“I believe Trump like I believed Obama!” A case study of two working-class “Latino” Trump voters: my parents
Christian Parenti’s Listening to Trump resonated with me on a personal level. Both of my “Latino” working-class parents voted for Trump, and I don’t think we were the only family politically divided this Thanksgiving.
Election night, I was exactly like those stunned white people suffering from cognitive dissonance on Saturday Night Live, except I’m not white. I’d enthusiastically supported Sanders, and then reluctantly voted for Hillary—but her campaign did not represent a “glass ceiling” moment for me. In the mid-90’s, while teaching at a Native American Preparatory School in New Mexico, I’d shown my students videos of working conditions in maquiladoras, read Subcommandante Marcos and Rigoberta Menchu, and taught about NAFTA from an indigenous and economic perspective. I later learned that liberalism excluding class and labor had a word—neoliberalism.
Leading up to the election, I could see Trump’s rhetoric reaching my folks by constantly repeating what we all know: that the system is rigged. But Trump connected the dots between corporate corruption, mainstream media, NAFTA/TPP trade deals – Sanders was doing the same thing. (Both of my parents said that a choice between Trump and Sanders would have been much more difficult to make.) But Trump took it a step further; he not only admitted to tax evasion, he included details about how he’d figured out how to game the system, and even confessed (or boasted) that he was one of the worst offenders! He promised that he would use this insider know-how in his new role as president and ruling-class traitor, and said over and over that he would restore good paying jobs to the working class. It was almost as if he was using that really cheesy “feel, felt, found” sales-pitch formula you learn in sales seminars. He was establishing legitimacy and agency with people by being a traitor to his class—openly admitting he’d been shortchanging public schools, public infrastructure, even the military and soldiers he “loved” so much. According to Ellen Meiksins Wood (1987), “transformative action proceeds from the conception of the constituency whose conditions are most organically connected to the project.” In a way, Trump was able to organically connect with the working class via his insider anti-establishment message.
One of my jobs is teaching multicultural education to pre-service teachers. In an effort to move away from the “blanket racial proxy, or cultural spokesperson” model (Reed, 2000), I use local case study narratives of people who have attended both public and private schools. Local narratives are useful in not only dispelling stereotypes, but in providing snapshots of similarities across cultural lines. That said, I think it’s important to state the obvious here: the following familial narrative is purely anecdotal (and a little cathartic) but not representative of all daughters whose parents voted for Trump. My parents have given me permission to write this, by the way. I have chosen the case-study structure for writing this so that I might provide broader context, personal connections, and then address some of the simplistic narratives and assumptions associated with people who voted for Trump.
As with any generalization, Latino as a monolithic term isn’t very useful in a case study. The local Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexican Spanish dialect my parents speak is comparable to New Orleans French, in that the local Spanish dialect is a mix of 15th century Spanish/Mexican/Indigenous phrases. This was Dad’s first language, mom’s second. My parents are also proud of their indigenous ancestry. My father grew up working in the onion, chile, and melon fields of Southern Colorado, not as a migrant worker but attending school in the off-season and living off of what they canned or dried in the fall. One fall, there wasn’t enough money to buy him a new pair of jeans for school so my grandmother dyed a pair of old jeans dark blue. Dad didn’t have the heart to tell her that his jeans bled through and dyed his legs blue. He was subsequently expelled from school for a short time when he refused to change into a PE outfit. He never told my grandparents or the school why.
Throughout high school dad worked as a field-worker, except during a brief stint as an aide at the State Hospital—where he met my mother, who was also working as an aide in the mental health asylum. As politically incorrect as it is, we like to joke that they met in an insane asylum. But the conditions in that asylum were what they both describe as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” horrific, which motivated my mother to become a lifelong social worker, well known in the community for counseling in Spanish and English. Dad took a job at the CF&I Steel Mill, participated in the 1959 Steel Strike, and then joined the Marines. After the service, he married mom and became a union organizer. Dad most notably worked with Cesar Chavez and the UFW. As a kid, I remember accompanying him to predominantly Chicano churches in the valley where he had worked the farms, spoke in the local Spanish dialect at the pulpit, recruited for/promoted the UFW, and took collections for striking farmworkers. While doing this community work, Dad also worked at a meatpacking plant and was a union steward. Unfortunately, in the late 70’s the slaughterhouse was sold and closed four months short of Dad earning a pension. With dad at the slaughterhouse, and mom working as a social worker, we had the very best of health insurance. My parents were able to buy a home and buy us new school clothes every year. My great-grandmother lived with us and cared for me while my parents worked. She was blind, so they hired a sitter to help her out. We never took airplane trips and rarely ate out, but we didn’t notice.
Both my parents were active in the community, as this was also during the height of the civil rights movement. When I was five, we blocked an interstate with our neighborhood in order to get an overpass built. My folks attended city council meetings, challenged curriculum discrimination at school board meetings, supported the Occupation at Wounded Knee, and organized a union association looking at discrimination against minority workers. The Republican-owned newspaper in my hometown regularly marginalized and stigmatized poor “latino” neighborhoods. During election cycles, our community learned about gerrymandering—but Pueblo County and the I-25 corridor remained dark blue surrounded by red and pink plains of Republican landowners, Texan transplants, and even a few white racists with connections to KKK. Note: during this last election, this same county showed light blue for the first time.
Neither of my parents is on social media, and they both find the idea baffling. Dad gets his news from newspapers. He reads them meticulously, with a highlighter. He also has five or six radios under his bed, each tuned in to a different talk show; all of his radios are connected to individual earplugs so he can listen to multiple talk-show radio “perspectives” at night.
Because of their help, I am the first in my family to earn a terminal degree. My degree is in education, but on more than one occasion my father’s labor perspective on education reform has been eye opening for me. Even before TFA’s agenda was exposed, while I was talking to my dad about TFA—he was the one who pointed out the union-busting aspect. But he said it so humanely, “Poor kids in TFA,” he said, “here they think they are helping people, and they are—but they don’t even know they’re union busters.”
My parents are both semi-retired and don’t fit within the $70,000 per year description of Trump voters. Their grandson is starting to work, and their biggest concern is service-workers in low paying jobs facing insurmountable odds. Dad says, “Service workers are working for minimum wages—and the way they are treated is so bad. They try to organize; they try to make themselves heard. To me, these service workers who file a grievance—who knows what happens to it? They probably throw that grievance in the trash and fire people who are trying to organize. Where is the public—why hasn’t the public supported it more? How can a worker fight for a shitty job when they have the courts against them? It’s harder to organize low wage jobs than it is to organize people with higher paying jobs. If all the service workers unite, and do solidarity strikes—maybe there’s a way, but even that’s illegal.”
Dad’s rationale for voting for Trump is that he genuinely has faith in the working class. “If you can finally manage to get a decent paying job, without having to work two or three jobs…once workers get good paying jobs, I really feel that workers will organize to protect their own safety, health, and environment.”
When I ask how he could have voted for someone, who in my view is the epitome of everything he has fought against his whole life, and how he could believe Trump’s promises, he says, “I believe Trump like I believed Obama!” Dad voted for Obama, twice. In 2009, when Obama emerged from the meeting with bankers and said, “I am the only one standing between you and the pitchforks,” we noticed when he didn’t side with the pitchforks. In 2010, when Obama applauded the mass firing of Rhode Island teachers—even I thought we were in trouble.
Before the election, Linda Tirado (2016) wrote about Trump, “Many people are uncomfortable with a lot of the stuff they’ve heard about him but accept it as a necessary evil: the main thing is to tell Washington elites that they’re not safe in their sinecures any more, that the common man is about to have his day.” She also says that Trump is the “Rorschach test of America’s fears”. I’m not sure if my father’s vote represented an elitist spanking and I wouldn’t presume to speak for him, still, this angle seems too self-indulgent and not his style. As far as I can tell Dad didn’t vote based on fear. He saw a way out of neoliberalism—a back-door strategy for the middle class, and banked on the hope that the self-admitted swindler might make good on his promise to be a class traitor. For him, the choice was between more neoliberalism, or a possible out from a celebrity and ruling class traitor.
In Trump, Brexit, and the Twilight of Neoliberalism (2016), we read that neoliberalism may be on the way out. There really isn’t a distinguishable Democratic or Republican party anymore; a kind of social media feed mentality permeates opportunistic discourse and relations, hybrid identities, and political agendas. We are in a time when experience and education just doesn’t matter anymore; unlicensed inexperienced teachers and drivers game the system, and are gamed by the system. Cox and Nilsen (2016) speculate on what might come after neoliberalism—and encourage an exploration of how popular movements like BLM or DAPL might be useful. Some of my former students are involved in DAPL, and our brothers and sisters on the front lines of DAPL and BLM are clearly brave as hell—their hard-fought battles are also widely shared and monetized on social media.
Meiksins Wood (1987) states, “Capitalism is uniquely indifferent to social identity of the people it exploits…it’s mode of exploitation is not inextricably linked with political identities, inequalities, or differences.” Capitalism knows no identity or political agenda and doesn’t care if it monetizes our good intentions. But just as my dad’s humane analysis of TFA refused to reduce TFA students to a “union-busters” label, he took it on good faith that they were involved in TFA not to pad their resumes, but for genuinely altruistic reasons. We also understand that the organizers and protesters on the front lines of DAPL and BLM are protecting clean water and taking a stand against police brutality.
It might be a huge stretch for some anti-racists to view Trump voters as something other than “deplorables,” or, rich, white, racists—but, the hope with this case study is that we might stop and reflect on who gains when we write off not just half the country but a large portion of the working class as racists.
Cox, L., & Gunvald Nilsen, A. (2016, November 18). Trump, Brexit and the Twilight of Neoliberalism. [Blog post]. The Sciological Review. Retrieved from https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/trump-brexit-and-the-twilight-of-neoliberalism.html
Meiksins Wood, E. (1987). “Why Class Struggle Is Central,” Against the Current 10, 7–9.
Reed, A. L. (2000). Class notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene. New York: New Press.
Tirado, L. (2016, October 30). This is the hollowed-out heart of America: pain, rage and Donald Trump. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/30/heart-america-pain-fear-vote-donald-trump-ohio