It’s become common to hear Brexit and Donald Trump’s victories talked of as having a single source: the discontent of the “left behind”. Four years ago, leaders of both projects were quick to posit themselves as heads of working-class revolts, with Nigel Farage declaring in the Telegraph:
The similarities between the different sides in [the 2016 US] election are very like our own recent battle. As the rich get richer and big companies dominate the global economy, voters all across the West are being left behind. The blue-collar workers in the valleys of South Wales angry with Chinese steel dumping voted Brexit in their droves. In the American rust belt, traditional manufacturing industries have declined, and it is to these people that Trump speaks very effectively.
This assessment spread quickly across the media and was uncritically adopted on both sides of the political spectrum – this, despite growing evidence that neither Trump nor Brexit’s success was principally derived from the working class, but rather from the middle and upper classes you would expect to side with such elite, reactionary interests.
Even in 2016, it was clear that Trump’s election was not the working class breakthrough many heralded it as. As I have shown elsewhere with Aaron Winter, while Trump did better than the two preceding Republican candidates among those on lower incomes, his success had more to do with the utter failure of Hillary Clinton. In fact, Trump’s appeal was very similar to George W Bush’s in 2004. While both appealed to those on lower-income more than John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, the bulk of their vote still came from traditional Republican demographics, ie wealthier white people.
Early polls suggest that 2020 continued this trend.
Of course, there are sections of the working class where Trump did particularly well, such as white men without college degrees. But a lack of college education is only part of the picture when we think about the working class. If we look at income, Biden had a significant lead over Trump in the lower brackets (as did Clinton despite doing much worse than both Obama and Biden in these categories). In fact, Trump’s uptake in votes between 2016 and 2020 came in large part from those who earn more than $100,000: he appealed to 48% of them in 2016 versus 54% in 2020. This year, around 22 million of his votes came from the lower income brackets, but this constituted less than a third of his total vote. The problem with Trump and Trumpism, then, goes beyond the “working class”.
The idea that Trump is the working-class candidate is further weakened by the simple fact that the less education or income you have and the more left behind you are likely to feel, the less likely you are to vote, or even be registered.
One could argue that if we forced these non-voters to vote, they might turn to Trump. Maybe, but the fact is, they do not vote; this is their choice, and a notable one when they are repeatedly told that Trump is their candidate.
In this context, the hype around Trump’s salt-of-the-earth voter base has warped not only our understanding of what happened in 2016 and 2020 but also our strategy for how the left should respond. It is commonly suggested that the left should focus on the working-class voters who made the active choice to turn to Trump knowing full well what his politics were, rather than those who stuck with the Democrats despite their less-than-appealing record on social justice, or indeed those who feel utterly abandoned. We often hear that the left should listen to and reconcile with those few who sided with the programme most damaging for working-class interests, one that targeted racialised working-class minorities, rather than listen to those who were at the sharp end of these politics and on the front line of progressive movements.
It is thus urgent to move away from this understanding of the working class as defined by reactionaries – that we stop fighting the right on its own turf. Of course, this does not mean that working-class support should be taken for granted. As I explained, abstention has become the norm among demographics who no longer feel represented by the left. Mugs and immigration dog-whistles have done little to help this. Therefore, it is crucial we not only change the narrative but also turn to the hard work of rebuilding bridges through more radical programmes, grassroots organising and popular consultation. This process will require an unwavering commitment against all and every form of oppression if we are to construct a truly democratic movement.
Aurelien Mondon is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Bath.