Scapegoat, prophet, moron, rogue—the poor white is a shapeshifter. He changes forms as the needs of his beholders change. When liberals need to blame a class for Donald Trump’s presidency, the poor white will do; never mind that two-thirds of all Trump supporters made $50,000 or more a year. When conservatives need to cast liberals as aloof elitists they appoint themselves the poor white’s defenders—until their ideology is threatened, and then it is time to take out the trash.
In a recent piece for National Review, Kevin Williamson chooses the latter, though he makes a few sound observations before settling on the poor-bashing. Central to Williamson’s argument is the existence of a phenomenon he calls “acting white,” a performative affect infecting the conservative class. This performance, he claims, assumes that authenticity “is not to be found in any of the great contemporary American business success stories, or in intellectual life, or in the great cultural institutions, but in the suburban-to-rural environs in which the white underclass largely makes its home.” It involves conservatives painting poor whites as this country’s principal victims and “valorizing” their “underclass dysfunction.”
There’s some validity to this observation. We can see it in the mutant campaign of Ed Gillespie, a moderate Republican who now panders to Trumpists so he can become Virginia’s governor. It is present in Roy Moore’s success in Alabama’s Republican primary for Senate, and it is embodied by Sarah Palin, who owes her lingering D-list celebrity status to a conservative movement once convinced of her blue collar bonafides. Beyond this, however, Williamson fears to tread. He will not indict the extreme free-market obsession rotting the conservative movement from the inside out, so the poor white must answer for his personal deficiencies.
“The more you know about that world, the less sympathetic you’ll be to it,” he asserts. “What the Trump-style would-be tribunes of the plebs most have in common with self-appointed progressive advocates for the poor is ignorance of the actual subject matter.” Once you know anything at all about that white underclass, he implies, you’ll be as harsh on them as he is.
Why the animosity? He gives up the game soon enough. “It weren’t the scheming Chinaman what stole ol’ Bubba’s job down Bovina, ‘cause ol’ Bubba didn’t really have him a job to steal,” he writes. “And it isn’t capitalism that made rural Appalachia or small-town Texas what it is.” But if the problem actually was capitalism, would Williamson be able to admit it?
When we speak of the American working class we speak mostly of people of color. There is a historical malice behind the idea that poverty is cultural, since it has been used as a tool to blame blacks and other minority groups for their own poverty. But that same malice is evident in cultural critiques of white poverty.
Williamson has earned praise for attacking the conservative fetishization of downscale white culture, but his underlying argument is not original. It’s a recitation of familiar conservative tropes. “People really do make decisions, and, whether they intend it or not, they contribute to the sometimes difficult conditions in which those decisions have to be made,” he argues.
As proof, he cites his mother and her poor life choices, which once kept him from his childhood home—a rhetorical sleight of hand that we could call the J.D. Vance maneuver, after the author of another book that castigates poor whites for being poor. Later, upon helping his mother and her fourth husband with their financials, Williamson found them in dire shape. “Of course they were almost dead broke—their bingo and cigarette outlays alone were crushing, and they’d bought a Cadillac and paid for it with a credit card,” he gripes.
Williamson glancingly acknowledges “external forces, economic and otherwise,” that might contribute to poverty, but asserts that it is not the case that the people he grew up with were “only leaves on the wind.” In downplaying those external forces, Williamson excludes a body of research on the relationship between poverty and poor decision-making skills. “In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep,” CityLab reported in 2013. “Being poor means, as the authors write, ‘coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.’” Poverty doesn’t make you stupid; in fact, surviving it requires a certain ingenuity. And that takes up space in the brain.
In an essay for Nautilus about his own impoverished upbringing, Christian Cooper cited emerging—and controversial—science about the epigenetics of poverty. The research is still in natal stages, but it has produced some early evidence that mothers can pass stress, including stress inflicted by poverty, to their children. “The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of the grim biology of poverty,” he explained. “When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line.”
Certain financial decisions, like the ones Williamson attributes to his mother, can certainly deepen poverty. But those decisions are rarely why a person enters poverty, and when the working poor can’t access a living wage or safe, affordable housing, credit cards look like an open door, not a trap.
The task of politics is to provide poor whites with the true reasons for their poverty, and with a means to address them. This is beyond the average conservative, as Williamson amply demonstrates. Conservatives like Williamson and J.D. Vance lean on cultural deficiencies because they’re convinced “it isn’t capitalism that made rural Appalachia or small-town Texas what it is.” At the heart of their arguments is a species of narcissism. I made it. I escaped poverty. Succeed by being like me. They are too personally invested in the myth of meritocracy to admit what the poor already know, which is that there’s no such thing.
“Feeding such people the lie that their problems are mainly external in origin—that they are the victims of scheming elites, immigrants, black welfare malingerers, superabundantly fecund Mexicans, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Walmart, Wall Street, their neighbors—is the political equivalent of selling them heroin,” Williamson says. “The opposite message—that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions—is what conservatism used to offer, before it became a white-minstrel show.”
So close, yet so deliberately far. Black welfare recipients aren’t the problem; Mexicans aren’t the problem; immigration isn’t the problem. But low wages, a shrinking safety net, subprime mortgages, unattainable health care, impoverished local schools, among all the other locks that trap the poor in place, can and should be pinned to the very system conservatives want to defend. Williamson fixates on the willful stupidity of the poor because he must. If he didn’t, he’d have to indict his own ideology.