Trump and the American Divide
How a lifelong New Yorker became tribune of the rustics and deplorables
At 7 AM in California’s rural Central Valley, not long before the recent presidential election, I stopped to talk with an elderly irrigator on the shared border alleyway of my farm. His face was a wrinkled latticework, his false teeth yellow. His truck smelled of cigarettes, its cab overflowing with flotsam and jetsam: butts, scribbled notes, drip-irrigation parts, and empty soda cans. He rolled down the window and muttered something about the plunging water-table level and whether a weak front would bring any rain. And then, this dinosaur put one finger up on the wheel as a salutation and drove off in a dust cloud.
Five hours later, and just 180 miles distant, I bought a coffee at a Starbucks on University Avenue in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley, the spawn of Stanford University. Two young men sat at the table next to me, tight “high-water” pants rising above their ankles, coat cuffs drawn up their forearms, and shirts buttoned all the way to the top, in retro-nerd style. Their voices were nasal, their conversation rapid-fire— politics, cars, houses, vacations, fashion, and restaurants all came up. They were speaking English, but of a very different kind from the irrigator’s, accentuating a sense of being on the move and upbeat about the booming reality surrounding them.
I hadn’t just left one part of America to visit another, it seemed, but instead blasted off from one solar system to enter another cosmos, light-years distant. And to make the contrast even more radical, the man in the truck in Fresno County was Mexican-American and said that he was voting for Trump, while the two in Palo Alto were white, clearly affluent—and seemed enthused about Hillary Clinton’s sure win to come.
The postelection map of Republican and Democratic counties mirrored my geographical disconnect. The Donald Trump nation of conservative red spanned the country, to within a few miles of the two coasts, covering 85 percent of the nation’s land area. Yet Clinton won the popular vote, drawing most of her support in razor-thin, densely populated blue ribbons up and down the East and West Coast corridors and in the Great Lakes nexus. As disgruntled liberal commentator Henry Grabar summed up the election result: “We now have a rural party and an urban party. The rural party won.” This time around, anyway.
The urban party has been getting beat up a lot, even before Trump’s surprising victory. Not only have the Democrats surrendered Congress; they now control just 13 state legislatures and 15 governorships—far below where they were pre–Barack Obama. Over the past decade, more than 1,000 elected Democratic state lawmakers have lost their jobs, with most of the hemorrhaging taking place outside the cities. As political analyst Ron Brownstein puts it, “Of all the overlapping generational, racial, and educational divides that explained Trump’s stunning upset over Hillary Clinton . . . none proved more powerful than the distance between the Democrats’ continued dominance of the largest metropolitan areas, and the stampede toward the GOP almost everywhere else.”
“Everywhere else” basically means anywhere but the two coasts. After the election, in liberal, urban America, one often heard Trump’s win described as the revenge of the yahoos in flyover country, fueled by their angry “isms” and “ias”: racism, anti-Semitism, nativism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and so on. Many liberals consoled themselves that Trump’s victory was the last hurrah of bigoted, Republican white America, soon to be swept away by vast forces beyond its control, such as global migration and the cultural transformation of America into something far from the Founders’ vision.
As insurance, though, furious progressives also renewed calls to abolish the Electoral College, advocating for a constitutional amendment that would turn presidential elections into national plebiscites. Direct presidential voting would shift power to heavily urbanized areas—why waste time trying to reach more dispersed voters in less populated rural states?—and thus institutionalize the greater economic and cultural clout of the metropolitan blue-chip universities, the big banks, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, New York–Washington media, and Hollywood, Democrat-voting all.
Barack Obama’s two electoral victories deluded the Democrats into thinking that it was politically wise to jettison their old blue-collar appeal to the working classes, mostly living outside the cities these days, in favor of an identity politics of a new multicultural, urban America. Yet Trump’s success represented more than simply a triumph of rural whites over multiracial urbanites. More ominously for liberals, it also suggested that a growing minority of blacks and Hispanics might be sympathetic with a “country” mind-set that rejects urban progressive elitism. For some minorities, sincerity and directness might be preferable to sloganeering by wealthy white urban progressives, who often seem more worried about assuaging their own guilt than about genuinely understanding people of different colors.
Trump’s election underscored two other liberal miscalculations. First, Obama’s progressive agenda and cultural elitism prevailed not because of their ideological merits, as liberals believed, but because of his great appeal to urban minorities in 2008 and 2012, who voted in solidarity for the youthful first African-American president in numbers never seen before. That fealty wasn’t automatically transferable to liberal white candidates, including the multimillionaire 69-year-old Hillary Clinton. Obama had previously lost most of America’s red counties, but not by enough to keep him from winning two presidential elections, with sizable urban populations in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania turning out to vote for the most left-wing presidential candidate since George McGovern.
Second, rural America hadn’t fully raised its electoral head in anger in 2008 and 2012 because it didn’t see the Republican antidotes to Obama’s progressive internationalism as much better than the original malady. Socially moderate establishmentarians like the open-borders-supporting John McCain or wealthy businessman Mitt Romney didn’t resonate with the spirit of rural America—at least not enough to persuade millions to come to the polls instead of sitting the elections out. Trump connected with these rural voters with far greater success than liberals anticipated. Urban minorities failed in 2016 to vote en bloc, in their Obama-level numbers; and rural Americans, enthused by Trump, increased their turnout, so that even a shrinking American countryside still had enough clout to win.
What is insufficiently understood is why a hurting rural America favored the urban, superrich Trump in 2016 and, more generally, tends to vote more conservative than liberal. Ostensibly, the answer is clear: an embittered red-state America has found itself left behind by elite-driven globalization, battered by unfettered trade and high-tech dislocations in the economy. In some of the most despairing counties, rural life has become a mirror image of the inner city, ravaged by drug use, criminality, and hopelessness.
Yet if muscular work has seen a decline in its relative monetary worth, it has not necessarily lost its importance. After all, the elite in Washington and Menlo Park appreciate the fresh grapes and arugula that they purchase at Whole Foods. Someone mined the granite used in their expensive kitchen counters and cut the timber for their hardwood floors. The fuel in their hybrid cars continues to come from refined oil. The city remains as dependent on this elemental stuff—typically produced outside the suburbs and cities—as it always was. The two Palo Altoans at Starbucks might have forgotten that their overpriced homes included two-by-fours, circuit breakers, and four-inch sewer pipes, but somebody somewhere made those things and brought them into their world.
In the twenty-first century, though, the exploitation of natural resources and the manufacturing of products are more easily outsourced than are the arts of finance, insurance, investments, higher education, entertainment, popular culture, and high technology, immaterial sectors typically pursued within metropolitan contexts and supercharged by the demands of increasingly affluent global consumers. A vast government sector, mostly urban, is likewise largely impervious to the leveling effects of a globalized economy, even as its exorbitant cost and extended regulatory reach make the outsourcing of material production more likely. Asian steel may have devastated Youngstown, but Chinese dumping had no immediate effect on the flourishing government enclaves in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, filled with well-paid knowledge workers. Globalization, big government, and metastasizing regulations have enriched the American coasts, in other words, while damaging much of the nation’s interior.
Few major political leaders before Trump seemed to care. He hammered home the point that elites rarely experienced the negative consequences of their own ideologies. New York Times columnists celebrating a “flat” world have yet to find themselves flattened by Chinese writers willing to write for a fraction of their per-word rate. Tenured Harvard professors hymning praise to global progressive culture don’t suddenly discover their positions drawn and quartered into four part-time lecturer positions. And senators and bureaucrats in Washington face no risk of having their roles usurped by low-wage Vietnamese politicians. Trump quickly discovered that millions of Americans were irate that the costs and benefits of our new economic reality were so unevenly distributed.
As the nation became more urban and its wealth soared, the old Democratic commitment from the Roosevelt era to much of rural America—construction of water projects, rail, highways, land banks, and universities; deference to traditional values; and Grapes of Wrath–like empathy—has largely been forgotten. A confident, upbeat urban America promoted its ever more radical culture without worrying much about its effects on a mostly distant and silent small-town other. In 2008, gay marriage and women in combat were opposed, at least rhetorically, by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in their respective presidential campaigns. By 2016, mere skepticism on these issues was viewed by urban elites as reactionary ignorance. In other words, it was bad enough that rural America was getting left behind economically; adding insult to injury, elite America (which is Democrat America) openly caricatured rural citizens’ traditional views and tried to force its own values on them. Lena Dunham’s loud sexual politics and Beyoncé’s uncritical evocation of the Black Panthers resonated in blue cities and on the coasts, not in the heartland. Only in today’s bifurcated America could billion-dollar sports conglomerates fail to sense that second-string San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests of the national anthem would turn off a sizable percentage of the National Football League’s viewing audience, which is disproportionately conservative and middle American. These cultural themes, too, Trump addressed forcefully.
Is there something about the land itself that promotes conservatism? The answer is as old as Western civilization. For the classical Greeks, the asteios (“astute”; astu: city) was the sophisticated “city-like” man, while the agroikos (“agrarian”; agros: farm/field) was synonymous with roughness. And yet there was ambiguity as well in the Greek city/country dichotomy: city folk were also laughed at in the comedies of Aristophanes as too impractical and too clever for their own good, while the unpolished often displayed a more grounded sensibility. In the Roman world, the urbanus (“urbane”; urbs: city) was sometimes too sophisticated, while the rusticus (“rustic”; rus: countryside) was often balanced and pragmatic.
Country people in the Western tradition lived in a shame culture. Family reputation hinged on close-knit assessments of personal behavior only possible in small communities of the like-minded and tribal. The rural ethos could not afford radical changes in lifestyles when the narrow margins of farming safety rested on what had worked in the past. By contrast, self-reinvention and social experimentation were possible only in large cities of anonymous souls and varieties of income and enrichment. Rural people, that is, don’t honor tradition and habit because they’re somehow better human beings than their urban counterparts; a face-to-face, rooted society offers practical reinforcement for doing so.
In classical literature, patriotism and civic militarism were always closely linked with farming and country life. In the twenty-first century, this is still true. The incubator of the U.S. officer corps is red-state America. “Make America Great Again” reverberated in the pro-military countryside because it emphasized an exceptionalism at odds with the Left’s embrace of global values. Residents in Indiana and Wisconsin were unimpressed with the Democrats’ growing embrace of European-style “soft power,” socialism, and statism—all the more so in an age of European constitutional, financial, and immigration sclerosis. Trump’s slogan unabashedly expressed American individualism; Clinton’s “Stronger Together” gave off a whiff of European socialist solidarity.
Farming, animal husbandry, mining, logging—these traditional bodily tasks were often praised in the past as epitomes of the proper balance between physical and mental, nature and culture, fact and theory. In classical pastoral and Georgic poetry, the city-bound often romanticized the countryside, even if, on arrival, they found the flies and dirt of Arcadia bothersome. Theocritus and Virgil reflected that, in the trade-offs imposed by transforming classical societies, the earthiness lost by city dwellers was more grievous to their souls than the absence of erudition and sophistication was to the souls of simpler farmers and shepherds.
Trump, the billionaire Manhattanite wheeler-dealer, made an unlikely agrarian, true; but he came across during his presidential run as a clear advocate of old-style material jobs, praising vocational training and clearly enjoying his encounters with middle-American homemakers, welders, and carpenters. Trump talked more on the campaign about those who built his hotels than those who financed them. He could point to the fact that he made stuff, unlike Clinton, who got rich without any obvious profession other than leveraging her office.
Give the thrice-married, orange-tanned, and dyed-haired Trump credit for his political savvy in promising to restore to the dispossessed of the Rust Belt their old jobs and to give back to farmers their diverted irrigation water, and for assuring small towns that arriving new Americans henceforth would be legal—and that, over time, they would become similar to their hosts in language, custom, and behavior.
Changes come more slowly to rural interior areas, given that the sea, the historical importer of strange people and weird ideas, is far away. Maritime Athens was liberal, democratic, and cosmopolitan; its antithesis, landlocked Sparta, was oligarchic, provincial, and tradition-bound. In the same way, rural upstate New York isn’t Manhattan, and Provo isn’t Portland. Rural people rarely meet—and tend not to wish to meet—the traders, foreigners, and importers who arrive at ports with their foreign money and exotic customs.
The “Old Oligarch”—a name given to the author of a treatise by an anonymous right-wing grouch of fifth-century BC Athens—described the subversive hustle and the cornucopia of imported goods evident every day at the port of Piraeus. If one wished to destroy the purity of rural, conservative society, his odd rant went, then the Athens of Pericles would be just about the best model to follow. Ironically, part of Trump’s attraction for red-state America was his posture as a coastal-elite insider—but now enlisted on the side of the rustics. A guy who had built hotels all over the world, and understood how much money was made and lost through foreign investment, offered to put such expertise in the service of the heartland—against the supposed currency devaluers, trade cheats, and freeloaders of Europe, China, and Japan.
Language is also different in the countryside. Rural speech serves, by its very brevity and directness, as an enhancement to action. Verbosity and rhetoric, associated with urbanites, were always rural targets in classical literature, precisely because they were seen as ways to disguise reality so as to advance impractical or subversive political agendas. Thucydides, nearly 2,500 years before George Orwell’s warnings about linguistic distortion, feared how, in times of strife, words changed their meanings, with the more polished and urbane subverting the truth by masking it in rhetoric that didn’t reflect reality. In the countryside, by contrast, crops either grow or wither; olive trees either yield or remain barren; rain either arrives or is scarce. Words can’t change these existential facts, upon which living even one more day often depends. For the rural mind, language must convey what is seen and heard; it is less likely to indulge adornment.
Today’s rural-minded Americans are little different. Trump’s appeal to the interior had partly to do with his politically incorrect forthrightness. Each time Trump supposedly blundered in attacking a sacred cow—sloppily deprecating national hero John McCain’s wartime captivity or nastily attacking Fox superstar Megyn Kelly for her supposed unfairness—the coastal media wrote him off as a vulgar loser. Not Trump’s base. Seventy-five percent of his supporters polled that his crude pronouncements didn’t bother them. As one grape farmer told me after the Access Hollywood hot-mike recordings of Trump making sexually vulgar remarks had come to light, “Who cares? I’d take Trump on his worst day better than Hillary on her best.” Apparently red-state America was so sick of empty word-mongering that it appreciated Trump’s candor, even when it was sometimes inaccurate, crude, or cruel. Outside California and New York City and other elite blue areas, for example, foreigners who sneak into the country and reside here illegally are still “illegal aliens,” not “undocumented migrants,” a blue-state term that masks the truth of their actions. Trump’s Queens accent and frequent use of superlatives—“tremendous,” “fantastic,” “awesome”—weren’t viewed by red-state America as a sign of an impoverished vocabulary but proof that a few blunt words can capture reality.
To the rural mind, verbal gymnastics reveal dishonest politicians, biased journalists, and conniving bureaucrats, who must hide what they really do and who they really are. Think of the arrogant condescension of Jonathan Gruber, one of the architects of the disastrous Obamacare law, who admitted that the bill was written deliberately in a “tortured way” to mislead the “stupid” American voter. To paraphrase Cicero on his preference for the direct Plato over the obscure Pythagoreans, rural Americans would have preferred to be wrong with the blunt-talking Trump than to be right with the mush-mouthed Hillary Clinton. One reason that Trump may have outperformed both McCain and Romney with minority voters was that they appreciated how much the way he spoke rankled condescending white urban liberals.
Poorer, less cosmopolitan, rural people can also experience a sense of inferiority when they venture into the city, unlike smug urbanites visiting red-state America. The rural folk expect to be seen as deplorables, irredeemables, and clingers by city folk. My countryside neighbors do not wish to hear anything about Stanford University, where I work—except if by chance I note that Stanford people tend to be condescending and pompous, confirming my neighbors’ suspicions about city dwellers. And just as the urban poor have always had their tribunes, so, too, have rural residents flocked to an Andrew Jackson or a William Jennings Bryan, politicians who enjoyed getting back at the urban classes for perceived slights. The more Trump drew the hatred of PBS, NPR, ABC, NBC, CBS, the elite press, the universities, the foundations, and Hollywood, the more he triumphed in red-state America.
Indeed, one irony of the 2016 election is that identity politics became a lethal boomerang for progressives. After years of seeing America reduced to a binary universe, with culpable white Christian males encircled by ascendant noble minorities, gays, feminists, and atheists—usually led by courageous white-male progressive crusaders—red-state America decided that two could play the identity-politics game. In 2016, rural folk did silently in the voting booth what urban America had done to them so publicly in countless sitcoms, movies, and political campaigns.
In sum, Donald Trump captured the twenty-first-century malaise of a rural America left behind by globalized coastal elites and largely ignored by the establishments of both political parties. Central to Trump’s electoral success, too, were age-old rural habits and values that tend to make the interior broadly conservative. That a New York billionaire almost alone grasped how red-state America truly thought, talked, and acted, and adjusted his message and style accordingly, will remain one of the astonishing ironies of American political history.
Top Photo: Through his packed, old-fashioned rallies, Donald Trump forged a powerful bond with middle-American supporters. (JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES)
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