The Politics of Fear

BY KELLY COGSWELL | It’s time to quit blaming poor white people for the rise of Donald Trump and his immigrant-hating, misogynist, racist, anti-everything minions. No, according to a huge study by Jonathan Rothwell of 87,000 Gallup poll responses, Trump supporters include a lot of white men with blue-collar jobs, but they aren’t poor. In fact, their incomes are a little bit above average even if they don’t have college degrees.

Trump’s not particularly popular in manufacturing areas either, even those affected by, for instance, the migration of jobs to China.

Trump’s main supporters are white men working in occupations like construction, repair, and transportation — all of which, Max Ehrenfreund and Jeff Guo of the Washington Post noted, “are protected from Chinese competition. Chinese workers might be assembling semiconductors, but they are not adjusting the thermostat or changing the oil.”


So why do they respond to Trump’s anti-immigrant message? Why do they come across as poor and precarious, clamoring about the denial of opportunities, stolen chances, when they’re actually doing somewhat better than most of us?

Probably their family history is a little like mine. Probably they had grandparents somewhere back there who, to keep from starving, left the countryside for the nearest big city and a factory job. With a little bit of luck— and white skin that allowed access to decent mortgage rates — they were able to buy a house in the suburbs and, after 20-odd years, pay it off. Their kids did it, too. No shame in wearing that blue-collared shirt with your name stitched over your heart when it meant you could get ahead, take care of your family. And when you retired there was a pension and Social Security, and maybe enough savings to ride around in an RV for a while, then go into some kind of retirement home if you had to.

This fairytale of an American Dream shaped my expectations, led me to imagine that ordinary decent-paying jobs would always be there for the taking. Like most girls, I’d actually learned to type in high school because it was “something to fall back on.” And after graduating from college in ‘88 with a liberal arts degree, I temped as a secretary, which gave me enough money to pay my share of the rent. Only a few years later, there were less jobs of this kind because by then PC’s and email began to make letters and the people who typed them nearly obsolete. Like jobs on now-automated assembly lines.

A few years later, journalism changed too. The financial crisis hit and the market was flooded with A-list journalists from newspapers who were consolidating and downsizing. Sites like the Huffington Post popped up that managed to get writers to work for free, claiming the experience and exposure were good for them. Free labor pushed down rates in the pro market, and as a result, independent journalists work for a fraction of what we used to get. Without a trust fund, you’re screwed. And don’t get me started on how many job descriptions now require an MA because what’s experience next to a brand-spanking new graduate degree?

I’m kin to these Trump’s supporters who grew up with these expectations, which aren’t realistic anymore. And now they’re angry and afraid. Maybe not even for themselves, but for their kids or their community. They’re afraid of the poverty they heard about, with no shoes and no food. They’re afraid of difference. And of change. Afraid of you. Of me. And when we’re afraid, we feel helpless and weak. We need something to fight against that is more tangible than the passage of time, or a changing economy that we feel doesn’t have our best interests at heart.

Any canny politician can take that fear and find a target for it. Blame other humans for what is not in our direct control. If our crops fail, it was our neighbor’s evil eye. AIDS is the fault of The Gays. Those “beaners” are taking our jobs.

Scapegoating is so easy when you don’t personally know the target. One unsurprising result of the Gallup study is that a great many of Trump’s anti-immigrant supporters live in white neighborhoods that are more segregated than others populated by white people of their same background and class. Exposure means everything. A lesson queers have long known, and why Coming Out Days make such a difference.

Which is why it’s not enough to vote blue to defeat Trump. He’s unleashed a huge wave of fear and hate and anger that job growth won’t cure. And neither will more outrage at each new Trumpian atrocity. Queers and people of color, immigrants, women, other social minorities have got to find other ways to bridge the gap. If not knocking on terrifying doors, then supporting artists and writers, pushing our way into American culture, and introducing ourselves again and again until we’re known.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.