White Man Malaise

Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution has surveyed the post-election analytic landscape, and considered the varying explanations for the outcome. He traces what he calls “the malaise of white middle America” in the trending data about mortality, life expectancy, suicide and opioid use, and suggests that it ought not be surprising that areas in which people are turning to oxycodone are also the ones that turned to Trump.

Bernie Sanders says that Trump’s “campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger.” To his mind, people are “tired of having chief executives make 300 times what they do, while 52 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent.” Well, maybe.

Meanwhile Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, says that Trump’s victory is a validation of their agenda: “Repeal…Obamacare, protect our borders, stop illegal immigration, restore fiscal sanity and get the government off our backs and out of our lives.” Well, maybe.

There is lots of work to be done to truly understand the complex picture that emerged on November 8. But it doesn’t look to me as if economics will take us very far in terms of understanding white pain, at least in any simple way. Scott Winship of the new think tank Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity delves into the numbers, and concludes that “there is little empirical support for the idea that ‘it was the economy, stupid’.” I agree. This was an identity vote more than an income vote. Many white men, especially those of modest education, feel as if they are being overtaken and left behind. “It’s relative status, stupid!”

Kathy Cramer is the author of a recent book, The Politics of Resentment, in which she relays her research and conclusions from her interviews with the white, working class men (and some women) who voted for Trump. She says they compare their lives to a bygone world in which men like them could easily get jobs paying a decent wage, were automatically considered the “head of the household,” and “always knew that they were superior to people with darker skin.” All of those basic assumptions about the way the world works have been challenged, to say the least.

And of course we’ve had a black President since 2008. As James Baldwin warned almost half a century ago, “the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity…The black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken out of their foundations.”

The unanswerable question is: what happens when these people realize that Trump cannot undo inexorable social change? That despite “telling it like it is”–i.e., giving voice and “respectability” to their resentments–he cannot put women back in the kitchen, gays back in the closet, or send African-Americans back to the back of the bus?

As Reeves concludes,

Loss of relative status is painful, no doubt. But it is the inescapable price of equality. Trump has no cure. Nobody does.


  1. I believe most people don’t give a damn about social issues; they just want to survive. They don’t care if gays can marry or immigration; they want to feed their family and have some sort of hope for the future.

    The problem with us is that we forgot that the loss of unions and their power is what destroyed America and the American Dream. When you lose your voice at work, where the bottom line is about the CEOs and the 1%, and the actual workers get screwed left and right, then you’re going to have anger and voting emotionally. When there’s no livable wage, no healthcare that is accessible and affordable, no sick pay, no holiday pay, no vacations and working for slave conditions where people actually die doing their job, then you’re going to have a total meltdown of hope and nothing but despair is left. When we reverse that ruling that corporations are people, take money out of politics, just for starters, have a media that actually reports news and not the latest hate filled tweet, then maybe our country can get back to the business of actually helping the citizens and people. You know, by, for and of the people.

    But as you all know, I’m just a dreamer.

  2. The lesson to all is the world is a more competitive place than it was 50 years ago. Change has occurred gradually with that advent of technology and the accountant mentality managing businesses. Everyone has had to work in a more competitive environment; some saw the writing on the wall and went back to school and got that MBA or other advanced degree to position themselves for the next move. Others ignored the trend and never responded; now they’re angry. And now we have a constitutional crisis in the making.

    The transition was easier for people with the means and connections to prepare themselves, but the angry ones are now in no better position than they have ever been because they are still not prepared for the future. Trump has not addressed the real problem, only captured their attention by stating the obvious about their plight.

  3. A careful look at the demographics of Trump supporters will show you that not all of them are blue collar, low wage, white males. Half of those I know who voted for Trump are well paid, white collar, white men and women whose life style is the envy of the world. Their view of how the world should be is rooted in the Eisenhower presidency. It is “women back in the kitchen, gays back in the closet, and blacks back to the back of the bus”. If economics entered anywhere into their decision to vote for Trump it was only a calculation to get more, more, and more… without paying any more taxes of course.

    If nothing else, this past election has revealed to all of the world to see the true nature of the American character… character based in greed. We are witnessing our own undoing.

  4. Wow, Theresa, you nailed it. People I have spoken to who voted for Trump are either unaware of his campaign promises/threats or believe they will not happen…such as repealing ACA being a problem and attacking Social Security, Social Security Disability and Medicare. They also plan further attacks on Medicaid.

    We are being shamed daily in the eyes of true Americans and the world.

  5. Everybody who voted had his/her own reason for voting the way s/he did. It should be obvious to everyone that Trump connected with the resentment voters like no one else ever did. Watching his “Thank you tour” last night was painful. It wasn’t so much a “Thank you” as it was a “Nyah, nyah, nyah, you lost, losers” rally. So we now have a petulant 8 year old for President-elect.

    God help us!

  6. You can’t beat us. It’s a good deal. Come to America where the “talk is cheap.”

    Definition of “talk is cheap”
    a phrase used to indicate an individual’s inclination to verbalize opinions, stances, or other traits and subsequent reluctance to act upon said traits.

  7. Shelia – Social change and economic change are inexorably intertwined. If, for instance, one makes minimum wage and hits the Irish sweepstakes, he or she moves out of the ghetto and into the house on the hill. When on the hill, the lucky winner will begin to do and act like his or her new neighbors. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule (see the Beverly Hillbillies), but they are exceptions.

    I disagree with one of your citations to the effect that this is not an economics issue. I believe it is because when Americans are making good wages, live in nice houses, send their kids to good schools, can set aside money for retirement, then the Norman Rockwell effect sets in as they recognize they are not “losers” but winners and are thus far less likely to complain about gays, welfare bums etc. since they have no particular failure in life to project into, for instance, a vote for Trump. They are in good shape and though perhaps living in a social cocoon, are satisfied and happy with their lots in life. What’s not to like in their little world – for them?

    Thus while marooned socially, it works for them, and the increased taxes they pay works for those who are still in the ghetto (if as a political choice we can keep the Republicans from giving such increased revenues over to the superrich). My understanding of the socio-economic situation we have has led me to harp incessantly on the crying need to end wage inequality, which we have suffered for some four decades with no movement in inflation-adjusted median wages even though the Dow is at historic highs, strongly suggesting if not proving that Wall Street is involved in what amounts to wage theft to prop up its capital gains potential.

    Thus one economist writes that if wages had moved in tandem with capital appreciation for the past 40 years we would have a median wage of $97,000 today. Imagine what that would do in terms of aggregate demand! Talk about a boom! As I frequently blog, we have enormous wealth; the problem lies in its maldistribution.

    My final conclusion from recent socioeconomic history is that in one way or another wage inequality has led to the election of a clueless goon who preyed largely on the unhappy and disadvantaged who due to Wall Street greed and compliant Republican politicians are in fact hurting in the economic ghetto and that, of course, with the sprinkling of the Nazi-minded and hedge fund managers in his cabinet, it will get worse with a possible loss of social cohesion as an end result of the unraveling of our social compact. I cannot and will not pretend to be optimistic in view of where our politics has taken us as of a few weeks ago. Like the con man in the musical The Music Man, “Folks, we got trouble, right here in River City.”

  8. Gerald,

    “Like the con man in the musical The Music Man, “Folks, we got trouble, right here in River City.”

    I would suggest adding: BIG, BIG before TROUBLE in order to be more accurate.

  9. AgingLGrl,

    I believe you spoke for most voters, including me.

    There are still the alt-right and evangelicals out there who are constantly screaming that they are better than everyone else and want the rest of us to realize this and elevate them to the status that they believe they justly deserve. Their population may be large, loud and demanding, but the bulk of us are worn out from having lost our jobs/income/security/health insurance and retirement nest egg. The pain and frustration of working harder and longer hours only to continually lose these things never ends and that is why so many people are so angry.

  10. “I believe it is because when Americans are making good wages, live in nice houses, send their kids to good schools, can set aside money for retirement,”

    ” What’s not to like in their little world – for them?”

    Gerald; I copied and pasted the above two bits of your comments to point out that, you have obviously forgotten that many of those same Americans with the benefits you listed are now struggling to maintain those benefits, many retirement options are no longer options or have been already been lost to retirees. Some of the upper-class are now upper-middle-class, upper-middle-class is moving down to middle-class; middle-class is moving down to lower-middle-class and lower-middle-class is moving to lower-class and many of us in the lower-middle-class are sinking into the poor level on the economic totem pole. No chance of raising minimum wage or current wages moving up to a living wage; all the while; prices are escalating. Many in addition to Social Security recipients received no COLA in 2016, no word yet on 2017 chances but the fact that I received my Medicare 2017 booklet with changes in coverage but no monthly premium amount due at the time of printing makes me believe that everyone’s Medicare will be going up. Taking more from my $809 monthly SS check will be a hard hit and I pay the same price for everything and all taxes every other American pays except income tax.

    Maybe we have been too busy trying to keep up with meeting our obligations that we hoped – and many prayed – that the election would bring needed changes to Congress who would return to protecting our rights rather than denying them. Did you believe this country would – COULD – possibly sink this low as to elect an irresponsible, unstable tyrant to save us?

    Was it “White Man Malaise”, misplaced trust in our government, losing sight of the political reality of the level of control by deeply ingrained racism who admittedly organized a movement against biracial President Obama or all of the above. In my barely above poverty level – with no way to go but down from here – I kept telling people how afraid I was of this election. I have talked to people who don’t watch anything but local news who had no idea of the racially based control Trump and the GOP were wielding or that they would be victims of their own vote and still disbelieve he will accomplish his campaign promises/threats to destroy entire groups of people he considers to be beneath him…including themselves.

  11. Well, anyway one cuts it, the results from November 8 stem from the lurch to the right of the Republican Party and its propaganda machine. We might recall that this attack from the right began the moment Bill Clinton’s hand came off the Bible for the first time. It is the oligarchy that lusts for power (“Dark Money” by Jane Mayer) fueling this propaganda. The greed-induced paranoia of the moguls is responsible for convincing those white people “of modest education” that by screwing them out of good jobs is normal and it’s the fault of progressives and the dreaded liberals.

    It worked.

  12. Jo Ann – I have not forgotten that the middle class is being dumped into the poverty class and that the poverty class is living in cars and under bridges. All I’m saying is that those who are well paid are not so likely to want to change things – which doesn’t include those who are hungry and chronically unemployed (and when employed, at slave wage levels). Of course they are unhappy, and rightly so, but electing Trump and his appointment of billionaire Nazi-oriented hedge fund managers to his cabinet is not the answer to their frustrations, as those who voted for him will soon find.

  13. Gerald,

    “Of course they are unhappy, and rightly so, but electing Trump and his appointment of billionaire Nazi-oriented hedge fund managers to his cabinet is not the answer to their frustrations, as those who voted for him will soon find.”

    By then, it will be too late for all of us.

  14. Marv,

    Unhappy because of their economic circumstances or because they saw their white, male, Christian dominated world ending, either way the Trump voters followed a path of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, antisemitism, lying and narcissism. And that ain’t good for anyone.

  15. This blog is wonderful for insight and education but for taking action, we need a blog or website that provides timely information as to when to contact our senators about Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointments with talking points that we can use in e-mails and phone calls. Also, I am interested in finding websites that provide timely information and talking points about environmental, healthcare, and human rights legislation on both the state and federal levels and when the most effective time is to contact our senators, congressmen, and state legislators. Will this blog provide such or should I be looking elsewhere? If looking elsewhere, then where?

  16. I too, as Theresa, have witnessed a lot of very well educated, wealthy or financially well off white men and women who voted for Trump. Of course, most of them are “conservatives,” Repubs, and always vote Repub anyway. But in this election, almost all of them were deeply infected with the “I Hate Hillary,” “the Clintons are Odious,” Hillary is crooked,” “I could never vote for Hillary,” etc., hate spread by the right-wing media and the Repubs in Congress. So many of these wealthy, white conservatives saw their choices to be either not voting at all, or voting for Trump (and now that he has won, they are all absolutely for him. They are so proud. I saw more Trump/Pence bumper stickers and yard signs here after the election than before). The right-wing conspiracy’s hate mongering against the Clintons fully blossomed and bore bountiful fruit!

    The second thing the wealthy white all seem to have in common is that they believe that nothing Trump/Pence and the Repubs in Congress promised to do and/or are going to do will effect them, their standard of living, or what schools their kids go to, etc., in the least . In fact, many will receive tax cuts, and right now at least, they are making money in the markets (some of them might be a little upset if Ryan manages to take away their Social Security and/or Medicare and/or mortgage exemptions though, but most have enough money to survive nicely regardless).

    But it’s also clear that another component of Trump/Pence’s victory were those (mainly) white and male, former factory workers or unskilled workers who have definitely been left by the way side by a combination of changes in the US and world economy, and their own lack of education, training or marketable skills. Professor Kennedy’s “White Man Malaise.”

    I agree with AgingLGrl that the demise of strong labor unions in this Country is one reason that those good paying jobs for unskilled labor, such as in the auto, steel, and appliance industries for example, largely no longer exist anymore. But that’s only part of the story.

    There are many other causes for the loss of those type of jobs. The two prime ones are the cheaper competition from low wage workers in other countries for the lower skilled jobs, and the automation (robots, etc.) of factories manufacturing hard goods. Most economists believe the greatest percentage of lost factory jobs in the U.S. are due to the higher productively from automation requiring far, far fewer, but better trained and educated, human workers.

    But the bottom line is that Trump/Pence aren’t going to be able to turn back that tide on either front (and, of course, will continue to work against unionized labor). Cynically saving a few jobs (very good for those relatively small number of Carrier workers!) for a short time at a high price to Indiana taxpayers, won’t save or bring back the jobs of the workers at the other factories in Indiana and elsewhere whose owners have already or are in the process of planning to move the jobs to Mexico or other lower-wage worker countries.

    And at the same time, Trump/Pence and their Repub brethren in Congress will be working at cross purposes by doing whatever they can to increase the amount of wealth flowing to the 1-2 percenters. At some point, those disaffected, white male voters will realize that they are still being left behind.

    The only question is who they will blame for it? Trump has bedazzled them so far. And I’m sure Trump/Pence will double down on the “It’s the fault of the Mexicans, or the Chinese, or the Muslims, or the African-Americans, or women, or the liberals.”

    I’m not so sure those white male voters will turn against Trump/Pence and their ilk in Congress. The Democrats need to start thinking about how to address that conundrum in a fashion that resonates with more voters. And as much as I hate to say it, find a candidate that doesn’t have the baggage or the high negative perceptions that Hillary undeservedly, in my opinion, had.

  17. Our myopic viewpoint focused on assigning blame for the surprise US election outcome prevents our seeing the broader landscape, the ‘state of the globe’ landscape. Consider the voter repudiation of ossified establishment political systems in Spain, in Greece, and most notably in the British leaving the EU. France’s President Hollande, another establishment figure, is not seeking re-election, and Italy’s Prime Minister is facing an unofficial vote of ‘no confidence’. The US is no different.

    I’m thinking people across the globe are presently tasting the bitter fruit of the failure of globalization to raise all boats, as touted and promised. People are right to be enraged by a system that has demonstrably left their economic interests behind while channeling even more to the top. The conundrum, however, is that both the left and right establishments have severely tainted their reputations by making common cause with the elite. Who else do the rest have to turn to except for those groups who have also been left out of the establishment?

    Economic circumstances dictate the choices made in the privacy of the voting booth.

  18. Evolution teaches us a vital lesson which we continue to ignore. As our environment changes so must we. Unfortunately, with burgeoning technology, our present environment is a runaway which threatens all life with a warming planet and climate change. So far, we seem unable to solve this problem, and we never will until despots, uneducated leaders, and power lusters such as our president elect are recognized for what they are and ignored by the people. I am pessimistic this will happen because most of us are not educated enough to evaluate the threat. Our only salvation is in ethical/humanistic science education so we can identify the dangers and the demagogs. Religion can and should play a role in our salvation, but as yet it has not. Unfortunately most, but not all, religions continue to base their teachings on contradictory scriptures and a blind acceptance of superstition. We recognize science fiction when we see it on the TV but reserve a special place in our belief system for religious “science fiction”and legends from the bronze age. Love of our fellow humans is seldom practiced on a planet where population soars and yet a major religion still considers contraception and related science a sin. Fortunately, educated Catholics mostly ignore this church directive, but the rest of the third word still suffers from this archaic teaching. Over population is the earth’s greatest threat. Evolution teaches us that we must control population growth before we can solve the multitude of other problems that face us. It is a simple conclusion to a deadly problem. And yet, ancient superstitious religions block the obvious path to solving our most lethal problem. Well meaning but out of touch church leaders, more concerned with the perpetuation of church authority than the well being of humanity, continue to encourage overpopulation in the face of dwindling resources. These are intelligent men (not women) whose specialized orthodox education has denied them of the ability to reason and recognize the dangers that face the planet and its life. Science and reason remains to be our best hope.

  19. I suspect that when people understand that Trump cannot fulfill their nostalgic dreams, they will be living in the nightmare he has caused. The nostalgia won’t be as much a concern as survival. Scary stuff, but I get the feeling that’s what people want, considering the increased rate of suicide and self-destructive behavior. You get the government you deserve.

  20. I have the feeling this story has been written in a novel or play. Where at the end of the play, one person is left standing, surrounded by bodies, “comforted” by the fact that he has “won”. Maybe someone can help with that.

  21. Craig,

    You wrote “Over-population is the earth’s greatest threat. Evolution teaches us that we must control population growth before we can solve the multitude of other problems that face us.”

    And for those two prescient sentences, I thank you for placing them on the table for discussion. I’ve believed the same for several years and have lacked the courage to speak them aloud.

  22. While not true for everyone, I do believe that when you are keeping your head above water financially and feel economically secure, there is much less desire or need to find social scapegoats for what ails you. Economic deterioration and desperation make voters much more susceptible to the demagogues who blame some minority for current troubles and claim they can solve all the problems.

    Having said that, there ARE those – including some of the financially comfortable – who feel an overwhelming sense of loss and lack of security with social changes they view with alarm. Gay marriage, desegregating schools, neighbors who can’t speak English or whose religion falls outside our Judeo-Christian traditions feel like an earthquake that is destroying life’s foundations and values for some folks. I feel very sorry for them and for those they fear. It’s too bad everyone doesn’t know several persons in the groups they fear. They’d soon find – first hand – that there IS much more to fear from fear itself.

  23. You guys will never get it. I, and people like me, don’t vote on social issues. Those things take care of themselves in an ever evolving society.

    When someone like me (or from the tea party for that matter) tells you that the issues that matter to us are “Repeal…Obamacare, protect our borders, stop illegal immigration, restore fiscal sanity and get the government off our backs and out of our lives”, you can damn well bet that THOSE are the issues that we’re voting on. It’s true – what’s so unbelievable about that?

    Seriously, we’re throwing you a bone here, telling you the truth – over and over again, but you keep trying to ram your justifications down our throats. I should not even be telling you this, but stop over thinking this. I don’t want to live in the fifties. Jeesh

  24. Speaking figuratively, I have two competing mindsets: 1) “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”, and 2) I’d like to have the money to do so.

  25. I believe that analysis of Trump’s minority will always be clouded by the fact that many of them are single issue “R” is all that counts limited thinkers. One bit of evidence is that this crowd hated Trump until he was the only R standing then he became Ronnie’s second coming.

    Add to that what I think can be accurately described as deplorables. Sexists, racists, misogynists, white supremacists, Evangelists, isolationists, oligarchs, etc.

    All were more powerful, more influential in 1950 and heard Trump promise them a return to those times and away from these times.

    All were media besotted by “R” TV and radio.

    I don’t think that they out performed the polls by much and the states that they won were pre and accurately judged to be close.

    It’s like one of those football games where inexplicably the underdog got all of the breaks.

    I think that most here are very sure and realistic about the cost to America of a Trump plus jackels administration. There will be no surprises there.

    But we are trained in orderliness and probably tend to picture an orderly collapse.

    I don’t think so. What we have to worry about is as social disorder raises it’s ugly head Trump will not accept the error of his ways but will blame only others and crack down on their freedoms to restore order and power to the privileged. The world has been here before and we should have some insight into what follows.

    So if someone asks me what the state of the world will be in 2020 I can honestly say that I have no idea. Anything is possible.

  26. It’s difficult for me to believe that the economy played a minor role, but not as difficult as trying to understand why underpaid whites saw Trump as a palliative for their pain. Since 1978 real income has been flat for middle and blue collar workers (rising slightly in 2016). They had no options to cope except to borrow money (often via credit cards) and send other family members out to look for work. Since it affects every aspect of their lifestyle, even less thoughtful people have come to understand the box they are in. 2008 made it impossible to ignore. I’d like to suggest an experiment to test Richard Reeves’ hypothesis: Bring the pay scale of the bottom 90% up to a living wage, largely debt-free, and observe how it affects their political choices. While bold and radical, this could provide us with a useful perspective on the problem.

  27. Gosh KrunK:

    None of the things you claim you based your vote on are “social issues?” Really? They’re all “social issues.” They effect people and how our society treats each other. Actually, all of them are just empty slogans with no actual meaning that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have indoctrinated you with.

    For example, what does it mean to “protect our boarders?”

    We live 60 miles from the boarder with Mexico. Every time we go down to Nogales, AZ on I-19 or drive across I-8 to San Diego, I see mile after mile after mile of boarder fence, and also a multitude of Boarder Patrol vehicles nearly every mile along the way in addition to the BPS check stations you have to stop at and be inspected.

    In fact, every time we drive down I-19 towards Mexico in the United States of America (not crossing into Mexico), we have go through a Boarder Patrol check point where you must stop and BPS officers check to see if you’re white enough while their dogs sniff your car for drugs or illegals before we US citizens are allowed to continue on our journey. And there are many such check points across the SW. A small price to pay I guess, since the BPS usually waive old white people, like us, through after only a cursory glance inside the car. But talk about government being on our backs and in our lives. You have to prove or satisfy the police that you’re a citizen just to drive in your Country.

    The question, speaking of “getting the government off our backs,” is how much government are you willing to have and pay for to “stop illegal immigration?” There are already far fewer illegals crossing our southern boarders now than several years ago (Have often wondered why you “protect our boarders” folks don’t want to build a wall across our Boarder with Canada to stop Canadians from illegally immigrating?). And Obama has deported more illegals during his administration than any other President ever has.

    And BTW: Mexico ain’t going to pay for it! Besides which, most of the illegals crossing the Boarder now aren’t from Mexico anyway. BPS and other authorities calculate that net immigration from Mexico is basically zero right now. Ironically, in large part because a lot of Mexican workers can now get decent jobs in the multi-national factories in Mexico and don’t have to cross the boarder to get a job to support their families; admittedly not much comfort if your the one whose job left for Mexico. Illegal crossers now are mainly women and children from Central America or Asians.

    Pretty much the same for all of the rest of your empty slogans. What exactly would constitute “getting the government off our backs and out of our lives?”

    Like tires that don’t explode or airbags that don’t explode and kill you due to manufacturers cutting corners to save a penny or two? Your only hope is the Federal government. No one else has the power to force car or tire manufacturers to recall their defective products.

    Or like cars that get good mileage? Pretty much up to the Federal government. Or like your food not to posion you? Again pretty much up to the Federal government. Or prefer not to drink polluted water? Again pretty much up to the Federal government. Or like your Lap Top, tablet, or phone not to explode and catch on fire; burn your house down or crash the plane you’re on? Yep, only the Federal government. Safety regulations for airports and planes. Yep, Federal government again!

    Or how about the government telling you that you can’t buy a condom or use birth control? One of Mike Pence’s dreams for the federal government to impose on his fellow citizens. Or telling Gays they can’t marry? Seems like a whole lot of government on our backs and in our lives when they want to tell you what you can do in the privacy of your own bedrooms.

    Damn, too bad “they” are everywhere in our lives! (BTW: You do realize that all the people who make up the big, bad Federal Government are fellow, tax-paying U.S. citizens too? Some of them might even be your neighbors.) But bet you’re all for Homeland Security listening in and keeping recordings of all our phone calls and e-mails. Now that is government intrusion.

    “Jeesh.” Who does want to live in the 50’s anyway?

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