Why did so many urban working-class Whites support President Trump?

Photo taken at a Nashville, TN MAGA Rally in May, 2018. Photo by Tabitha Kaylee Hawk (Source: Flickr).

       Working-class Whites support for Donald Trump: The accepted explanation points to racial and ethnic resentment and to anxiety about immigration, with economic factors secondary. Based on a community study, I argue that feelings of reverse discrimination and anti-immigrant sentiment reflected both racial and economic factors. It is difficult to conclude that either factor was more important than the other.

       Mention Dundalk, Maryland, to anyone in the Baltimore area and they will envision a proud, insular, White working-class community located just east of the city line, across Bear Creek from Sparrows Point, a vast tract that was once home to one of the largest steel plants in the world. At its peak in 1957, the Bethlehem Steel Company employed 30,000 people at the Point, as it was called, its smokestacks raining fine red dust on cars and homes in Dundalk, a small price to pay for the unionized jobs that sustained the community. The Golden Gate Bridge was built with its beams. Ship plate from the Point girded countless naval vessels in World War II.  

       Dundalk residents, 99 percent of whom were White in 1960, embraced the neighborhood’s reputation as the home of disciplined blue-collar workers and their families. But employment at the Point dwindled over time as the movement of steel factories to other countries and the automation of steel production proceeded. In 2012, the plant closed. Other large plants were gone too: In 2005 General Motors closed a nearby assembly plant that had employed about 7,000 people at its peak. In 1984, Western Electric had shuttered a factory that made wires, cords, and cables for telephone systems. Two shipyards also closed. Many smaller factories shut their doors. A malaise settled on Dundalk like the old red dust.  

       Dundalk residents today are similar to the working-class voters who were instrumental in President Donald Trump’s victories in key northern states in the 2016 Presidential election: they hail from families that had been sustained by industrial employment, they are predominantly White, and relatively few of them have bachelor’s degrees. As the 2020 election approaches, public opinion polls show that Whites without college degrees still strongly support Trump, although perhaps not as overwhelmingly as in 2016. After Trump’s 2016 victory, scholars and political observers tried to understand why, according to national exit polls, he won the support of 66 percent of White voters without college degrees. (That is also the percentage of votes he won in Dundalk.)  This question remains relevant today. One influential view held that the White working class’s embrace of Trump reflected attitudes about race and immigration, variously called racial resentment, status threat, or identity politics. The scholars and commentators who advanced this view argued that the role of economic factors – how people were faring in the job market, whether their skills matched what employers wanted – was minimal. Rather, what made the 2016 Presidential election distinctive, according to this line of thought, was the resentment and anxiety of the White working class based on race, ethnicity, and nationality.     

       To be sure, many White working-class voters expressed their economic grievances in racialized ways and expressed discomfort about immigration. But the idea that we can clearly separate racial and nationalistic attitudes from class position as causes of the voting patterns of the White working class – and that, furthermore, we can determine whether race was more important than class – misrepresents the deep, long-standing connections between race and class in the lives of the industrial working class. In short, race and class are so intertwined in the fortunes of industrial workers, and have been for such a long time, that we cannot pull them apart. The history of Sparrows Point shows why.

The Decline of the Steel Plant

       Dundalk’s prosperity began to ebb in the 1970s.  After the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo in 1973, the U.S. economy entered a recession. In the steel industry, foreign competitors that had built newer, more efficient plants were able to ship steel to the U.S. and sell it at prices that undercut American companies. Smaller steel companies in the U.S. established mini-mills that produced simple steel products that also could be sold at lower prices. In 1985, employment at the Point dropped below 10,000; in 2002, employment was about 3,000; and in 2010, two years before the plant closed, it was about 2,000.  

       Steelworkers recognized that imported steel was a threat to their livelihood. David, a White man who had been employed at the Point until it closed and is now working at a shipyard, told me that he had gone to Washington with other steelworkers in the 1990s to lobby for tariffs on imported steel, but to no avail. Both Democrats and Republicans were uninterested. David took off his glasses and fought back tears as he related how it felt, many years later, to listen to the ceremony at which President Trump signed an order establishing tariffs on imported steel: 

You’re just like profusely thanking him for, you know, which I mean, and it just – you know, I just, I’m just crying, I’m just sobbing uncontrollably.  

He avowed that the tariffs may not be effective, or even good policy, in the long run. But Trump had at least acted. A former editor of the Dundalk Eagle, the community’s weekly newspaper, himself a blue-collar worker for 20 years before becoming a journalist, said of his community’s reaction to Trump’s tariffs:

It was the first time that somebody stood up for them. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not sure if what the guy is doing with regard to China or with regard to GM [General Motors] is actually going to work, but it does on a certain level thrill me that someone is actually doing something and at least treating this like it’s an issue, rather than just a thing we have to accept. There again, that’s the sense I get in my community, that they’re finally being paid attention to by someone.  

By enacting duties on foreign steel, Trump validated the economic grievances of Dundalk workers and solidified his support among them.

The Origins of “Reverse Discrimination”

       The grievances of White workers in Dundalk go back even further than campaigns to have tariffs enacted. The Bethlehem Steel plant was unusual among steel mills in its substantial share of African American workers. Managers believed that southern Blacks worked well in hot weather and therefore could withstand the high temperatures in the plant; and, from the beginning of steel production at the Point in the late 1880s, representatives recruited them from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. By 1930, about 6,000 of the 18,000 workers at the Point were Black, according to a history of the plant by Mark Reutter. Most Black workers were originally hired for jobs in the hotter, more dangerous steel production side of the plant, whereas Whites predominated in the finishing side, where products such as pipes were made and special coatings such as tin were added.  

       Until the 1970s, the work rules at the plant favored White workers over Black workers. The rules stipulated that any worker who transferred to a different unit lost all seniority – meaning that he or she would be last in line for promotions to better paying jobs in the new unit, would get the worst shifts, the least desirable time off, and so forth. In other words, while Black workers could theoretically transfer to better units, they would sacrifice all of the job benefits they had gained through seniority. And they would also face the hostility of White workers in their new units. Then in 1974, Bethlehem Steel and other steel companies entered into two agreements with the U.S. Government and the steelworkers’ union. The consent decrees, as the two agreements were called, ended the discriminatory transfer rules and opened up new positions to Black workers and to women.

       Many White workers opposed the consent decrees. The old system had been in place since their fathers and grandfathers worked at the Point. An environment in which Whites could get positions for their sons or nephews in good units without competing against Blacks was simply the way things always had been done. As a result, Whites were initially hostile to Blacks who attempted to transfer. Robert, a retired Black steelworker who was employed at the plant during this era, told me how the tensions with Whites played out. Several years after the decrees, he attempted to transfer to a job that came open in a better unit.  According to the rules, he was entitled to transfer to the new position without losing his seniority. And the White workers in the new unit were supposed to train him. He explained:

It was in the books, in the consent decree, that they had to train us, but you still had the same people there, that same mentality. I’ll give you an example with me. I go to this new department, I go up to the guy, “Say, man, the foreman say I’m training with you today. You know what that means?” White dude. Says “OK”.  So we’re sitting there. . . and I get up and say, “I got this one.” And he say, “No, that’s all right, I got it.” He went and [did the required task on the line]. I said OK.  

Sitting there. Next one come down. I say “I’ll get it.” He say, “No that’s all right, I got it.” He get up and he go do it.  

So I’m like, “Hey man, wait a minute, this ain’t working right.” I say, “The foreman said I had to train with you.” 

[He said:] “How much time you got?” [I.e., when did you start working at Bethlehem Steel?]

I say, “I got ’73 time.” [I started in 1973.] 

[He said:] “If I show you how to do this job, you’ll end up taking my job.” I said, “What do you mean, man?” [He said:] “Cause you got more time than me, if I train you on this job, you’re going to take my job.” … And you know that dude wouldn’t let me do nothing that day. Not a thing.

The White worker saw the new Black transferee as a direct threat to his position. In fact, Robert did not take his job, but the White worker was anxious and antagonistic.  

       Was this incident about race or economics? Clearly, it was about race, at least in part: the Black worker, empowered by the legal agreements that ended discriminatory practices at the plant, attempted to train for a better job in a predominantly White unit, as he was entitled to do. The White worker, coping with lost racial privilege, refused to train him. Just as clearly, however, it was about economics: an existing worker in the unit was worried that he would lose his position because the new worker had more seniority than he did. Which was more important, race or economics? It is difficult to tell which was more important because they were completely enmeshed, as they had been since the start of the plant.  

       What we do know is that Black workers saw the consent decrees as ending discrimination, whereas some White workers, like the man who refused to train Robert, saw the new rules as discriminating against them. Whites faced the elimination of taken-for-granted economic privileges that they had enjoyed by excluding Blacks from good positions. LeRoy, a White worker interviewed by Bill Barry in 2006 for his book, All We Do Is Talk Steel, recalled his role in the reaction to the consent decrees:

I started to put an organization together called the Employees for Equal Justice.  That would be around ’77, ’76. The consent decree has already been issued and it stirred up so much dissension that the common sense just wasn’t there anymore . . . It was a reverse discrimination case, period.  Instead of it correcting something, it aggravated the situation, and that’s what they did, it’s pitting one against the other.

In similar work settings around the country, as civil rights legislation and court decisions accumulated, the hostile reaction of White workers was among the origins of the current belief of many working-class Whites that they, not African Americans, are discriminated against.

       Yet LeRoy’s anger reflected economically-based anxieties too. He told Barry about what a White worker with lots of seniority in another unit did to him as a result of the consent decree rules:

So, we have a White guy now, this ain’t Black, this is White. He comes out of the warehouse [another unit in the plant] with his seniority, gets to leap frog over top of me in my unit, and I screamed, “How can that happen?”

In other words, a White worker in another unit, with more seniority at the plant than LeRoy had, transferred to LeRoy’s unit and, by virtue of his greater seniority, jumped ahead of him in the queue for promotions and better working conditions. LeRoy also railed against what the globalization of factory production was doing to all workers: “Outsourcing is going to cripple this country, cripple organized labor.” Though rooted in racialized resentment, LeRoy’s dismay also had a class dimension.

The Arrival of Immigrants

       More recently, Dundalk workers have begun to see immigrants at their places of employment and in their neighborhoods. David, the shipyard worker, expressed ambivalence about recent immigrants. On the one hand:

I mean, like in the shipyard, there’s Africans that – and others, and other African racial groups are doing all kinds of work that our people probably, I don’t know, aren’t a lot interested in doing, and not for the wage rate, and maybe they’re fulfilling a useful function in the economy. I mean, I get that.

And yet:

You know, but on another level, you’re thinking, “Hey, there’s only X number of jobs and the number of jobs is diminishing, the benefits and wages are diminishing.” Right? This isn’t helping any. Now, admittedly, you could make a theoretical argument saying that it’s about more automation than them, but, there again … who is it easier to look at and be angry at? … It’s kind of hard to get angry at an inanimate object versus a person.

It’s harder to get angry at an object than a person: David’s remarks demonstrate how the consequences of technological change may lead to anti-immigrant sentiment.

       Chuck is a White former steelworker who lives in a section of Dundalk in which Latinx immigrants have been settling. When I asked why some people harbor bad feelings toward the immigrants, he replied: 

When you struggle financially, you don’t have that type of support system. You look for someone to blame. In our world, we’re the hero. We’re not going to be the bad guy, so we’re going to find someone else around to blame it on. If they look like us, that’s harder to accept. I think it’s easy to look out and see somebody that looks different than you and think they’re the problem. Then, when that’s backed up by some politician with an agenda, you feel justified.  

When people in Dundalk are struggling economically, as Chuck says, they tend to racialize their anxieties. They talk about economic issues not in the upper-middle-class language of the unemployment rate and the rate of growth of the economy, but rather in more personal, racial and ethnic terms. They retreat behind their identities and “look for someone to blame,” someone who looks different from them. Or as the former editor put it: 

If you feel like you’ve got a place in the society around you and your own situation is not tottering on the brink, you’re secure enough to open the door to other people, literally and figuratively. On the other hand, if you’re fearful, desperate, alienated, you start looking for ways to be suspicious of other people.  

A Potent Mixture 

       Enter Trump, the politician with an agenda. In his campaign for the 2016 Republican nomination for president, he listened to the people in places like Dundalk at a time when no one else did. His masterstroke was to recognize the desperation of the White working class over the deteriorating industrial economy and to encourage their tendency to racialize that desperation and to blame outsiders. It is hard to say whether race or economics was the more important factor in the shift of voters toward Trump – at least in Dundalk. They were inextricably linked, and they still are today. What happened at the Point shows that when good jobs become scarce and a dignified way of working fades away, some Whites combine racial resentment, fear of immigrants, and class anxiety into a potent mixture. It is likely to beset our politics until the economic prospects of the working class – White, Black, and Latinx – improve.


Andrew J. Cherlin is Benjamin Griswold III Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University.  Cherlin is the author of Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. Recently, he has been studying family life among the American working class.

Comments 9

joseph schwartz

October 27, 2020

heartbreaking.


Steven Thuman

October 28, 2020

There is much truth in what you say here, but the biggest factor in Trumps slim 2016 win was the very effective demonization of Hillary Clinton.


Brian

October 29, 2020

I live in Europe. Thanks for this. I never understood how even 1% of people could vote for Trump. Seems that angry and desperate people felt they were finally being listened to, by the man with the gold plated toilets.


Lisa

November 6, 2020

Yep when trump says MAGA , he is basically saying to the working class white people who lost their privilege, I will bring it back and it will be great again . Those people blacks &immigrants are you problem and I will make sure they don’t take , what is rightfully urs. 🤦‍♀️


Lisa

November 6, 2020

Being a black immigrant , psychotherapist living in Dundalk, I totally agree with this article . I have done sessions with white males , even one self proclaimed “ racist “ and they admit their anxiety about their white privilege being eliminated . At JCPENNY in the Dundalk east point mall on Black Friday 2019, this lady was screaming at the announcement , saying speak English , speak English. In fact the guys who drink refer to others in 3 categories, Mexican, niggers or towel heads. In a session, I asked one white guy , what would you have if you were Mexican, how would it be different, he said I would have everything.


Joel Berman

November 12, 2020

Thanks to Prof. Cherlin for this clear and persuasive analysis. His inclusion of first-person narratives of people he's interviewed puts human faces on otherwise abstract issues of race, class, and economics.


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November 16, 2020

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sednainc

November 16, 2020

I never understood how even 1% of people could vote for Trump. Seems that angry and desperate people felt they were finally being listened to. In fact, the guys who drink refer to others in 4 categories, Mexican, niggers, or towel heads. He isn’t helping any. Now, admittedly, you could make a theoretical argument saying that it’s about more automation than them, but, there again.


Smith

November 16, 2020

Hello!
I never understood how even 1% of people could vote for Trump. Seems that angry and desperate people felt they were finally being listened to. In fact, the guys who drink refer to others in 4 categories, Mexican, niggers, or towel heads. He isn’t helping any. Now, admittedly, you could make a theoretical argument saying that it’s about more automation than them, but, there again.


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