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Trump, trailer trash and the Chinese: connecting the dots

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Nancy Isenberg has a telling chapter in her 2016 book, “White Trash,” on “trailers” and “trailer parks” as symbols of, and metaphors for, this distinct underclass of American society.

White trash, trailer trash, call them what you will, have been identified as bulwarks of the Republican Party since before the rise of Trump; but Trump’s election cast them in a brand new light and gave them immeasurably more importance. Liberals, capitalizing on the reputation of poor white people, especially in the south, for being unhealthy, uneducated and shiftless, quickly identified trailer dwellers are bastions of Trump’s base—and thereby undesirable. Keith Olbermann, in 2017, slammed Trump for hosting “the trailer park trash trio” of Sarah Palin, Kid Rick and Ted Nugent in the White House.

A Mother Jones Magazine reporter, visiting a trailer park just prior to the 2016 election, witnessed “trailers with doors flung open [and] tall grass pockmarked with holes where mailboxes once stood”;  he analyzed Trump’s appeal to the residents this way: “[They] see him as very strong. A blue-collar billionaire. Honest and refreshing, not having to be politically correct. They want someone that’s macho, that can chew tobacco and shoot the guns—that type of manly man.”

Notwithstanding that this view hardly accords with the reality of Trump’s fastidious, non-gun Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster lifestyle, “The white American underclass,” writes the National Review (conservative, but no fan of Trump’s), “is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.” Bill Clinton’s former political adviser, the Ragin’ Cajun James Carville, famously referred to the sordid reputation of trailer parks when he said, concerning Paula Jones (who had accused Clinton of molesting her), “If you drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” the implication being that trailer dwellers are unscrupulous, venal, addled liars. Years later, Sen. Lindsay Graham, defending his new idol, Trump, against Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations of sexual molestation during the Kavanaugh hearings, resurrected the Carville quip, but this time against Blasey Ford: “This what you get when you go through a trailer park with a $100 bill,” he said, bizarrely, since Blasey Ford—a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine—patently never lived in a trailer park.

In “White Trash,” Isenberg traces the rube reputation of trailer parks back to the 1930s, when The Depression forced Americans by the millions into mobile home parks, “rickety boxes…eyesores” associated with “deviant, dystopian wastelands set on the fringes of the metropolis.” Isenberg tells the story of Agnes Meyer (mother of the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham), who, in 1943, set out on a cross-country tour for the Post to report on the war’s “home front.”. Encountering trailer parks throughout the south, Meyer found the residents pitiful, ragged, illiterate and undernourished; astonished, she asked herself, “Is this America?” A new brand of pulp fiction arose, portraying trailer dwellers as promiscuous, amoral trash. Dime-store novels like “Trailer Tramp” and “The Trailer Park Girls,” Isenberg writes, “told stories of casual sexual encounters and voyeurism…Tramps and trailer nomadism, like drugs and gambling, identified social disorder on the edge of town.”

By the 1980s, these poor white trailer dwellers had turned into Republicans (to the extent they bothered to vote). Two factors fed into this phenomenon: the trailer dwellers’ feeling that educated, coastal “elites” were putting them down, and their embrace of a new form of politicized evangelical Christianity, which encouraged them to vote—and vote conservative Republican.

With the surprise election of Trump—not only to Americans, but the world—trailer trash became the object of intense study by political operatives, who suddenly felt it imperative to understand what made these poor white Americans tick. An Australian newspaper last year reported the startling news that “China’s top think tank has turned to a New York Times best seller to understand what drives US President Donald Trump.”

That best seller was, no surprise, Isenberg’s “White Trash.” The think tank put Isenberg’s book at “the top of the reading list” to understand Trump; the editor of a Chinese scholarly publication told the Australian reporter, “Trump represents that political class [i.e., trailer park residents], and I don’t know how China should respond.”

The Chinese still don’t how to respond to the Trump phenomenon, any more than many of us Americans do. It’s far from clear what, if anything, Chinese intellectuals have learned about Trump from Isenberg’s book, but probably, whatever decisions the Chinese government has been making about tariffs are influenced, in part, by their impression of how tariffs impact the lives of poor white Americans. China may be betting that making cars, flat-screen TVs and War-Mart gadgets more expensive will turn trailer trash against Trump, which seems unlikely, given the “Fifth Avenue shooting” prophylaxis he’s already Teflon’ed himself with.

All of  which makes Isenberg’s concluding words in “White Trash” poignant:

White trash is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people…is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. ‘They are not who we are’ [we tell ourselves]. But they are who we are and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.

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