What Pundits Keep Getting Wrong About Donald Trump and the Working Class

The working class is blacker and browner than it used to be.

working class white.
Donald Trump speaks in front of a capacity crowd at a rally for his campaign on April 10, 2016 in Rochester, New York.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Most analysis of Donald Trump’s electability hinges on his working-class appeal—specifically, working-class anger at the economic arrangements of a post-recession America. “The deeper, long-term reasons for today’s rage are not hard to find, although many of us elites have shamefully found ourselves able to ignore them,” writes Andrew Sullivan, now of New York magazine, in an essay on Trump, his rise, and its threat to American democracy. “The jobs available to the working class no longer contain the kind of craftsmanship or satisfaction or meaning that can take the sting out of their low and stagnant wages.”

But something happens in this discussion of working-class anger. Sullivan, like others tackling the subject, moves from an analysis of the “working class” to an analysis of the “white working class,” gliding between the two as if they’re synonymous. “This is an age in which a woman might succeed a black man as president, but also one in which a member of the white working class has declining options to make a decent living,” he writes. “This is a time when gay people can be married in 50 states, even as working-class families are hanging by a thread.”

This is a critical conflation. If the “working class” and the “white working class” are synonymous, then Trump is a genuine threat—a demagogue who can channel and ride mass frustration to the White House. And it bolsters Sullivan’s (and others’) subordinate point: that liberals bear a great deal of blame for Trump for having stigmatized working-class morals and attitudes and ignoring their anger and economic anxiety, thus alienating them from mainstream politics and leaving them ripe for a figure like Trump.

Except there’s a problem. The American working class has changed. A lot.

In the collective mind’s eye of political pundits and observers, the “working class” is what it was a generation ago: largely white and mostly male, with a heavy presence in trades and factories. There are still Americans who fit this description. But they’re also a shrinking portion of the working class, and the attention they receive perennially from political observers—many of whom see them as the pivot around which American politics turns—is entirely out of proportion to their declining numbers.

As recently as 2013, more than 60 percent of working-class Americans between 25 and 54 years old were white. If you extend the age bracket to 64, that increases to nearly 63 percent. But in 2014, those numbers—for the first category—dropped to 59.6 percent. In 2015, it was 58.8 percent. This year, non-Hispanic whites are 58 percent of the working class, a historic low.

People of color make up more than a third of America’s labor force, and they’re a large and growing plurality of working-class people in particular. As of this year, 23.5 percent of working people are Hispanic; 15 percent are black; and 3.5 percent are Asian American. That’s a total of 42 percent. In 10 years, they’ll constitute nearly half of all working-class Americans. As it stands, the youngest cohort of working-class Americans—at 54.4 percent white and 45.5 percent nonwhite—is almost there. And close to half of all working-class people—across all races and ethnic groups—are women working in service jobs as well as traditional blue-collar professions.

Much of this “new” working class, including a substantial minority of its whites, leans Democratic; they backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and many support Hillary Clinton in this year’s Democratic primary. They aren’t alienated by movements for immigrant rights and police reform; they’re sympathetic. They’re not just the beneficiaries of the liberal push for greater inclusion; they’re often the people driving it. These Americans, women in particular, are an integral part of the new liberal majority.

Tally the numbers and you’ll find that Trump’s appeal falls well outside the large plurality (if not majority) of working-class Americans who are either people of color (young or otherwise), or liberal to moderate whites. And you see this in polls of Trump’s favorability. In terms of popularity with blacks, Hispanics, women, and young people, the real estate mogul’s polling is somewhere in the Marianas Trench.

The truth is that it’s inaccurate to talk about Trump’s “working-class appeal.” What Trump has, instead, is a message tailored to a conservative portion of white workers. These voters aren’t the struggling whites of Appalachia or the old Rust Belt, in part because those workers don’t vote, and there’s no evidence Trump has turned them out. Instead, Trump is winning those whites with middle-class incomes. Given his strength in unionized areas like the Northeast, some are blue collar and culturally working class. But many others are not. Many others are what we would simply call Republicans.

Even if Trump had a broad working-class message, it’s important to remember that people engage politics in different ways through different identities. A working-class black woman doesn’t have to be sympathetic to unauthorized immigrants to see threat in Trump’s rhetoric against outsiders; a working-class Hispanic man doesn’t have to hold politically correct attitudes about Muslim Americans to fear a candidate who promises a ban on a whole category of people. Given their high religiosity, black voters at one point were supposed to turn against Democrats on same-sex marriage. But the issue wasn’t salient for their politics—or at least, not salient in a contest between Republicans and Democrats. They remained in the fold.

Sullivan is right that the times call for vigilance. Against an unprecedented figure like Trump, complacency is dangerous. But we should also have clear eyes. Insofar that he represents any of it, Trump just speaks for a portion of working America, and the same divisions of race and religion that make broad working-class movements rare also limit the ability of a Trump figure to succeed. Why pundits can’t see this—why so many consistently miss the degree to which America is browner and blacker than it’s ever been—might have something to do with who they are. America’s commentary class is largely white. America’s voters, increasingly, are not.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.