One of the great conceits of conservative punditry over the past 15 years has been the notion that American politics is dominated by affluent liberal snobs who disdain white working-class America and its communities. Typically, arguments in this vein — like recent pieces from Charles Murray and Clive Crook — do not adduce specific evidence of such snobbish disdain but merely assert its existence via broad generalities.
But now that white working-class voters are beginning to unsettle the conservative political establishment by flocking to Donald Trump, some conservative pundits are unleashing sentiments about white working-class communities that are a good deal more vicious than snobbish disdain.
National Review's Kevin Williamson, for example, writes that "the truth about these dysfunctional downscale communities is that they deserve to die":
Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
David French, also of National Review, backs up Williamson using less colorful language but in some ways makes an even more explosive charge — that conservatives should regard economically struggling white people in rural communities in the same way they regard economically struggling black people living in inner-city communities:
For generations, conservatives have rightly railed against deterministic progressive notions that put human choices at the mercy of race, class, history, or economics. Those factors can create additional challenges, but they do not relieve any human being of the moral obligation to do their best.
Yet millions of Americans aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying. As I’ve related before, my church in Kentucky made a determined attempt to reach kids and families that were falling between the cracks, and it was consistently astounding how little effort most parents and their teen children made to improve their lives. If they couldn’t find a job in a few days — or perhaps even as little as a few hours — they’d stop looking. If they got angry at teachers or coaches, they’d drop out of school. If they fought with their wife, they had sex with a neighbor. And always — always — there was a sense of entitlement.
And that’s where disability or other government programs kicked in. They were there, beckoning, giving men and women alternatives to gainful employment. You don’t have to do any work (your disability lawyer does all the heavy lifting), you make money, and you get drugs. At our local regional hospital, it’s become a bitter joke the extent to which the community is hooked on "Xanatab" — the Xanax and Lortab prescriptions that lead to drug dependence.
These are politically explosive thoughts because the basic political reality is that Republicans rely on heavy majorities among white working-class voters to win elections. Back in 2012, 62 percent of non-college white people voted for Mitt Romney — a larger majority than the GOP got with better-educated whites, only 56 percent of whom backed him. The good news for Barack Obama was that only 57 percent of non-college white people voted at all, a far lower percentage than college graduate whites or African Americans. The great conservative hope for 2016 was to reactivate those "missing white voters" — voters who, it turns out, like Trumpism more than they like conventional conservatism.
Now the reality is it's quite true that what Trump is selling is not going to do much to help the communities in question. Trump is not a responsible or sophisticated thinker about public policy.
But these are essays making the case that suffering white working-class communities don't deserve help of any kind. That's a correct application of the strict principles of free market ideology, but it's also a signpost of how American political discourse has changed since the end of the Cold War. If you said in 1966, or even 1986, "Well, strict application of free market principles implies the death of a huge number of traditional American communities and massive suffering among their working-class residents," then elites — including conservative elites — would say to themselves, "Well, then, these people are going to stage a communist revolution."
It was taken for granted that the governing class had an obligation — a practical one, if not a moral one — to actually make the system work for average people. Over the past 20 years, that idea has been increasingly abandoned on the American right. Donald Trump's popularity and these pieces in National Review are the consequences of that shift.