Welcome coastal elites! As the Trump campaign continues to shred its way through the Republican primaries, many of you seem confused and frightened at your sudden realization that another 80% of the United States exists. Don’t worry! The cultural landscape of Middle America may be perplexing at first, but with a little education and effort, you, too, can wrap your head around it.
Rich white people often assume that poor white people are all alike. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and the really rich white people are the ones whose ancestors recognized this early. The assumption that elites like to set poor whites against poor people of color in order to keep both sides down is closer to the truth, but erases the much, much longer history of elites setting poor whites against each other. These days, these cultural conflicts flare up on a smaller scale than they used to — you don’t really see the Italians and the Irish gang-warring it up in Manhattan anymore — but like most downtrodden groups, poor whites often cluster in ethnicity groupings, if for no other reason than that when you don’t have money, it’s hard to move away.
I come from white trash. My mother was the first in her family to go to college; if my dad’s grandfather hadn’t been a doctor, dad might have been the first in his as well. I am also related to a hell of a lot of white trash, some of whom have entered the professional class like my parents and I did, some of whom didn’t. The following list is probably incomplete, but covers the major clusters I’ve encountered; if I missed some, please comment!
We’ll start with my own ethnic group, the Scots-Irish. From the Atlantic seaboard down through Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, the Scots-Irish are everywhere. Poor immigrants from England, like the Hatfields of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, usually get lumped in with the Scots-Irish, as do the Welsh. The Scots-Irish are famous for their love of drinking, fighting, singing, screwing, hunting, not spending money, and child abuse. Scots-Irish grandmothers may look sweet, and many of them are, but don’t cross them or they will end you. Even Scots-Irish men are terrified of them.
Cajuns are white trash with French ancestry. These days they inhabit the Gulf Coast, although originally they were French settlers who got kicked out of Quebec and the Maritimes. (Fun fact: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline” is technically about Cajuns.) Cajuns are famous for everything the Scots-Irish are, except with a French accent. They have inherited the French taste for cuisine, and their food is much better than Scots-Irish cooking. (However, don’t tell a Scots-Irish woman this. See above.)
Texas in particular has a large number of Czech-Germans. Germany, Bohemia, Silesia, and Moravia aren’t all that similar culturally, but in the 1800s a lot of German and Czech immigrants ended up in the same places in the South and got along all right. If you’ve been at SxSW this week and wondered where the hell all the German and Slavic place names came from, well, now you know. They’re renowned for their beer and their sausages, and also tend to be avid hunters. A lot of them are Catholic. Much less talkative than the Scots-Irish, Czech-German white trash embody the principle of “it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission.” Also, Czech-Germans will never, ever stop feeding you.
Moving north across the Red River, Okies are an interesting example of what happens when you point fifty thousand people of varying backgrounds in the direction of two million acres of land and say “if you live on it, it’s yours.” Oklahoma has been the site of some of the worst droughts in American history, and Okie culture brings with it a healthy conviction that one can live through goddamn anything.
Further north into the Midwest, you run into the Polacks. This is technically a derogatory term for people of Polish descent, though I’ve also heard it applied to people whose Eastern European ancestors came from less well-known countries. In Europe, particularly France and Russia, Polish people are stereotyped as thieves or under-the-table laborers. In the US, you’re more likely to run into the stereotype of “Polish people are unintelligent,” although both continents tend to associate being Polish with being a plumber. Polacks are also the target of a uniquely American type of joke, the Polack joke, which has developed regional variations. In Texas, they’re Aggie jokes instead.
Further north still, in Minnesota and the Dakotas, you get the Scandahoovians. Tall, blonde, chubby, kind of dim and easy to put one over on, but friendly: there’s your stereotypical Scandahoovian. Jokes about Scandahoovians are kinder, on average, than jokes about Polacks; the Scandahoovian is still the butt of the joke, but about half the time, he outwits the Yankee. Scandahoovians will also never stop feeding you, but instead of sausages, it’s casserole and they call it “hot dish.” They’re quiet folks; I’m told this is a survival trait, acquired as a result of having to spend the entirety of winter either at home with your family or ice fishing. (Get into a spat with someone, and you’ll be doing a lot more ice fishing. So they keep things to themselves.)
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Italians. Italians compete with Czech-Germans for keeping you fat and happy, but they’re much more talkative. They also compete with the Scots-Irish for fighting you. I don’t know much about Italian white trash culture; I married into Pennsylvania Scots-Irish, and that branch of family sure loved Italian food and was happy to work with their neighboring Italians, but tended to keep to their own culturally. “Jersey Shore” is where most folks get their stereotypes of Italians these days, and I’m sure it only shows the shittiest, most laughable parts of Italian white trash culture. I’ve made a few Italian white trash friends, and they’re some of the most loyal people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.
If you couldn’t tell, I like white trash. I might be cashed-up these days, substituting “frequent travel” for bling as the obligatory bad habit, but fundamentally I’m still white trash. I am basically okay with this, although it sometimes makes conversations with elites awkward. But it’s okay, elites! It doesn’t have to be awkward unless you make it awkward. And, well, you’ve got one big awkward mess in front of you, trying to figure out why such a great huge swath of the country is cheering for a giant dickwad who just kinda happens to be Lord King White Trash. I hope this taxonomy gives you a better sense of some of the structure of the flyover masses of America that you’ve ignored for so long.
Good luck. You’re gonna need it.