Michael Bettencourt-Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

What Is It That They Think They’re Rebelling Against?

I’ve been reading through post-election musings about why Trump voters voted for Trump (like Chris Bodenner’s profile of a Trump voter in the Atlantic, “I Voted for the Middle Finger, for the Wrecking Ball,” or “Revenge of the Forgotten Class” on Pro Publica), and much of it focuses on how a rank of forgotten Americans (often abbreviated as “white, male, working class”) banded together to topple the Washington 茅lites in service to a mission: bringing back an America that existed for about a decade after the end of World War II, an America that was male- and white-ascendant and industrial, dominant in the global marketplace and militarily superior – the “exceptional America” when people refer to American exceptionalism.

What I’ve taken away from my reading is that these “explanations,” as earnest as they are, can’t explain the motivations of the Trump voter because those motivations seem to be a yarn-tangle of real facts and faux facts, intestinal feelings, peeves verging into angers, confusions and misdirections, and deep visceral worries (justified or not). The writers clearly believe that if “we” (meaning those outside this cohort) can understand their aggrievements, then “we” can craft solutions for their vexations. If their vexations can be soothed, America will have taken a big step toward getting back on the right path.

But two things are clear from these analyses. First, there are no solutions to their vexations, or at least most of them. The middle-class-making industrial jobs of the 1950s are gone forever and will not be coming back. The country will not be majority white for much longer, and the United States, the nation of immigrants, will continue to be a nation of immigrants.  Gender will continue becoming more fluid, abortions will still be performed, black and brown people will not stop protesting against racism, income inequality will make class mobility even more impossible than it is today, and millions of workers may simply become superfluous in the future economy.

Both political parties have no clue about how to craft a policy response to the changing world in which they find themselves.  Or, to be more accurate, there are plenty of solutions on the shelf to address the tectonic shifts taking place, but neither political party’s structure is designed to incorporate these ideas and champion them as policy, and neither party is prepared to lead the effort of re-designing American society to meet the historical changes it faces.

Second, Trump’s rise should not have been a surprise because we’ve seen this story before, the “story” being the way American citizens have been bamboozled into voting against their own economic and social interests.  Thomas Frank documented it well in What’s the Matter with Kansas? and The Wrecking Crew, but he’s far from the only writer who has picked apart how the Republican Party has used culture wars, voter suppression, nostalgia, gerrymandering, and pure obstinance to maintain its power.

The conservative agenda that the Trump voters will get from Trump will not be the one for which they voted, if only because Trump can’t do much of what he said he would do (deport 11 million people, build a wall for which Mexico will pay, repeal trade deals and impose tariffs, take away health insurance from millions of people) and because of the internal bickering within his own party: it is not settled as to what constitutes “genuine” conservatism, and governance will grind to a halt as the fiscal hawks, culture warriors and moderates (yes, they do exist in the party) battle this out.

But if a consolidated conservative agenda does emerge, it will not be premised on curing the ills that the Trump voters believe afflict them.  It will be premised on elimination, abandonment, and punishment.

Think about what that conservative agenda will include, based on what its advocates have said:

 public assistance at all levels is swapped out for block grants and vouchers (or even just eliminated)

 public insurance (Social Security et. al.) is handed over to the tender mercies of the financial markets

 paying for health care becomes a purely personal matter
(HSAs, Medicare/Medicaid privatized/voucherized or eliminated)

 military power is extended and the “war on terror” made endless

 the tax code is reduced to a flat tax

 infrastructure reform is either delayed or privatized (e.g., toll roads built by Bechtel, Chicago’s 75-year lease of its parking meter revenues to Morgan Stanley)

 protective regulations are repealed (EPA, consumer protection)

net neutrality is overturned

Dodd-Frank is rescinded

 deportations go back up to Obama levels and higher

 the media are neutralized (libel laws, continued economic decline of the industry)

 public (or collective) space is reduced toward zero

 the courts become places where most people will not have their day (public defenders defunded, arbitration agreements imposed in contracts, and so on)

corporations will be accorded even more people-like rights

I’m exhausted, and there’s still so much more!!

The Trump voters bought themselves a pig in a poke, just as the silent majority bought one with Nixon and the “morning in America”-hopers bought one with Reagan and the evangelicals bought one with Bush II.  They will soon find out the value of what they have purchased – the 2018 elections will tell that tale.


I hope this breast-beating about the white working class stops soon because it is an analytical dead-end in the light of the emancipatory politics America needs.

This is the speech I wish Hillary had given after her gaffe(?) in September about Trump voters and “deplorables.” What she should have said to the white working class is this:

I’m sorry I called some of you deplorables – things can get out of hand during a hard-fought election like this, and I shouldn’t have said it. Here is what I should have said: It’s the system that’s deplorable.  I’ll go one step further: it’s deplorable for a lot of people, not just you.  It’s deplorable for a lot of people who you think you don’t have a connection to but you do: poor single working mothers, immigrants workers paying taxes but having to hide in the shadows, people who somehow don’t fit into the definition of “normal” but who are good, decent people nonetheless.  If you want to make America great, then you should link up with these people so that everyone who is getting screwed by this system can work arm-in-arm to turn the deplorable situation into a situation where ordinary people can be on the winning side.

I’m not crazy for saying this. It’s part of your own history.  One hundred and twenty years ago, people like you banded together to change the system.  Urban workers, rural farmers, women, black people, immigrants – they formed the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, and it shook things up.  The labor movement that many Republicans so hate fought and died for things like you not having to work seven days a week and being killed on the job. The civil rights movement fought for justice, not just for black people but for poor people – and that includes you.  And so much more history I could tell that would show you that when ordinary people work together and don’t believe the 茅lites scare-mongering them about race and migration and religion and “the death of Western civilization,” they can accomplish great things.

And I have to be honest with you, and you know what I’m saying is true, even if you’re shouting something else: we can’t get the great days of post-World War II America back again.  The factories aren’t coming back.  Coal mining isn’t coming back again.  Climate change is not going to stop.  Black people and gay people and women are not going to give up the gains they’ve made, at a cost of life and limb. America is not going to be the sole leader of the world again.  Change is going to continue, and it’s going to be strange and confusing because change is always going to be strange and confusing.  We live in troubled times, but we have to be adult enough to accept that and smart enough to apply the collective intelligence we have as Americans to make sure the changes bring prosperity and safety to everyone.

I can understand your pain.  But yours isn’t the only pain.  You want people to listen to you?  You should be listened to.  But you have to listen to the other people as well.  It has to go both ways.  Like Benjamin Franklin said when facing the might of the British empire: "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." 

I prefer that we all hang together and share with each other what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer for Scene4.
Visit his website at:
For more of his columns and articles,
check the Archives.

©2016 Michael Bettencourt
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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