rural and working class white people searching for answers. I knew, intellectually, that if those answers don’t come in the form of standing with other exploited and marginalized people, they were going to come in the form of blaming even more exploited and marginalized people, of buying into the far right. I knew, from experience, that trying to approach anti-racism solely from a stance of guilt and blame is usually counterproductive and feeds the same processes that drive people to retreat into racism in the first place. I knew that I had to keep trying- but deep down in my gut, I felt like I was betraying my friends who are facing worse dangers under a Trump administration than I’m going to.
Then, the day after the election, a coworker of mine did something I hoped would happen for a long time. The man is a classic Rust Belt populist. A laid off union ironworker turned mariner, raised in a trailer park worrying about whether they’d have electricity that month. He harbors a lot of racial resentment over what he feels like are his problems not being acknowledged, being written off because of his relative white privilege. He resents being blamed or made to feel guilty for racism- and in a process familiar to anyone from my hometown, that defensiveness slowly turns into a defense of racism itself, a way to way to reject the blame by rejecting the idea that anything was wrong in the first place. This guy approached a queer coworker and an amazing organizer, and asked to meet with him, a Mexican, and a known Black Lives Matter arrestee to talk about forming a union. He insisted. He started talking organizing strategy. I got the news after work, in a pho shop near the waterfront. I almost broke down. It was the best news I could have hoped for. It gave me the strength to come into work ready to keep organizing.
The thing to remember about people like Trump is that they offer false solutions and scapegoats to real problems- like the Klan did and still does, like the Commission on Public Safety did here in Minnesota during World War One, like the anti-refugee/anti-immigrant crowd does in stirring up hate against Somalis and Hispanic people in St Cloud and around the Twin Cities. The solutions Trump peddles don’t work. Deporting Mexicans can’t bring back jobs that got replaced by machines. Profiling Muslims can’t bring us security when the main domestic terror threat is white supremacists. You can’t reverse the stagnation of wages by busting unions. You can’t stop outsourcing by trying to stop other countries from developing.
But, for someone to be able to offer a scapegoat for a problem, there has to be a real problem. My white coworkers know that for white working class people, our incomes are stagnating, our drug addiction is rising, and our life expectancy is declining- as they are for working class people of color. We know that industries that once defined the character and culture of the blue collar American worker are phasing out, and taking the towns built around those industries with them. We know that the discourse around rural and working class whites is a discourse about ‘white trash’, ‘rednecks’, and ‘hicks’, the deplorables who represent everything ugly and backwards about America- often spoken by wealthier whites from metro areas whose racism is more polite but also carries the clout of greater economic and political power, the ability to lock people of color out of housing and jobs while touting the benefits of a shallowly defined ‘multiculturalism’. When Trump comes along and offers a solution, even a false one, even a racist one, people in places like the Rust Belt and Appalachia bite. It’s wrong- but who else is offering a solution? The Democrats offer more ‘free trade’ deals, and the Left isn’t strong enough to offer much of anything.
It’s true that the white working class didn’t elect Trump– at least, not on our own. The white vote went for Trump across the income spectrum- and less people voted for him than voted for Romney back in 2012. Still, the Rust Belt and rural areas, mostly white and largely working class, were part of Trump’s victory, delivering key votes in swing states around the Great Lakes. Of the entire working class in America, only the white voters went for Trump, joining with wealthier whites in an election with largely racial voting blocs. In doing so, a lot of people chose to once more take on the role of attack dogs for white supremacy, jumping at the task of “making America great again” without asking whose America or what greatness is. Faced with a choice between glaringly corrupt neoliberalism and glaringly racist paleo-conservatism, a lot of us chose Trump. Too many got suckered, one more time, into maintaining a racist system that keeps us hooked on bullshit non-solutions, that beats down the people of color in our own neighborhoods and workplaces whose solidarity and mutual aid we need, and that degrades our humanity by making us complicit in the oppression of our fellow people and turning us into the very thing so many whites resent feeling guilty over.
I believe that working class white people can, and often do, and increasingly must, realize that our enemies are not Mexicans, Muslims, and Blacks. The people who get rich off of our work then invest that wealth in machines to replace us or move our jobs to a country where union organizers get raped and murdered in the desert, are mostly wealthy white guys. Ditto the people who own the companies that level mountains and pollute rivers and groundwater, or who own the trailer parks or the tenement apartments or the banks that foreclose people’s houses. Ditto the people who cut taxes for the rich and defund social services, then spend more and more on war and send our family members and friends off to die in Afghanistan or Iraq. When poor white folk start realizing that our interests aren’t with a racist, capitalist power structure, and are with people of color who we work and live alongside, and when we stop acting as attack dogs and start acting in solidarity, that’s when we can be part of making something great. That’s why I’m going to keep listening to, and talking to, and helping and relying on, these coworkers- because if people hadn’t listened to and talked to and worked with me, I’d probably think exactly like they think today.
Let’s betray white supremacy and the fat-cat whites who it made supreme. Let’s steal our communities from out of the mouth of fascism. Let’s refuse to be attack dogs, and bite the hand that holds that leash.