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Passing for Working Class Is Manipulative—and a Favorite Tactic of Duck Dynasty and Trump

Trump pretends to be whatever his voters want him to be.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the essay “Class Acts: Ways to be Something You’re Not” by Clarence Page, from the new book We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page (Beacon Press, October 2017), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound:

Class passing, not surprisingly, can take multiple forms. We have blacks who pass for white and, in rare cases like Rachel Dolezal, whites who pass for black. We have black and white Americans who boast of having Native American Indian blood, although in many cases including my own family and, more famously, that of Senator Elizabeth Warren, the actual evidence is lacking. As the late Vine Deloria Jr., author of Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969), noted with sarcastic irony, Indians are the minority that almost every American wants to claim in their family tree—as if that drop of Indian blood makes them just that much more American than most other Americans.

Our American melting pot has become a gumbo, a collection of meats, vegetables, and spices that give flavor to the pot and absorb flavor from it. Yet the elements in the pot do not completely melt. They maintain their identity. It’s the flavor of it all that by its very dynamism defines American culture through war and peace e pluribus unum—out of many, one.

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For centuries we have had gays who pass for straight and transgenders who pass for cisgender. There’s my grandma’s everyday assimilate-for-success spirit, a spirit embodied in the slogan of some Jewish executives in the Mad Men era: “Dress British, think Yiddish.”

There are the bold striver realists who burst through class ceilings to reach for the American Dream by any means that they can get away with—symbolized by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jimmy Gatz, who hustled his way up to become the title character in The Great Gatsby.

And there are the other strivers who, even as they make it up the ladder, do all they can to publicly pass for “po’”—which my factory-worker father used to define as “so poor we couldn’t afford the o or the r”—to avoid one of the biggest social sins an American can commit: acting like you think you’re “better than everybody else.”

The notion that class and race are the same has been around for a long time. It emerged from the same thinking that gave us “blue blood” as slang for nobility, after the medieval belief that the blood of nobles was blue, different from the rest of us humans. Even the United States; with all the Enlightenment principles on which our country was founded, Americans couldn’t help but cobble together an aristocracy of our own, standing firmly against incursions by the nouveau riche.

Although one can find many Jay Gatsbys in American literature and pop culture, today’s most instructive example is probably Don Draper, the enigmatic advertising executive portrayed by John Hamm at the center of AMC’s Mad Men. As we discover early in the series, Draper has risen to prize-winning prominence in his industry while living a lie.

“Draper? Who knows anything about that guy?” says one of his colleagues. “No one’s ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman for all we know.”

Actually, Donald Francis Draper is revealed to be Richard “Dick” Whitman, born in rural poverty to an Illinois prostitute who died in labor and an abusive alcoholic father who dies after a spooked horse kicks him in the face—in front of ten-year-old Dick. He winds up with relatives who run a bordello. Years later, he goes off to the Korean War and, in a life-changing moment, decides to steal the identity of a fallen comrade.

Many see Draper as a man who has reinvented himself. I see a man who is passing.

He might as well be black, I thought as these scenes unfolded before me, except that if he had been black in 1950s New York, there was no way he would be hired by a Madison Avenue ad firm except maybe as a janitor.

As a cynical critique of the America Dream myth, Don Draper dramatizes the mixture of ambition and caution shared by many of us who, with a mixture of luck, cleverness, and perseverance, managed to work our way up from working-class poverty to the middle class.

Whitman/Draper lives a warped version of the American Dream in the waning days of 1950s class-consciousness. Like Jimmy Gatz, he faced the unfairness of a hardscrabble life that seemed to be rigged against him and found shortcuts around anything that got in his way, including some laws. In keeping with the traditional “passing” narrative, Whitman and Gatz know that life is not fair. Sometimes you have to cut corners just to give your merit a chance to show itself.

The Duck Dynasty Canard

With their waist-length ZZ Top beards, camo-colored outdoorsman clothes, and bayou drawls, the Robertson family men on A&E’s Duck Dynasty are rustic bumpkins who make The Dukes of Hazzard look like Suits. So imagine my surprise to learn that Phil Robertson, the grumpy big-bearded grandpa who looks like he came out of Dogpatch, holds two college degrees in education.

And his long-bearded son Willie, famous for his stars-and-stripes bandana, holds a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He gets most of the credit for growing Duck Commander from a top-selling duck call invented by his dad into a multimillion-dollar hunting gear enterprise—and TV show—based in Louisiana.

All it took to blow their cover was a Google Images search of the “Duck Dynasty Robertsons” and... blam! Old family snapshots popped up circa 2000 of Phil and “the boys” smiling at the camera in khakis and sport shirts and clean-shaven, which made them all look like the reunited Beach Boys off on a golfing afternoon.

Sure I know that so-called reality TV shows create their own reality. But I still felt punked. My mistake was to allow myself to be seduced by the program’s humor and down-home warmth. I wanted it to be real, which is precisely the reaction that the People Who Make TV want me to feel.

Their image of Louisiana swamp-dog authenticity helped their so-called television show rocket to the top of what has variously been called (trigger warning: derogatory slang about poor white people dead ahead) “hillbilly chic,” “redneck chic,” and “white trash chic.”

It is perhaps only coincidental that shortly after Barack Obama’s election in 2008 a new bumper crop of TV shows blossomed on the airwaves out of the world of low-income white folks. Duck Dynasty appeared along with such other titles as Swamp People, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Hillbilly Handfishin’, Redneck Island, Moonshiners, and Appalachian Outlaws. Before rural and small-town America virtually carried President Donald Trump to the White House, it boosted the bayou-based Robertson family of Duck Dynasty into superstar status as folk heroes. In 2013 the show’s fourth season premiere drew 11.8 million viewers; the most-watched nonfiction cable series in history, according to E! online.

For legions of devoted viewers, “these duck-hunters-turned-millionaires are the new faces of the American Dream,” said Forbes at the time. “And boy, do their faces move merchandise.” Duck Dynasty product tie-ins had raked in no less than $400 million in revenues, according to Forbes, with branded merchandise in Walmart, Target, and Kohl’s taking up entire aisles in some stores. Casual camouflage clothes, stars-and-stripes bandanas, REAL WOMEN DRINK BEER glasses, HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY stickers, STING LIKE A BUTTERFLY, PUNCH LIKE A FLEA T-shirts and other merchandising flew off the shelves.

Yet, as with most other reality TV, the reality of Duck Dynasty was heavily manipulated, often to the consternation of the top duck. In one 2012 interview with Sports Spectrum, a Christian sports publication, Grandpa Phil fumed that editors on the show had asked the family to avoid saying the name of Jesus during the dinner prayers that were a standard feature of the end of each show. The prayers were being censored, Roberson said, to avoid offending non-Christians.

Show producers also had added bleep sounds at random moments of dialogue, Robertson complained, as if to cover up a profanity even though none had been spoken. Judging by Grandpa Phil’s remarks, it was not enough that the father and brothers look stereotypically poor; they had to sound like it too.

In other words, the Robertsons were passing for poor—and that’s just the way their fans love them. The secret, family members say, is that they’re a family who love each other and enjoy each other’s company—and how that’s more important than wealth.

As much as our cultural folklore is filled with rags-to-riches stories, we spend almost no time talking about the flip side: passing for poor. Yet, just as those who fail to raise a finger to improve their economic status draw our contempt, so do those who make it up the ladder and thumb their noses at those whom they have left behind. You can be rich, but don’t be uppity about it. Sarah Palin comes to mind.

The Prisoner of Wharton

Race aside, people pass for all sorts of things—richer, poorer, or more or less “regular guy” or “ordinary person” than they really are—depending on what they think will connect best with others. This is particularly true of politicians seeking to connect with voters. Which leads me to consider a certain New York billionaire, reality TV host and, oh, yes, president of the United States.

Donald Trump claimed a net worth of more than $10 billion and an income of $557 million during his 2016 presidential campaign. But Forbes, Politico, and the Wall Street Journal reported that his net worth and income were considerably less. He’s still rich, they said, but not that rich.

Based on his disclosures, Forbes estimated that Trump was worth only about $4.5 billion while Bloomberg estimated $2.9 billion. As Politico said, he appeared to arrive at his figures by overvaluing his properties, ignoring his expenses, and, unlike every other presidential candidate in recent decades, refusing to release his income tax returns.

It does not sound coincidental, then, that nothing seems to infuriate Trump more than allegations that he is not as wealthy or intelligent as he says he is. “I think you’re trying to make me as poor as possible,” he told Forbes in October 2015.

Even when he agreed to be roasted by Comedy Central in 2011, writer and performer Anthony Jeselnik told Joan Rivers in a 2013 interview, Trump told the hosts they could joke about anything, except one: they couldn’t say Trump had less money than he claimed to have.

Jeselnik thought Trump’s choice was curious. He was more accustomed to other such roast targets as Rivers and David Hasselhoff, who requested that the comedians lay off their children.

“Donald Trump’s rule was, don’t say I have less money than I say I do,” he says in a clip from the show posted online by Mediaite. “Make fun of my kids, do whatever you want, just don’t say I don’t have that much money.”

Why is the motormouthed billionaire so closed-mouthed about his own finances?

Financial journalists and other experts speculate several reasons. For one, since Trump’s most lucrative business appeared to be the selling, renting, and leveraging of his own brand, it benefits him to fool all of us into accepting the highest number possible. Two, he also may have been paying such a low tax rate that it would have embarrassed him in front of his supporters.

Three, his businesses appeared to be generating more revenue than cash for him. He was selling assets and increasing debt in the summer of 2016 in ways that suggest a man scrambling for ready cash, Politico reported.

Even more intriguing than Trump’s unverifiable wealth estimates is his record of fibbing about his own lineage.

For years Trump told people that he was of Swedish descent and repeated that claim in his autobiography, The Art of the Deal, according to Timothy L. O’Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and author of TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.

In fact, Trump is of German descent. His family’s original name was Drumpf. Why the switch? As Trump family spokesmen told reporters, they feared that their German heritage would offend Jewish tenants in their buildings.

— — —

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump managed to play both ends of the passing game. With the salesmanship of a born hustler, he disrupted his own billionaire narrative to voice the attitude and monosyllabic vocabulary of a working-class hero.

On the other end, he repeatedly mentioned his diploma from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious business school Wharton, as if he still needed academic evidence that he was worth listening to—and voting for.

In fact, after transferring from Fordham University, the future president only spent his final two college years in Wharton’s undergraduate program, not in the graduate school for which Wharton is best known.

And, contrary to claims in profiles published in the 1970s and ’80s that Trump graduated number one in his Ivy League class, the New York Daily News interviewed his classmates and found there was no official ranking. “If he tries to claim he was first in the class,” the newspaper quoted one student as saying, “he should show his transcript.” He didn’t.

Candidate Trump kept a tight grip on information about his wealth too, including his tax returns, which he refused to make public, unlike other presidential nominees.

Yet, as bizarre as such disputes and secrecy seem when compared to other more traditional candidates, Trump’s core supporters stayed remarkably loyal, understanding perhaps that hype-fueled reinvention is indeed the American way.

We are long accustomed to politicians who brag about their poor-but-character-building childhoods (Abe Lincoln’s log cabin anyone?) or who make light of their wealth.

“Poverty snob” was the label my late wife had for people such as herself, fiercely convinced that their tough upbringing made them better people than those of us who didn’t have it quite as rough. But reverse snobbery also describes Trump’s populist pitch when he’s reaching out to his working- and middle-class base of voters who feel put upon by what he calls our “stoo-pid leaders in Washington.”

“He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life,” wrote Fitzgerald. “It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”

Fitzgerald was writing about Gatsby, but he could have been describing Draper. Or Trump.

Days of Future Passing

When I think about the future of passing, a classic New Yorker cartoon comes to mind. It shows a dog tapping out a message on a computer screen: “On the Internet, no one can tell you’re a dog.”

When web surfing dogs don’t sound all that extraordinary, what else is left in future technology to amaze us? On the Internet it is easier than ever to follow Grandma Page’s edict: always look prosperous. You can look any way you want to. Exotic identity shifts are even encouraged. You can produce avatars of yourself that may be of another color or gender or species. You too can be a purple Vulcan.

Through your avatar you can even date other avatars on platforms like Second Life and Utherverse. Real world marriages have been known to break up under the pressure of competition from online relationships that don’t rely on traditional standards of appearance or presentation.

Traditional standards are changing on all fronts. I have a theory that changing times will bring more passing by class. Just as the original Gatsby came out of an industrial age ethos that tried to reward cleverness and ambition regardless of blue blood or its lack, today’s Gatsby is more likely to come out of a postindustrial meritocracy that can’t quite live up to its meritocratic promise. We say we want merit, talent, and intelligence regardless of race, creed, color, or family wealth. Yet there always will be those who turn to deceptions, whether mild or major, in the hope that somebody will give them a pass. After all, passing is the American way.

This has been an excerpt from the essay “Class Acts: Ways to be Something You’re Not” by Clarence Page, from the new book We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page (Beacon Press, October 2017), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound.