The president-elect wields his version of the American dream to inspire millions of supporters who ironically are highly unlikely to achieve it
It is a statement about the desperation of white working-class representation in American politics that their voice is a jet-set real estate developer from Manhattan who happened to make a direct appeal for their votes. However, its not enough to appeal to voters; the great politicians bond with them.
Those who roll their eyes at Trumps ongoing rallies underestimate the extent to which the President-elect actually connects with his white working class voters by living the life many of them have always wanted.
In his aspirational but undisciplined You only live once style, Trump is an avatar of those who are acutely aware of moneys evanescence.
For much of American history, all the rich were nouveau riche to some extent. There is no landed aristocracy or royalty to speak of. At some point, all American families were commoner muck from somewhere else. But over time, the US has grown older and developed an increasingly ossified class hierarchy that has effectively entrenched the wealthy by birthright distinguishing them from the arrivistes.
By most accounts, the president-elect won the birthright lottery by inheriting a sizable trust fund. But the ostentatious gold lettering, the unsubtle cherry red ties, the beauty pageant wife, the overt self-aggrandizement everywhere, the fake tanner: this is beer taste on a champagne budget.
While this is reminiscent of a lottery winners palate, more subtly it communicates an understanding of money as fleeting and fragile the experience of many white working-class people who have lost so much in the decline of manufacturing, the savings and loan crisis, and the great recession.
As part of my research on white working class politics over the past five years, I spent several months in Youngstown, Ohio a once prosperous mecca for steel that is now one of the poorest cities in the US. There, the American Dream is increasingly tarnished, but my respondents hold out hope for the messianic return of a signature industry and a political champion.
Everybody wants the big stroke, a former Youngstown public official told me. There have been scrambles for a Lufthansa air cargo hub here, the worlds first indoor Nascar race track, an Avanti car body factory. That drives things. Somebody from the outside is going to rescue us and make it like the steel mills again.
To replace the collapse of an industrial behemoth, many Youngstowners can only fathom the majestic arrival of another. There is little patience for the organic growth promoted by earlier leaders and President Obama, whose 2009 stimulus rescued the neighboring automobile industry and supported incremental actions like a local business incubator in the heart of Youngstown.
While Obama is skeptical of the environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that is transforming landscapes in adjacent western Pennsylvania, Trump promises to go big and spread his winnings around the peoples billionaire.
And Youngstowners know precisely what they would do with the windfall. Already, many yearn for the life of Trump.
Im going to get lung cancer like this, said an industrial painter I interviewed. He patted his brow. If they would open that racetrack casino, Id take a job there, so I can be in the air conditioning all day with broads walking around me.
An unemployed, mother of three told me: For two people whove worked all their lives, the only way to have the American Dream is to hit the lottery. Thats the new American Dream.
Ironically, it is the prospect of the American Dream that Trump wields to inspire millions of supporters who according to economic research are highly unlikely to achieve it.
Compared to the working classes of European countries, Americans are less inclined to resent the rich. Rather, we celebrate them as job creators, innovators and engineers of economic growth. There is a perception many would say, a myth that we are all buoyed by their success, indeed that we contributed to and are associated with their success, or that we may even live vicariously through them.
However, Americans do resent the surreptitiously wealthy, characterized by exclusivity and invisibility. We resent the wealthy who do not engage their fellow citizens, and rather shroud their cushioned lifestyles behind the deception of offshore bank accounts, shell companies and homes inside the gates of St Tropez. For his supporters unnerved by such stealth wealth, Donald Trumps glitzy public persona is far more accountability than a complicated tax return.
Tax returns force the stealthily wealthy to disclose their dealings, and contrasts Trumps public exhibitionism with the discreet fortunes of the Bush Family, the Romneys and Republicans of yesteryear. In the eyes of many working class white people, downplaying ones wealth to artificially connect with the poor is a far greater sin than aspirational puffery and false grandeur.
Trump is Scrooge McDuck to their Montgomery Burns the inscrutable boardroom fat cat.
At one Pennsylvania rally in October, he even said he considered himself to be in a certain way a blue-collar worker.
In this way, Donald Trump also transcends what has become a barrier between white working-class people in Americas hinterland and white, liberal cosmopolitans in its cities. Those in the hinterland often feel that their urban co-ethnics have turned their back on struggling, working-class white people in order to embrace immigrant upstarts and African-Americans in light of the structural disadvantages they face.
In his lifestyle choices, Donald Trump embodies a reassurance to working class white people that he is somehow one of them.