it's complicated

Actually, don’t just blame poor white people for Trump

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The liberal backlash against everyone who voted for President-elect Donald Trump has begun, but it’s not being directed at the right people. After it became clear Trump would be the next president of the United States, common refrains among white liberals in my inbox and on social media included: “I hate white people” and “I’m sorry on behalf of white people.”

But which white people were they apologizing for? Yes, whites are responsible for the outcome of this election, but I’ve noticed a special hatred reserved specifically for the poor white working class—and it didn’t start on Election Day.

Trump and his elite cronies are to blame for fanning the flames of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny, and so are affluent white Americans who don’t seem as openly inflammatory. Indeed, during the primaries, the median household income of a Trump supporter was $72,000; that’s higher than the median income of a Hillary Clinton supporter at $61,000 and much higher than the national median household income of $56,000. In addition, 49% of college-educated whites voted for Trump.

During this election cycle, however, Trump supporters were exclusively portrayed by images of angry white working-class mobs—not white men in suits or white college-educated soccer moms (the kind many white liberals live next door to). We never heard about dinner conversations between suburban white Wisconsinites who quietly condoned angry pro-Trump supporters. Instead, unkempt white men draped in American and Confederate flags at Republican rallies were plastered on cable news, day and night. The only Trump supporters visible in the media were poor working-class white people, but they weren’t the only ones who tipped this election in his favor.

Trump won the votes of 49% of Americans who make between $200,000 and $249,999, and 48% of those who make $250,000 or more—bigger shares of the vote than Clinton received. And let’s be clear: White people make a shitload more money than Americans of color. So, this unchecked liberal anger towards the poor white working class only serves to divert attention away from whites with money.

Such people don’t need to be at Trump rallies. They don’t fear for their livelihood because they’re comfortable. Many middle-class and rich white Trump voters are only preoccupied with holding on to their power and money.

Trump supporters were exclusively portrayed by images of angry white working-class mobs.

Since Reconstruction, poor working-class white people have been exploited by rich whites. After slavery ended, alliances were made between black Americans (who’d just gained freedom) and poor whites (who were also at the mercy of rich white landowners).

“After [the] Civil War, we see black and white non-elites saying, ‘We do have things in common,’” Jacqueline Jones, chair of the University of Texas at Austin’s history department, told me. “And there was this moment—it was right after the [Civil] War and subsequent moments, as well throughout [the] 19th century—where black people and white [people] realized their interests were the same, and the political landscape is dominated by white landowners [who] wanted to wring resources from black[s] and white[s] alike.”

For this reason, the rise of Trumpism and the election results bear a strong resemblance to the rise of white nationalism in 19th-century America. By pitting poor white people and black people against each other, using the cloak of racism, rich whites thwarted a possible alliance between the two groups based on fighting wealth inequality (an issue central to former Democratic presidential nominee and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ platform). In suggesting that America is being taken away from its rightful owners—that is, white people—Trump succeeded in diverting white anger towards people of color.

But I’m not absolving poor white working-class Americans who voted for Trump, or underestimating their intelligence by saying they didn’t know what they were doing. A vote is a vote. But the pummeling of the poor white working class by liberal white elites is too reductive, too simplistic. In Trump, poor working-class whites saw a man who wanted to pull them out of poverty, while rich whites saw a man who would keep them rich. Both groups are responsible, here.

This is as much a condemnation of white liberal anger as it is an olive branch to the poor white working class, so, white liberals: Please get on board.