Working Class Nero

Don’t listen to the rhetoric that Hillary lost because of "working class voters" — it’s far more troubling than that

During his campaign, Donald Trump lied without compunction or conscience, and maybe even without awareness. He regularly misrepresented Hillary Clinton's policies and positions — and his own (when they could be pinned down at all). He seemed to take pleasure in painting the bleakest possible picture of the country — its crime rates, its debt, its military power — even when reality presented plenty of reasons for hope. He inflated the size of his crowds, he exaggerated his endorsements, he embroidered his stump speeches with outlandish conspiracy theories. At one point, in a fit of cosmic literalism, his senior adviser's pants actually caught on fire. At this rate, the only jobs program Trump can guarantee is full employment for fact checkers.

But the biggest lie about the Trump campaign is the one the media told — and continues to tell — on his behalf: that Trump was carried to the White House by the strength of the "working class."

"Working class" isn't a thing. It's a stereotype masquerading as a sociological term. The census doesn't measure the "working class." There's no federal "working class line" like there is with poverty. What most of the people talking about the "working class" right now mean by the term is "white people without a college degree." Or, rather, I hope that's what they mean, because that's the only way that their diagnosis of the election is factually correct. Among those who voted, 67 percent of whites without college degrees voted for Trump — compared to 20 percent of non-whites without college degrees who supported him.

Expand the scope beyond white people and it's hard to argue that Trump won because of love from the little guy (or gal). Clinton won with all those making less than $50,000 a year 52 to 41 percent, probably because if you're an American living on less than $50,000 a year, there's a decent chance you're a person of color. Black, Latino, and other ethnic minority households make up 58 percent of all "low income" working families — that is, families that fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. That's an income of less than $23,760 for a single person, less than $48,600 for a family of four.

While Trump improved on the GOP share of this vote — Obama won it in 2012 by 60 to 38 percent — hijacking this improvement into a mandate for the Republicans is a misdirection enabled by pundits' myopic fascination with angry white people.

This election was about a million things: Clinton's baggage, Clinton's gender, Trump's celebrity, false equivalence, the FBI, foreign entanglements, sexual assault, xenophobia, the Supreme Court, the alt-right, and (God help us) Twitter. It wasn't just, or even mostly, about "the working class."

Once you disrupt the myth of "the working class," it's impossible to pretend that white people of any income bracket voted the way they did because of their income or their education. You have to conclude that their vote had to do with their race. It's a distraction to argue over whether they voted the way they did because of racism. I do not hold that every (or most) white Trump voter pulled the lever with active hate in their heart for people of color (or women, for that matter). But they voted in response to a message that was filled with hate, and in the end, it's the response that we have to be concerned about, not trying to divine what was in their hearts.

So let’s not be fooled. The real question facing Democrats — at least in the short term — isn't "How can the party appeal more to the working class?" It’s "How to do you appeal to non-college-educated white people without being an explicit bigot?"

But I'm not sure it's on Democrats to figure that out. First of all, they don't really need that demographic to win. The story of this election is as much or more about depressed turnout among people of color as it is about white people turning out to vote like white people do. One analysis found that if Clinton had held on to the Obama voters in just two urban, primarily African-American counties — Milwaukee in Wisconsin and Wayne in Michigan — she could have won both of those states. Had she managed to keep Obama's level of African-American turnout across Pennsylvania, 130,000 more black people would have voted. Just a little over two-thirds of them would have needed to vote for her, and we'd be marveling at the decimation of the GOP coalition today.

I have also a less concrete, more terrifying reason to warn Democrats away from wooing those white voters: They don't want to be wooed. Not at the moment, at least.

Trump's message of hate and fear is a rhetorical dope rush to his white supporters. It turns his audience into addicts. It bypasses all the complicated, strenuous work of parsing policies and lifting oneself above narrow self-interest and floods the bloodstream with cheaply gotten pride.

As with any addiction, its pleasures are short-lived, and reality will intrude eventually. Indeed, since Trump's proposed policies won't actually benefit lower- and middle-income people, non-college-educated white people might — of all the folks who got a taste of Trump's smack talk — crash the hardest. Democrats' economic policies can help them; Democrats should definitely make a better and stronger case that this is so. But it'll be up to those white people to decide if they want the help. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

This column has been updated to correct an error; "mandate for the Democrats" was meant to read "mandate for the Republicans."