The Chronicle Review

How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt

We thought we knew the white working class. Then 2016 happened.

Mark Lyons, Getty Images

Donald Trump speaks to coal miners at a campaign rally in Charleston, W.Va., in May 2016.
September 01, 2017

When the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008, many in and out of the academy were quick to wag a finger at economists and ask, "Why didn’t you guys see this coming?" Economists responded that the "science" of economics is not of the predictive kind — nor, for that matter, are a lot of the sciences. The economy might have been in unanticipated chaos, but the discipline of economics was still sound.

Others argued that the problem was in the methodology itself — the assumptions and premises that blind practitioners to even the possibility of crisis. The eight American and European scholars who wrote the "Dahlem report," a 2009 analysis of the economics profession, found it "obvious, even to the casual observer that these models fail to account for the actual evolution of the real-world economy." As a result, "in our hour of greatest need," we must fumble in darkness with no explanation, no theory, and no scholarly discipline prepared to answer the simple question: How did we get here?

I am a labor historian — or at least one in recovery. When my colleagues and I saw the financial crisis, our predominant response was something like an exhausted, cynical shrug: "Of course — what did you expect in an age of rampant deregulation and absurd economic inequality?" Yet when the next systemic paroxysm hit our nation — the wave of white, blue-collar rage that helped elect Donald Trump — my field seemed as ill-equipped to explain the "actual evolution of the real-world" situation as the science of economics had been to explain the crash in 2008. One could have polled the entire American Political Science Association and the Organization of American Historians in 2016 and found very few who would have predicted a Trump victory — unless Michael Moore (who nearly alone, in no uncertain terms, predicted a "Rust Belt Brexit," the last stand of the common white guy) happens to be an accidental member of one of those professional organizations.

Richard Hofstadter, the old grandmaster of American political history, laid clear the burdens of being a historian: "The urgency of our national problems seems to demand, more than ever, that the historian have something to say that will help us." The need for salient historical explanation seems more important now than ever, yet a lot of us are coming up empty. Most of what we seemed to know about how class works suddenly seems dated, or simply wrong. As with the economists of the past decade, we may have been blinded by the bedrock assumptions of our own field.

What's interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It's always been around.
Most labor historians, one way or another, and whether or not they concede it, remain children of the "new labor history." The field emerged in the 1960s and ’70s from several sources: the political vision of the New Left, civil rights, and women’s movements; the rejection of the narrow trade-union economism of the "old" labor history; and, perhaps most important, the 1963 publication of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson famously rejected an analysis that addressed class as a "thing," arguing instead for a new analysis that approaches class as a "happening." Smashing icons across the intellectual spectrum, his book began a new age of rich and adventurous writing about the history of working people. He sent historians on a mission to figure out how class worked — without indulging the condescending, instrumental, or teleological traps of previous intellectual models.

In place of institutions and economics, the new breed of scholars put culture, consciousness, community, agency, and resistance at the center of their analyses. In rushed two generations of engaged scholarship, freeing workers from prisons of party, union, and state. No longer intellectual pawns, the working class could have its own voice and reveal its own rich complexity. Liberated history, so the assumption went, would lead to liberated workers. And liberation became the project of the new labor history.

But this paradigm never quite escaped its origins in the political romanticism of the New Left that gave birth to it. At its best, it opened up wide vistas of understanding of the entirety of American history; at its worst, it looked like a cultural whirlpool of radicals writing radical history for a radical audience.

Having grown up in a white, blue-collar, Midwestern household, I was long bothered by the fact that my experiences at home never jibed with the literature I read in graduate school. In dog-eared books, drawn-out grad seminars, and extended conversations in many a bar, I gradually opened my mind to an America that was simultaneously alien and familiar to that of my childhood: a world of working-people’s politics, strikes, coalitions, radicalism, and social movements — almost always mounted to defend some version of the community that I just wanted to leave behind. From the right perspective, my new mentors explained, you could see how the struggles of working-class people had shaped the world.

The working-class universe I knew most intimately was one without romance or agency and with precious little discussion of movements or protest or anything of the sort. We knew that the jobs at the unionized grocery stores were the ones to get — which was, mind you, a very important thing. As the son of a downwardly mobile and politically conservative father who, for most of my life, labored as a nonunion janitor, I found that I intuitively came at the subject from a different angle. Despite my love for the vision of the new labor history, I never felt empowered by my own working-class experience. Little of what I eventually read about the potential of collective action dovetailed with my subjective experience. So I succumbed to a class-based version of impostor syndrome and presumed that all of those smart people I met in the university must know better than I did.

Later, wandering through a used-book shop en route to my Ph.D., I found a book called The Hidden Injuries of Class (Knopf, 1972), one of the classic contributions to the ’70s explosion in white, blue-collar studies. The title said it all. Class as individualized, tortuous inner struggle — now we were getting somewhere.

In the historical literature, I had been enthralled to uncover a deep history of workers’ sticking it to the bosses, of solidarity, of interracial organizing, of striking for what was right, of community as an empowering and not a crushing thing. But in The Hidden Injuries of Class, I found answers that made more sense to me intuitively. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb painted an American class war that raged more within than without. Finally I had a much better explanation for why my family’s response to the inequities of occupation and status seemed nothing like resistance and a whole lot like shame.

The empirical execution of Hidden Injuries was wanting, but I found the psychological insights compelling, while Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, E.P. Thompson, Herbert Gutman, David Montgomery, and the rest of the labor pantheon left me a little uneasy. The new labor historians broke open new vistas but never considered adequately the psychic landscape of the American worker.

Working-class history is often about heroics and radicalism and solidarity at the plant gate and the union hall. But those bright stories should not distract us from the other side: the dark, hard, claustrophobic, insular, racist, angry, fearful, even bitter, social burn of a group of people who have little standing in American civic life.

I wrote a book called Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press, 2010). It was about the political and cultural collapse of white, male, working-class identity in the "me decade" after two generations in the political and economic sun. While it got plenty of criticism, few readers took seriously the central message expressed in the subtitle: Our civic life has become a doughnut, with empty calories surrounding a hollow center where questions of class, occupation, pay, and power might once have been debated and expressed. We had become a nation with little legitimate space to express either the external or the internal conflicts of economic inequality — and that is a dangerous and volatile place for any republic to find itself.

While the working class is a fractured multicultural mosaic, white guys remain its most volatile and angry part, even if, objectively, they have a lot less to worry about than working-class women and minorities do. We know, for instance, that those white men are less optimistic about their lives than are minorities, that their longevity is literally decreasing, and that their occupational mainstays are dwindling. They have fallen from grace. And they are explosive.

Donald Trump gave a national forum to those conflicts and resentments, albeit in a sharply limited way. He liberated the white-working-class id; he told people, silenced for two generations or more, that they did not have to be ashamed. They could be angry. They could yell. They could be racist. They could be misogynist. They could be mean. They could discharge decades — generations — of suppressed frustration on any target, wherever the spinning wheel of their leader’s paranoid narcissism might land.

The new labor history splintered in dozens of fruitful directions, but the ceaseless decline of working-class power pushed those engaged in the central mission of the field from panic to despair. Labor scholars seemed to fall into an ideological trap: When workers managed to win, it was because of their drive and capacity. When they lost, which was more often the story, it was capital’s dark machinations at fault. Rarely did anyone want to probe the strange and heady brew of anti-statism, anti-elitism, fragile pride, and, often, individualism (a word all but banned from labor history) that are part of class consciousness in America.

Many of the most recent generation of kindred spirits to the new labor history have jumped on the train of studying conservatism. But in American historiography, conservatism still seems to smack of the other and the exotic and the conspiratorial — rather than part and parcel, central to the very DNA of American politics. The residue of our own politics, and the revelation of all of the real radicalism in U.S. history, prevents me and my colleagues from confronting something fearful: what we like to call "backlash" is deeply intertwined with everything, including some of the left-wing movements.

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just "conservative," nor is it just "working class" in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a "real-world" America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

My generation’s historiographical compass is left spinning. North is gone. But the white working class is out there. And we still really need to understand it.

Jefferson Cowie is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton University Press, 2016).