Richard Wright’s “Basket of Deplorables”: The Return of the Lumpenproletariat in U.S. Political Discourse

Author:Joshua Lam Time:2019-07-10 Click:

Political coverage of the US presidential election of 2016 involved numerous theories about the motivations of Donald Trump’s supporters. These theories were often tied to racial and socioeconomic demographics, and based in speculations about racism and prejudice. Some of the rhetoric in these speculations, such as Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” analogy and the informal term “Trumpen Proletariat,” echoes political rhetoric found in Marxist discussions of the lumpenproletariat, a social class characterized by abject poverty, ideological ambivalence, and criminality. In the US, the lumpenproletariat was a subject of great importance to a small number of Depression-era writers, including the African American novelist Richard Wright, whose novels Native Son and Lawd Today! documented and analyzed the fascinating contradictions of race, class, prejudice, and political ideology. This essay asks what Wright’s depictions of the lumpenproletariat can teach us about contemporary political rhetoric in general, and about the intersections of race and class prejudice in particular. It argues that Wright’s refusal to politically abject the ignorant and alienated lower classes can teach us much today about the limits of current US political discourse.

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