They’ve been called waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.
But most people call them white trash. And, some would say, many of them are the supporting base of Donald Trump’s rise to prominence.
These are the descriptive titles Nancy Isenberg has given poor whites in “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” published June 21, 2016.
We are raised to believe America is the land of equal opportunity for all. Isenberg squashes this myth — but not in the way you might expect. She does not defame America for its sinful treatment of blacks, but for its class structure that primarily abused poor, white southerners.
“White Trash” reexamines American history through the lens of socioeconomic class.
Although all history prior to the New World is viewed in terms of ruling class versus the common people, American historians tragically—or rather, purposefully—leave out important class distinctions.
Colonists came to the New World for religious and economic freedom, according to the mainstream narrative. But Isenberg suggests the colonists were “roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts.” Few people went to the colonies to pursue a “divine plan” or establish a “city upon a hill.” She says the British Crown sent “waste people” to work in a “waste land.”
Isenberg avoids the left-right paradigm of American history. This gives her freedom to criticize American history, without dismissing it because of its blunders, such as slavery.
Isenberg illuminates a belief widely held from America’s colonization to the Civil War: “Slavery was a dangerous contagion spreading death and decay, and feeding a class war by ‘depopulating’ the nation of its white inhabitants.”
By “depopulating,” Isenberg means slavery rendered poor whites useless. White trash could not find work, and some did not desire to work. Those who didn’t want work starved and ate clay, while those who wanted work moved West in search of it.
Slave-owners and upper-class whites convinced white trash of the necessity of slavery. They claimed the Southern economy could not survive without it.
According to the southern traveler and writer Hinton Helper, “Economies dependent on one source of wealth created extreme class conditions.”
In the South’s case, cotton created huge class divisions. But the biggest factor was poor whites’ belief that even though they lived in squalor, they were still viewed more highly than slaves, which was not true. Slave-owning whites despised white trash.
Isenberg summarized Helper’s view of white trash: “Their ignorance and docility had made them worse than Russian serfs when they compliantly voted the ‘slaveocrats’ into office time and again.”
Perhaps the most shocking section of “White Trash” is Andrew Johnson’s speech to a South Carolinian delegation, in which he said, “While this rebellion has emancipated a great many negroes, it has emancipated still more white men.”
Isenberg criticizes the government’s failure to establish a market economy: “A slave economy monopolized the soil while closing off opportunities for non-slaveholding white men to support their families and advance in a free-market economy,” Isenberg said.
Unfortunately, Isenberg seems to have abandoned the possibility of a truly free market economy.
“Markets did not at any time, and do not now, magically pave the way for the most talented to be rewarded; the well-connected were and are preferentially treated,” she said.
Isenberg does not give a clear-cut solution to the problem of a perpetual underclass; she only shows it exists.
Whether markets or government intervention provide the solution to America’s class structure is at the center of the United States’ political debates.
The 2016 presidential race is proof that two of Isenberg’s findings ring true for American voters in 2016. Donald Trump, a man who speaks in short, powerful phrases at about a fourth-grade level, appeals to the American voter who “had to be wooed for his vote. He had no patience for a candidate who refused to speak his language.”
And the man who tweeted that “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich” knows how to participate in Andrew Jackson’s “game of brag.”
Trump exemplifies Isenberg’s thesis: Those born into wealth and power rule America, while the scalawags, lubbers, and mudsills buy into their charade and allow their reign to continue.
“White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” was Released June 21, 2016, and can be bought at major booksellers and Amazon.