White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

This book was first published on 4th August 2016. 96 days later Donald Trump was elected President of The United States. For all that time, and ever since Trump had secured the nomination, the Democrats and the ruling elites around the world were smugly confident that a clown like Trump could never be elected. Their spectacular complacency is now a matter of historical record.

How could all those salaried pundits and Washington insiders have got it so wrong? Perhaps if they’d read White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America they’d have seen that Trump the demagogue certainly was electable.

A recent New York Times article described how counties most likely to vote Trump were also likely to be populated by mobile home residents who had no high school diplomas, worked ‘old economy’ jobs, and listed their ancestry as “American” on the U.S. census. Trump’s public persona is the kind of brash, ball-busting bully you want on your side when you’ve no other hope. He comes from a long tradition of heavies, henchmen, and block bosses. He is, in other words, a leader electable by angry ‘White trash’. If Trump’s success has been driven by the non-urban, blue-collar and pissed off, then he is only exploiting a demographic that is as integral to American identity as the Founding Fathers.

The centuries have attested to the existence of the ‘waste people’. Names given to them have been – ‘Offscourings’, ‘Lubbers’, ‘Bogtrotters’, ‘Rascals’, ‘Rubbish’, ‘Squatters’, ‘Crackers’, ‘Clay-eaters’, ‘Tackies’, ‘Mudsills’, ‘Scalawags’, ‘Briar Hoppers’, ‘Hillbillies’, ‘Low-downers.’ The one thing the dispossessed never do in America is disappear. White Trash by Nancy Isenberg is a four-hundred-year-long tour of history of the American dispossessed from Pocahontas to Sarah Palin.

Isenberg demonstrates that colonial America could never have existed without a large and forgotten class of ‘waste people’: the dirt poor, convicts, orphans and indentured servants who made America habitable for religious extremists and political idealists. Isenberg’s argument rests on painstaking research. It is also studded with narratives such as that of Jamestown’s Jane Dickenson, the wife of an indentured servant. Captured by Native Americans in 1622, she was freed nearly a year later only to find that she owed an exorbitant sum to her dead husband’s master. Jane’s husband had not lived long enough to complete his period of indenture, so it was Jane’s job to work it off for him. The horror of indentured labour — in which servants worked off the cost of their passage to the colonies on arrival — is chillingly familiar in an America where debt follows across borders, through the decades, and even beyond the grave. The idea of ‘sub-prime’ loans had not been invented in Jane Dickenson’s day, but the idea of exploiting the poor had been.

Before America had a government or even a national identity, it had a foundation of disposable dirt poor colonists who played their mandated role in society by either working or dying. But what was to be done with those perverse individuals who refused to do either? They could neither be ‘energized as worker bees’, nor relied upon to relieve their country of the burden of providing for them. The entire class exists to this day because in the land of freedom and individual responsibility, success is a possibility but failure is more likely.

Isenberg shows how the phenomenon is alive our own times. She points to Elia Kazan’s 1957 film ‘A Face in the Crowd. The film features ‘Lonesome Rhodes’, a redneck drifter who becomes first a pop culture sensation and then a down-home kingmaker, all while remaining ‘a volatile mix of anger, cunning, and megalomania’. For Lonesome Rhodes, the ride ends when a hot mic reveals him to his adoring public as a crude and hateful tyrant in the making. Unfortunately the hot mic which revealed Trump as a misogynist groper failed to deter his voters. Millions of women, most of whom one presumes would not welcome their fannies groped by him, still voted for him.

If we accept Isenberg’s argument about a white trash electorate, is Donald Trump a white trash icon? His hair is as teased and artificial as Dolly Parton’s; his eternally pursed lips recall Elvis’s, minus the sensuality; his orange skin suggests the kind of cosmetic mask that Tammy Faye Bakker once offered the world. His ill considered ‘policies’ and ignorant blurts by tweet, will in a few weeks time be those of the most powerful man on Earth. Whether it was the perpetually dispossessed of America that got him there almost doesn’t matter now. On the brink of 2017 the world is in a more perilous state than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis.

Dave Allen signed off his TV comedy shows with the phrase ‘May your god go with you’. We’re all going to need divine intervention now.

Nancy Isenberg (http://www.nancyisenberg.com/) is Professor of History at Louisiana State University.

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480 pages in Viking

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0670785971

Professor Nancy Isenberg

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