We Need To Talk About Poor White Folks (And Why They Are The Way They Are)

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Kent Nishimura/Getty

Donald Trump won the presidency on the backs of people he’s abused: poor white folks. He’s slashed taxes on wealthy Americans while trying to deny health care to as many as 20 million low income Americans. According to Time Magazine, he’s also hurt protections against predatory lenders and limited access to food stamps. He’s made it harder to close ailing for-profit colleges. But he touts himself as a man of the people, of someone who’s on their (i.e., the white Republican) side, despite his history as a bankrupt millionaire and cruel reality TV star.

So why do these people love him enough to form an insurrection and storm the U.S. Capitol with zip ties and a fake gallows on his marching orders?

Poor Whites Think Hard Work Gets Rewarded

Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Our Puritan heritage lingers. America, we’re taught, is a meritocracy: men who work hard can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, Horatio Alger-style. Hard work is always rewarded. This is key. If you’re poor, you’re one of two things:

  1. You’ve worked hard, and there’s an excuse you haven’t been rewarded. You haven’t received your just due.
  2. You’re lazy.

To poor whites, it’s a cornerstone of the American Dream: work hard, and you’ll have more than your parents did. Right? And if you work hard and you’re not rewarded, there has to be an excuse. There are lots of easy excuses, and Trump’s good at spewing them: immigrants, who poor whites see in their own towns. Immigrants are a great scapegoat, because they’re outsiders. Marauding Black Lives Matters protesters causing mayhem: another great scapegoat, another outsider poor whites might see in their own towns. Trump takes poor whites’ rage at not earning their just reward and twists it: against trans people, against Muslims, against liberals of all stripes.

They are against you. They want to take things from you, like your guns, your votes, your jobs. Like your heritage, your freedom, your country.

And these poor whites, who have had so much taken from them already (they think) — they take this narrative and swallow it whole. They need a channel for their rage, and Trump offers it.

But If You Have Money, You Deserve It

On the flipside, if a person has wealth, money, or privilege, they’ve therefore earned it and deserve admiration. Even people who aren’t white get this type of admiration. Think about Oprah: she might not be white, but white people like her, because she has money and influence. There’s a sense that she earned it and is more deserving than others who have not acquired her wealth. Kanye, Beyoncé — remember the SNL skit The Day Beyoncé Turned Black?

Donald Trump has money, or had it before he declared bankruptcy. At some point in time. Loosely. However, he did star on “The Apprentice,” and fame counts as a kind of success in itself (see Oprah, etc.). Trump owns famous buildings like Trump Tower in New York and Mar-a-Lago; he owned a casino/boardwalk in Atlantic City (he’s still strongly associated with the city itself).

Nevermind that Donald Trump was born into wealth. To poor whites, having wealth and influence connotes a kind of moral rightness. If he has it, he worked hard to get it. This isn’t because they’re dumb. They believe this because they believe in a narrative, a story, in which hard work is always rewarded, and those with that reward (money and influence) must have worked hard to get it. He makes a good character in their story: a representative of the “real America.”

Here’s why: the “real America” works hard, and they get their just reward. Donald Trump? He claims he worked hard, invested his money in all that real estate (he doesn’t mention that he didn’t pay his contractors), and made millions. That’s the “real America” narrative that poor whites want to believe in. Donald Trump delivers.

Look, Don’t Call Them Poor

Moreover, as @jpbrammer says in a Facebook repost by American Reformers, being poor is often seen as deeply shameful. The poor “don’t base their identity on it,” he says, because to do so would be to base their identity on something that America, as a whole, looks down upon. So the poor will do anything to make it seem as if they are not poor.



In an article in Inesad, “Masking Poverty: Why Poor People Like To Appear Rich,” Carolynn Look points out that, “Vexed by financial worries and trying to avoid humiliation by their society, poor people might sometimes make financial decisions that don’t make sense at first glance.” But in a “judgmental society” where poor people are “looked down on and disrespected,” appearing rich can save face and self esteem.

In other words, it’s more important to many poor whites to have that brand new phone that middle or upper class people have. Poor whites “want to be taken seriously,” and they see that leased BMW or purse flashing a conspicuous designer name as a way to do it.

Remember that hard work ethos? If you’re poor, you’re lazy. You didn’t work hard enough. So you’re not poor: you’re what @jpbrammer calls “a temporarily embarrassed millionaire.” Donald Trump, a (once) millionaire, is like you.


A poor white man might think, if I didn’t have these barriers in front of me, these immigrants taking my job, that affirmative action that favors Black people, I could save some money, maybe invest in some real estate, and I could be like him. Poor whites identify with Trump in a way they don’t identify with Joe Biden. Trump is truly a man of the people: in a sense that white people, especially cis white heterosexual men, want to believe that they can be Trump.

They can’t. They never will. But they cling to that belief.

Poor Whites Gain More From Trump Than Money

Imagine if BIPOC and poor white laborers threw their lot in together (also known as a “union”) and together fought big business. Big business would have to listen. W.E.B. Du Bois said that throwing Black and white labor into one class would “precipitate a united fight for higher wages and better working conditions,” quotes Politico. But here’s the problem. Whites would have to work with BIPOC. They would lose their superior social status, which, if you’re doubting they have it, here’s an illuminating clip:

So poor whites are paid in more than just wages. They’re also paid in social status: they’re less likely to be shot by the police. They can more openly carry guns. Their children, on the whole, enjoy better educational opportunities.

Politico points out as well that the housing industry, for example, by providing whites with better mortgages than BIPOC, perpetuate myths that white people are more industrious and able to afford better housing. When BIPOC are then pushed into sub-standard housing, it confirms a poor white bias that they prefer to live that way.

If ingrained institutional racism forces BIPOC into less prestigious jobs and hence make them poorer as a group, poor whites see them as less industrious and lazy (remember, hard work gets rewarded! If you’re poor, you’re lazy!).

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Donald Trump might screw poor whites over in a monetary sense. But he also offers poor white people the scapegoat they desperately want, a group lower than they are. They aren’t the bottom of the heap. They have status. They have power. They will cling to that power, i.e., institutionalized racism, because it gives them a sense of agency, however small. We are in, and they are out. We are the real America.

Poor Whites Have Tangled Up the American Dream and Capitalism

Why have poor whites voted for Trump? A poisonous narrative that tangles up an impossible American meritocracy with capitalism: if you work hard, you get money and social status. Donald Trump is the hero of their story. But he stands on a stage and says: I understand your dreams have been stolen. And the dreams must have been stolen, because as @jpbrammer says, if the dreams have not been taken by these others (BIPOC, liberals), if there are no excuses, poor whites are “neither hardworking nor clever.” Their narrative has been destroyed. Their story is wrong.

We cling to our stories.

Trump Focuses Their Anger

Poor whites have a lot to be angry about. They think that their jobs are disappearing, as their wage disparities are increasing. Certain news outlets play into their narrative of hard work, victimization, and racism, and it’s comforting to hear those narratives echoed back. Yes, they think, we were right. We are right and good and this Trump guy, he knows it. He sees that we are right and good and he’s going to take back America for us, oh yes he will, the real America.

This isn’t because poor whites are somehow stupid. This is because we all want to hear that the stories we believe about ourselves are right. We want someone to look at us and say yes, you are telling the truth, I believe you, and we will work together to give you what you deserve. An ugly stew of meritocracy, poverty-shaming, and racism has woven together to create a treasonous insurrection in the heart of the U.S. Capitol. We can only pray that was the last gasp of a dying movement, a story that, if it continues, can only end in more disaster and division.

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