In a statement directed to Donald Trump on Wednesday night, Senator Bernie Sanders said the candidate had “tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.”
Sanders also said that Trump’s policies directly resonated with people who are:
“tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids—all while the rich become very much richer.”
So much as Bernie Sanders promised during his own presidential campaign to help the working and middle class, his statement makes an assumption about the average Trump voter, and it is wrong. The New York Times has a series of clear graphs about Trump’s base, and aside from being overwhelmingly white, the income level of the majority of his voters compared to Clinton voters individually make over $50,000 a year. Within that is a majority earning well above the $99,000 mark. The national average is $51, 759 per household. Trump beat out Clinton with voters at every income level bracket except those citizens who make under $49,999. The working class did not vote against its interests. The middle and upper class sold them out.
And so, while Sanders’s description of Trump voters fits nicely into his own important agenda of bringing to light and combating devastating income inequality, any statement painting Trump voters as “antiestablishment” otherwise perpetuates the myth that the election of Trump was not predicated on racism. That “making America great again” was ever anything but a dogwhistle. That middle class whites aren’t mainly interested in being reinstated as the overwhelming ruling class. That Obama’s eight years, even if they made life better, were derided by Trump voters who saw nothing but a threat. Whites voting for Trump were very clearly repudiating our black president—whose approval ratings were consistently lower among whites than any other group—and one that many believed, despite the simple evidence otherwise, was an immigrant and a Muslim.
Trump channeled this hatred towards immigrants, Muslims, black people and anyone who whites perceived as having “special interests” and parlayed it into the presidency, acting like a renegade but becoming perhaps the most establishment, status quo president in modern history. A New York Times piece about Trump’s “unique coalition of white voters” reasoned:
Mr. Trump spoke to their aspirations and fears more directly than any Republican candidate in decades, attacking illegal immigrants and Muslims and promising early Wednesday to return “the forgotten men and women of our country” to the symbolic and political forefront of American life. He electrified the country’s white majority and mustered its full strength against long-term demographic decay.
The income bracket of Trump voters has been well-established since the primaries, as Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer points out:
Among those white lower-income voters who were pro-Obama and did vote for Trump, particularly along the Rust Belt, their grievances ranged anywhere from distrusting Hillary Clinton as much as they did Obama to believing in racial stereotypes and feeling put-upon by “PC” culture, as Alec MacGillis wrote in this ProPublica report. And yet the common analysis of these groups, too, was much too simplistic to apply or accurately assess, as they described feeling alienated from the process and the middle:
The “white working class” was a hugely broad category — as pollsters defined it, any white voter without a four-year college degree, roughly one-third of the electorate. Within that category were crucial distinctions, especially regional ones. Democrats in national elections had lost most white working-class voters in the Deep South — indeed, virtually all white voters there — a long time ago. They had in the past decade and a half seen much of Greater Appalachia, stretching from the Alleghenies to Arkansas, follow suit, to the point where West Virginia, one of just five states that Jimmy Carter won in 1980, went for Mitt Romney by 26 percentage points in 2012. It was hard to see how the Democrats were going to win back coal country like Logan County, W.V., which Bill Clinton won with 72 percent in 1996 but where Obama got only 29 percent in 2012.
So here we are, with even Bernie Sanders perpetuating the notion that impoverished people thought Trump’s “outsider” status would be good for them, when in fact it’s well established that people of color make significantly less than whites—particularly Latinas and black women—and it’s more recently been established that people of color almost exclusively voted for Hillary Clinton. But that intersectionality applies across the spectrum of American voters.
Sanders, at the least, made room for some cynicism about all of this in his statement, concluding that “To the degree that Mr Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him.” Whether his interpretation of the Trump voter is off or was simply stated that way so as not to be impolitic, like many of us he is deeply sober about the probability that a Trump presidency will in fact harm working families for whom Sanders fights so hard.
One of the worst and most dishonest liberal sayings is “It’s not about race, it’s about class,” as though race and class are not as uniquely intertwined as every other demographic. In this case, though, they aren’t—white people flipped it. It’s about class, it’s about race. And we’re all fucked because of it.