Why do poor, uneducated white voters who benefit from government spending on the poor support conservatives who attack social welfare programs? Thomas Frank tried to answer the question in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas in 2004, and now, with Donald Trump getting perilously close to winning the Republican nomination, he thinks the rural vote is up for grabs.
Trump’s support is aligned with “deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America,” Frank wrote in the Guardian in March.
The fact that Trump’s support comes overwhelmingly from poor rural areas is not a new observation. Kevin Williamson of National Review had already posited a solution in October 2015. Someone living in a dead end town with no future, ought to move somewhere where there are better opportunities. If they don’t want to move, they have to take the bad with the good. It’s a choice, and choices have consequences.
Rural voters, however, hold resentment against urban residents. They don’t want to move, and they want someone else to solve their problems. That much is evident from reading Katherine J. Cramer’s new and important book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Cramer visited each county in Wisconsin and did a sociological study on its residents and found a kind of identity politics emerged in rural areas that blamed their problems on outsiders, urbanites and government neglect. While the subtext of the book is on Wisconsin Governor Walker and his three electoral victories (including once in a recall election), the information in the book applies just as much to Republicans in general and especially Trump.
Indeed, while Trump lost Wisconsin’s primary, he did well in the rural west and north. Most of Trump’s wins came in counties that the U.S. Office of Management and Budget defines as rural. Ted Cruz, who won the state, won most of the urban counties. Cruz won Milwaukee County with 55% of the vote to Trump’s 26%. Trump won 43% of the vote in towns with populations below 50,000 and only 33% in cities larger than 50,000 people.
While those rural residents often complained in Cramer’s book about lack of jobs, liberals like Frank are deluding themselves if they think that Democrats can win the conservative countryside with direct appeals to government welfare programs. That’s because rural consciousness and rural conservatism is based more on identity politics than on coherent ideology or even factual arguments about government programs. Indeed, rural citizens view themselves as the victims—even though they receive more government funding than their urban peers.
Throughout The Politics of Resentment, residents of small towns complain about supposedly paying too high taxes and getting little in return.
“The cost of water and sewer here is outrageous compared to what they pay in Madison. … And I feel like there should be more sharing—less taxes going to Madison to help offset…” a woman named Sally, who lived in a town of about 500 people with a median income of $34,000, said.
But, as Cramer pointed out in the book with charts, the more rural a county is on average, the more state and federal money it receives. Conceptions of unfairness, however, are so strong that rural residents always blame someone else for the fact that they themselves or their hometown in general is not doing very well.
“Many people in these small towns perceived that someone or something was responsible for the decline of their communities. Someone of something was siphoning off their money, they told me,” Cramer wrote. “…’They’ often had something to do with cities: decision makers, wealthy people, liberals, and the underserving.”
Now Donald Trump comes along and says everything is someone else’s fault. Stupid people are leading us! China is killing us! Mexico is “sending us” criminals and “rapists”! At its core racism is inseparable from both the rural consciousness that blames the other and Trump’s hate-fueled campaign. When he gave his scapegoating announcement speech to a white audience, he told his supporters what to fear: the people Mexico is “sending” don’t look like you. “They aren’t sending you,” he said.
That line sums up his appeal to lower class whites who had long been beneficiaries of discriminatory policies that favored whites and who only now find themselves at the very bottom of the socio-economic spectrum. You are good, he is telling the masses. Nothing is your fault. And I will make sure you don’t have to suffer, nor do any hard work to solve your problems, nor even have to acknowledge being a recipient of government help.
Rural conservatives are just fine supporting the “deserving poor,” Cramer (and others) have written. That’s why Trump opposes making any changes to Social Security and Medicare even though they are paying out more than they are taking in. Rural conservatives would also deny that those programs are examples of the government helping them—even though many take out more benefits than they had paid into the programs. (“Get your government hands off my Medicare!”) Trump’s supporters glorify themselves and don’t see anyone who doesn’t look like themselves as “deserving.”