Soon after Trump was elected, Leslie Lopez wrote a compelling “case study” of how her Indo-Hispano parents came to ride the Trump train. Ms. Lopez wanted to make sure the left did not write off people like her parents who had been working class heroes with long histories of personal engagement in the labor movement. (Her case study was filled with details that underscored the distance between her parents’ experience and that of the spoiled brat who got their votes. Here’s one resonant passage about her father’s upbringing: “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.”) Ms. Lopez has continued to think about how her parents and other working class voters came to choose Trump. What follows are her further reflections on that subject along with her original case study (which first appeared at Nonsite.org back in November of 2016).
Charismatic Christians, Oprah Winfrey, Natural Law, and Neoliberal Politics: More Thoughts on Trump Voters in Southern Colorado.
When I was home over the holidays, visiting family in Pueblo, Colorado, and noticing the constant background noise coming from the Daystar Christian Network Channel, another reason Trump may have won in Pueblo County came to mind. Since the 80s, I’ve been seeing a gradual shift from the communal Catholicism of my grandparents, to the more individualistic saved-and-born-again spiritual “warriors” of today. You can’t help but notice the increase in industrial “warehouse” churches in Pueblo – well, warehouse churches and marijuana dispensaries, along with the proliferation of global Christian media networks.
It’s almost as if Evangelical Protestantism accompanied neoliberal politics in my hometown, and is influencing the political (and the communal) in ways that completely undermine the values and institutions people like my Catholic grandparents built.
Like so many others, my grandparents had pictures of Jesus and Kennedy in their kitchen. My grandfather worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Southern Colorado. He worked on infrastructure in state parks, so we had a good understanding of how public programs can benefit society. My grandparents were devout Catholics, participating actively in prayer societies, community feast days and “Jamaicas,” or communal church bazaars. Since the election of Kennedy in 1960, counties surrounding the I-25 corridor going south to New Mexico (Huerfano, Costilla, Las Animas — predominantly Spanish named counties) have consistently voted Democrat. In Pueblo County, the same county that voted for Kerry in 2004; Gore in 2000; Clinton in 96 and 92; Dukakis in 88; Mondale in 84; Carter in 76 and 80, and Obama in 2008 and 2012 switched. That same county voted for Trump in 2016. He only won by 390 votes (out of 78,646 total), but, clearly, something had changed. Political topography looks very different north of Pueblo – Republican voters predominate from El Paso County until you hit Denver. Just one hour north of Pueblo, Colorado Springs is the epicenter for Evangelical Christians (2005, Brady).
Essentially, the electoral map in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico mirrors Hispanic Catholics, many of whom identify as Indo-Hispano and trace their ancestry back to before the area was the United States.
The Catholic Church has a long established relationship with organized labor. Church doctrine recognizes the right to organize as a human right, and labor organizers have integrated the church into their campaigns – from Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers Movement in the 1930’s to Cesar Chavez. Pope John Paul II dedicated a section of his encyclical to “worker solidarity” in 1981. Catholic Bishops opposed to “right-to-work” legislation last year and on January 19, 2018 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court backing public sector unions in the Janus vs. AFSCME case.
While the Church has stayed the course, according to Pew (2004), an entire generation of Latinos have abandoned their Catholic roots for Pentecostal Protestantism. This shift isn’t unique for Hispanics; the change is proportionate to what’s happened among Americans in general. Demographic data in Pueblo County shows an increase in Evangelical Protestantism alongside the decrease in unionization – twinned processes that tend to be bolstered by the same financial players, including the Walton family. In 1970, 19.5 percent of workers in the state of Colorado were unionized and two-thirds of Pueblo County’s Latino (Indo-Hispano) households owned their own homes. Latino families, on average, earned more than 80 percent of the national average. In 1980, 15 percent of Colorado workers were unionized, and there were 22 Catholic congregations and 32 evangelical Protestant congregations in Pueblo. By 2010, six percent of workers were unionized, and in Pueblo, evangelical Protestant congregations increased to 88, while there was a decline in Catholic congregations. All of the Catholic schools had closed in the 70’s. To the north, between 1980 – 2010, Colorado Springs gained 108 new congregations, and most of those new congregations were Evangelical Protestants.
Joe Bageant has examined the political and cultural consequences of the rise of working class evangelicals in Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (2007). He suggests (in Chapter 5, “The Convert Kingdom – They Plead Upon the Blood of Jesus for a Theocratic State”):
…the most significant yet least understood political event is the conversion from apolitical Christians into Christian political activists. Despite claims of independence, their churches have been deeply manipulated by their own power-hungry leadership and by the Republican party, beginning in the Reagan years.
Bageant also characterizes Pentecostal Reconstructionists — RJ Rushdoony, David Chilton, Gary North, C. Peter Wagner et al. — as individually influencing “more people than Chomsky or Zinn combined.” He’s gone on to explain how these dogmatists were able to permeate the mainstream Right through demonstrative charismatic movements in the 80’s. He describes Christian Reconstruction as “blunt stuff.” Reconstructionist believe: “Biblical Law would eliminate labor unions, civil rights laws, and public schools.” Gary North — a onetime aide to Representative Ron Paul of Texas (whose son is now Senator from Kentucky) – is the leading proponent of “Christian economics,” which claims to apply biblical principles to economic issues and the free market.” (Oppenheimer, 2011).
My mother was introduced to the charismatic movement in the 80’s, and then for a variety of reasons, left Catholicism all together (Dad likes to joke that their 50+ year marriage is possibly annulled — he’s still Catholic). As in many other industrial towns, the 80’s hit Pueblo pretty hard. Pueblo had identified strongly as a steel town since the turn of the 20th Century. But in 1982 the steel crash and subsequent Reaganomics recession created an instant depression. Unemployment reached 20%, and by the 1990s only 1,300 worked at Colorado Fuel & Iron. At its height of production, CF&I employed over 20,000 workers and won productivity awards during WWII and the Korean War. As New Deal scaffolds were dismantled (Reed, 2008) along with the subsequent conservative attacks on social provision, Pentecostalism has offered what Bageant describes as “a message of worthiness…balm to those who do the thankless work of this world and suffer the purest snub of all: invisibility.”
Josh Harkinson has reported on the religious right’s funding of anti-union campaigns (in his Mother Jones article “The Religious Right’s Anti-Union Crusade”). He describes how Focus on the Family (whom Mike Pence addressed at their recent 40th anniversary celebration) and Family Research Council promoted backers of Republican Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union bill on their radio shows and aired anti-labor ads to influence the Wisconsin Supreme Court campaign. Slogans like, “The bigger government gets, the smaller God gets” define their libertarian agenda. It’s as if the gig economy has hit the religious sector. As public schools struggle to pay teachers a decent salary, evangelical churches seem to have enough funding to provide school facilities, professional sound systems, state of the art in-house television productions, and global missions to Ghana. God and the market are intertwined in their “prosperity doctrine” (Meyer, 2007), which posits that consumer items and wealth amount to divine blessings. Reconstructionists not only believe that public employees should not have the right to organize, they believe such employees shouldn’t exist. Public services should be privatized. Per Harkison: “Most of the tasks performed by those protesting the Wisconsin state budget would, in the biblical economics of North [be privatized].”
Now, before I get all judgmental about the magical thinking behind the prosperity doctrine, I must remind myself that in 2009 I, and other social liberals I know, were briefly swept up in Oprah Winfrey/Eckart Tolle’s “The Secret” and the power-of-positive-thinking-mania. If you’ll recall, economic inequality was revealed to be due to a lack of positive thinking and “the pain body.” I even bought the video and was ready to take a leap of faith, that is, until a Marxist friend shared a piece by Barbara Ehrenreich describing how mystical thinking undermines the impulse to ameliorate social conditions. In my defense, in 2009, I was out of work due to the recession. I had just been laid off (along with fifty other people) as an instructor after assuming a full teaching load for five years at the College of Education here in Hawai’i. I was the primary earner for a family of four, with two children in school. I know from the inside what social critic Hettie O’Brien means when she explains how Satanic demons, spiritual warfare, natural law, and positive thinking “cast material problems in the language of easy combat,” providing immediate respite from complex problems like economic inequality and recessions.
Bageant points out in his most recent book: “Fundamentalists such as my family have no idea how thoroughly they’ve been orchestrated by agenda-driven Christian media and other innovations of the past few decades…they want to embrace some simple foundational truth that will rationalize all the conflict and confusion of the post-modern world.” Max Weber may have argued that the spirit of Capitalism and the Protestant ethic were one in the same. But the highly polished, well groomed, and entrepreneurial pastor stands in stark contrast to the humbly dressed Western missionary. The conservative libertarian agenda complements neoliberal projects of privatizing public services and usurping public goods via public-private partnerships.
Bageant’s original critique of urban liberals focused on their inability to talk to, engage with, or attempt to understand “the religious right” and what the faithful “read, hear, are told, and deeply believe.” As he’s written, “given fundamentalist Christianity’s inherent cultural isolation, it is nearly impossible for most enlightened Americans to imagine what fundamentalist Americans believe, let alone understand why we should care about them.” He’s been arguing (for years now) we need to talk to each other more, in person. And he invokes the insights of Fred Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, who notes that if conservative Christians came to power through political organizing, we need to do the same. Clarkson also explains that even the most conservative Christians don’t really long for a theocracy, a civil war, or a religious war, or a cultural war for that matter. They want the same things we all want: health care, a decent salary, good schools, a safe community, security, and a sense of community.
Bageant, J. (2007). Deer hunting with Jesus : dispatches from America’s class war. New York: Crown Publishers.
Bageant, J. (2011). Waiting at the Doomsday Ball: The Best of Joe Bageant. Victoria, Australia: Scribe Publications
Brady, J. (Host). (2005, January 7). Colorado Springs a Mecca for Evangelical Christians [Radio broadcast episode].https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4287106
Harkinson, J. (2017, June 25). The Religious Right’s Anti-Union Crusade. Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/04/religious-rights-crusade-against-unions/
Jenkins, J. (2018, January 20). Catholic Bishops side with labor Unions in Supreme Court Case. [Amicus Brief]. https://www.religionnews.com/2018/01/20/catholic-bishops-side-with-labor-unions-in-supreme-court-case-ask-court-not-to-marginalize-bishops-voices/
Meyer, B. (2007). Pentecostalism and Neo-Liberal Capitalism: Faith, Prosperity and Vision in African Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches. Journal for the Study of Religion, 20(2), 5-28. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24764190
O’Brien, H. (2017). The Spirit of Late Capitalism. Jacobin. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/10/pentecostal-religion-late-capitalism-protestant-ethic
Oppenheimer, M. (2011, April 29). Voice of Gary North Heard in Anti-Union Movement – Beliefs. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/30/us/30beliefs.html
Pew Research Center (2014, May 7). The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States: Nearly one-in-four Latinos are former Catholics. [Polling and Analysis]. http://www.pewforum.org/2014/05/07/the-shifting-religious-identity-of-latinos-in-the-united-states/
Reed, A. (2008, March 20). Race and the New Deal Coalition. The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/race-and-new-deal-coalition/
The Association of Religion Data Archives | Maps & Reports. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2018, from http://www.thearda.com/rcms2010/r/c/08/rcms2010_08101_county_name_1990_ON.asp
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