05.15.2017 02:24 PM

This week’s column: the politics of resentment

The guests at the event at the Royal Canadian Military Institute, just down University Avenue from the barricaded U.S. Consulate, were buzzing. Not about Christy Clark’s extraordinary comeback win in BC, so much, or the restive Ontario Liberal caucus.

About Donald Trump, naturally. That’s all anyone talks about at political gatherings, these days. Trump, Trump, Trump.

The latest: Trump had fired anyone securing evidence about the connections between Russia and his campaign – and then he and his cabal were insisting there was no evidence. He was clearly gutting the rule of law, by obstructing justice and covering-up. He was a clown show, a circus act, a crook, descending ever-downward into Hamlet-like madness.

And those were just the nice things being said about him, this night. In attendance: the dean of the Prime Ministers (John Turner), an admired former Premier (Dalton McGuinty), several respected cabinet ministers, current and former (Sandra Pupatello, Bob Chiarelli, Jim Bradley), and one quite impressive mayor (Bonnie Crombie). And lots of political hacks, shaking their heads about the Unpresident.

Beneath all the military decorations on the walls, beneath two Victoria Crosses – the highest award in the Commonwealth, awarded to men who (unlike the draft-dodging Donald Trump) had shown gallantry in the face of the enemy, instead of coddling the enemy (like the Putin-loving Donald Trump) – we had assembled to listen to McGuinty’s friend, Justin Gest.

Gest is an interesting fellow. Born and raised in Los Angeles inner city – by a Holocaust survivor and rural Georgian – Professor Gest has gone on to be perhaps one of the leading experts in the United States on immigration and, lately, the white working class. And, notably, how the white working class came together to shatter the liberal democratic consensus, and make Brexit and Trump happen.

His new book is The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. It is the product of literally hundreds of interviews with white working-class folks in post-industrial London, England, and Ohio, USA. His resulting thesis: the white working poor are rational, but also now radical. They have been traumatized by the loss of jobs, by the loss of control and – most of all – by the loss of how things used to be. “Nostalgia,” Gest says, as he is interviewed by former Globe and Mail star Jane Taber. “They yearn for how things used to be.”

The white working class – who wanted Britain out of the European Union, and who wanted Donald Trump in the White House – truly want to “Make America (or Britain) Great Again,” Gest says. Trump’s slogan wouldn’t have worked if it had been “Make America Great,” he says. The white working class want to go back to what they think once was.

Says Gest, as his decidedly non-white-working-class audience listen: “White working-class people were once largely in the centre of the political world. Their votes were coveted by both political parties and their voices seemed to matter. Now, they see themselves as politically alienated and, in some cases, vilified — and this is in a country they once defined.” He pauses. “It’s this sense of loss that motivates so much of their frustration and so much of the politics we’re seeing right now. They are consumed by nostalgia.”

And Trump panders to that. He offers a return to a shimmering, golden time where everyone had a job, children listened to their elders, and there was structure and order. It doesn’t matter that things were never truly like that, says Gest. Trump’s white working class army are simply satisfied that one of their own – an outsider, like them – was able to run and win. To them, that is enough.

Like this writer, Gest agrees that the pointy-headed elites will not be saved by some Democratic Party St. George, riding a white steed – bearing Articles of Impeachment – and intent on slaying the twin-headed dragon of Trump and Putin. What we need to do, instead, is make the white working class feel like they matter. To render them visible. Because they think they are invisible.

Will we be able to do that? Will we ever be able to satisfy the raging, seething, resentful white working class?

Even Justin Gest – and the coterie of a Prime Minister, a Premier, some cabinet ministers and some political strategists – don’t know the answer to that one.

But we’d better find it, and fast.


  1. Hugh Whalen says:

    The first thing should be not to hold them in contempt.

    People will vote for someone who they disagree with on certain issues. They will vote for someone who they think is not qualified. Trump is the prefect example of this. e.g. Most people in the US believe in a path to citizenship for illegals. Most people thought he was temperamentally unqualified.

    They will, however, never vote for someone who holds them in contempt. They will not vote for someone who thinks they are deplorables. They will not vote for someone who thinks their only motivations are racism, sexism, and stupidity (defined as voting against their own interests).

    I don’t think that will happen. The desire to be morally superior (along with the urge to edit someone else’s writing) is stronger than the desire to procreate.

  2. Gord says:

    I’ve ordered Gest’s book and look forward to reading it with interest, although he’s a bit late to the party. David Paul Kuhn was sounding the alarm even before Obama was sworn in with his 2007 book, “The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma”. Granted it took another couple election cycles before his theory came home to roost, but it’s a good read nonetheless.

  3. Kelly says:

    Proportional representation is the solution. People will get what they vote for and people will be forced to work together and compromise. BC Libs are going to learn a few things about how that works now.

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