What was the white working class thinking by supporting Trump? I asked my white working-class brother.

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Keegan Smith - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • Keegan Smith

My brother Keegan shrugged when I asked if he's a Trump supporter.

"Yeah, I thought about it a little [before the election]. Both Trump and Hillary had their pros and cons," he told me. "One is a liar, the other is a big-mouthed pervert. But Hillary has been in office for a long time, and I didn't see that she did that much for how long she was in government."

Keegan is actually part of the 42 percent of Americans eligible to vote who didn't cast a ballot on November 8. He found neither Clinton nor Trump appealing enough to even bother registering to vote.

He took a heavy drag from a cigarette and I noticed his misshapen hands. They resemble two old catcher's mitts—swollen, callused, scarred—the sign of someone who's spent the last 20 years of his life doing manual labor—as a building maintenance man, a landscaper, an auto mechanic. He's my younger brother, and yet when we go out to a bar around our hometown of Springfield, Illinois, I'm typically the one who gets carded. Part of it is probably the bushy beard he wears, but years of working outside in the sun all day has no doubt added lines to his face—though he says it's having to raise four kids.

I began interviewing my brother about politics during the Thanksgiving weekend, for one, because I was interested in deflating the myth that having a civil conversation with relatives who supported a different presidential candidate than you was an impossibility, a risky feat akin to dismantling a bomb. "We are all afraid—of trends beyond our control, of neighbors and loved ones who suddenly seem grotesquely alien," opined a Slate columnist in a post called "The Post-Trump Thanksgiving." "Yet we are still bound by ties of blood, friendship, and commitment. Soon, many of us will dine together at the Thanksgiving table. What do we do now?"

The answer is pretty simple: just don't treat them like they're grotesque aliens. People should not be wholly defined by their quadrennial electoral choices.

My other motivation in talking to my brother on the record: To put a human face on the group ubiquitously referred to as the "white working class." Since the election, that demographic of Americans has been—depending on your political persuasion—championed or demonized for their role in Trump's victory. For many on the right, the election was snobby liberals' comeuppance for ignoring and disrespecting a large group of decent, hardworking people. The blue team, meanwhile, tends to paint the white working class in broad strokes as uneducated rubes blinded by their own gleeful sexism, racism, and xenophobia in electing a con man. "If you have any sense, you're coming to the realization that it was all a scam. You got played. While you were chanting 'Lock her up!' he was laughing at you for being so gullible," said Paul Waldman in a recent Washington Post column.

I find the whole debate frustrating because it's based on a false dichotomy that hangs on a subjective notion: the unknowable nature of morality. Are working-class whites good people or bad people? The truth is that the individuals who make up the white working class are neither all good nor all bad. They're people who vote, as does most of the electorate, for the campaigns and proposed policies that appeal to their sense of self-interest.

During the campaign season, it was frustrating to see urbanites and media types who tend not to have much significant contact with the white working class generally associate Trump voters with his most outspoken supporters, the ones we see on TV or read about—the openly racist, angry white men who, during the election, held signs at rallies that declared derogatory things about Mexicans and Muslims or identified Hillary Clinton as a "bitch." What I'd noticed in my own chats with Trump voters—family, old friends from Springfield, members of the church I once belonged to—is that much of his support wasn't all that passionate. He was perhaps more often perceived as the lesser of two evils.

"Who you vote for doesn't determine the person you are," Keegan told me. "A lot of it is just what they show on TV. Obviously they're going to show the worst of the Trump people and what they say or do."

"I try not to get into politics," he continues. "I watch the news here and there to see what's happening in the world. Most of it is just bad news and depressing, and I mostly want to watch the weather and shut it off."

No matter who has sat in the Oval Office since Keegan entered the workforce—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama—his life has remained remarkably similar: living paycheck to paycheck on a paltry salary that's hovered slightly above the poverty line. As one of the 30 million or so Americans who lack a high school diploma, his prospects for a decent-paying job have been greatly limited. At age 38, he's making $11 per hour as a maintenance man at a nursing home in Springfield. During the late 90s and early 2000s, he drifted from retail job to retail job, each of which paid minimum wage. He worked the stock room at Goodwill for a couple of years before landing a gig for a small lawn care company in 2007.

The manual labor appealed to him more than working customer service, and his hourly rate of $8.50 was higher, but his bosses exploited him. They offered no health-care coverage and laid him and some of his coworkers off every year during the winter months, occasionally calling Keegan in for snow removal.

"On my hardest day ever, I helped shovel 14 inches of snow for 19 straight hours—until 5 AM. I didn't get any overtime—it was just regular pay. I claimed [the income] on my unemployment, and they deducted it from my check, which was half of what I made," he said. He got out his phone and pulled up a selfie he took from that long, snowy day. He was behind the wheel of a work truck, his face rosy red, a thick layer of ice covering his beard.

What would it take for Keegan to vote for the first time in his life? A higher minimum wage, he said.

"If I hit the lottery, I'd want to be taxed more. I think the rich should be taxed more to give back, and there should be less tax on people making $8.50, $10, $12 an hour—because they're living paycheck to paycheck, especially when they've got children. The products that they're making—from food to toothpaste—they're more expensive. Gas prices and electronics are cheap, but things like meat and dairy and utility rates are skyrocketing, and lower wages are making it harder to live. The value of a dollar doesn't mean much anymore. You get used to it, but it still sucks when you've got to decide, Should I get a gallon of milk or put $3.50 in the gas tank?

Would he vote for a politician who promised to raise the minimum wage to $15?

"That'd be great if it were true," he said. "But talk is cheap."

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