I’m just a poor white trash motherfucker. No one cares about me.
I met the man who said those words while working as a bartender in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas. It was a one-street town in Benton County. It had a beauty parlor, a gas station, and a bar where locals came on Friday nights to shoot the shit over cheap drinks and country music. I arrived in Arkansas by way of another little town in Louisiana, where all but a few local businesses had boarded up when Walmart moved in. In Arkansas, I was struggling to survive. I served drinks in the middle of the afternoon to people described as America’s “white underclass” — in other words, people just like me.
Across the highway from the bar was the trailer park where I lived. I bought my trailer for $1000, and it looked just like you would imagine a trailer that cost $1000 would look. There was a big hole in the ceiling, and parts of the floor were starting to crumble under my feet. It leaned to one side, and the faint odor of death hung around the bathroom. No doubt a squirrel or a rat had died in the walls. I told myself that once the flesh was gone, dissolved into the nothingness, the smell would go away, but it never did. Maybe that’s what vermin ghosts smell like.
I loved that trailer. Sitting in a ratty brown La-Z-Boy, I would look around my tin can and imagine all the ways I could paint the walls in shades of possibility. I loved it for the simple reason that it was the first and only home I have ever owned.
My trailer was parked in the middle of Walmart country, which is also home to J.B. Hunt Transportation, Glad Manufacturing, and Tyson Chicken. There is a whole lot of money in that pocket of Arkansas, but the grand wealth casts an oppressive shadow over a region entrenched in poverty. Executive mansions line the lakefronts and golf courses. On the other side of Country Club Road, trailer parks are tucked back in the woods. The haves and have-nots rarely share the same view, with one exception: politics. Benton County has been among the most historically conservative counties in Arkansas. The last Democratic president Benton County voted for was Harry S. Truman, in 1948.
There is an unavoidable question about places like Benton County, a question many liberals have tried to answer for years now: Why do poor whites vote along the same party lines as their wealthy neighbors across the road? Isn’t that against their best interests?
Ask a Republican, and they’ll probably say conservatives are united by shared positions on moral issues: family values, religious freedom, the right to life, the sanctity of marriage, and, of course, guns.
Ask a Democrat the same question, and they might mention white privilege, but they’re more likely to describe conservatives as racist, sexist, homophobic gun nuts who believe Christianity should be the national religion.
But what if those easy answers are two sides of the same political coin, a coin that keeps getting hurled back and forth between the two parties without ever shedding light on the real, more complicated truth?
I’m just a poor white trash motherfucker. No one cares about me.
What if he’s right?
• • •
People want to be heard. They want to believe their voices matter. A January 2016 survey by the Rand Corporation reported that Republican primary voters are 86.5 percent more likely to favor Donald Trump if they “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement, “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does.”
What is it about a flamboyant millionaire that appeals to poor white conservatives? Why do they believe a Trump presidency would amplify their voices? The answer may lie in America’s historical relationship between the wealthiest class and the army of poor whites who have loyally supported them.
From the time of slavery (yes, slavery) to the rise of Donald Trump, wealthy elites have relied on the allegiance of the white underclass to retain their affluence and political power. To understand this dynamic, to see through the eyes of poor and working class whites as they chant, “Trump, Trump, Trump,” let’s look back at a few unsavory slices of America’s capitalist pie.
Until the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, wealthy plantation owners relied on indentured servants for cheap labor. These white servants were mostly poor Europeans who traded their freedom for passage to the American colonies. They were given room and board, and, after four to seven years of grueling servitude, freedom.
About 40 percent lived long enough to see the end of their contract. Colonial law provided “freedom dues,” which usually included 100 acres of land, a small sum of money, and a new suit of clothes. Yet some freed servants didn’t know what was due them, and they were swindled out of their land grants. With no resources and nowhere to go, many walked to regions where land could still be homesteaded, and settled in remote areas such as the Appalachian Mountains.
As the British labor market improved in the 1680s, the idea of indentured servitude lost its appeal to many would-be immigrants. Increasing demand for indentured servants, many of whom were skilled laborers, soon bumped up against a dwindling supply, and the cost of white indentured servants rose sharply. Plantation owners kept skilled white servants, of course, often making them plantation managers and supervisors of slaves. This introduced the first racial divide between skilled and unskilled workers.
Still, African slaves were cheaper, and the supply was plentiful. Seeing an opportunity to realize a higher return on investment, elite colonial landowners began to favor African slaves over white indentured servants, and shifted their business models accordingly. They trained slaves to take over the skilled jobs of white servants.
An investment in African slaves also ensured a cost-effective, long-term workforce. Female slaves were often raped by their white owners or forced to breed with male slaves, and children born into slavery remained slaves for life. In contrast, white female servants who became pregnant were often punished with extended contracts, because a pregnancy meant months of lost work time. From a business perspective, a white baby was a liability, but African children were permanent assets.
As the number of African slaves grew, landowners realized they had a problem on their hands. Slave owners saw white servants living, working, socializing, and even having babies with African slaves. Sometimes they tried to escape together. What’s more, freed white servants who received land as part of their freedom dues had begun to complain about its poor quality. This created a potentially explosive situation for landowners, as oppressed workers quickly outnumbered the upper classes. What was to prevent freed whites, indentured servants, and African slaves from joining forces against the tyranny of their masters?
As Edmund S. Morgan says in his book American Slavery, American Freedom, “The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt.”
Many slave owners in both the North and South were also political leaders. Soon, they began to pass laws that stipulated different treatment of white indentured servants, newly freed white men, and African slaves. No white indentured servant could be beaten while naked, but an African slave could. Any free white man could whip a Black slave, and most important, poor whites could “police” Black slaves. These new laws gave poor whites another elevation in status over their Black peers. It was a slow but effective process, and with the passing of a few generations, any bond that indentured servants shared with African slaves was permanently severed.
As slavery expanded in the South and indentured servitude declined, the wealthy elite offered poor whites the earliest version of the American Dream: if they worked hard enough, they could achieve prosperity, success, and upward social mobility — if not for themselves, then perhaps for future generations.
But few realized that dream. In “The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy,” the Rev. Dr. Thandeka notes: . . .