Trumpism: A Pre-Existing Condition, Not a Response to Neoliberalism or Globalization

✑ ANDREW J. KLIMAN | 5,220 words
‟There is no evidence that the shift to Trump was a revolt of low-income voters.

"Trumpism is a manifestation of a long-standing white-nationalist strain in US politics". Kliman provides a list of evidence against the claim from "“populist” liberals" that Trumpism is a "response to neoliberalism or globalization" and declining incomes. What's more, the Left has much to learn from Karl Marx who would never agree with their "pandering to white-nationalist sentiments".

Andrew Kliman is a professor emeritus of economics at Pace University, author of many books on marxian economics (full CV here) and known for defending Marx's labor theory against claims of inconsistency from mainstream economics (see his book Reclaiming Marx's "Capital": A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2006)).

Originally published here in With Sober Senses (October 2, 2017), a publication of the Marxist-Humanist Initiative, as a longer essay (including a longer paragraph on Marx's writings).


The anti-neoliberal “left” and “populist” liberals claim that Trump’s electoral victory was due to an uprising of the so-called white working class against a rapacious neoliberalism that has caused its income to stagnate for decades.1 However, working-class income (measured reasonably) did not stagnate, nor is “economic distress” a source of Trump’s surprisingly strong support from “working-class” whites. And by looking back at the presidential campaigns of George Wallace between 1964 and 1972, it becomes clear that Trumpism is a manifestation of a long-standing white-nationalist strain in US politics, not a response to neoliberalism or globalization.

Combatting White Nationalism

In the UK, the surge of support for Brexit in 2016, which secured the victory of the “Leave” forces, was driven largely by anti-immigrant backlash. In France, neo-fascist Marine Le Pen won more than a third of the vote in last year’s presidential election. Most ominously, the virulently racist and xenophobic Donald Trump is now US president, and he enjoys the firm support of avowed white supremacists. This nexus has given rise to a shocking increase in far-right violence, up to and including the August 2017 murder in Charlottesville of anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer by a neo-Nazi.

Clearly, we must combat this resurgence of white nationalism.
2 And we have to understand how to do so, and how not to do so. For Marxist-Humanists, the goal remains, as always, complete human freedom: the free development of each human being as the condition for the free development of all. What kind of responses to the threat of white nationalism help us to move closer to the realization of this goal, and what kinds do not?

In my effort to work out an answer to that question, I have found it helpful to examine Karl Marx’s writings and praxis and seek to draw some lessons from them (see the complete version of this essay). In his day, Marx likewise had to confront white nationalism, and he developed some ideas about why it exists and how to overcome it. Marx differed from the anti-neoliberal “left” in that he sought to encourage the “independent movement of the workers” toward human emancipation, not further the political interests of “the left” by pandering to white-nationalist sentiments within the working class.
‟Fighting white nationalism in the tradition of Marx entails the perspective of solidarizing with the “white working class” by decisively defeating Trumpism and other far-right forces.
The foremost lesson I have drawn from this examination is that fighting white nationalism in the tradition of Marx entails the perspective of solidarizing with the “white working class” by decisively defeating Trumpism and other far-right forces. Their defeat will help liberate the “white working class” from the grip of reaction and thereby spur the independent emancipatory self-development of working people as a whole.

However, this analysis of Marx’s response to white nationalism is relevant to today’s political situation only if Trumpism really is an expression of an extremely entrenched and long-standing white-nationalist strain in US politics. Many commentators have denied this. They assert, to the contrary, that Trumpism is, and/or that Trump actually won the 2016 election because of, an uprising of the so-called white working class against a rapacious neoliberalism that has caused its income to stagnate for decades. This latter narrative has been particularly popular within anti-neoliberal “left”3 circles and among “populist” liberals.

Thus, the first task––which I undertake below––is to expose the factual flaws in the “anti-neoliberal” narrative. Only then will the perspective of combatting white nationalism on the foundation laid by Marx be taken seriously.

Immediately after the 2016 US election, the “anti-neoliberal” narrative seemed almost ubiquitous, especially on the left. In the wake of the Charlottesville massacre, it seems a lot less plausible than it did before. But the real case against it rests on other facts: (1) The income of the working class did not stagnate. (2) “Economic distress” was not the reason why Trump garnered exceptionally strong support—for a Republican—from a segment of the so-called “white working class.” And most importantly, (3) an examination of the historical record shows that Trumpism is not a response to neoliberalism or economic distress; it is a pre-existing condition.

The Anti-Neoliberal “Left” Narrative

In the UK, the surge of support for Brexit in 2016, which secured the victory of the “Leave” forces, was driven largely by anti-immigrant backlash. In France, neo-fascist Marine Le Pen won more than a third of the vote in last year’s presidential election. Most ominously, the virulently racist and xenophobic Donald Trump is now US president, and he enjoys the firm support of avowed white supremacists. This nexus has given rise to a shocking increase in far-right violence, up to and including the recent murder in Charlottesville of anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer by a neo-Nazi.

The anti-neoliberal “left” and “populist” liberals frequently tell a story about the 2016 US election that comforts them by blaming their neoliberal adversaries and holding out hope of their ultimate triumph: Trump’s victory was due to the forgotten “white working class,” which rose up against decades of neoliberalism, globalization, and financialization. For example, Cornell West’s instant analysis of the election was that

“[t]he monumental election of Trump was a desperate and xenophobic cry of human hearts for a way out from under the devastation of a disintegrating neoliberal order ….

White working- and middle-class fellow citizens––out of anger and anguish – rejected the economic neglect of neoliberal policies and the self-righteous arrogance of elites. 

[… There was an] abysmal failure of the Democratic [P]arty to speak to the arrested mobility and escalating poverty of working people ….”

And in February, Boris Kagarlitsky, an apologist for Vladimir Putin’s regime and self-described Marxist theoretician, opined:

“The collapse of the neo-liberal world order is a spontaneous and natural process, generated by its own self-destructive logic …. The victory of Trump is itself a consequence of the crisis ….

No matter what the liberal pundits say, these were the votes of workers who brought him the victory. Not the so-called “white men”, but the working class, who openly and, largely, in solidarity, made a stand against the Washington establishment. … This really was an uprising of the forgotten and resentful provincial America against the spoiled people in California and the
cosmopolitan officials from Washington, who comfortably exploit cheap labor of illegal migrants ….”

The crucial factoid regularly cited in support of what West calls “the arrested mobility and escalating poverty of working people” is the stagnation of middle-class incomes. For example, David Cay Johnston’s instant election analysis was that

“Trump won because many millions of Americans, having endured decades of working more while getting deeper in debt, said “enough.” 

From 1967, when Lyndon Johnson was president, to 2014, the average income of the vast majority of Americans rose by only $328 to $33,068. That’s just 1 percent above inflation after 47 years and this income stagnation applies, statistically, to the 90 percent, everyone who made less than $121,000 in 2014.”

Middle-Class Income Stagnation?

Johnston got his figures from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. For a long time, their work on income inequality was taken to be authoritative and incontrovertible in many circles. Under neoliberalism (i.e., since the early 1980s), they reported, middle-class income has stagnated in the US and there has been a massive and shocking growth of income inequality. However, in response to other researchers’ criticisms, they have recently abandoned the claim about stagnating income. In a December 2016 paper written together with Gabriel Zucman, they conceded that

“bottom 90% pre-tax income growth is significantly greater than that estimated using the Piketty and Saez (2003) data, according to which average bottom 90% incomes has declined since 1980 …. The real income figures from Piketty and Saez (2003) underestimate the growth of bottom 90% incomes and exaggerate the share of growth going to top groups.”4

They went on to state that “[t]here are three reasons why middle-class growth has been stronger than in the Piketty and Saez (2003) series.” First, they had adjusted for inflation by using an (inconsistent) inflation index that exaggerated how much inflation had occurred, thereby underestimating “real” income growth. Second, they had looked at the income of “tax units” rather than individuals. Since the number of tax units has grown faster than the number of individuals (because of a declining marriage rate), their previous figures had diluted income growth per person. Finally, and most importantly, their previous work did not count tax-exempt income—such as employers’ contributions, on their employee’s behalf, to Social Security, Medicare, and private pension and medical-insurance plans—which has “grown significantly since 1980.”5

Revised estimates in their December 2016 paper, which addressed these problems, tell a very different story. Middle-class income growth was substantial. Between 1982 and 2014, the real per-person after-tax income of the bottom 90% of the population increased by 45%. For the middle 40%, the increase was 53%, and even the income of the bottom half of the population rose by 31%.6

Piketty, Saez, and Zucman also found that, once tax-exempt income is counted, the share of national income that employees receive did not decline throughout the neoliberal period. Prior to the Great Recession, there was no decline at all.7 In recent years, employees’ income share has declined (by a relatively small amount), but this decline was not caused by neoliberalism. It was caused by the recession and the economy’s failure to rebound briskly from it.

This evidence lines up very well with what other researchers have found when they measure income using the methods that Piketty, Saez, and Zucman have recently taken on board. It is crucial evidence that the anti-neoliberal “left” explanation for Trump’s election is seriously flawed. If there was no stagnation of income caused by neoliberalism, globalization, or financialization, Trump’s win simply cannot be attributed to a working-class revolt against such stagnation!

Why Votes of Non-College Whites Flipped to Trump

Yet even were the story about stagnating middle-class income correct, the narrative propounded by the anti-neoliberal “left” runs into other serious problems. One is the fact that Trump’s “base” has been sticking with him through thick and thin. His approval rating fell somewhat during the initial months of his presidency—apparently, some of the “reluctant” Trump voters became disenchanted—but it has remained steady during the last four months. This would not be happening if Trump’s election had been a revolt against neoliberalism, and for populist economic policies. He has been president for eight months, and there is still no jobs program in sight. He repeatedly pushed hard for the passage of legislation to “repeal and replace” Obamacare that would have taken away medical insurance from more than 20 million people. And he has populated his administration with the super-rich, including Wall Streeters. So, if the support for Trump among his base had truly been rooted in economic distress and populist concerns, we should by now have seen the base flee from him in substantial numbers. That has not occurred.

Another serious problem with the anti-neoliberal “left” narrative is that a substantial and growing body of research indicates that its explanation for why Trump won the election is just not correct. It is true that he received a substantially larger share of the votes of whites without a college education—the so-called white “working class”––than previous Republican presidential candidates had received. This single fact is the statistical hook on which the anti-neoliberal “left” explanation for Trump’s election hangs, but this fact means very little by itself.

First of all, educational attainment is a rather imperfect proxy for social class as measured by income or occupation. Second, it is illegitimate to latch onto a fact about “working-class” whites voting for Trump and then “explain” the fact with a made-up story about this having been a working-class revolt against the economic distress imposed on it by neoliberalism, globalization, and financialization. That story is no more than one of a great many possible hypotheses about why the shift occurred. It should not be accepted as correct unless the preponderance of additional facts indicates that economic distress was the main cause of the shift.8
‟If economic distress had any effect at all, it made people more likely to vote for Trump’s main opponent.
However, they indicate that it was not. The controlled studies that have been conducted indicate that, if economic distress had any effect at all, it made people more likely to vote for Trump’s main opponent. The shift to Trump instead seems to have been due to some combination of racism, sexism, discontent with cultural change, anti-immigrant sentiment, and authoritarianism.

  • In a post-election analysis, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found that “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote For Trump.” There was a shift to Trump among whites without a college degree, but not because they tend to be lower-income. Once one controls for differences in education levels, “lower-income counties were no more likely to shift to Trump.” This fact alone strongly suggest that economic distress was not a driving force behind the shift to Trump.
  • Similarly, Stephen Clarke & Dan Tomlinson of the Resolution Foundation found that, although it initially appears that the shift to Trump was determined in part by income level and residence in a manufacturing area, these economic variables cease to be statistically significant predictors of the shift to Trump once one controls for level of education. What determined county-level differences in the extent of the shift to Trump were differences in education level, race, national origin, and age, not differences in these economic variables.9
  • Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell of the Gallup organization analyzed a massive dataset on Trump’s favorability ratings between July 2015 and October 2016. They found that, after controlling for the influence of other variables, Trump was more popular among more affluent people—even if one looks only at non-Hispanic whites. In addition, “[h]is supporters are less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time”; support for Trump is not substantially affected by one’s occupation; nor is it affected by being exposed to international-trade competition and job-competition with immigrants, which “make[s] it very unlikely that direct exposure to harm from globalization could be a causal factor in motivating large numbers of Trump’s supporters.”
  • Analyzing a post-election survey of more than 4000 people, Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel found that, after controlling for the influence of other relevant variables, there was “little evidence to suggest individual economic distress benefited Trump.” Nor did “economic anxiety” influence the election choices of white voters. In contrast, “racial attitudes towards blacks and immigration are the key factors associated with support for Trump.” Two of their three variables that measure different dimensions of “racial animus” are “significant predictors of Trump support among white respondents, independent of partisanship, ideology, education levels, and the other factors included in the model,” and they have a quite sizable influence on Trump support as well.
  • Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch, and Robert P. Jones analyzed attitudes to Trump among whites without college degrees. Their analysis was based on a large pre-election national survey and four post-election focus groups in Cincinnati. Contrary to the story that Trump’s election was driven by “economic distress,” they found that, once one controls for other relevant variables, “being in fair or poor financial shape actually predicted support for Hillary Clinton among white working-class Americans, rather than support for Donald Trump.” Those who said that their financial situation was fair or poor were almost twice as likely as other respondents to support Hillary Clinton. The factors that actually stood out as predictors of Trump support were identification with the Republican Party, feeling that the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence, feeling like a stranger in their own country, favoring the deportation of undocumented immigrants, and believing that “investment” in college education is a risky gamble.
  • Brian F. Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta sought to explain why support for Trump was substantially stronger among whites without college degrees than it was among whites with such degrees. Analyzing results of a YouGov survey conducted shortly before the election, they found that

    “very little of this gap can be explained by the economic difficulties faced by less educated whites. Rather, most of the divide appears to be the result of racism and sexism in the electorate, especially among whites without college degrees. Sexism and racism were powerful forces in structuring the 2016 presidential vote, even after controlling for partisanship and ideology”

    as well as age, income, gender, and race (pp. 24–25). (Furthermore, their “economic dissatisfaction” variable was based on answers to the question, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your overall economic situation?,” which is not really a measure of actual or even perceived economic well-being.
    10 It is arguable, especially in light of other research surveyed here, that the small portion of the gap in support for Trump that they attribute to “economic difficulties” might actually be attributable to “economic anxiety” rather than objective economic problems.)
  • Christopher Weber, Christopher Federico, and Stanley Feldman came to a similar conclusion. They analyzed survey data on more than 4000 voters, collected after the November 2016 general election. After controlling for the influence of education, income, age, gender, and religiosity, they found that a voter who scored “high” on a scale of authoritarian attitudes had a 79% chance of having voted for Trump, while those who scored “low” had only a 30% chance of having done so. This 49-point gap is much greater than the 34-point gap between high- and low-authoritarians’ chances of having voted for Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate for president, and almost double the 28-point gap between their chances of having voted for George W. Bush in 2000.

These studies do not add up to a single, unified explanation for why whites without college degrees were actually more likely to vote for Trump than for previous Republican presidential candidates. But the negative results are indeed univocal and unequivocal. Once the influence of other factors is controlled for, there is no evidence that the shift to Trump was a revolt of low-income voters or people exposed to competition from imports or immigrant workers.11

Trumpism is Wallace-ism Redux

Yet the strongest evidence that Trump’s electoral victory was not an uprising of the forgotten working class against economic distress brought about by neoliberalism and globalization is the evidence that Trumpism is a pre-existing condition. It has unfortunately been with us all along, as the resurgence of atavistic and revanchist white supremacism helps to make clear.

An examination of presidential campaigns of George Corley Wallace, the long-time authoritarian, racist, right-wing governor of Alabama makes it far clearer. Wallace ran for president three consecutive times between 1964 and 1972. This was well before neoliberalism, globalization, and financialization came along and allegedly pummeled the working class. Yet the messages and authoritarianism of his campaigns are eerily similar to Trump’s, as is the strong support he garnered in the North as well as the South––particularly in the industrial Midwest where the flip to Trump occurred last year.

Wallace became governor of Alabama in January, 1963. In his inaugural address––which was written by Asa Carter, who had started a paramilitary Ku Klux Klan organization in the mid-1950s, and left it only after shooting two other members in a dispute over finances––Wallace famously promised to fight for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Five months later, he stood in the doorway of a University of Alabama auditorium to prevent enrollment of its first Black students. These two events were the first to bring him widespread recognition, and tons of fan mail, outside the South.

The following year, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was in the process of getting the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress, Wallace decided to oppose him in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Although Johnson’s eventual nomination was assured, Wallace decided to run in select states outside the South—Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland—to demonstrate that his segregationist, “anti-elite,” and anti-Washington message was popular, not only in the South, but in the North as well.12

Wallace did surprising well in all three states. Even though Johnson was an incumbent president, and very popular (his approval rating at the time was close to 75%), Wallace received 34% of the vote in Wisconsin, 30% in Indiana, and 43% in Maryland against “surrogate” candidates standing in for Johnson.

It is important to note that Wisconsin is one of the three states in the Democratic “firewall” that flipped to Trump in 2016. And it, as well as Indiana, are in the industrial Midwest—which globalization and neoliberalism had not yet turned into a “Rustbelt.”

Martin Luther King commented that the results in Maryland showed that “segregation is a national and not a sectional problem.” Wallace swept all eight counties on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore. It was estimated that more than 90% of white voters there cast their votes for him. (In 2016, Trump received 65% of the Republican primary votes on the Eastern Shore, compared to 54% statewide. In the November general election, his overall vote share in Maryland was only 35%, but he received 57% on the Eastern Shore.) Wallace voters in Glen Burnie, a suburb of Baltimore, “went to the polls with big grins on their faces,” according to a local newspaper editor. “I never saw anything like it. They were going to show Uncle Sam that they had had it.”13

They had had it with what, exactly? Globalization, neoliberalism, and financialization that would not arrive on the scene for another decade or more? This was the heyday of Keynesian “fine tuning” of the economy.

In 1968, Wallace ran for president in the general election as a third-party candidate, against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, the vice-president. He received 14% of the vote, almost half of which came from outside the states that had been part of the Confederacy. Wallace might have performed even better had Nixon not co-opted his “law and order” message and his claim to be the candidate of “forgotten Americans,” in what Wallace biographer Dan T. Carter has described as “a desperate, undignified game of political catch-up.”14

Wallace once again competed as a Democrat in the 1972 presidential primaries. The battle against de jure segregation had by this time been lost, and Wallace did not try to revive it, but instead ran as an implacable opponent of efforts to achieve the integration of public schools through “forced busing.” In terms of the popular vote, the primary contest was a tight, three-way race between Wallace, Humphrey, and George McGovern, who ultimately secured the nomination. Humphrey obtained 26% of the nationwide popular vote; McGovern received 25%; and Wallace received 23%.15

Wallace ran in 17 of the 22 primaries held that year. He won five of them, and came in second in six others. As might be expected, he did very well in the South, winning primaries in all three southern states that held primaries––Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee––and pulling down an absolute majority of votes in the latter two.
‟What were these voters enraged about? Globalization, neoliberalism, and financialization had not yet arrived on the scene.
Yet Wallace also performed remarkably well outside the South. He won primaries in Michigan—where he again received an absolute majority—and Maryland. He came in second in Indiana, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.16

Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are the three Democratic “firewall” states that flipped to Trump in 2016. And they, as well as Indiana and West Virginia, are part of the “Rustbelt.” This was 1972, however, before globalization and “neoliberalism”; the region was not yet a Rustbelt. Nonetheless, Wallace won a majority of votes in one of these five states and placed second in the other four.

Writing in 1996, Wallace biographer Dan T. Carter remarked that “Wallace, more than any other political figure of the 1960s and early 1970s, sensed the frustrations—the rage—of many American voters, made commonplace a new level of political incivility and intemperate rhetoric, and focused that anger upon a convenient set of scapegoats.”17 What were these voters enraged about? Globalization, neoliberalism, and financialization had not yet arrived on the scene.

For a few examples of the political incivility, intemperate rhetoric, and anger to which Carter refers, consider the following Trump-like moments of Wallace’s campaigning. During the 1964 primaries, 1000 supporters—and about 75 protesters—showed up to hear Wallace speak in Serb Memorial Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (which seated 600). The band played “Swanee River,” an infamous racist minstrel song, and the audience sang the Confederate anthem “Dixie” in English and Polish. The man who introduced Wallace, Bronko Gruber, singled out the only members of the audience who didn’t have the “cordiality to stand up” during the national anthem, “these two colored gentlemen here.” The crowd hissed and booed. Another Black protester, a minister, then shouted “Get your dogs out,” referring to a tactic used by Southern police to intimidate civil rights’ protesters. “I’ll tell you something about your dogs, padre,” Gruber replied. “[T]hree weeks ago tonight a friend of mine was assaulted by three of your countrymen or whatever you want to call them.” As the audience urged him on, Gruber continued, “They beat up old ladies, 83 years old, they rape our women folk, how long can we tolerate this?” Wallace said nothing about these comments.18

This behavior persisted. At a rally in Tennessee during the 1968 race, Wallace famously declared, “If some anarchist lies down in front of my automobile, it will be the last automobile he will ever lie down in front of.” New Republic columnist T.R.B. [Richard Strout] described a Wallace rally at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, shortly before that year’s election, as follows: “There is menace in the blood shout of the crowd. You feel you have known this all somewhere; never again will you read about Berlin in the ‘30s without remembering this wild confrontation.”19 When protesters interrupted this rally, Wallace said: “We don’t have riots in Alabama. They start a riot down there, first one of ’em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that’s all.”20

Unlike Trump, Wallace did not succeed in becoming president. But how well might he have done in 1972 if he had not been burdened with certain disadvantages compared to Trump? What if he had had the advantage of not being a professional politician? The advantage of billions of dollars of his own money, to demonstrate that he could not be “bought”? What if he had been a TV star with 100% name recognition? What if he had had 24/7 media attention and assistance from right-wing and fake news like Trump enjoyed?

And what if he had run as a Republican? This was the main thing that was new about the 2016 election. The Trumpite base is not new––it is not a reaction to neoliberalism, globalization, and financialization. It is a pre-existing condition, as the look back at Wallace’s campaigns has shown. But until 2016, mainstream Republicans managed to retain control of their party, by making concessions to this base and placating it with racist and misogynistic “dog whistles.” In 2016, however, mainstream Republicans lost control. The base was allowed, for the first time, to vote for a Trump, not a mainstream Republican, in the general election. And thus the base wrongly seems––on the surface––to have emerged from out of nowhere, and to be a reaction to recent economic changes.

Lessons from Marx

Marx’s response to the threat of white nationalism (upon which I elaborate much more in the complete version of this essay) was very different from that of much of the “left” today. The basic response of the anti-neoliberal “left” is consonant with its overall orientation, which can be called “Left First.” Its primary concern is to “build the left” and win victories—elections, campaigns, adherents, power––for itself. Accordingly, it regards common people as a “constituency” to win over in its quest for political power. And it seemingly has no compunction about winning them over by “meet[ing] them where they are at.”21 Thus, it offers an alternative version of “populism” that (it hopes) the authoritarian white-nationalist base that supports Trump, Le Pen, et al. will find appealing.

To be sure, the “Left First” types do not endorse explicit appeals to white-nationalist sentiments. Their words carefully condemn racism, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. The problem is rather that they seek to win over the authoritarian white-nationalist base by offering one or another “positive program” that does not fight the base’s authoritarianism, racism, sexism, and xenophobia etc. head on.
‟Marx did not merely decry white nationalism; he sought to defeat it.
This approach is especially dangerous at this moment in history, because it normalizes Trumpism. It treats Trumpism, not as a threat and abomination that must be eliminated, but as a legitimate rival for the allegiance of the “white working class.” It seeks to out-compete its rival on the basis of an alternative-but-comparable “positive program.” This is also the approach encoded in the Democratic Party’s new “A Better Deal” economic program. The program rails against Wall Street, “[s]pecial interests, lobbyists, and large corporations,” while literally saying nothing against Trumpism or against xenophobia, racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.

Marx’s aim was to encourage the “independent movement of the workers” toward human emancipation, not to further the interests of “the left,” he did not pander to white-nationalist sentiments within the working class. On the contrary, he regarded white nationalism and ethnic nationalism as crucial barriers to the emancipatory self-development of the class. They impeded international and interracial working-class solidarity, and they were also contrary to the interests of white workers in the US and native workers in England. White- and ethnic-nationalist attitudes among these workers induced them to identify with “their” ruling classes, which enabled the latter to restrain and control them.

Marx did not merely decry white nationalism; he sought to defeat it. He called for and worked for the defeat of the Confederacy in the US Civil War, and the defeat of England in its effort to preserve its rule over Ireland, largely because of the damage that this would do to white- and ethnic-English nationalism. He anticipated that the defeats of the South and England would deal a strong blow against the supremacist attitudes of many white and English workers, and a strong blow against their identification with the ruling classes of “their” nation or race.

Time is running dangerously short. Trump wields enormous power, and he may well do unprecedented and irreversible harm to human civilization if given the chance. Compromises with white nationalism, disregard for its dangers, and abstract rhetoric about inter-racial and inter-national unity are not solutions; they have contributed to the crisis we now face. The time is now to reclaim the revolutionary humanism of Marx’s struggle against white nationalism. We must decisively defeat Trumpism and other manifestations of far-right xenophobia and racism––and soon. Their defeat is in the interest of all humanity. Not least, it is in the interest of the white-nationalist base that Trump has in his grip. Only the defeat of Trumpism can free it from his grip and help redirect it away from white nationalism, and onto the path of independent emancipatory self-activity.


1 I refer to the “so-called white working class” because this statistical category actually refers to whites without four-year college degrees. Thus, thus definition of “working class” includes business owners and other non-workers, while excluding the tens of millions of proletarians in the US­­––in education, healthcare, sales, clerical, and other occupations––who do have four-year college degrees.

2 I am using the term white nationalist to refer to the ideology of people like Trump, Steve Bannon, and Pat Buchanan, and not only neo-Nazis and members of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. In an important recent essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls Trump “the first white president” and writes that “his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

3 By anti-neoliberal “left,” I do not mean those opposed to neoliberalism—which no one on the left supports—but tendencies that oppose neoliberalism while shirking from opposition to capitalism in all of its forms, especially tendencies that seek to make common cause with the far right, celebrate the rising popularity of reactionary alternatives to neoliberalism as a progressive blow struck by the working class, and/or regard neoliberalism as the main enemy.

4 Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, “Distributional National Accounts: Methods and Estimates for the United States,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 22945, Dec. 2016, p. 32.

5 Ibid., p. 33. The statistics cited by Johnston are likewise seriously affected by their failure to count tax-exempt income.

6 Ibid., Appendix 2, Table C3b. For the 1967–2014 period to which Johnston referred, Piketty, Saez, and Zucman’s figures indicate that, after inflation, the per-person income of the bottom 90% of the population rose by 60%. For the middle 40% of the population, the rise was 67%; for the bottom half, the rise was 47%.

7 Ibid., p. 42, Table 1 (top graph).

8 Actually, even that would be insufficient. The facts would have to indicate that the revolt was against economic distress caused by neoliberalism, globalization, and financialization––which is highly unlikely, since these processes have been taking place for several decades, while the shift in the vote of non-college-educated whites was sudden. Why haven’t they been voting to topple the “neoliberal world order” all along?

9 They also found that county-level differences in labor-force participation had a statistically significant effect, but only in “battleground states,” and that recent changes in labor-force participation were not a statistically significant predictor of a shift in support for Trump.

10 Some people might say that they are dissatisfied because, even though they currently do not face serious economic problems, they wish that they were even better off or they are worried about the future.

11 After this essay was completed, yet another study was published that lends additional support to this conclusion.

12 During the period in which Wallace ran for president, 1964–72, the major parties’ nominating systems were very different from those in effect today. Party officials and elected delegates played a much larger role in choosing the nominee; there were relatively few primaries and caucuses in which voters (in effect) directly vote for presidential candidates. In 1964, there were only 17 primaries; in 1972, there were 22.

13 Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics, 2d ed. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2000), p. 215; Kenneth D. Durr, Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980 (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 125.

14 Dan T. Carter, “Legacy of Rage: George Wallace and the Transformation of American Politics, Journal of Southern History 62:1, Feb. 1996, p. 9.

15 The earlier front-runner, Edmund Muskie, ran a distant fourth, getting 12% of the popular vote, and dropped out of the race early.

16 His shares of the vote in the states mentioned were: Tennessee, 68%; Michigan, 51%; North Carolina, 50%; Florida, 42%; Indiana, 41%; Maryland, 39%; West Virginia, 33%; New Mexico, 29%; Wisconsin, 22%; Pennsylvania, 21%; and Oregon, 20%. Wallace also won the Texas caucus, coming away with 43% of its pledged delegates.

17 Dan T. Carter, “Legacy of Rage: George Wallace and the Transformation of American Politics, Journal of Southern History 62:1, Feb. 1996, p. 6.

18 For fuller accounts of this meeting, see Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics, 2d ed. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2000, pp. 206–8, and Matthew J. Prigge, “Dixie North: George Wallace and the 1964 Wisconsin Presidential Primary,” Shepherd Express, Dec. 22, 2015.

19 [Richard Strout,] “T.R.B. From Washington,” New Republic, Nov. 9, 1968, p. 4. See also Michael A. Cohen, “Trump Rally Oozes Fear, Anxiety, and Paranoia,” Boston Globe, Apr. 7, 2016; Cohen writes that he “immediately thought” of Strout’s account of the Wallace rally when he attended a Trump rally on Long Island, New York, last year.

20 Bill Barrow, “Are there echoes of George Wallace in Trump’s message?,” PBS Newshour, March 24, 2016.

21 “Socialist Alternative used what we call ‘the transitional method’: We connect with the consciousness of everyday people, meet them where they are at, ….” Ramy Khalil, “How a Socialist Won––Lessons from Kshama Sawant’s Historic Victory,” Socialist Alternative, Jan. 31, 2014, .


Stay Updated

to SE's weekly
e-mail update


Also Read


more current affairs

more unequal world

more big banks

more economics (the science)

more ideals

more marx

more 1917-1989

Exploring alternatives.

Is SE "socialist"? SE is not anything, except
convinced of the need for a fundamental, global,
open debate about capitalism and possible fair,
egalitarian, democratic and greener alternatives,
from an economic perspective.

Read more about SE here.



SE welcomes your submissions.

Your analyses of past or present economic issues.

Your visions for a better economic future.

See how to submit here.

SE is a platform, open to a diversity of views from thinkers from across the globe.
Views expressed in articles on SE do not necessarily reflect the views of SE's editors.