As the 2016 election cycle continues, the unprecedented success of the GOP’s flamboyant presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, raises a lot of questions. For one, what possible appeal can a millionaire businessman hold for the white working class?
What makes people whom Trump has never cared about before this election so eager to see him as their spokesman? What in tarnation do they see in his vague bluster and thinly coded racist remarks?
For answers to these and other questions, look no further than Nancy Isenberg’s fascinating and unsettling new book, “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” which traces the long-standing co-dependency between America’s wealthy elites and the white underclass who have been a source of cheap labor since the founding of our country.
In this meticulously researched survey of the class system in America, Isenberg upends myths about America’s allegedly class-free society, arguing that ever since the first expendable poor were shipped to our shores, government has courted them with one hand and squashed them flat with the other. Along the way, she debunks one of our most persistent, patriotic and cherished beliefs: that America is the land of equality for all.
From the new nation’s earliest beginnings, Britain saw a way to clean house of its poor and criminal class by exporting them to America as expendable, disposable “waste people” dumped into the first colonies. Never intended to thrive, left to their own devices, unsuited for much of anything required to survive in the colonies, many of these early squatters were lost to fever and starvation, or remained indentured servants who rarely outlived their debt.
Historically, says Isenberg, this servant class — aka “lazy lubbers,” “rubbish,” “rascals,” “crackers,” “squatters,” and “scalawags” — ended up in the South, their tribulations continuing when the Carolinas split in two. North Carolina ended up “an imperial renegade territory, a swampy refuge for the poor and landless,” while the slave-holding states of South Carolina and Virginia “adopted all the features of a traditional class hierarchy, fully embracing the institution of slavery.”
Slavery was no friend of the indentured servant — who required decent clothing, “meat, bread and beer on the table,” couldn’t tolerate the “sweltering” Southern heat, and ran away if forced to work as hard as slaves.” With no employment and no place to go except into less habitable environments like Appalachia, they settled on land they didn’t own and never would.
Attitudes toward the landless poor, says Isenberg, haven’t improved much since then, no thanks to the American Revolution which, despite its ringing calls of liberty for all, was unable “to magically erase the British class system.” Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, debunked the romanticism surrounding the founding fathers in her first book, “Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr.”
Here, her in-depth portraits of Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson are proof of their entrenched, old-country class values; they may have preached equality, but their ideas about breeding, poverty and social mobility were either unsympathetic, ineffective or absent altogether.
The Civil War doesn’t fare much better in “White Trash.” Class warfare, not slavery, was the real battle in question, Isenberg claims, and the Confederacy worked to instill a powerful sense of inequality between poor whites and slaves, pitting them against each other lest they join forces in yet another revolution.
Though rich and poor Confederates had little in common other than their white skin, fear mongering and propaganda about blacks worked, as it does now, to enlist the white underclass in what Martin Luther King Jr. would later call “supporting your oppressors.” Nor did slaveholders or the wealthy and educated do the actual fighting: Poor whites made up the bulk of the Rebel army, hundreds of thousands dying for what they believed would be a better way of life.
Through Reconstruction and into the 20th century, endless assaults on the white poor sustained a class hierarchy that kept a steady foot on their red necks: Sterilization aimed to reduce their offspring. IQ testing during WWI unfairly targeted uneducated Southerners. Political speeches and journalism reinforced stereotypes of “degenerates” and “mongrels.” Writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Erskine Caldwell derided poor whites as “objects of disgust” in their novels.
In profiles of politicians like Andrew Jackson, James Vardaman and later, Huey Long and Eugene Talmadge, whose crude, folksy showmanship — like Trump’s — suggested a plainspoken “class solidarity” with the common man, Isenberg explains just how little these good ol’ boys did to improve the lot of the poor white voters, whose pants they charmed off nonetheless.
Of their few champions, Davy Crockett, the New Deal’s Rexford Tugwell and Milburn Lincoln Wilson, and Lyndon Johnson stand out as some of the most enduring. Isenberg analyzes the effect of the Depression era, which changed, however briefly, attitudes toward poor whites: With 20 percent of the country unemployed, poverty could no longer be chalked up to the shiftlessness of white trash.
The book's final section looks at the rebranding of the white poor that began with movies like "Deliverance" and TV shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies," culminating in "grit lit" such as "Winter's Bone" and "Bastard Out of Carolina." From Elvis and Jimmy Carter to Honey Boo Boo, from "The Dukes of Hazzard" and Tammy Faye Bakker to "Hillbilly Handfishing: It may be white trash, but it's our white trash.
“They are who we are,” Isenberg concludes, “and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.” Indeed, her bracing wake-up call will surely change the way we think about a group we love to hate, about class in America, and about what it will take to bring about a real revolution in social equality in this country.