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What Trump Talks About When He Talks About the Working Class

In reflecting the diversity of America's workers, the Democratic National Convention offers an instructive contrast to Trump's rhetoric.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

The middle class household no longer reigns supreme in U.S. political rhetoric. The Great Recession killed it. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the percentage of Americans who identify as part of the “upper-middle and middle class” has dropped from a high of 63 percent to barely more than half of the population. Surveys based on household income paint an even bleaker portrait: Pew Research finds that the middle class has been lagging further and further behind for nearly a half century. Whereas it laid claim to 62 percent of aggregate household income in 1970, by 2014 its share had fallen to just 43 percent.

As the middle class has withered away, so has its electoral salience. And with its decline, an old friend has once again returned to center stage. “The working class,” that unfashionable monicker for people more worried about their mortgage than their bourgeois ennui, is once again on the lips of politicians, pundits, and campaign hacks across the nation.

Harold Meyerson was not wrong when he described 2016 as “The First Post-Middle-Class Election.” This year’s main electoral prize is not the allegiance of the financially secure, but that of the intermittently broke and fearful. Both of this year’s major party conventions were pitched, at least in theory, to the latter community.

But whereas the Republican National Convention was preoccupied with a certain notion of what the working class should be, the Democratic National Convention has made an obvious bid for the affections of actually existing workers. Only in Philadelphia do convention organizers seem to recognize how the working class has changed since the last time it was a central political concern.

That recognition is imprinted on the speaker’s list itself. The DNC program includes a DREAMer; a formerly undocumented member of Congress; a black home-care worker and labor activist; the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland; a disabled worker who lost his job due to his preexisting medical condition; and a Kansas woman who was reportedly fired from her job after demanding equal pay. Not all of these speakers were at the convention to explicitly discuss class and economic issues, but that’s neither here nor there. In a country where the distribution of wealth is sharply divided along racial lines, matters of class are not so easily differentiated from what gets dismissively referred to as “identity politics.”

That’s doubly true because the American workforce is getting steadily less white. The Economic Policy Institute, in a report that defines members of the working class as labor force participants who lack a bachelor’s degree, estimated that whites will constitute a minority of the working class by 2032. If racist policing and immigrant justice are not obviously class issues, they are matters of vital concern to large and growing segments of one class in particular.

The Republican National Convention’s list of speakers did not reflect that demographic reality. By one count, more than 80 percent of the RNC’s prime-time speakers were white. “Perhaps most striking,” according to Politico, “only seven of the speakers are black and just three are Latino.” Needless to say, immigration and policing did get mentioned throughout the convention—but not in terms likely to attract black and Latino working class voters. This was Trump’s convention through and through.

Although Trump briefly mentioned the racial wealth gap when he accepted the Republican nomination last week, the meat of his prepared remarks was dedicated to a different kind of racially coded issue: “law and order.” Immigration only came up in terms echoing his now-infamous claim that Mexico is sending “criminals” and “rapists” over the border. Listening to his remarks on policing, one might be forgiven for thinking that America had never heard the names of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and countless others. Instead of addressing police violence against black people, Trump described a grim mirror universe in which it is the police who are perpetually under siege.

When he mentioned workers, the terms in which he did so were revealing. Trump’s convention speech included references to “laid-off factory workers” and “the great miners and steel workers of our country”—workers, in other words, from predominantly white industries that make up a diminished share of the American labor force. Manufacturing alone has lost more than seven million jobs since its peak as an employer in 1979. The coal industry is drifting toward a total collapse.

In their place, service sector jobs have come to occupy the heart of the American economy. And those jobs are likelier to be held by black and Latino workers. Combined, such workers account for 38.9 percent of fast food employees but just 20.1 percent of steel workers.

Trump gave special mention to steel workers, coal miners, and factory workers because in the public imagination those three industries continue to be associated with the white working class—and the white male working class in particular. The same applies, to a lesser extent, to his frequent invocations of police officers. The economic importance of these jobs is secondary to what they represent: the relative white affluence and privilege of the immediate post-war era.

It’s no coincidence that the RNC’s list of speakers was replete with bootstrapping capitalists like energy mogul Harold Hamm and ponzi scheme maestro Michelle Van Etten. Instead of making a pitch to the working class, Trump is overtly catering to white identity politicsthe very kind of politics his fellow Republicans claim they abhor.

The DNC, meanwhile, has thus far emphasized industries that are both more diverse and central to the modern U.S. economy. The convention’s speaker list includes an NYPD officer and the wife of a factory worker, but it also features a social worker, a high school principal, a former pizzeria employee, and a home health-care worker. That roster offers a much closer approximation of the makeup of America’s twenty-first-century labor force.

The distinction is important because it tells us a lot about the state of this country’s two major political coalitions. The Clinton fundraising apparatus is clearly working overtime to reap donations from the financial sector and the 1 percent in general. But the campaign is also assiduously cultivating a working class base that reflects the nation’s evolving demographic composition. The Trump campaign—for all the media attention paid to its ostensible blue collar appeal—is fully invested in a strategy based on catering to white racial prerogative. What the conventions offer, more than anything else, is a stark snapshot of America’s divide: the forces of white populist reaction on one side and a makeshift, pluralist, cross-class bulwark on the other.