As the polls tighten between presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, many are left wondering where the bulwark of Trump’s support comes from. A recent New York Times article entitled “The One Demographic That Is Hurting Hillary Clinton” shows that Trump has a large lead among less-educated white voters and white working-class voters. To a casual observer it may seem strange that the latter group is the main support behind the GOP nominee, given that many of his brand products are made overseas, thus implying that Trump’s businesses are likely benefitting from free trade policies and cheap foreign labor. Yet despite this, Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-free trade message seems to be resonating with this demographic. Why is this? Didier Eribon reflected upon this same apparent contradiction in France in Returning to Reims, published in English translation by Semiotexte.
Equal parts memoir, sociology, and critical theory, Returning to Reims combines these disparate approaches into a memorable work that depicts the surprising conflicts that arise from identity. Born to working-class parents in Reims, an industrial city mostly known for the production of world-class champagnes, Didier Eribon left to go to university in Paris and stayed there, only returning home many years later to visit his aging mother. In Paris, it was easier to come out as a gay man than to reveal his working-class past, and he went as far as changing how he spoke around certain company. When back in Reims, he discovered that his mother, who had routinely voted for the Communist Party throughout her life, was now voting for France’s far-right party, the National Front. Eribon wondered how this could be. His conclusion is that the working class was alienated by the left—it no longer represented them. This sense of alienation and frustration led to voting for the National Front: even if their interests didn’t exactly align, it was a form of self-affirmation— we did this to show that we will not be taken for granted by a party that no longer reflects our values.
This sentiment among France’s working class parallels the rise of nontraditional candidates in the US: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Many voters frustrated with the status quo, turned to Trump and Sanders to challenge it, hoping that outsiders would give them a sense of empowerment that has been waning in the past few decades. In France, the National Front hasn’t enjoyed the success that Donald Trump has, but the anxiety over such a rise can be seen in something like the success of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. In Submission an election in the near future has the Socialist Party banding with the fictional Muslim Brotherhood Party to defeat the National Front and handing the Presidency to the Muslim Brotherhood Party’s leader, Mohammed Ben-Abbes (simultaneously stoking another major point of anxiety for the French). At any case, it would be unwise to ignore this demographic in France and the US, even if their numbers are dwindling.