I grew up in a small town in California, with a population of just over 2,000. When I was in the third grade, my classroom had exactly one black student. It was an election year: George H W Bush versus Michael Dukakis. When the traditional student poll was held, she was the only student who said she preferred Dukakis. Other students pressured her until she changed her vote to Bush.
It’s hard to overstate the small-town social pressure to conform. When a childhood friend posted a hoax story about Hillary Clinton on Facebook recently, I directed him (without comment) to a Snopes piece debunking it. His response was, “You’ve forgotten where you came from.” Then he unfriended me. For many in rural America, it’s downright logical to deny objective reality on any particular issue. Supporting a Democrat might mean a better standard of living in some ways. But, it will also come at a personal cost.
People especially value the opinions of those who model success in their daily lives. Donald Trump spent years playing a successful businessman in a game show that many of these people watched regularly. To them, he’s practically a hometown success story. Of these, there are too few. Between 2008 and 2017, 99 per cent of America’s job and population growth was in metropolitan areas. Rural Americans are being left behind.
So, when those rural Americans not coming up with ways to make their own problems worse, they’re looking for out-groups to blame. Like the minorities who live in those thriving urban centers, and have an increasingly equitable share of power in Washington, DC. Rural voters are far more likely to believe that black and Latinx people are abusing government assistance programs, for example. The racist resentment is vast, and a growing body of research has found that support for Trump is fueled almost entirely by hatred of out-groups: In 2016, the strongest predictors of Trump support were bigotry and lack of education.
All of this is coded in political language, of course — which is why simply being female, or a person of color, is enough for voters to view a candidate as more left-of-center than their actual policy positions. To far too many, the word “liberal” has become a slur for anyone who doesn’t look like them.
If you asked rural Americans how they felt about people of any particular minority group, most would pride themselves on having an unassuming, open-minded acceptance. And, for the most part, that is true on a personal level. But, to them, racism is a Klansman in a movie. It isn’t a contemporary power structure, or an implicit bias that gets black teenagers killed. They don’t see that. They can, on the other hand, see themselves struggling. They just very earnestly do not get it. The minorities they do know are — like that little girl in my third grade class — pressured to fit in, to stay quiet. They’re not talking much about racism.
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that rural teens are stubbornly less likely to pursue higher education than their urban counterparts, even as the low- and middle-skill jobs in their areas disappear.
So, Trump’s attitudes really aren’t any different from the actual feelings of many rural Americans. How can they condemn him for it? Even if they don’t agree, they can identify him with people they love, in spite of those attitudes. He is their father, their uncle, their boss — and his re-election slogan may just as well be, “I don’t see what’s so racist about that.”
It isn’t just Trump’s ignorance that should bother people, of course. It’s also the allegations of corruption against him. It is telling that, in one recent survey, the people least convinced by Trump’s anti-corruption rhetoric seemed to be Romney-Clinton voters. But they tend to live in the suburbs. Rural folk wisdom dictates that all politicians are corrupt to the core, and that anyone who believes otherwise is disgustingly naïve. Once, when my mother expressed contempt for Trump’s corruption, my father groaned back, “They all do it.” My father is a Democrat, but I’m afraid to ask outright whom he voted for. I’m not sure I could look at him the same way.
It will surprise no one who has lived in rural America, or pays attention to Trump’s tweets, that Trump voters are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Institutions like science, education and government are run, after all, by liberals. Many Americans will see a story in the newspaper as less trustworthy than the meme or obvious hoax site shared by someone they know.
Add to the equation a steady diet of fringe media with no accountability itself and you have a rural population that largely believes Trump is no more guilty of corruption than the Clintons, the Obamas, the Bushes, or anyone else. The perception is that he is just being given a hard time because he happens to be one of them.
Because, you know who looks nothing like Trump — or rural America? Every politician and media figure who criticizes, fact-checks, or objectively speaks about Trump. Those people look like the smart aleck who grew up and left town, or like the woman from corporate who laid that poor racist uncle off. They think they’re better than them. Those people, to rural America, are Liberals, with a capital L. In this very piece I insulted them. Why should they trust me?
Rural America supports Trump because they believe that urban elites hate him — and they believe that urban elites hate them, too. And I don’t think they’ll turn on him in significant numbers until they stop seeing him as one of their own.
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