Keep me in your heart: Race and class politics in the Trump era
People in the audience hold up signs as President Donald Trump speaks at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pa., April, 29, 2017. Some academics are beginning to seriously study the fascination some white Americans have with "Trump's fascist rhetoric," and how, in the face of intensifying exploitation, they are looking to Trump "the boss" to save them. | Carolyn Kaster / AP

Idiomatic expressions by their nature are difficult to pin down. They point to intended meaning but depend mostly on the hearer or reader to construct a definition from context. But meanings aren’t arbitrary, and they depend on the contested and conflicted sociality of language.

This linguistic dynamic holds for the expression “heart of America.” That idiom is in the subtitle of a new book by sociologist Jennifer M. Silva, titled, We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America. The book’s goal is to explain the “puzzle” of working-class politics, or why the working-class, in part, seems to support the authoritarian philosophy of the Trump administration.

Consider: The heart of America implies something definable and knowable about the two objects presented in the phrase. “America” seems obvious. It refers to a place, a country, usually by the political name of the United States of America.

But, many critical voices challenge this conflation of America with the U.S., pointing instead to its contested history, replete with genocide, slavery, brutal war, class exploitation, and imperialism. What Mexican-American author José Orduña calls, in his book The Weight of Shadows, “our foundational violence.” Foundational in the sense that it is continuously the starting point, repeatedly, for constructing Americanness in a particular way.

The U.S. Constitution supposedly created a democratic, representative, and liberal set of freedoms. The framers, however, crafted many of its provisions to defend slavery and genocide, as historian Gerald Horne writes in his books The Counterrevolution of 1776 and The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism. These atrocities had become imperatives for capitalist development and territorial expansion.

While some people usually regard the political system as a democratic one, it is also accurately characterized as corrupt and dominated by the 1%. (Although saying that can earn one the label of being unpatriotic.) America’s economic system is called a “free market.” But it is defined by worker exploitation, oligarchy, environmental waste, racist and gendered income and wealth inequalities, and corrupt, inefficient corporations that control most political processes.

America furthermore means more than the United States. A name derived from its colonialist history, America may refer to the entire Western Hemisphere and its peoples. The narrowest usage of the term America typically betrays willful indifference to the existence, histories, and cultures of most inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, including the descendants of the Indigenous, enslaved people, and migrants. The political and economic interests of corporations whose power emanates from the U.S. and the comprador classes govern many Western Hemispheric countries.

At bottom, America is a place saturated with contradiction. A never-perfected (dis)union of geographies, cultures, peoples, and social classes; lands of white colonial settlement, white supremacy, and cultural oppression. A site, too, of anti-colonial struggle, anti-racist insurgency, and revolutionary consciousness.

So, what does it mean to be at the “heart” of this place?

A quick look at an online list of 70 American-English idiomatic expressions that use the word “heart” reveals that it tends to mean something like a site of one’s authenticity, honesty, integrity, love, emotion, fervency, compassion, courage, romantic love, one’s feelings. Spatially, we use it to mean a center or fountainhead of passion, meaning, values, and essential humanity.

In this May 2, 2019, file photo a worker arrives for his shift at the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa. | Gene J. Puskar / AP

When we “get to the heart of the matter,” we speak of a place of origin, authentic meaning, the truth about a situation. When something is “in our heart,” we mean that it has a deep, compelling value and worth in the meaning of our lives. When we talk about a “heartland,” we likely mean the place of the original identity, the place where you can find those who are the original people of that culture. When we “heart” something, we mean that we love it, identify our interests, goals, culture, and sense of worth with that thing. When something is felt “deep in my heart,” it means that truth beyond the surface is felt rather than rationally known. The heart is an instrument more powerful than logic in discerning truth.

Silva’s phrase “in the heart of America,” then, locates her research findings in the space of a merged emotional center, original identity and authenticity, and fundamental truths about America. Because America is more than the geography of the U.S., I argue that meaning is implicit in her words, even if she doesn’t intend it.

The full subtitle is “Pain and Politics in the Heart of America.” Pain in one’s heart references a deep wounding, possibly life-threatening, but perhaps of such emotional effect as to render permanent the disruption of bonds of friendship, love, or even kinship. I will return to the political dimension indicated in the subtitle shortly.

The main title, “We’re Still Here,” an utterance from a working-class person, stakes a rhetorical claim to endurance and resilience, despite the pain experienced at the heart of America.

In her opening chapter, Silva describes her methodology for this study as a fluid one. She had intended to study white working-class views of Donald Trump in the campaign season before the 2016 election. She focused her research on a community in the southern portion of Pennsylvania, which she labels “Coal Brook,” to hide the identities of her interviewees. She claims, however, that she struggled “finding people who felt strongly enough about politics to fully identify with a political party or advocate for specific policy platforms.” So, her research agenda shifted.

Evidently, reality forced her to reconsider the media and political stereotype that equates “the working class” with white people or the equally distorted distinction between “the working class” and low-wage workers. In this vein, Carmen Rojas, the founder of The Workers’ Lab, has argued, “The caricature is a blue-jeans wearing, Harley Davidson riding, white man who has a job his dad and granddad once had. This ‘working man,’ as he’s often portrayed in the media coverage he gets, feels left behind, misunderstood, and angry because he can’t go anywhere without hearing a language other than English and can’t turn on the TV without Black and Latinx faces overwhelming his options.” The frequent association of the white working class exclusively with small towns and rural communities adds a further distortion of reality.

As it turns out, none of Silva’s interviewees were coal miners. And, while the surrounding area once employed 175,000 coal miners, since the 1970s, it has become a collection of abandoned mines with only a handful of workers still associated with that industry. Further, as she notes, in the past decade, “rising housing costs, poverty, and crime have pushed black and Latino people out of urban economies and into the coal region.”

Instead of finding some realistic correspondence to the white male miner stereotype, Silva spoke with people who hold a variety of jobs, educational statuses, income brackets, genders, ethnic and racial identities, political beliefs, and relationships to the concept of the “heart of America.” Many white people, who had made this place like “Alabama without the blacks,” felt threatened by the demographic changes. Change threatened their claim on white racial exceptionalism and identity as the working class “in the heart of America.”

This threat produced an emotional response articulated as loss and being “left behind.” It fueled resonance with Trump’s racially coded slogans and demands such as “Make America Great Again,” a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and restrictions on migration from non-white and majority Islamic countries. Trump’s rhetoric seemed to align with prior equations of crime and disorder with people of color encoded in the assertion that “Blue Lives Matter.” This transitional period represented a new landscape in Southern Pennsylvania politics, which had just a few years back tended to support Democratic candidates actively.

Economic change does lie at the heart of these big political shifts to the authoritarianism and racism of the Trump campaign. Larger numbers of non-white, working-class people in their midst, however, served most to disrupt white self-identifications with the media stereotype. Indeed, Silva’s evidence reveals that many whites had (perhaps reluctantly) accepted the exchange of economic insecurity for the psychological comfort of white racial exceptionalism. White emotional affiliations with a caricature of the hard-working white person recall W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of a “psychological wage of whiteness.”

Class politics in a multi-racial society, by their nature and by all rational logic, require a political and cultural identification with other people from racial and ethnic communities based on the work they do and their relation to the boss and to capital. As Silva writes, borrowing from the Marxist cultural historian E.P. Thompson, social class as a political identity, is neither “automatic” nor something to “be assumed in advance.” Rather than a “response to sharing the same education level, income bracket, or job,” it is a process of constructing, contesting, and remaking a collective identity “through concrete social relationships that generate values, traditions, and shared interests.”

In other words, organized action, community building, and struggle produce a politicized class identity.

She writes that the new political terrain represented by support for Trump indicates that “class is not ‘happening’ as it used to.” This is an insightful remark. It links a shift in class politics to the emergence of a significant fracture in class identity and action in the region that is new, perhaps within the last decade. It suggests attempting to associate this fracture solely with structural changes, such as the decline of coal, manufacturing, unionization rates, or of the emergence of neoliberalism, would be flawed and partial.

What it indicates rather is something potentially more disturbing. If the process of class identity formation has shifted in the past decade, it suggests that class had been made and remade in ways that seemed to uphold racial/gendered pieces of the working-class caricature. Indeed, that this caricature was identified with Democratic Party politics in Southern Pennsylvania suggests a disastrous association of white males as icons of Democratic Party working-class politics up to the Trump era. Silva shows that this iconic association made voting for Hillary Clinton far too hard.

Hundreds of miners watch as AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, along with 30 other protesters, is arrested for non-violent civil disobedience following a UMWA rally for fair pay and benefits for active and retired miners at Patriot Coal in July 2013. A decline in unionization, which often fostered multi-racial class alliances, has meant too many white people are turning to race as a marker of their identity. | Tammy Shriver / Times West Virginian via AP

Any way you skin this cat, the evidence shows that many people, in the worst traditions of America’s foundational violence, had constructed a working-class identity that rested primarily on their whiteness. Instead of a democratic alliance of all people aiming to claim power over their lives and communities in the face of corporate dominance, environmental disaster, and rampant economic exploitation, many whites seem to want tight control over the advantages of being a white person. The seeming loss of these feels like the worst disaster, the beginning of the decline of our country.

As a result of apparent trends such as this, researchers have begun to talk about white Americans’ fascination with “Trump’s fascist rhetoric,” as political scientist William E. Connolly argued in a recent study of similarities between Trump’s and Hitler’s leadership styles. Philosopher Samir Gandesha pointed to an increase in popular “identification with the aggressor” among white Americans as a component of the authoritarian personality now apparently more visible in American society. Anthropologist Gregory Duff Morton linked popular acceptance of Trump as “the boss” to emergent structural changes in the economy that have intensified exploitation for workers.

Since altered racial demographics have challenged the caricature of white working-class identity, a rupture in political identities occurred. This crisis shows that the decline in unionization, especially one focused on organizing a multi-racial alliance, has left the ground open for such a disastrous turn of events. It also shows that racism won’t let us put into our heart of hearts the people who should mean the most to us: those who share our struggles, our workspaces, our aspirations for a fully democratic and equal society, our love for hard work as a source of meaning for our lives, our belief that we, together, all of us, make the world every day through our joint labor and deserve to control its future.

We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America

Jennifer M. Silva

Oxford University Press, 2019, 224pp., $24.95


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).