“The world watched aghast,” wrote the House Judiciary Committee in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence of the deadly January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection, urging Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove President Trump from office. But as I watched Trump’s violent supporters lash out at symbols of a functioning democracy—waving Confederate flags while literally shitting in its hallways, soiling desks in Nancy Pelosi’s office with the heels of their boots, or looting podiums from congressional chambers—I was not aghast. I know these people. They raised me.
I recognized them before the riots even began, as witnesses at a Capitol Hill rally one day before the insurrection recorded incoming Congressmember Mary Miller telling the seething crowd: “Hitler was right on one thing. He said, ‘Whoever has the youth has the future.’” When the video circulated on social media, I realized I’d heard that before, from the cover of a book titled Why Hitler Was Right that I found on the bookshelf of a friend’s father when I was staying the night during middle school. When I asked the friend about it, she nonchalantly told me that her father, a prominent lawyer in the city about 15 miles away from our rural Lousiana farming community, used to be in the Ku Klux Klan.
“He quit because it’s all white trash now,” she told me. This was five or six years after David Duke, a “former” Klansman, won 38.8 percent of the state’s vote for governor, not in spite of his history of racism, but likely because of it. Trump and his cronies calling for a re-do of the 2020 election is preaching to a choir that has been ready to exercise what they believe is their 2nd Amendment right to start a civil war for 156 years. Just like Mary Miller (along with Hitler, apparently) opined, that hatred and anger are a birthright for Southerners who believe Washington D.C. and non-white people are directly responsible for all of their real and imagined hardships, an attitude passed down through generations since Reconstruction. And while these racist attitudes among middle-class white people in the South have been mostly hidden from view in media explorations of Trump’s rise, they were always there, roiling beneath the surface of people waiting for a moment when exposing their own prejudices wouldn’t be viewed as “trashy.”
In 2016, NPR argued that “rural” voters had put Trump in office, a word that is coded to mean working-class and white. Similarly, a year later The New York Times published “Why Rural America Voted for Trump” a narrative that would become so oft-recycled in the Trump era that it’s nearly a joke at this point—big city reporter goes to small town to talk to the working class about why they’re so desperate they’d like to give fascism a shot. It’s both condescending and delusionally optimistic to pretend this poverty porn explains the rise of Donald Trump. As Katie McDonough points out in New Republic, two-thirds of Trump voters in 2016 made more money than the average American, and in 2020 they skewed even richer than last time. News abounds of wealthy people giving themselves a little insurrection as a treat—champagne-guzzlers flying in on private jets, sons of prominent judges, CEOs among the violent mob storming the US Capitol building and later claiming they did it “just to see what was taking place inside.” Even the soles of the workboots Richard “Bigo” Barnett propped up on a desk he believed was Nancy Pelosi’s appeared brand-new in the photos he posted to social media, creating the illusion of a working-class citizen with none of the evidence of hard work.
McDonough also posits that images of the white trash KKK that most of us share with my middle school friend’s white supremacist father are likely false. As late as the 1960s, the Klan not only was comprised primarily of the middle and upper working classes but also provided a social network and path to the middle class for working-class whites. My friend’s father was far from the only white supremacist I knew. In fact, it is more difficult to try and think of an adult who wasn’t a white supremacist in that completely bog-standard Southern town. Certainly not my parents, who let me spend the night with a person they knew to be an actual Klansman and Nazi, even if I didn’t. And while it was no longer stylish to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan by the 1990s, the boys at school (my cousins included) bragged that they’d heard rumors their grandfathers had been Klan like it was a badge of honor.
But there was a divide, socially, between the “nice” white racists who managed to hold onto those beliefs quietly and the stereotypical Confederate flag-waving Klan enthusiasts. And the difference was the shame of being obviously working-class, wearing work boots to dinner or a pair of coveralls to a football game. It’s these trappings on which media outlets seem to pounce as an explainer for the violence that has been lurking in the background of Trump’s rise to power all along. I went to the same college as Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson in a town about 30 minutes away from the extremely wealthy family’s West Monroe, Louisiana compound, where college boys with oil- and gas-wealthy fathers sport camo hunting jackets at frat parties and drive $40,000 pickups with bumper stickers that read “Bust the Hell Out of Some Ducks.” Much of the part of the state I grew up in heralds Robertson, once awarded the “Andrew Breitbart Defender of the First Amendment Award,” as a martyr to liberal causes after he lost his television show due to his own bigotry.
The Robertson family’s upper-class lifestyle—offset by working-class hunters’ costumes, scraggly ’70s rocker beards, and idea of the South as a racially equitable place before liberals came and tipped the scales in Black people’s (as well as gays’, feminists’, and immigrants’) favor—is a synecdoche for these shitty times, in which people with everything fight viciously for the return to an idealized America where many had nothing, claiming that we were all better off for it:
“I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ - not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: ‘Were they happy?’ They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues,” Phil Robertson, who fancies himself a sort of downhome populist preacher despite his fabulous wealth, has said of poor Black Southern sharecroppers he claims to have met in his youth.
Dressed like a woodsy Depression-surviving grandpa telling stories of a Gone With the Wind South, Robertson’s outfit makes him credible, his wealth makes him admirable, and for many of the Southerners who look and have stories passed down by old racist men just like him, Robertson perfectly encapsulates the balance of class, trash, and bigotry that creates a prophet of anyone who can wrap hatred in a package that looks enough like legitimate heritage to make it marketable.
Donald Trump, an outspoken racist also draped in gaudy postures of wealth, further erases the divide between “classy” and “trashy.” He has capitalized on and perfected the trick of removing the white trash stigma from Confederate flag-waving “working class” stereotypes and gifted those with leisure time and money the luxury of throwing on a plaid shirt and some Carhartt gear with an excuse to cosplay all their Lost Cause fantasies. This pretense plays into the “honest poor folks” myth created around the working-class Trump voter and allows his supporters to openly advocate for their own racism while raging against their perceived sense of unfairness at having to hide bigotry in order to avoid outing themselves as trash.
David Duke appealed to the same crowd that would later align themselves with Trump’s bigotry, peddling on the 1991 gubernatorial trail the idea that poor people (which Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the KKK made no bones about clarifying as Black poor people) were stealing anything they had. At rallies, he warned about welfare recipients “‘having children faster than they can raise your taxes to pay for them’” and spoke of a woman who said, “‘Mr. Duke, I don’t know if we’re ever going to have another white Miss America in this country.’” Trump’s whole schtick was Duke’s schtick before that, and a whole host of other politicians who exacerbated the belief of many people I grew up with that they had been wronged by poor non-white people, and that a vote for Duke meant a vote for taking the country back from these people.
The same Confederate flags draped over the shoulders of rioters this week was everywhere in my hometown, in yards, on bumper stickers, tattooed on the biceps of my high school classmates for their 18th birthdays, sometimes alongside the insignia of whatever branch of the military they had simultaneously signed up for. Anger mixed with some vague shame around the loss of the Civil War was as palpable yet invisible as the 90 percent humidity that gives the air a year-round texture and weight. During Duke’s campaign, the white houses in my trashy neighborhood were dotted with signs supporting him in much the same way they’re dotted with Trump signs now. When I was seven, my neighbors had one. I stole it. Not because I understood the dangers of a Duke or a Trump, but because I hated their sons, mean, pasty boys who would sit on their lawn and yell sexual comments at me as I tried to ride my bike. I gloated about having stolen the sign to some handsome teenagers who lived across the street. Later those teenagers fashioned Klansmen outfits out of bedsheets and burned three crosses in our front yard. My mother, raising two kids with two different fathers by herself on a grand total of $120 a month in child support, put the burning crosses out with a garden hose and told their father, who said he doubted his sons had done such a thing despite the fact that they drove around town in a pickup truck planting Duke signs in public spaces and private lawns. An hour after she put them out, the crosses were aflame again.
Years later, I asked my mother why she thought the boys had done it, whether it was me stealing the Duke sign or something else. “They did it because they could,” she told me. “They thought it was funny.”
That same sense of good fun was evident at the Trump insurrection as well. “I left her a note on her desk that said ‘Nancy, Bigo was here, you bitch,” Barnett gleefully declared in an interview fresh from breaking into a government building and stealing documents. Jenna Ryan, who flew to the riots on a private jet, declared it was the “best day” of her life. Those boys who lit the crosses on fire in my yard are in their mid-to-late 40s now, and I can see them in Barnett’s glee at having breached an office in the Capitol Building, in those men dressed for Burning Man waving what was never even the official flag of a failed, century-and-a-half-old insurrection. News articles from the past five years depicting the plight of the down-and-out Southerner with no recourse but Trump are bullshit. They’re enjoying this. It’s the day they’ve been waiting for.