Barbara Ehrenreich Talks Donald Trump And The White Working Class

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I’ve been on the lookout for any kind of commentary from Barbara Ehrenreich on the election of Donald Trump. I anticipated coming across an essay, but it was on YouTube where I found Ehrenreich sharing her thoughts.

Barbara Ehrenreich was a guest speaker at Washington College in April 2017. The event was hosted by Patrick Nugent, the Deputy Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the America Experience. Ehrenreich spoke much about her seminal work, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a book that continues to have a profound effect on both my writing (it was a major inspiration in my authoring of Bigmart Confidential) and my personal politics.

I’m including the YouTube video above; I greatly encourage you to watch it in its entirety. But I specifically want to document some of Ehrenreich’s direct quotes about the Donald Trump presidency, which begins when she addresses the political state of the white working class in America:

“The white working class in this country is of special interest right now for a political reason. They played a major role in electing Donald Trump… [Well], I wouldn’t say a major part. There are plenty of wealthy people who voted for Trump. Of course, they’re all now in his cabinet. And there are plenty of people who are [small]businessmen… who voted for Trump. But the surprising thing was that he got so many votes from the working class.

“Why were so many people who were financially distressed in many ways, why were they attracted to — I don’t want to be partisan here — but a blowhard billionaire? That right there should disqualify anyone from being president, I think. Because he wouldn’t know enough about how Americans live.”

And here Barbara Ehrenreich asks an important question: how can Trump fulfill all of his bullshit “Make America Great Again” promises? Because all of the industrial factories jobs the Baby Boomers fetishize and sob over — those jobs are never coming back. But here’s a novel idea: why not pay livable, fair wages to the jobs we already have in the United States? That’s what Ehrenreich believes, and the government has a part to play in this:

“What we need from the public sector is a notion to increase the minimum wage, better working conditions, provide some of the social benefits that people in other countries get.”

Nugent asks Ehrenreich to postulate why the white working class, in his words, would “vote for Trump or vote for a billionaire.” Ehrenreich’s response:

“I cannot fully answer this, but he was up against — and you can jump all over me for this — but she was a very weak candidate… that other candidate. She actually, remember that point in the summer, when she spoke of Trump’s white working-class supporters as ‘deplorables’? I thought, ‘oh, don’t do that.’ And she had very little interest in any of these issues. But to not go on about her.

“I think the appeal of Trump was that he was — and is — a big middle finger in the face of the ‘establishment’ that said, ‘I’m not paying any attention. I’m not interested in your rules. I’m not politically correct. I’ll say any racist or misogynistic thing that comes out of my mouth and you’ve got to live with it. Ha!

“Why is that appealing? Well, you have to be pretty mad for that to be appealing and to have given up on standard-issue democrats to do anything about this.”

A question from the audience asked Ehrenreich if she was surprised by Trump’s election. She said she was not, and explains why it troubles her:

“It’s painful for me personally. My tradition — the tradition I come from of white working-class people — did not look well on billionaires or bosses or anybody in charge. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Democrats: that was their politics.

“I was told as a child that there are two things you must never do when you grow up, on pain of eternal suffering in Hell. You cannot vote Republican and you cannot cross a union picket line. Those were rules from on high. What happened to that tradition? And to have it replaced with guys in red caps throwing journalists and people of color out of Trump rallies? It doesn’t make sense.”

But what will the next four years bring? Ehrenreich’s response could be pulled straight from the pages of another one of her books, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America”:

“Right now, there seems to be a battle in the White House. I’m talking about the battle between Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. Jared represents Wall Street and represents the same kind of politics that both Clintons represented and to a large extent Obama, sadly.

“And the other person here in this particular drama, who is by my terms, and I don’t use these words lightly, a Nazi — a person whose known views are racist [and]anti-Semitic. And he is the one who, tragically, is arguing that Trump be constantly in touch with the white working class.

“So, I don’t anticipate anything good coming of this. I’d personally like to see Steve Bannon out, just because it personally offends me in some ancient way to have a Nazi in the White House. But that’s how it’s playing out right now.”

Again, I’ve included the video at the top of this post, so be sure to watch it in full. I hope to hear more from Barbara Ehrenreich on the era of Trump. With any luck, it will inspire her to write a new book on the topic.

One can hope, anyway.

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About Author

Steven Surman has been writing for over 10 years. His essays and articles have appeared in a variety of print and digital publications, including the Humanist, the Gay & Lesbian Review, and A&U magazine. His website and blog, Steven Surman Writes, collects his past and current nonfiction work. Steven’s a graduate of Bloomsburg University and the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and he currently works as the Content Marketing Manager for a New York City-based media company. His first book, Bigmart Confidential: Dispatches from America's Retail Empire, is a memoir detailing his time working at a big-box retailer. Please contact him at steven@stevensurman.com.

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