But scapegoating poor whites keeps the conversation away from fascism’s real base: the petite bourgeoisie. This is a piece of jargon used mostly by Marxists to denote small-property owners, whose nearest equivalents these days may be the “upper middle class” or “small-business owners.” FiveThirtyEightreported last May that “the median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000,” or roughly 130 percent of the national median. Trump’s real base, the actual backbone of fascism, isn’t poor and working-class voters, but middle-class and affluent whites. Often self-employed, possessed of a retirement account and a home as a nest egg, this is the stratum taken in by Horatio Alger stories. They can envision playing the market well enough to become the next Trump. They haven’t won “big-league,” but they’ve won enough to be invested in the hierarchy they aspire to climb. If only America were made great again, they could become the haute bourgeoisie—the storied “1 percent.”
Trump’s most institutionally entrenched middle-class base includes policeand Border Patrol unions, whom he promptly unleashed after his inauguration by allowing them free rein in enforcing his vague but terrifying immigration orders, and by appointing an attorney general who would call off investigations into troubled police departments. As wanton as their human-rights atrocities in the years leading up to the Trump era have been, law-enforcement agents are already making their earlier conduct look like a model of restraint. They are Trump’s most passionate supporters and make concrete his contempt for anyone not white, male, and rich.
If the petit-bourgeois American suburbs embody a sexist hierarchy, they exist in order to enforce a racist one. In the mid-20th century, white northern and western urbanites faced a choice: Stay in the cities where Jim Crow was driving a “Great Migration” of millions of black people, or flee to the new suburban residential developments, complete with racist exclusionary charters. The Federal Housing Administration made the choice easy: Its policy redlined neighborhoods where black people were settling as having low “residential security,” thus making financial services inaccessible. In white-only suburban communities, however, the FHA was pleased to guarantee home mortgages. “There goes the neighborhood,” said millions, and fled.
Their material security bound up in the value of their real-estate assets, suburban white people had powerful incentives to keep their neighborhoods white. Just by their very proximity, black people would make their neighborhoods less desirable to future white home-buyers, thereby depreciating the value of the location. Location being the first rule of real estate, suburban homeowners nurtured racist attitudes, while deluding themselves that they weren’t excluding black people for reasons beyond their pocketbooks.
In recent decades, rising urban rents have been pushing lower-income people to more peripheral locations. As suburbia has grown poorer, the more affluent homeowners have fled for the even greener pastures of exurbia. Everywhere they turn, their economic anxiety follows them.
And yet, “among people I talk to, ‘economic anxiety’ has become kind of a joke slogan,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, by way of explaining Trump’s rise. “I mean, there is real economic hardship. West Virginia is not a happy place. But…it’s really mostly about race.” Krugman and Amanpour’s seamless transition from “anxiety” to “hardship” betrays the assumption that haunted the entire discussion: that the only form of economic anxiety is deprivation. To the contrary, the form of economic anxiety propelling the racism of devoted Trump supporters is associated with paying taxes; with jealously guarding their modest savings; with stopping black people from moving nearby and diminishing the value of their property and thus the quality of their kids’ schools; and with preserving the patriarchal family structure that facilitates it all.