In explaining the success of Donald Trump, the media tend to point the finger at the supposedly disgruntled, uneducated, and nationalistic white working class. However, recent polls and analyses show that Trump supporters are more affluent and educated than the coverage would suggest. And the white working class is nowhere near as monolithic as it's made out to be.
Brooke talks to Sarah Smarsh, reporter and author of the upcoming book In the Red, about her work and her upbringing in rural Kansas -- and how they both inform her view that Trump's popularity has been too conveniently pinned on the white working class, which is far more complex and politically diverse than the media would make it seem.
Oscarine by Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal
So polls can tell us where to look, but from there the media have to dig deeper. That hasn't happened so much with one particular group this election season, which journalists have both obsessed over and widely mischaracterized, the white working-class.
TRISH REGAN, FOX NEWS: Donald Trump’s swift and seemingly unstoppable rise was boosted largely from support of working-class white Americans.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: From the beginning, that has been Donald Trump’s base, the white working-class male in America.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It’s white uneducated people who are the base of Trump’s electorate.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Trump’s counting on those disaffected white voters in the Rust Belt…
SARAH SMARSH: That has always struck me as kind of fishy from the outset because I am a native of the white working-class and that is my home community and my family and many loved ones and friends, and I didn't actually know that many Trump supporters among them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s reporter Sarah Smarsh, and she says the people she knows back home in Kansas don't seem to support the media narrative that the white working-class are the cornerstone of Trump’s success. Actually, neither do the data. A recent Gallup poll of 87,000 people found that those who supported Trump were under no more economic distress than those who opposed him. They didn't have lower incomes or higher unemployment levels than other Americans. And primary exit polls showed that Trump voters were more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000. That's more than that of Hillary Clinton supporters. And 44% of Trump voters have college degrees, well above the national average. But, despite hard numbers complicating the notion that Trump’s rise can be pinned squarely on aggrieved uneducated poor whites, the media have clung to it. So, why? Smarsh says it stems from both a deep-rooted classism and a commercial yen for great video.
SARAH SMARSH: If you go to a Trump rally and see a guy in a trucker hat screaming racist epithets next to a Confederate flag wearing a T-shirt that says something horrifying about women, that makes good B roll.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The video that rolls under and anchors a reporter’s narration.
SARAH SMARSH: Yes. That’s not to suggest that that horrible strain of American politics and culture shouldn’t receive coverage. It absolutely should. But the white working-class has received so little focus and attention over the decades, that this first glimpse of that population is then presumed to represent the whole, which is certainly not the case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write that poor whiteness and poor character have been routinely conflated.
SARAH SMARSH: It is just so intrinsic to the overall discourse that it's almost implied in every discussion, but in terms of overt statements, one that jumps out is Kevin Williamson wrote for The National Review earlier this year that the white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Then he tidally connected that tragic phenomenon of economically disenfranchised people who don't have access to healthcare being ravaged by Oxycodone. He then said, Donald Trump speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. So, that's an example from a, an admittedly provocative voice on the right.
Also, I think that if you have a mostly middle and upper middle-class media trying to explain the Trump phenomenon, which is to many people a scourge on American politics, some of these reporters, I would guess, have a well-off aunt and uncle in a very white suburb somewhere quietly sending money to Trump’s campaign and may or may not have his sign in their yard, they’re certainly not going to show up at a Trump rally and scream hateful words, being as they have more social capital to lose than a white working-class that aligns with them politically.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The people that contradict the media narrative are just less visible.
SARAH SMARSH: They’re less visible and they're also less comfortable for the media to call out because they’re members of their own tribe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the most extreme Trump supporters, people with their hateful language and their hateful signs at Trump rallies, you say have become emblematic of the entire white working-class?
SARAH SMARSH: That’s the, the first glimpse for some people in this country of an idea of a class that can so easily fill that vacuum where news coverage hasn't been for so long. And I would challenge the idea that they're the most extreme Trump supporters. I think they're certainly the most visible, at least in the way that the media frames the election through rallies and the loudest strains of hate. But if you have a wealthy social conservative who doesn't want Muslims moving into the country and thinks that women are inferior to men and is contributing handsomely to Trump’s campaign and not discussing his political views with his liberal well-off friends, I would argue that his support is just as extreme and, in some ways, even more dangerous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you wish these stories would be framed?
SARAH SMARSH: So I guess I would challenge the media to bring the same sorts of sensitivities to that class that they would to any other, and if that means going out of your way to not find the guy with the Confederate flag flapping from his truck and hopping in with him for 10 minutes and then writing the story that apparently speaks for Anytown, USA, that really falls short of capturing the rest of that town. And I bet if you drove around, you might have missed it the first time, but I bet there are Clinton signs in that same town.
In 2008, 42% of Kansas, which is my home state and thought of as one of the reddest in the nation, voted for Barack Obama. And if we’re only focused on this kind of horse race and painting the country in red and blue squares, 42% of Kansans become invisible and meaningless. And many of my family being among them, I noticed that and I take great issue with it. If primary exit polls are telling us that the median household income of Trump voters is $72,000, let’s go talk to some Trump supporters whose income is $72,000, that the very least complicates this idea that the poor white is the one running the Trump train.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned that you don't know that many Trump supporters back home. Now, you know plenty of people who aren't, and I guess that would include your Grandmother Betty.
SARAH SMARSH: Yeah, she's 71. She largely raised me. I moved in permanently with her and my grandfather, who is a wheat farmer and raised cattle west of Wichita, when I was 11. So she caucused during the primaries, first time ever that she went out during a primary election to wait in line for a very long time, thanks to new voter ID laws, to caucus for Bernie Sanders. I tell a bit of her story in my essay to demonstrate that she is a [LAUGHS] member of the white working-class and she finds Donald Trump absolutely deplorable.
More Kansans caucused for Bernie Sanders during the primaries than for Donald Trump. If you just look at those two candidates who have been analyzed as representatives of two different kind of strains of populism that welled up this year, more of that populist uprising was left of center rather than right of center in Kansas. I saw no attention to that phenomenon in national media, when it strikes me as incredibly newsworthy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that, quote, “One-dimensional stereotypes fester where journalism fails to tread.”
SARAH SMARSH: I’m noticing this coverage of the white working-class this year as not only flawed but also just remarkable for even existing. The last time I remember looking at a TV screen and feeling like something about my place was even being attempted was the fictional TV show Roseanne, and that was in like the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
BECKY CONNER: Please tell me there’s a college fund.
ROSEANNE CONNER: Well, there was, but –
BECKY: So even if I get into these schools, I can’t afford to go?
ROSEANNE: Becky, it has been a really bad year.
BECKY: I can’t believe this.
SARAH SMARSH: And, by the way, I would say that she got it right and this year [LAUGHS] journalists have mostly gotten it wrong.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah, thank you so much.
SARAH SMARSH: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah Smarsh’s recent piece in The Guardian is called, “Dangerous Idiots: How the liberal media elite failed working-class Americans.”
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.