I’ve just read what must be the tenth think piece about how awful life is for the poor rural Americans – that they had no choice other than to abandon democratic principles and root for a demagogue. I am a proud son of rural Vermont, and having grown up at my family’s farm store, I learned how to identify bullshit at a young age. As such, I want to clear up the misconception that the poor right-wing rural voters have no choice but to lose their minds, or whatever. This isn’t about economics or demographics, but about politics, and it’s politicians who need to be owning up.
Just by way of bona fides, I was born in the city of Burlington, Vermont’s largest at 50,000. At 18 months we moved to Lyndonville in the Northeast Kingdom. Next door was Victory, Vermont, the last place to receive rural electrification. After a few years we lived in the outskirts of Claremont, New Hampshire, before settling in the Rutland, Vermont region. None of those places have the population of a college football game in the Red States. And if you’re accidentally in a small city like Rutland, then you’re surrounded on all sides by nothing. Cow pastures surrounded my high school.
Trump is polling at 17% among the dairy farms and gift shops. No neo-nazi groups are holding rallies. The place hasn’t lost its mind.
But wait, aren’t there ski areas there? Isn’t that full of rich people, or something. Nope. Vermont’s economy is 50th out of 50 in size and 49th worst in terms of outlook. The opiate drug problem is so bad it made the New York Times and Rolling Stone. The population is aging rapidly. Kids who want “good jobs” go off to coastal cities, especially Boston. And guns? We are armed to the freakin’ teeth. Sounds like a recipe for dystopia that should breed Trump voters behind every sad, broken lumber mill.
Rurality does not create the fever swamp we’re now in. Fifty years of the GOP’s “Southern strategy,” however, does.
Rage and paranoia didn’t simply grow – it was planted
Trump isn’t some economic creation, even though inequality is rocketing toward Brazilian levels and GDP creation is continuing its inexorable trend toward urban areas. Surely, that gives people the (correct) impression that there isn’t a national plan to revitalize the network of small towns that used to produce so much light manufacturing and local farming. It’s true, the knowledge economy puts a premium on intellectual workers in urban areas and we sent the manufacturing overseas long ago in favor of higher value-added services. This trend has been going steady through Reagan, two Bushes, Clinton, and Obama. It did not accelerate somehow in Democratic administrations. There is no reason that virulent, nihilistic right wing rhetoric should “suddenly” take root in these “abandoned” places.
It’s not an accident. It was cultivated.
The Republican party has been inflaming its voters by playing to the worst instincts and mythologies of Southerners in particular for four decades. They did it intentionally, a strategic pivot against a Democratic party that had embraced civil rights. They nourished a handful of twisted themes which have now reached their illogical terminus points.
An aggrieved victim complex. Betrayal by other races. Domination by a Federal Government. The promise of a Golden Age if it weren’t for the rest of the nation oppressing them while allowing all manner of social iniquity.
Those themes do not speak for or about all Southerners, the vast majority of whom I am proud to call my fellow citizens. But it describes the worst thoughts and feelings of those obsessed with roiling post-Civil War grievances that might have finally dissipated were it not for the cynical manipulations of Washington DC’s political engineers and New York’s media barons. It’s ironic that Northeastern city slickers figured out how to keep those feelings alive, hot, infected. Those technocrats figured out how to keep those emotions driving votes and driving divisions. They built billion-dollar media empires on them.
And now, especially in the lands where that hysteria lives most vibrantly – rural places, mostly in the South, Midwest, and West – the mythology has metastasized to the point that people are ready to reject the American project in its entirety. The whole thing’s a fraud, they’ve decided. They were supposed to rise up, the people living where only 13% of GDP is produced, and conquer the rest of America in those rotten cities! Full of double-talkers and swarthy “food stamp recipients.” Never mind that all of these areas are net takers of Federal largesse financed by blue cities, They are all sick of us. They’re mad as hell and not going to take it any longer! Because it’s the Forgotten Rural America! They’ve been betrayed…by all of the rest of us!
They are not children. They have agency in their own lives, if not command over trade policy. Nobody forced them to invent stories about voter fraud or to believe that Obama, a guy raised by white people from Kansas who did all of his schooling and career in the United States, is really a Muslim agent. Nobody obliged them to hate.
Nobody is keeping them trapped in those places, either. These same people who love to tell anyone with a problem that they should “bootstrap” themselves, apparently don’t believe that they should take this famous “personal responsibility” for their lives. Their ancestors would have picked up and moved to where the work was, as people have done for centuries. But no, they are content to stay put and scream about the Gubmint and about how awful gosh durn unfair it is.
And that is their choice.
But don’t come lay their hatreds and hallucinations at my door. I’m a kid from rural Vermont who went to Thanksgiving dinners in a trailer park and carried cow manure all damn day and had to leave the place I love to get a better job. And the fine people of my home state have managed to deal with all the same heartaches as other “forgotten” people without rooting for autocracy.
But then, in Vermont we’re taught early that life is hard, and not to blame others.