The Day the White Working Class Turned Republican

The nation, we keep hearing on television and in social media blather, is politically divided as never before. Nonsense. The ostensibly united states have been disunited many, many times, and “The Hardhat Riot,” by David Paul Kuhn, vividly evokes an especially ugly moment half a century ago, when the misbegotten Vietnam War and a malformed notion of patriotism combined volatilely. They produced a blue-collar rampage whose effects still ripple, not the least of them being Donald Trump’s improbable ascension to the presidency.

Let’s remember what the United States was like in 1970: a country torn apart after years of political assassination, unpopular war, economic dislocation, race rioting and class disharmony. The last thing it needed in 1970 was more open fighting in the streets. But that’s what it got on May 8, days after President Richard Nixon had expanded America’s Southeast Asia misadventure into Cambodia and Ohio National Guardsmen shot dead four students during antiwar protests at Kent State University.

Kuhn, who has written before about white working-class Americans, builds his book on long-ago police records and witness statements to recreate in painful detail a May day of rage, menace and blood. Antiwar demonstrators had massed at Federal Hall and other Lower Manhattan locations, only to be set upon brutally, and cravenly, by hundreds of steamfitters, ironworkers, plumbers and other laborers from nearby construction sites like the nascent World Trade Center. Many of those men had served in past wars and viscerally despised the protesters as a bunch of pampered, longhaired, draft-dodging, flag-desecrating snotnoses.

It was a clash of irreconcilable tribes and battle cries: “We don’t want your war” versus “America, love it or leave it.” And it was bewildering to millions of other Americans, including my younger self, newly back home after a two-year Army stretch, most of it in West Germany. My sympathies were with the demonstrators. But I also understood the working stiffs and why they felt held in contempt by the youngsters and popular culture.

New social policies like affirmative action and school busing affected white blue-collar families far more than they did the more privileged classes that spawned many antiwar activists. For Hollywood, the workingman seemed barely a step above a Neanderthal, as in the 1970 movies “Joe,” about a brutish factory worker, and “Five Easy Pieces,” in which a diner waitress is set up to be the target of audience scorn. (Come 1971, we also had “All in the Family” and television’s avatar of working-class bigotry, Archie Bunker.)

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