Politics & Elections: Trump’s ‘Rural Support’ Isn’t the Story

The spate of stories attempting to explain why Donald Trump is "so popular" in rural America ignores history and data. Rural America's move toward Republican candidates isn't new. And Trump may not be so popular. He's polling much worse with rural voters than Mitt Romney did. Journalists are following the road map of Hillbilly Elegy, and they are getting lost as a result.

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Yes, it’s that time in the presidential campaign – the time when the candidates and the press think about rural voters.

On October 4, the vice presidential candidates were in Farmville, Virginia, to debate, and that was a reason to at least mention the America outside the metro areas. Reuters reports that the rural vote could be “crucial,” especially in Virginia.

“Trump, who needs to rack up big vote totals in small-town America, has bet that his vow to rip up international trade deals and bring back jobs will resonate in places where the movement of manufacturing jobs overseas has left deep economic scars,” report Ginger Gibson and Alana Wise. They write that Donald Trump leads Hillary Clinton 41 percent to 28 percent among those living outside urban areas, according to a recent Reuters poll.

Neither Democrat Tim Kaine nor Republican Mike Pence mentioned rural America (that we heard, anyway) during the evening’s debate.

On October 5, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack led a forum on rural America in Pennsylvania. (We should note that Pennsylvania is a swing state.) And the day before, President Obama (who did not attend the Pennsylvania forum) released a statement about rural values and the rural economy.

Why the attention? Well, everyone is trying to figure out why Republican Trump is doing so well in rural areas.

That a Republican is winning in rural communities isn’t so surprising. Just four years ago, Republican Mitt Romney won 58 percent of the vote in rural counties; Barack Obama got just 39 percent. Will Trump outpoll Romney in rural precincts? The Reuters poll, which put him at 41 percent among voters outside urban areas, says the Republican has a lot of work to do to even approach Romney’s totals.

Still, there is a growing fascination with poor white voters (which, among writers living on the coasts is equivalent to rural). Several writers have cast off from their urban offices in search of the mysterious and wily “hillbilly.”

We say hillbilly because of the popularity of J.D. Vance’s recent book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Vance’s book about the cultural deficiencies of white, working class families is all the rage in Washington, D.C., and the book is on the best-seller lists. It is being used as a guide (by both the political left and right) to understanding why Trump has the support he has.

The Guardian sent a reporter to try to understand why “traditional Democratic strongholds in Appalachia” are “turning red.” Of course, these areas have been reliably Republican since at least 2000 — Romney won 62 percent of the West Virginia vote in 2012 — but no matter. This isn’t a story based on facts, but on interviews with a half dozen or so voters. It’s an easy formula: pick the people who support your thesis and talk to them. No muss, no fuss.

The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar goes to the “heart of Trump Country” to find out why West Virginia once voted “solidly Democratic” but now “belongs to Trump.” (These stories always make it sound like the reporter is off on some kind of safari.) Of course, again, West Virginia hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1996, but who’s counting.

MacFarquhar’s is a more nuanced account than most. She picks up on the anti-establishment strain in the state (which voted for both Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders in the primaries).

Still, the approach is the same in these stories: to discover the mind of the Trump by recounting a string of individual stories. We are asked to understand a society through profiles of a handpicked group of people.

Bob Hutton, an American Studies professor at the University of Tennessee, has a different take on this sudden interest in the hillbilly. In a review of Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Hutton states that “the book is not aimed at that underclass (few books are), but rather a middle- and upper-class readership more than happy to learn that white American poverty has nothing to do with them or with any structural problems in American economy and society and everything to do with poor folks’ inherent vices.”

The problem isn’t that these Trump voters who have attracted such recent attention are crazy or maladjusted or filled with hate. The problem in poor communities, Hutton maintains, is that people are poor.

At no point, Hutton writes, does Vance allow that his “hillbilly” relatives “might benefit from higher wages, better health care, or a renewed labor movement.” And, in fact, these kinds of big picture issues don’t fit a worldview that sees the country as a collection of individuals.

Finally, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia polled Trump supporters to see if they fit the profile of the white voter who is angry at those of other races, religions and ways of life. (Recall Hillary Clinton’s observation that Trump’s supporters were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic.” Carl Desportes Bowman, the director of survey research, reports that Trump voters felt more estranged from society’s elites and from their government than from those of other races. He writes:

“Even though four out of five Trump supporters believe that Americans lived more moral and ethical lives 50 years ago, about three-quarters (74 percent) nonetheless hold that we should be more tolerant of people who adopt alternate lifestyles. And even though Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white (91 percent), the study finds, about two-thirds say their beliefs and values are similar to those of African Americans (62 percent) and Hispanics (68 percent). In fact, Trump supporters generally perceive greater cultural distance from the non-religious or the American cultural elite than they do from other American ethnic groups.”

Yes, Trump voters want to build a wall (77 percent) and four out of every five Trump supporters see themselves as different in their beliefs and values from Muslims. But only 3 percent of the 1,861 people surveyed thought of themselves as having values “completely different” from gays and lesbians, as rejecting greater tolerance toward those with different lifestyles and “strongly favor” banning all Muslims.

Trump voters see a nation in decline, Bowman reports, and if they are phobic at all, “it may not be homophobia or xenophobia that best characterizes them, but instead some new blend of elitophobia and governmentophobia. Seventy-six percent say the government in Washington threatens the freedom of ordinary Americans, and 68 percent say the leaders in American corporations, media, universities, and technology care little about the lives of ordinary Americans. Indeed, it may be the country’s established leaders, experts, and government officials that they fear more than anything.”



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