Occasionally a book comes along at a timely historical moment. Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (2017) is one such volume. Its appearance roughly coincided with the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency. Many political commentators recognized Trump’s appeal to the nation’s lower-class whites struggling to survive in an increasingly high-tech, globalized economy in which well paying manufacturing jobs for less-educated workers vanished from American shores. A profound irony transformed a New York real estate tycoon of indeterminable wealth into the savior of the disaffected, rural white masses.
Republican attacks upon an array of governmental programs have frayed the social safety net designed to aid many of the very same voters who cast ballots for Trump. The recently passed tax plan will redistribute wealth upwards as it undercuts President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Trump’s legions are already suffering self-inflicted wounds, with more pain to come. The year 2016 gave us a watershed election in which downtrodden, dispossessed, and poorly educated whites—precisely the type of people Merritt writes about—finally found their collective political voice. To their detriment, however, they chose a candidate hostile to their own best economic interests.