Trump’s message to small town white America: What do you have to lose?

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in March 2016. Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in March 2016. Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Update:  There’s a fascinating treatment of this argument in the on-line journal Vox, which interviews prominent conservative thinker Samuel Goldman, a professor of political theor at George Washington University.  Goldman says this during the conversation:

“The real question is why have conservatives been unable to attract, not majorities perhaps, but significant numbers of Hispanics, Asians, and Muslims? That’s a much more recent development than civil rights.

The answer has to do with the adoption of a fairly exclusive vision of American nationalism — which sees America not only as a predominantly white country but also as a white Christian country and also as a white Christian provincial country. This is a conception of America that finds its home outside the cities, exurbs and rural areas, in what Sarah Palin called the real America.

If you project yourself as a white Christian provincial party, you’re not going to get very many votes among people who are none of those things. That’s what’s happened over the last 10 or 15 years.”

Read the full article in Vox by clicking here.

I’ve lived and worked in rural America all my life. I wrote an affectionate book ten years ago about small town culture and the political ideas percolating up from my corner of the United States. It may sound a little presumptuous, but I think I have a pretty good feel for why Donald Trump has captured the hearts and minds of so many of my neighbors.

Before I tell that story, I want to talk a little about the dominant, mainstream narrative that shapes America’s media culture and much of our political discourse. It’s still a fairly bipartisan worldview and it goes something like this: All people are created equal. It doesn’t matter if you’re brown or white, black or other. Doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, man or woman.

It doesn’t even matter if you worship a Protestant God, a Catholic God, a Muslim God or no god at all. We are all literally equal in the frame of America’s story, our fates defined, as Martin Luther King Jr. argued, by the content of our character not our skin color or sexual orientation.

It’s important to remember, before we talk about the very different worldview driving Donald Trump’s small town supporters, that this mainstream narrative is fairly new. Until the 1960s, America was a society that had strong ideas about what counted as “normal” and truly American. We had a clear sense of where the boundaries of acceptable behavior were found and those standards were often strictly enforced.

We saw ourselves pretty unambiguously as a white, Protestant society with values anchored primarily in small towns and to a lesser extent in the new, bustling suburbs. Cities were exciting, but they were also dirty and dangerous and crime-ridden and full of people who looked and acted in ways that set them apart. They were a place you escaped from once you had truly assimilated and become deeply American.

In that pre-1960s America, “tolerance” didn’t mean we were equal. You could be tolerant of black people and still feel absolutely confident in saying that interracial marriage was wrong or that black families shouldn’t live in “our” neighborhoods. You could feel tolerant of two men living together quietly on your street and still feel justified in expressing outrage if they showed physical affection in public.

Trump yard sign in a small town, Taylorville, Illinois. Photo: Jason Matthews, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Trump yard sign in a small town, Taylorville, Illinois. Photo: Jason Matthews, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

In the era when America was great, by Donald Trump’s metric, there were plenty of people with brown skin or different gods and they were often (not always) treated with a kind of courtesy. But no one thought those people were normal or equally American. They were – again, I think the word is significant —tolerated. If they crossed the lines established by white people, they ran great risks.

What’s happening now is very different and, to many of Donald Trump’s supporters in small towns and rust belt factory communities it’s profoundly alienating and infuriating. These days, more and more Americans are demanding true equality. They don’t want to be accepted or tolerated. Those words imply judgment and generosity on the part of white people.

We got a taste of this in the last few days when Donald Trump accepted publicly at long last that Barack Obama was really born in the U.S. That idea, that presumption, infuriates a lot of Americans. They’ve lost patience with the idea of white men deciding who’s in and who’s out. They insist on their complete normalcy. They don’t want an asterisk by their race or their gender or their sexual preference.

Under this new paradigm, black Americans insist on equal status with whites, whether we’re talking the music on the radio, the fairness of our criminal justice system, or the way we judge the guy sitting in the Oval Office. Same goes for being gay. The LGBT community no longer settles for “civil unions” or other forms of second-class status.  If straight people can marry, so can they. They demand the full enchilada of Americanness.

But many, many, many of my neighbors in small town America — and in the rust belt cities and exurbs that have adopted rural white values — don’t want to live in that society. They don’t want a completely level playing field, not if that means that America becomes a fundamentally different place where Protestant whites are gradually demoted to the status of one ethnic and religious group among many.

It’s not that these people are “racist” in the conventional sense. They don’t hate black men or gay women or Mexicans. But they also don’t want their country to change in profound ways. They long for a return to a time in our history when things felt right to them, when their privileges and their pride of place in the “real” America went unquestioned.

An analogy might be the way that many Britons felt when voting against membership in the European Union, or the decision by many Germans to reject politicians who welcomed hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees. It’s not that these people were bigoted, per se. They didn’t hate eastern Europeans (in the case of England) or Syrians (in the case of Germany). They simply didn’t want to see their nations reinvented or turned upside down.

Urban downtown, Canal St. in New York City. Photo: Pacific Coast Highway, Creative Commons, sone rights reserved

Urban downtown, Canal St. in New York City. Photo: Pacific Coast Highway, Creative Commons, sone rights reserved

In much of urban America, race is still an issue obviously, sometimes a painful one, but diversity is also a fact of life. The constant churn of immigration, diversity and reinvention is seen as a more or less natural state of affairs. Living with difference is a natural way of life, and in many cases it’s welcomed as a strength and an economic asset.

But a lot of white voters in rural communities aren’t convinced. They see images on their television screens that are frightening. The face of the new America looks strange. The music is different, the accents are wrong, the sexual and racial politics confusing.

This disconnect has grown with our expanding geographic and demographic divide. Many of our rural communities are actually less diverse than they were a century ago. The white folks who’ve rejected America’s great urban migration often don’t have a lot of experience with the multiculturalism that increasingly defines our nation.

Another reason for this breakdown is money. Our national shift toward true equality occurred at a time when the economic status of rural whites was eroding fast. It’s not black America’s fault that many of our small towns are basket cases, with soaring unemployment, a deadly drug epidemic, and generational poverty. But to a lot of rural folks it feels that way. They feel like they’ve been cheated, duped, and disrespected.

Set aside for just a moment whether you think that sounds irrational or unfair. It’s still important to remember that there is real shame and anger in these small towns. They used to be the heart of America. They were industrial powerhouses. Their culture defined the very nature of Americanness. Now their children often dress like black people and listen to black music and when they’re old enough they move away to live in places filled with black people. Rural folks have been left behind by factories and businesses, but also by their own kids and their own society. They’re sick of it. They’re scared and they’re furious.

So now in this election they feel like they’ve been offered a choice. On the one hand, they can simply accept a radically different America, one that looks nothing like them, one where their communities continue to dwindle and fall behind. Or they can fight. They can embrace Donald Trump, a white man who promises to make them great again, in part by kicking out millions of Mexicans, by surrounding America with a wall, and by closing the door to Muslims.

To a lot of folks out here in my part of the country, it’s a no-brainer. Why not take a risk on a maverick, even if he sometimes tells lies or talks like a bully or acts like a loose cannon? A few weeks ago, Trump urged black America to vote for him by asking what they have to lose. Really that’s the message he’s been sending to rural whites all along. What the hell do you have to lose?

I’m not saying Trump’s vision is moral or good or that America can (or should) ever again resemble the society that so many rural folks yearn for. Honestly, I can’t see any evidence (from his policy ideas, such as they are) that Trump has any intention of taking the extraordinary measures that would be required to roll back the clock on American society by fifty years.

But the dream of a return to the golden age of small towns and farms and white Protestant normalcy is a powerful one for tens of millions of people; and in politics dreams are everything.

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21 Comments on “Trump’s message to small town white America: What do you have to lose?”

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  1. The Original Larry says:

    Brian, I don’t see how you can address Trump’s appeal without considering the part of it that stems from an outright rejection of Hillary Clinton and her liberal agenda.

    But in the first place, your characterization of rural folks as frightened simpletons yearning for a magical return to the 1950s seems perilously close to Hillary’s own definition of “deplorables”. Marginalizing people by ridiculing them invalidates any analysis of what they think or the choices they make. Rural people are no longer the isolated, poorly educated folks they may once have been. Expanded access to media, educational opportunities, military service and ease of travel have brought many country people to greater levels of sophistication. Add to that the influx of retired people from all sorts of backgrounds, levels of accomplishment and economic success and your demographic assumptions about rural folks and why they may support Trump don’t hold water.

    Many people reject Hillary because they are tired of her personally, don’t trust her and perceive many of her “accomplishments” as abject failures. Let’s not forget that she’s already been rejected once as a Presidential candidate and that much of her support comes from people who simply hate Trump. As for her liberal agenda, many people reject the corruption and culture of entitlement that liberalism engenders and see her as a hack politician who promises “more of the same”. Poor though the choice may be, they are ready for a new approach.

    This election is not as simple as some wish it were.

  2. Brian Mann says:

    As you know, OL, I’m not a big fan of straw man conversations. I don’t ever (anywhere) describe rural white Americans as simpletons (or deplorables) yearning for a “magical” return to the 1950s. I don’t suggest (ever, anywhere) that they are unsophisticated.

    What I argue is that they have a clear idea of a time when America fit their model of how our society should work and they are embracing Trump’s promise that he will fight to restore many of those values and policies. You say that my arguments about that “don’t hold water” but you don’t say why.

    I do agree with you that a lot of Republicans are voting for Trump because of their antipathy for Hillary Clinton, but overall his supporters are pretty enthusiastic for his “make America great again” message. A survey last week found that two-thirds of Trump supporters are “extremely enthusiastic” about him.

    These aren’t just anti-Hillary voters. I believe they hope that Trump will fundamentally change the trajectory of American society – in part because that’s what they keep saying.

    -Brian, NCPR

  3. The Original Larry says:

    No need to go into semantics, Brian, your meaning is crystal clear to me; you would be a poor writer indeed if it wasn’t. I don’t agree with your thesis and I think it follows the liberal press meme of Trump supporters as uneducated, unsophisticated simpletons who are too stupid to make an informed choice for President. One doesn’t need to use those exact words to convey the same message, it’s clear. Apparently, the thought of well intentioned people thoughtfully choosing Trump is too awful for some to comprehend.

  4. Don Johnston says:

    Lets not forget not just anti-Hillary but anti-feminazi like ol’ Rush.

  5. Brian Mann says:

    OL –

    I’m not engaging in semantics. I’m insisting that my argument be read as I wrote it, not as you wrote it. I also insist that people take rural voters and their demands seriously.

    When Donald Trump says he wants to “make America great again,” when rural conservatives talk about restoring the “true” or the “real” America, when evangelicals talk about the aberrational policies that followed the 1960s, they are articulating a real worldview, a powerful vision of what the world should look like.

    I think rural white voters are actually quite well intentioned by their own value system. They want America to look like the America of their ideals. Many of them believe the post-1960s era with feminism, the civil rights movement, abortion rights, the sexual revolution, and growing multiculturalism and urbanization were a mistake (or perhaps were deliberately malign policies imposed by liberals).

    I think many of those rural white voters are convinced that Trump and his unique brand of politics represent a real chance to restore or at least fight for a very different set of rural, white Protestant values.

    -Brian, NCPR

  6. Dean Francis says:

    No evidence that Trump/ Pence want to roll back the clock? How about on the subject of choice?
    Or abolishing the EPA?
    Or Mike Pence’s tenure as governor, and the religious freedom law?

  7. telfish says:

    Trump “I love the poorly educated”

    And he loves them for a reason. White poorly educated people are easily duped. And Trump is the king of Fraudsters. Evidence him using $250,000 of other people’s dollars to pay off his own legal debts. He used his foundation like a piggy bank.

  8. The Original Larry says:

    Brian, that’s a very unflattering (and I believe incorrect) description of Trump supporters, but I get where it’s coming from. Listening to Hillary and reading her comments makes it clear to me that she thinks her best shot at winning lies in distracting people from her record of failure, questionable behavior and complete lack of trustworthiness by ridiculing and marginalizing her opponent and his supporters. I’ll leave it to others to put your words next to hers and see if they think, as I do, that you’re on board with that strategy.

  9. Dave says:

    What part of that description did you find unflattering, Larry? Or, more top the point, what part of it did you find inaccurate?

    It is interesting, while reading the article and these comments, the only person who raised the issue of Trump’s supporters education… was you. Brian didn’t say anything about it. You just assumed and made the leap that the types of things he was talking about are related to education. I say that is interesting, because it turns out that you are probably right. Go look at any polling data for this upcoming election and see if you can determine who “uneducated white voters” plan on voting for.

    Still, Brian wasn’t the one who called Trump’s supporters uneducated. You were. Well, you… and the data.

  10. telfish says:

    What do they have to lose! Trumps economic “Plan ” adds 5 Trillion to the debt over 10 year and that is assuming a 4% growth every year year in year out. His tax “plan” is a huge giveaway to the 1% so guess who will be paying more. You guessed it.

  11. telfish says:

    Abolishing the EPA at a time when the environment is under extreme stress and our drinking water is ever more contaminated by big business is a dereliction of duty and makes Trump unfit for office.

  12. Pete Klein says:

    Rural white? Urban black. Mexicans, Muslims, gays, lesbians, college educated, whatever.
    What is all this labeling?
    If we are born here or naturalized, aren’t we all Americans?
    That’s what I have always believed since I first started to think after being born in Detroit in 1942.
    I have never liked or disliked a person based upon some label they or someone else has a applied to them.
    One of the good things about the 50’s, maybe the best thing about the 50’s, was everyone was told not to discuss religion or politics. Maybe we should start with that again and stop having never ending conversations that seem only to create more problems than they solve.

  13. telfish says:

    Tell that to Trumps white supremacist base Peter . His campaign is led by that Breitbart conspiracy theorist KKKlown.

  14. TroutGrrrl says:

    Very thoughtful article, Brian. Thank you. I think your thesis and descriptions are consistent with my observations as well.

  15. Ken Adams says:

    What do Trump supporters have to lose? Not much if his business taxes reveal him to be an upstanding, honest person. But if his tax returns reveal shady deals with questionable foreign investors, and too much use of his slogan OPM (other peoples’ money) then we all will lose a lot of money….and dignity. The RNC needs to step up and pressure Trump to release tax returns before the election. We need to know if he’s really as good as he professes or is he the greatest fraud and con-man in American history?

  16. telfish says:

    Donald Trump’s director of African-American outreach has an ominous warning for all who dared to criticize the Republican presidential nominee: Soon, they will have to bow down to “the most powerful man in the universe.”

    “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.”

    That says it all folks. direct from the Trump campaign.

  17. Caroline says:

    Brian. Thankyou for this crystal clear assessment of the Trump phenomena. I see it in my church, my community and unfortunately have had to spend a lot of time and effort countering the longing for “the good old days” in my own family. Thanks for putting this mess into a clear perspective.

  18. telfish says:

    What have they got to lose? Their health care for one. 20 million people will lose their healthcare under Trump. Many of those are poor white people living in red areas.

  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It seems to me this all boils down to one word, change. There is tectonic change happening in our towns, our country, and the world at large and the change runs nearly a full spectrum from the environment to the economy to the military to technology to religion and through the social fabric of our people. We all deal with change in different ways but mainly we either dislike change, like change or find good and bad within it.

    We have for a while self-sorted along lines defined by how we feel about the larger changes in the world. Many people who live in small towns and rural areas have either selected to stay in places that they feel aren’t changing or the ones who seek out change (mostly young people) have moved to cities. In my own small town I can drive around and see the strong Trump supporters by the signs in their yards and from that survey what I see is that a large segment of the Trump people are retirees and often retirees from larger, more diverse places.

    Change is happening, they can’t stop it, and it scares them.

  20. Alan Jenson says:

    To me it sounds like your making excuses in an eloquent fashion.

  21. Floyd Blandston says:

    This diatribe denies the power of ‘policy’ to effect change. Mann adopts a tone of ‘inevitable regret’ to appease a group he claims to understand, without taking a position on their stance. This is a cowards approach, a disrespecting subservience to a market he owes his livelihood to without denying their ELECTORAL ABILITY TO EFFECT CHANGE.

    National Corporate Radio (NPR) has become nothing more than ‘Faux News’ for the left- a pathetic and corrupt ‘Lifetime Channel’ for the socially delicate, and an embarrassment to your otherwise fine organization. Find a new news service….

    …and you MANN- live up to your handle and TRULY represent the ‘Public Interest’ of those who pay your bills, or go back to Alaska and find your own way there.

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