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Hatred for the Poor


Everyone’s putting up their hot takes of Kevin William’s poor-hating screed in the National Review, and it might as well be my turn.

The original piece is paywalled, but that’s OK. Here’s the part that sparked so much outrage, in case you haven’t seen it:

It is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about “globalists” and — odious, stupid term — “the Establishment,” but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves. If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that. Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

Williamson’s colleagues agree that his words are harsh but “fundamentally true and important to say.” But they aren’t really true at all, much less “important.”

It’s disingenuous to say “nothing happened to them.” Something absolutely did happen, and it’s something that we, as a country, have done our best to ignore and deny.

Free trade–something which Donald Trump rails against with an intensity not seen by any of his competitors–devastated communities across the country and has impacted millions of Americans. It hasn’t entirely been a bad thing, of course. On balance, it’s probably been a net positive. But that doesn’t mean the damage it’s caused should go unremarked.

A brief history lesson is probably in order here. The great American industrial boom of the 1940s and ‘50s was a consequence of circumstances at the end of World War II. European industrial infrastructure–of which Germany had been the heart–was in ruins and needed to be rebuilt. Meanwhile, the US mainland hadn’t suffered any violence at all, and instead had production capacity at total war levels that outstripped the rest of the world. We became the world’s exporter and, for a while, a rising tide in this country lifted many boats that had never before had a chance at prosperity. This was the era in which a young man fresh out of high school could get a job at the local mine or factory and work it all the way to retirement. A home in the suburbs, a stable income, and security in retirement.

Many families saw prosperity that really had no chance of it otherwise. We built a middle class that became the envy of the world. There were plenty of people who missed out on a lot of those gains–women and racial minorities, for instance, did not see their incomes or wealth grow nearly as much, due to structural discrimination–but overall it was a huge boon to the country and our society. Perhaps most importantly, it was a source of stability: people with economic security generally don’t agitate much.

Unfortunately, it was not to last. The rest of the world eventually caught up and, with our financial industry seeking higher profits abroad, pressure was applied to break down trade barriers and allow the US to import much more heavily. Reduced or eliminated tariffs made foreign goods more accessible and affordable to Americans, of course, but it also meant that jobs could be more easily exported from here. Cars, electronics, and most other things don’t have to be produced here–they can be made almost anywhere, and those controlling the pursestrings have chased ever-cheaper manufacturing. The effects on many communities in the US were practically apocalyptic. Towns that were built on manufacturing have, in recent decades, seen it leave, and now many of them look as though bombs were dropped.

For Williamson to say “nothing happened” is to deny reality. Poverty “happened.” These are people who, however briefly, had a shot at the good life… and then had it snatched away. Emma Lindsay wrote recently that “Trump supporters aren’t stupid,” and that what they want aren’t government handouts, but their dignity:

We are depriving the white working classes of their means to give. As we export manufacturing jobs internationally and as we streamline labor with technology, we start moving people to the sidelines. It’s not just that they have less money, it’s that their identity as _providers_ is being threatened. This is why they are often so against welfare. Even if it would fix their financial situation, it would not fix their identity problems. It would hurt their dignity. While the working class is undoubtedly worried about the economy, we already know many will not vote in their economic best interests. They vote for the candidate who promises a return to dignity, and it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they care about their dignity more than they care about their finances.

Trump is a charlatan, and that may be the one thing Williamson and his critics can agree on. If anyone can bring back the dignity of the white working class, it isn’t Trump, but it’s understandable that people are desperate and willing to give up on the Republican establishment that has let them down so thoroughly. The latter is what Williamson and like-minded commentators fail to grasp. Republicans have promised over and over, for decades, that slashing taxes and cutting public spending will somehow improve the lots of the poor and the working classes. This has, of course, failed to occur. Wealthier Americans got their taxes cut, all right, and public spending, while high in raw numbers, has been largely redirected away from poverty amelioration, and this has only deepened the impact to marginal communities already abandoned by the American economic machine.

But Williamson considers this poverty a moral failure of the individuals suffering from it, as if entire communities simply choose to be poor and fall into despair, alcoholism, cycles of abuse, and drug addiction. This is nonsense to anyone who gives it more than a passing thought. Investment is driven largely by networks of individuals–usually the wealthy and political officials. Few are willing to spend their money to bring jobs to a poor, destitute town in a remote area. The returns simply aren’t that good and charity cases don’t make good business sense. What, then, do we do with such communities, if private entities won’t invest in them? Williamson’s answer is that they should be left to die–deprived of resources until the residents abandon it, eventually leaving behind a ghost town. Once again, Williamson doesn’t grasp the reality of the situation: moving is often an expense that the poor cannot afford, and requires resources in the destination locale that a family in dire straits isn’t going to have. It’s easy to say “pick up and move”; it’s harder to actually accomplish, especially when it often means starting from scratch in an unfamiliar place. One might dismiss arguments that “it’s hard” as handwaving–self-improvement requires sacrifice, doesn’t it?–but what’s really being demanded here is that people with very little gamble what they do have for a vague promise that something better is down the road. Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t. It’s hard to expect people to risk what little they have left for the sake of “building character” or whatever Calvinist tripe Williamson is peddling.

Apart from the logical flaws in Williamson’s piece, the naked contempt it shows for the poor is stunning. It’s dehumanizing and outrageous. Long gone are the days of “compassionate conservatism,” it seems. With the filters removed, we have a conservative elite frothing abject hatred toward people the conservative movement has long courted as a vital constituency. Now that many of them have thrown in with Trump on the promise (however empty) of a better future, it’s apparently more opportune to throw them under the bus and deride them as human refuse.

Liberals are often characterized as ivory-tower fantasists who drink wine in smoke-filled rooms while sharing hearty laughs over how dumb and worthless the poor, uneducated masses are, and yet the Democratic Party is the only one that’s managed to do anything substantive for poor Americans over the past decade or so. Since the GOP descended into madness and committed itself to annihilationist “small government” doctrine, it has only exacerbated the problems faced by poor Americans, and here you have someone like Williamson all but accusing those same Americans of being ungrateful. If there are ingrates here, they are doubtless filling the ranks of conservative elites who have taken the poor white vote for granted, particularly in the South, and resent that a clown like Donald Trump could so easily wrest that control away from them.

I hope that, when it comes time to cast ballots in November, the people vilified by Williamson remember his words and choose differently. (Let’s just hope it’s somebody who isn’t Donald Trump!)