Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Identities—What Are They Good For?

White Tribe Rising

James McWilliams

© 2016 Malcolm J. Wilson/; courtesy of the artist.

The aggrieved white tribe, now a full-fledged identity group of its own, clings ferociously to a pseudooriginalist interpretation of the Bill of Rights.

Someday, when we—or our descendants—have enough distance from the present to contemplate who knows what this country will have endured, the presidential election of 2016 will evoke three words: basket of deplorables. This ill-conceived phrase, delivered by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at a Manhattan fundraiser two months before Election Day, was the rhetorical flashpoint of a broader takedown:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?… The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.11xSeema Mehta, “Transcript: Clinton’s Full Remarks as She Called Half of Trump Supporters ‘Deplorables,’” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2016,

Those comments marked the moment when an apparently new white identity—though in fact an amalgam of new and older white identities—was ingloriously named. Within hours, thanks largely to Donald Trump’s Twitter-driven spin machine, the insult became a mobilizing emblem of grievance, victimhood, and defiance for legions of white people who felt ignored and disrespected by the well-heeled liberal elite. Before Clinton realized she had stumbled, and well before she could offer a semiapologetic qualification, the “deplorables” followed a time-honored tradition of co-opting the insult and investing it with in-your-face agency.

As an emblem of identity, “deplorables” harnessed white anger and anxiety emanating not only from trailer parks, small towns, and the hollows of Appalachia, but also from well-off suburbs, gated communities, and quite a few swank downtown neighborhoods as well. It wasn’t merely the people who were already scorned as white trash, hicks, rednecks, yokels, or hillbillies. The anti-Semitic, pro-Trump troll account known as “Ricky Vaughn” was recently unmasked as a Middlebury College graduate who had worked as a consultant in New York while tweeting caricatures of Jews—hardly a member of the “forgotten white underclass,” but somehow identifying himself as such. The designation “deplorable” appealed, in other words, to whites who knew daily scarcity as well as those who experienced, in the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s description, “freedom from necessity.” A label of disapprobation had become a defiant badge of honor.

What Accounts for White Tribalism?

And with this curious transvaluation came the dawning realization—at least among some pundits and scholars—that this newest twist in America’s identity politics needed to be taken seriously, beginning with an effort to understand it. Not that there wasn’t resistance even to that among many right-thinking liberals, who deemed any effort to understand it as an attempt to legitimate it. Interviewing the sociologist Robert Wuthnow for the Vox news site, Sean Illing complained that the title of Wuthnow’s book—The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America—“rubbed [him] the wrong way”: “It seems to me that many of these people haven’t been left behind; they’ve chosen not to keep up.” Referring to Wuthnow’s depiction of rural Americans’ widespread sense of moral decline, Illing asked, “Am I supposed to take this seriously?”22xSean Illing, “A Princeton Sociologist Spent Eight Years Asking Rural Americans Why They’re So Pissed Off,” Vox, March 13, 2018,

Incredulity aside, the tenor of Illing’s questions typifies one of three now well-established responses to white tribalism. The first, as exemplified by Clinton’s own comments, is to dismiss this white tribe as inherently bigoted rather than attempt to make sense of the racial animosity—its motives, its extent, and even its applicability to all so-called deplorables. Such dismissals rely on generalizations no less crude than the one candidate Trump drew on in 2015 when he declared that Mexico was “not sending their best” to the United States, but, instead, “criminals” and “rapists” (along with, Trump conceded, “some…good people”). Clinton’s observation that “there are people like that” also implicitly rejected the idea that even the most hidebound bigots could be led to think otherwise—effectively denying the power of constructive argument and education, those bedrocks of a liberal democracy.

The second approach is to characterize the white tribe as irrational. Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? starts with the premise that these are people who vote against their own interests. But this assumption ignores the possibility that working class whites might be more concerned about respect, tradition, and the collapse of their communities than with their declining economic prospects, even though the two are in fact inseparable. The problem with Kansas, it turns out, might be better explained by anthropologists than by economists.

The third way of explaining white tribalism is to subsume it under the broad and expanding rubric of populism, which, however useful for connecting it with other populist movements around the world, is ultimately a kind of evasion through labeling. Even close scholarly interpretations of populism are so equivocating and qualified that they end up obscuring more than they illuminate.

None of this is to deny that the white tribe can behave in ways that are bigoted, irrational, or populist, much less to excuse such behavior. But instead of stopping there, it behooves us to consider the deeper historical sources of deplorable-ness: why poor and downwardly mobile whites have internalized an aggrieved tribal identity, and why many well-off whites are so eager to appropriate it.

The Faulkner Diagnosis

A complex assortment of regional, social, and economic factors have all contributed to the formation of a loose-knit tribe that has long felt uneasy about its traditional place and status in a nation dedicated to the principle of equality. Moreover, the contradictions between the high ideals of the American republic and its long reliance on a system of racial exploitation have had various and conflicting consequences for that vast lower stratum of white people whose own sense of social and economic insecurity has different sources, whether in the conditions of their ancestors’ arrival in the New World (as indentured or even convict labor, or as low-status immigrants) or in the lost standing and independence of the skilled journeyman “mechanics” of the nineteenth century as they were displaced by an emergent industrial system employing “common workers.” To understand that broader sense of affinity among the left behind (whose treatment over the course of US history makes white trash a telling metaphor indeed), and to appreciate how it is linked to inherited racial expectations, one might profitably begin with that acute diagnostician of Southern culture, William Faulkner.

In Go Down, Moses, a tightly linked collection of seven stories that Faulkner chose to call a novel, we learn something about the white tribe’s predicament through the characters of Ike McCaslin (the central figure and unifying voice of the story cycle), Buck (his father), and Buddy (his uncle). All of these men are deeply uncomfortable with their patrimony of land and slaves, and, by extension, their place in their rural community. Buck and Buddy build a small cabin for themselves and move their slaves—inherited from their father, Carothers McCaslin—into the master’s house before launching their own plan to free their chattel. Ike, who discovers Grandfather Carothers’s slave ledgers in the local commissary and reads them entry by entry as a teenager, takes matters a step further. When he comes into his inheritance at age twenty-one, he cedes his land to his cousin McCaslin (“Cass”) Edmonds, and moves to town to live in a rickety house and work as a carpenter. He marries but never has children.

Ike’s motives for abandoning his patrimony are linked to his self-education (reading those ledgers) and a vague faith in something he refers to as a “brotherhood.” He knows the land he inherited is stained, even cursed, by slavery and forced miscegenation (his grandfather fathered several of his cousins with his slaves), and he wants to escape that history:

I could say I don’t know why I must do it but that I do know I have got to because I have got myself to have to live with for the rest of my life and all I want is peace to do it in.33xWilliam Faulkner, Go Down, Moses, in The Portable Faulkner, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York, NY: Penguin, 2003), 254. Go Down, Moses first published 1942.

Elsewhere, Ike is even more direct about his reasons for doing what seems so inexplicable to most other whites:

Don’t you see? This whole land…is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse.44xIbid., 246.

So Ike—to put it into terms of current identity politics—checks his privilege, not only for his peace of mind but for a larger cause he cannot fully articulate. More telling than Ike’s renunciation of his patrimony is his family’s enraged response. In their eyes he is shirking his heritage, selling out tradition and community for something he can’t explain. Even his wife punishes him, denying him the pleasures of the marital bed in perpetuity.

Ike’s betrayal, and the anger it evokes, are instructive. By willingly ceding the inherited power of whiteness—what history bequeathed him—in the name of an abstraction (equality) without precedent in historical reality, much less in any community anyone has ever known, Ike represents the idealism articulated most convincingly by white reformers ranging from the antebellum abolitionists to the civil rights activists of the last century, all of whom were willing to exchange the privilege of inherited status for the dream of social equality. It is a dream that requires a leap of faith, one often made possible by education, idealism, religious conviction, or some kind of transformative experience.

Telling, too, is that Ike’s “betrayal” of his own tribe is seen by his kinfolk in zero-sum terms: For one tribe’s condition to rise, another tribe’s must fall. And falling in a supposedly egalitarian society—as the McCaslin clan knew all too well—is the greatest disgrace of all.

The Lingering Legacy of Bacon’s Rebellion

To understand the logic informing the views of Ike McCaslin’s kin, we need to return to the crucible of white identity in America and recall not only how power relations and hierarchies were established and sanctified in American tradition but also how they were made bearable to those whites who were always at or near the bottom of the social order. In his magisterial American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan provides just such an explanation. Published in 1975, on the eve of America’s bicentennial celebration, the book offers a timely reminder that the liberty the United States was about to celebrate with pyrotechnical exuberance had its roots in a hereditary and race-based system of chattel slavery. Morgan was explicit about the nature of this connection. The freedom the American Revolution and the subsequent constitutional enshrinements of free speech and other liberties made possible was not just incidental to the rise of the American slave system. It resulted directly from it.

The critical event behind this tragic dynamic was an uprising in seventeenth-century Virginia known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Nathaniel Bacon is not a figure who fits easily into rosier narratives of America’s origins. A lesser nobleman from England who became a fierce rival of the colonial governor, William Berkeley, nominally over the governor’s failure to secure the western frontier from Indian attacks, Bacon led Virginia’s poor scratch farmers and many indentured laborers (a few of them black) on a rampage of several months’ duration down the James River, pillaging the plantations of Virginia’s wealthy elite before reducing Jamestown to charred rubble in early 1676.

This was, in large measure, old-school class warfare, borne of old-school class outrage, and though the uprising fizzled when Bacon died of dysentery, the planter elite realized, as the smoke cleared, that the best way to avoid similar incidents in the future was to draw a clear distinction between black and white laborers. Using Barbados as a model, the elite adopted a formal slave code in 1705 and began to import even more African laborers, largely replacing the white indentured servants who had helped grow and process the colony’s tobacco for most of the previous century. By the early eighteenth century, Virginia was a full-fledged slave society on its way to becoming a colony where 40 percent of the population was enslaved. In this racially codified culture, all whites, rich or poor, at least shared the fundamental liberties denied an entire class of enslaved laborers.

Where Virginia went, so went most of the other colonies. By 1790, when the first US Census was taken, one in five American bodies was in chains and every state except Massachusetts included slaves among its inhabitants.55x“1790 Census: Adding It Up,” National Geographic Society, accessed May 1, 2018, A new slave-based economy necessitated a belief that the enslaved laborers were lesser human beings, and indeed a racist ideology became the glue holding rich and poor whites together. In addition to being the engine of the young nation’s economy, slavery defused class tensions by making possible the shared enjoyment of those liberties (of speech, religion, and property ownership) that marked a free white person, rich or poor, thus opening the door to opportunity and upward mobility for many of the latter. Morgan puts it unambiguously: “Racism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared to be the soul of liberty.”

But white identity in early America—and the shared sense of privileged freedom that unified poor and wealthy whites alike—depended on more than the social stability and economic opportunity that slavery provided. Other traditional hierarchical arrangements enhanced the security and liberties made possible by a race-based slave system. A short list includes the nuclear family bound by patriarchal authority, a gendered division of labor, the power of the pulpit, the personal interdependencies marking local economic exchange, the uniquely white freedom to own firearms, and a deeply personal community where everyone knew where everyone else stood. In sum, if you were a gun-owning white male landowner at the head of a God-fearing family trading goods with neighbors in the local market, then you were a free man and citizen of good standing. You mattered.

The New Rhetoric of Equality

The persistence of these traditional arrangements is one of the more remarkable facts of American history. Politicians played variations on the response to Bacon’s Rebellion well into the twentieth century (and are doing so once again, in the twenty-first), with populists like Tom Watson and George Wallace morphing from angry champions of all working people’s welfare into even angrier players of the race card. The unholy marriage of resentment and racism also went uptown, not just in segregationist “Citizens’ Councils” but even in the party of Lincoln itself, as opportunistic Republicans adopted a “Southern strategy” to appeal to whites—and, increasingly, not just Southern or poorer whites—upset by the social transformations (including some of the attendant violence and displacement) wrought by the long and continuing struggle for black civil rights.

But as the rights of African Americans—and of women, gays, people with disabilities, and other “others”—were fought for in the struggle to achieve the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence, liberals and other champions of true equality ignored the grievances of those whites who saw themselves, often with good reason, as losers in a zero-sum game. The busing that was intended to achieve school integration might not have greatly burdened well-off whites who had private-school options or could move farther out into the suburbs, but those whites who had no such luxury saw themselves as victims of heedless social engineering, their children shipped off to distant schools or their own schools receiving less and less public support. Many such white people saw themselves being put at a disadvantage by affirmative action policies shaped according to designated identities rather than economic means. It is no wonder that many white Americans began to feel that they were bearing the costs of social justice from which better-off liberal elites were exempted.

To add disdain to injury, many members of the progressive elite barely disguised their contempt for those traditions, institutions, and liberties that other white Americans believed to be crucial to their dignity and freedom. The academy, Hollywood, the Democratic Party, the mainstream media—all of these, in the eyes of aggrieved whites, represented a grave threat not only to them personally but to the American nation. That this was a caricature carefully cultivated and exploited by politicians, businesspeople, and media charlatans who were once considered to occupy the extreme right-wing fringe of American public life is in no way to deny its partial truth, or to pardon the arrogance of an aloof, self-satisfied progressive elite. Instead of directing its energies toward the growing economic and social inequalities that were deepening divisions between Americans—what journalist Bill Bishop has dubbed “the big sort”—the left turned its energies toward identity politics. It failed to articulate the benefits that equality could offer everybody, even insecure whites who felt increasingly ignored in a republic devoted to the equality of multiplying differences. What was in it for them? As they saw it, very little.

The more the new rhetoric of equality seemed to exclude them—and to threaten their rights to free speech, gun ownership, and religious conviction—the more uncritically the white tribe invoked its understanding of the sacred and immutable character of the Bill of Rights. Inhabiting the echo chambers of Fox News and talk radio, white tribespeople wielded the First Amendment to smite not only political correctness but also, if only to see progressives squirm, all underlying norms of civility. They exercised their God-given, duly inherited right to express how deeply pissed off they were—at Mexican immigrants, uppity blacks, gender-neutral bathrooms, gun control advocates, eco-scolds, or whoever or whatever else threatened to undermine their highly idealized vision of the former social order.

Claiming that freedom of expression and other rights are available to all Americans, ignoring the accretions of custom and interpretation that have qualified those rights, the aggrieved white tribe, now a full-fledged identity group of its own, clings ferociously to a pseudo-originalist interpretation of the Bill of Rights. This interpretation absolutizes rights and liberties that are in fact contingent on historical change.66xEdmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1975), 386. And it does so in such a way as to perpetuate, restore, or at least countenance some of the same fundamental inequalities that made the American experiment both possible and flawed at its outset.

“Deplorable” identity, then, is not simply overt racism, irrationality, or populism. It’s a profoundly complicated and deeply self-serving interpretation of our history, one designed to prevent a group of people from becoming politically and economically obsolete in the face of an unknown future. This is how the white tribe proudly asserts its “deplorable” character. And how it proposes—with a leader who gives its members full license to turn free speech into hate-filled vituperation—to “make American great again.”

If there is any hope of convincing the white tribe to embrace an America that truly empowers and respects all of its tribes, this is one way not to do it: by taunting its members with safe zones, trigger warnings, and other largely symbolic tokens; by mocking them for speaking truth as they see it, in the words that they know and use, in the name of the First Amendment; by labeling them with words like “deplorable.”

How, then, to do it? First, by respectfully attending to those members of the white tribe who have legitimate grievances and fears about their shattered communities, economic displacement, and threatened liberties, including that of gun ownership; second, by asking, respectfully, whether their interests are being better served by the man they elected to the White House or by substantive organized efforts like those of the fed-up and determined teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and other states (including, no doubt, many Trump voters) who demanded, and won, a better living wage and increased funding for their schools. And finally by making the case that the Enlightenment dream of equality can bring to all Americans the opportunity and respect that too many, for too long, believed inhered only in the whiteness of their skin.