From the era of slavery to the rise of Donald Trump, wealthy elites have relied on the loyalty of poor whites. All Americans deserve better.
I’m just a poor white trash motherfucker. No one cares about me.
met the man who said those words while working as a bartender in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas. It was a one-street town in Benton County. It had a beauty parlor, a gas station, and a bar where locals came on Friday nights to shoot the shit over cheap drinks and country music. I arrived in Arkansas by way of another little town in Louisiana, where all but a few local businesses had boarded up when Walmart moved in. In Arkansas, I was struggling to survive. I served drinks in the middle of the afternoon to people described as America’s “white underclass” — in other words, people just like me.
Across the highway from the bar was the trailer park where I lived. I bought my trailer for $1000, and it looked just like you would imagine a trailer that cost $1000 would look. There was a big hole in the ceiling, and parts of the floor were starting to crumble under my feet. It leaned to one side, and the faint odor of death hung around the bathroom. No doubt a squirrel or a rat had died in the walls. I told myself that once the flesh was gone, dissolved into the nothingness, the smell would go away, but it never did. Maybe that’s what vermin ghosts smell like.
I loved that trailer. Sitting in a ratty brown La-Z-Boy, I would look around my tin can and imagine all the ways I could paint the walls in shades of possibility. I loved it for the simple reason that it was the first and only home I have ever owned.
My trailer was parked in the middle of Walmart country, which is also home to J.B. Hunt Transportation, Glad Manufacturing, and Tyson Chicken. There is a whole lot of money in that pocket of Arkansas, but the grand wealth casts an oppressive shadow over a region entrenched in poverty. Executive mansions line the lakefronts and golf courses. On the other side of Country Club Road, trailer parks are tucked back in the woods. The haves and have-nots rarely share the same view, with one exception: politics. Benton County has been among the most historically conservative counties in Arkansas. The last Democratic president Benton County voted for was Harry S. Truman, in 1948.
There is an unavoidable question about places like Benton County, a question many liberals have tried to answer for years now: Why do poor whites vote along the same party lines as their wealthy neighbors across the road? Isn’t that against their best interests?
Ask a Republican, and they’ll probably say conservatives are united by shared positions on moral issues: family values, religious freedom, the right to life, the sanctity of marriage, and, of course, guns.
Ask a Democrat the same question, and they might mention white privilege, but they’re more likely to describe conservatives as racist, sexist, homophobic gun nuts who believe Christianity should be the national religion.
But what if those easy answers are two sides of the same political coin, a coin that keeps getting hurled back and forth between the two parties without ever shedding light on the real, more complicated truth?