If you listened to President Trump supporters and a great deal of the media (both mainstream and right-wing) analyzing the 2016 presidential race you would think Trump won the presidency because he understood the economic hardship of those in rural and small-town America. His base was made up of people hurt by globalization and de-industrialization in the heartland, the story goes. The traditional GOP and the Democratic Party, you see, didn’t understand this or care about their plight.
We’ve never really bought that explanation, in part because Trump voters on average were richer than Hillary Clinton voters. Now there is powerful evidence of a disagreeable truth: Trump’s base was far more motivated by cultural provincialism and xenophobia than by economic need.
The Post reports that the “popular explanations of the rural-urban divide appear to overstate the influence of declining economic outcomes in driving rural America’s support for Trump. The survey responses, along with follow-up interviews and focus groups in rural Ohio, bring into view a portrait of a split that is tied more to social identity than to economic experience.” Economic dislocation does not seem to have been the main factor in the election:
Rural Americans express far more concern about jobs in their communities, but the poll finds that those concerns have little connection to support for Trump, a frequent theory to explain his rise in 2016. Economic troubles also show little relation to the feeling that urban residents have different values.
Rural voters who lament their community’s job prospects report supporting Trump by 14 percentage points more than Clinton, but Trump’s support was about twice that margin — 30 points — among voters who say their community’s job opportunities are excellent or good. Trump also earned about the same level of support from those who say they don’t worry about paying their bills as those who couldn’t pay their bills at some point in the past year.
If not economics per se, what was the origin of the sharp electoral divide between rural and urban voters? Attitudes on race, culture and immigration seem to predominate:
The poll reveals that perceptions about abuse of government benefits often go hand in hand with views about race.
When asked which is more common — that government help tends to go to irresponsible people who do not deserve it or that it doesn’t reach people in need — rural Americans are more likely than others to say they think people are abusing the system. And across all areas, those who believe irresponsible people get undeserved government benefits are more likely than others to think that racial minorities receive unfair privileges.
In response to this poll question — “Which of these do you think is the bigger problem in this country: blacks and Hispanics losing out because of preferences for whites, or whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics?” — rural whites are 14 points less likely than urban whites to say they are more concerned about blacks and Hispanics losing out.
While rural Americans may reside in close-knit, overwhelmingly Christian communities, they see themselves as victims in a war against religion. “Nearly 6 in 10 people in rural areas say Christian values are under attack, compared with just over half of suburbanites and fewer than half of urbanites. When personal politics is taken into account, the divide among rural residents is even larger: 78 percent of rural Republicans say Christian values are under attack, while 45 percent of rural Democrats do.” Trump magnificently exploited the resentments of white Christians and their anxiety about cities, which he falsely portrayed as experiencing a crime wave.
He also played into negative feelings about immigrants held by people who didn’t have much contact with immigrants. “Rural residents are more likely than people in cities or suburbs to think that immigrants are not adapting to the American way of life. The poll also finds that these views soften in rural areas with significant foreign-born populations.” They harbor strong feelings that are not the result of actual experience:
Rural residents are also more likely to say that recent immigrants have different values than their own — 50 percent, compared with 39 percent of urban residents.
Trump voters in rural areas are the most critical: 74 percent say recent immigrants are not doing enough to assimilate to life in America vs. 49 percent of rural Americans overall who think that, as well.
One reason for rural Americans’ concern about immigrants could be their lack of exposure to them. Foreign-born residents make up 2.3 percent of the population in rural counties, compared with nearly 15 percent of urban counties, according to Census Bureau data for 2011-2015. . . . The Post-Kaiser poll finds that in rural areas where less than 2 percent of the population are immigrants, less than 4 in 10 residents say immigrants strengthen the country. But that rises to nearly 6 in 10 in rural areas where at least 5 percent are born outside the United States.
Resentment and hysteria over cities and immigrants have been building for years, egged on by talk radio and Fox News and by anti-immigrant groups (e.g., FAIR, NumbersUSA). Trump simply took it to a new level of demagoguery divorced from reality.
As we reenter a national conversation about anger, polarization and rhetorical excess we should expect more diligent, reasoned behavior from both politicians and voters. It is a gross exaggeration to tell rural voters that Christianity is under assault because they cannot dominate societal rules (e.g., businesses cannot discriminate against LGBT customers, official organized school prayer violates the First Amendment). It’s flat-out false to say we are being swamped by illegal immigrants. This sort of propaganda lacks a grounding in reality and amps up the already dangerous political environment, which in turn paralyzes our democracy.
Inhabitants of cities are no less or more “American” than rural dwellers, and because of real-life experience display on average more tolerant attitudes toward immigrants. Rural communities have every right to demand adequate services. (Unfortunately, Trump policies make life harder for them. Trumpcare would make their health care more expensive; privatizing the air traffic control system would make airports scarcer in these areas.) Like other Americans, they deserve empathy for the conditions that afflict many communities (drug addiction, soaring rates of those on disability). However, rural voters must, like all Americans, eschew bigotry and reject prevalent conspiracy theories that would alleviate them from personal responsibility for their life choices.