The trailer-trash factor

Peter Hartcher hypothesises in this morning’s SMH that Bush will win next week’s US Presidential election despite his poor economic stewardship and a botched occupation of Iraq that may yet turn into a Vietnam-style quagmire. The reason? Scots-Irish “trailer trash” support the Republicans because of their “fighting Irish” or “Jacksonian” mentality:

They are the gun lovers of contemporary America, and the founders of the Bible belt.

From this code of honour come the rules for the American political conduct of warfare. Once Jacksonian honour is engaged, America will fight ferociously, tirelessly and without restraint. “For the first Jacksonian rule of war is that wars must be fought with all available force,” writes Mead. “The use of limited force is deeply repugnant. Jacksonians see war as a switch that is either ‘on’ or ‘off’.

“To engage in a limited war is one of the costliest political decisions an American president can make. Neither Truman [Korean War] nor Johnson [Vietnam] survived it.”

Jacksonians voted Democrat until Nixon, then moved to become solidly Republican.

I have no idea whether this is true, and I doubt that it would be possible to verify it from opinion polling. But occasional bemused observation of RWDBs in the blogosphere suggests Hartcher’s insight may contain an element of truth.

The interesting thing about Hartcher’s hypothesis from my viewpoint is the claim that “wars must be fought with all available force“. Presumably the trailer trash must think Bush is doing this, and that Kerry might not (hence all the Swiftboat veterans nonsense). But as far as I can see the reality seems to be that Bush is attempting to prosecute the occupation of Iraq with much less than optimal military force. Numerous military observers have suggested that as many as twice the current number of troops is needed to adequately pacify the country and provide sufficient protection for meaningful democratic elections and ongoing reconstruction efforts. And the Bush administration even seems to be skimping on the maintenance and preparedness of the troops on the ground in Iraq. Last week’s mutiny by a transport platoon was said to have been caused by “the safety and condition of their vehicles“:

“The command just totally ignored them when they told them this fuel was contaminated and they were still gonna send them out on this mission with contaminated fuel. They were completely aware of this situation and I believe it’s a command issue, not a soldier issue,” Shealey told CBS’ “Early Show.” …

Last year, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, complained to the Pentagon his supply situation was so poor it threatened the Army’s ability to fight, said an official document revealed by The Washington Post on Monday.

So, if the “trailer-trash” vote is so critical, why hasn’t John Kerry tried to expose the fact that Bush is apparently engaging in limited war in much the same way as Truman in Korea and Johnson in Vietnam? I suspect it’s for exactly the same reason that Johnson and Truman did what they did: most of the American population isn’t prepared to pay the price of a very large, long-term troop deployment. Kerry can’t “call” Bush on this issue unless he’s prepared to promise to send more troops to Iraq himself. I suspect that even the “trailer-trash” aren’t really prepared for it: they just like leaders who spout jingoistic bullshit, and lack the wit to distinguish between real strength and pompous posturing.

The political perception that Americans would not tolerate a prolonged major war, despite September 11, was no doubt one of the reasons why Rumsfeld insisted on rushing the initial Iraq invasion, despite advice that troop numbers might be inadequate and that the existence of WMD hadn’t been verified. That the initial invasion itself didn’t turn into a protracted bloodbath is, I suspect, partly a consequence of Saddam’s having decided in advance to instruct his elite troops to melt into the population and mount a long-term guerilla insurgency to get rid of the Americans.

If Bush continues to station inadequate numbers of troops in Iraq to allow either meaningful democratic elections or an ongoing effective reconstruction effort, we probably will eventually see a Vietnam-style public backlash where most of the population realise they’ve been conned, and even many of the trailer-trash turn against the incumbent President. But that time probably isn’t yet.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Leaving aside Peter Hartcher’s thesis, I find the whole notion of herding people into such rude and dismissive categories as ‘trailer trash’ to be part of the whole identity problem of modern politics, particularly for left-wing parties. Isn’t it just the same kind of high-and-mighty stuff about the deluded poor that’s been decried in earlier times? The thing is, perhaps people are sick of being talked down to, as if they were bound to be idiots, ignorant or Deliverance-style thugs, just because they live in caravans.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Sophie

Fair comment, but it may contain an element of truth nonetheless. I don’t shrink from the label of arrogant elitist, though in a deeply civil way. And classical liberalism is rooted in a deep suspicion of the dangers of majoritarian tyranny and the lumpen proletariat. Hence representative democracy and upper houses with an indirect franchise and longer terms of office.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Sophie
read the article. The first mention of the word ‘trailer trash’ (except for the title) is by a member of the ‘trailer trash’ classes himself:
“And, surveying an ancestral Virginia graveyard, Webb, a former senior official in the Reagan Pentagon, writes that they are his people: “The slurs stick to me, standing on these graves. Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder. My ancestors. My people. Me.”
Hartcher uses the word ‘Jacksonian Americans’.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

Hartcher’s article is pretty ignorant. I live in a part of the US that has these supposed “trailer trash” communities. One of my good mates lives in West Virginia, in typical WV style his family owns a mountain and he has built his house there. He lives nearby to his parents, uncle, grandparents and brother. He is a wonderful bloke that would give you the shirt of his back if you needed it. He is deeply religous and his father is the local pastor. He is also a very proud, honest and good hearted person. He will also be voting for Bush.

From the stereotype of Hartcher, my good mate here would be passed off as trailer trash. Nothing can be further from the truth. My mate is wonderful bloke and does not deserve that kind of denigration from an SMH hack.

The problem with these op-ed writers is that the more you read the more they come out hacks with nothing really useful to say. About the only writer who is consistently interesting in the Au media is Ross Gittens. The rest are a bunch of uninformed idiots.

They should be relegated to blogging and let traffic, aggregation and cross-linking determine the value of their opinions. Not be paid to use the bull-horn of the SMH to spread their garbage.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

Since I used “trailer trash” as well I should explain, these people are just conservative voters. Since the US is a political duopoly, the party that has best convinced the electorate they stand for conservative values is the Republican party. That is why these often poor but very moral, honest and religious people will be voting Republican.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

and leaving aside from the inflammatory label, there clearly are people who hold such attitudes and they tend to live in the South, like guns, believe in Biblical literalism, etc. and if we think their views on foreign policy are stupid and misinformed, why shouldn’t we say so? there is a new identity problem among the parties of the right – they have descended into a post-modernist, relativist morrass which denigrates intellectual achievement, denigrate notions of excellence and elitism, uncritically take the views of the ‘majority’ as gospel, etc just because their new class enemies are in the upper middle classes. representative democracy is about leading the people with you, not following them. ‘trailer trash’ used to be a term of denigration used as much by the mainstream right incidentally.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Cameron and Sophie

It looks like Hartcher’s (and my) use of the shorthand label “trailer trash” is going to derail what might otherwise be an interesting discussion about the substance of Hartcher’s hypothesis, and my counter-observation that Bush is in any event prosecuting a limited and unsatisfactory war while pretending to do something else. Let’s revert to “Jacksonian” for this attitude of proud, determined patriotism, and deem “trailer-trash” inoperative.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

Ken,

No worries, sorry for the rant. My second post stands though, many of the red states and purple states have a very moral, honest and religious working class (as opposed to economic liberals who vote Republican). They see themselves as conservative and the Republicans have best marketed themselves (since the demise of the Dixicrats) as the party that represents conservative values. That is why many of the people in the rural and working class communities will vote Republican IMO.

I dont think there really needs to be a search for a new classification as Jacksonians, as these people are conservative anyway and see their values better reflected in the rhetoric the Republican party pumps out. Part of it is the “stay the course”, “finish the job”, “god bless America”, “home of the free, land of the brave” etc.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

I should add too, that in the conservative mind, there is no contridction between loyalty to god, loyalty to the family, loyalty to the nation-state and loyalty to the President. When Bush says “You cant lead if you criticise the troops”, or “You cant be commander in chief if you criticise our allies in Iraq” that is what he is appealing to IMO.

That is why I dont think claiming they’re Jacksonian carries weight; these same people just have conservative American views.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

I take your point, Ken, I just dislike those sorts of labels. It’s true that people often take them up for themselves, thereby neutralising the insult: on a personal level, I’ve seen the same thing happen with ‘wog’–taunted as a ‘wog in the 70’s, I now happily use the term of myself. But it’s different when some outsider does it to you, without affection. I’m likely to jump down that person’s throat very smartly then!

yobbo
2022 years ago

Eerily reminiscent of all the attacks from the left of the stupid rednecks that voted for Howard. It seems this sort of thing isn’t just a problem in Australia.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

“There clearly are people who hold such attitudes and they tend to live in the South, like guns, believe in Biblical literalism, etc. and if we think their views on foreign policy are stupid and misinformed, why shouldn’t we say so?…”

You can say so, Jason… but I think it’s generally a good idea for writers of fiction to steer clear of such generalisations — stereotypes tend to inspire some very dull writing, if you ask me….(she says, linking shamelessly to own post)

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Not only shamelessly but unsuccessfully as well (which is even worse).

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Is my face red?

Here it is to cut & paste.

http://troppoarmadillo.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/003734.html

No jokes about me being a ‘typical’ anything. That would be unkind, and anyway I’m not even blonde.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

yobbo
as I’ve noted the first mention of the term was by a ‘trailer trash’ himself identifying its derogatory history. the identification of the group itself is by Walter Russell Mead, and even your beloved Steve Sailer of the paleo-con right cites the theory, as does Lew Rockwell.com which has lots of pro-‘trailer trash’ writers. so this isn’t a matter of left and right but if you think the usefulness of the ideas is negated by your taking offence at it, be my guest

Amanda
2022 years ago

I don’t know that there is anything new about Webb/Hartcher’s points. I wonder about his comment that this group is “overlooked most of the time.” He himself says both Kerry and Bush are trying to appeal to them, the south has always loomed larged in US presidential politics, as has “the heartland.” I would think that many of them see their moral/lifestyle interests served in very powerful lobby groups like the churches or the NRA. The cultural exports of the south have always punched above their weight on the national scene, and the Old South is often romanticised, although of course there are stereotypes. But there are sterotypes about every group (even liberal Senators from Massachussetts — do liberals have a legitimate complaint about being marginalised and denigrated with impunity?). There are alot of positive qualities associated with “southernness” in the culture too. I’ve seen numerous articles recently arguing there is currently a major upsurge in cultural confidence among southern whites, evidenced by the selfidentification as “white trash” or “redneck”.

I suspect to many people the argument over whether or not Bush is handling Iraq in the best possible way is irrelevant, the fact that he is doing it at all is the important thing. Many people even with doubts about the conduct of the war will support Bush because that’s what you do with presidents in war time.

As in any political campaign the Message not the detail is the thing. Bush= Patriotic and strong. Kerry=Wishy washy. That’s what the wolf pack ad is designed to highlight. Bush is strong so he must be doing the right thing. I agree with your final par, Ken.

Nick
Nick
2022 years ago

Well Ken, I reckon yer right & an important issue has been derailed here…happens often in the media too, instead of exploring a topic in-depth that could take us closer to understanding the real machinations, motivations, consequences behind an action such as making a pre-emptive strike against another nation, commentators/hosts/debaters too often become sidetracked by the ‘gotya game’. A classic strategy used by some to devolve the argument. Tho in this case i’m sure most contributors were concerned by the use of stereotypical labels in order to put forward an issue.

Fair enuff…but let’s move away from diversion & look closer at the possible reasons for the Bush admin. fighting a limited war, going for the perception of a ‘blitzkrieg’ win without seemingly being prepared for winning the ‘hearts & minds’/the peace.

To put it in historical context, certainly Bush & his cohorts would’ve been aware of the nation’s underlying fear of protracted wars due to the experience of Vietnam & the underlying trauma it caused to the US…not to mention the distrust/wariness of its post-modern foreign policy engendered in its allies & global neighbours. Vietnam in combination with the Korean War undermined an element of trust much of the post WW2 ‘liberated’ nations/regions had in America…a simplistic proposition indeed but in some ways it works”

Martin Pike
2022 years ago

Geez nick, who’s got time to read all that?

All im saying is here we call them Bogans, and they are everywhere from the Kingswood to the Boardroom…

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Hmmm, my instant reaction to this was that it was a typical piece of slapdash cultural analysis with no attempt to actually identify whether this “voting bloc” exists. The whole Jacksonian thing I think is overblown. West Virginia, for instance, has a strong military tradition but this might also be related to its poverty particularly in the Appalachian regions discussed. It’s pretty clear that the US services recruit disproportionately from people with few economic opportunities.

I did think, however, that the wolves thing in the ad was a bit of a subliminal nod to the gun thing. Note how often Kerry’s emphasised he hunts!

yobbo
2022 years ago

So Jason, if I wrote an article about asian voters and called them “gooks” throughout it, that would be ok if I could find a single asian who self-identified as a “gook”?

peggy sue
peggy sue
2022 years ago

Not sure where you get “scots-irish” from.

The expression is Scotch-Irish.

The Scotch-Irish were the Presbyterians from southern Scotland who were “planted” in Ireland in the 17th century.

Prior to the War of Independence more than 200,000 of the descenants of “Plantation Irish” left Ireland to emigrate to America. They were often known simply as Irish, because that’s were they had last lived.

After the Irish Famine, when large numbers of poor, uneducated CATHOLIC Irish arrived in America, the established PROTESTANT Irish did not want to be associated with them, and the designation Scotch-Irish was used/revivied from around 1845 to distinguish them.

Both Clinton and the Bushes have Scotch-Irish ancestors.

Etymologically Scotch is Scottish, with the i-sound elided. Scottish = Scott’sh = Scotch.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I got a private email this morning about this post from an insomniac reader. Given our discussion about irony on another thread, it deserves to be reproduced here:
yhe alle the fox news wiweer and religus rhigt are somthing like that i think you should look on uss clueless weblog he wrote a long eassy abut that that they will return to poltics after stayed away for 100 years but is that a suprise computer tech makes the opertuinty to be more induvlistic and the old factory/socialims ideas are useless when good eductaed creatve laptop useres can make ther owen company wher nobody get expolided (as long as you can say stop take a break and go on vatcaion and not crash and end up on prozac )

Tony Healy
Tony Healy
2022 years ago

Sophie is right to question the use of the term trailer trash here. The problem is that Ken has used it descriptively, implying it’s a valid label. The original article uses it in a mocking fashion. James Webb self-describes himself as trailer trash to mock other peoples’ use of that term to refer to his people.

As Sophie says, it’s a deplorable categorisation. The problem in this thread is that Ken has taken the reference out of context.

Moving on, I have no problems with Hartchers’s observations, based as they are on Webb’s book, although I think he might be guilty of failing to respect the different American attitudes towards firearms. Unlike Australia, America has a history of settlers having to rely on and be proficient in use of firearms to defend their lives. This was exacerbated by two bloody wars fought on American soil. Of course Americans will have stronger affinity with firearms.

I don’t think Hartcher understands the concept of using maximum force in warfare. It’s not some gung-ho thing. It’s a standard operating procedure that ensures success and minimises casualties on both sides. Commanders generally plan on having at least 3-1 advantage before attacking a defended position, for example. Given the significant participation of Americans in the armed forces, these concepts would resonate. Note that both presidential candidates served in the armed forces, in striking contrast to Australia.

Ken’s speculation as to whether cost-cutting in the Iraq campaign might have provided leverage for the Kerry campaign is interesting. That was probably the point of this thread.

mark
2022 years ago

“peggy sue”, you mean the Revolution, don’t you?

Sam, old bean, you might like to read the article in question. Whatever the merits of Hartcher’s hypothesis, the phrase “trailer trash” is used twice in the article, once in the headline (an ironic quote) and once in the article, by a self-described “trailer trash” complaining that no-one takes them seriously.

Unless you were talking about Ken’s own article; indeed, he’s been taken to task (quite rightly) for that very sin. However, he hasn’t tried to defend himself by saying “but… but… the trailer trash call themselves that!”.

Let’s take another look at your analogy. If I wrote an article about Asians, and referred to them only as Asians throughout, but included a verbatim quote from a fiercely proud Vietnamese-Australian immigrant, in which she called herself a “gook”; would Sam Ward whinge about those insensitive bloody hypocritical lefties?

Nick
Nick
2022 years ago

Getting back to the ‘limited war’ assertion…this could be another case of ‘perception’…more smoke & mirrors… created by the Bush admin. Limited perhaps in regard to US & ally troop numbers but a record amount of private contractors…reports range from 10,000 private employees up to 20% of total force in Iraq…taking part in jobs once allocated to the Army (engineer corp etc)…consequently, the rules of the game are changed (ie: companies not always held to same human-right’s obligations & so on as Army), related corporate profits & shares are flourishing…the focused battles like Fallujah ensure less media scrutiny (undermines the ‘Nam effect’) due to military cordons, ensures focused bombing & artillery runs to cause heavy damage on essential service infrastructure, cafes, restaurants, gov’t bldgs etc….so future rebuilding & loans will benefit the no-bid & neo-con affiliated contractors/construction businesses/banks etc. A shifting of Iraq’s oil revenue & US taxpayer’s money into the hands of the Dynasty makers. It’s a combination of corporate interests, resource grabs & strategic positioning for future possible conflicts (China, Iran, Pakistan) that drive this war.