The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Journalists: Forget the Rust Belt diners. Head for the suburban yoga classes.

Women gather near the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 21 for the women’s march. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

You remember those post-2016 reports from the heartland. “Reporter goes to Trump country: Why do they hate us?” “The Plight of the White Unemployed: ‘What did you expect us to do?’ ” Those are made-up, but the real stories were almost as self-parodying. The Columbia Journalism Review found:

If the immediate critique after the election was that political reporters didn’t get out into the heartland and listen to people drawn to Trump, the pendulum has since swung in the opposite direction. Virtually all national outlets have run some version, and likely multiple versions, of a story taking the temperature of Trump country, be it a hard-on-its-luck coal town in Appalachia or a hollowed-out manufacturing hub in the upper Midwest. Regional newspapers have more recently jumped on the bandwagon as well. The pieces focus heavily on the white working class, a group portrayed as struggling to come to grips with its dimming economic fortunes and diminished social dominance in a multicultural and post-industrial America. They’ll support Trump, the narrative goes, until the factory jobs come back–which is to say, forever.

Ivy League-educated journalists donned flannel shirts, rented American-made cars and headed for the Rust Belt. They poked and prodded their subjects, hung out at diners and auto body shops. With furrowed brows they set out to learn the mysteries of the non-college-educated white males, the core of President Trump’s base. Readers vicariously traveled to Youngstown, Ohio, and western Michigan (you wonder whether the reporters didn’t stumble over one another in their quest for “the forgotten man and woman”). You’d think rural Americans make up a majority of Americans. (Actually, less than 20 percent of the population lives in rural areas.)

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The leading questions would have been ruled out of order in any courtroom. So you’re angry, right? All those politicians are just a bunch of crooks, then, in your mind? If there was a cheery, modest-income male who lost a job but moved to find a better one, we rarely if ever heard from him. If someone out there believed his own hard luck shouldn’t be blamed on others, we cannot recall reading about him. Whole states apparently had been populated by nothing but victims.

The suffering, isolation, addiction, unemployment and illness of these Americans were/are real, but the stories treated these Americans as Margaret Mead would have regarded a lost tribe of native peoples. (Oh, look, they hunt!) The reports wound up sounding patronizing and infantilizing. (Well, of course, they fear illegal immigrants — they lost their jobs! Never mind that there may have been no illegal immigrants for miles around in a West Virginia coal town or in Wisconsin farmlands.) Their conspiracy theories and ignorance (no on global warming, yes on birtherism) went unchallenged because they sounded so sincere in their delusional thinking.  They weren’t asked some hard questions: Why aren’t you moving to where the jobs are? Aren’t the immigrants in town hardworking and buying things from merchants? Do you know that “Obamacare” and the Affordable Care Act” are one and the same?

The Washington Post readers are some of the most critical out there. Opinion writer Jennifer Rubin reads and responds to her hate mail from both sides of the ai (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

The stories generally overlooked the millions of comfortable, college-educated male Republicans, drenched in Fox News memes, who wanted tax cuts and hated Hillary Clinton. (They didn’t just dislike her; they viscerally despised her for reasons that defy rational analysis. I mean, she wasn’t the one who had business bankruptcies, assaulted less powerful people who would never complain or insulted prisoners of war.)

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The assumption that this part of America was somehow more “real” or virtuous (recall “New York City values”?) than any other stemmed from a mix of liberal guilt and white grievance-mongering. (We’ve failed them! We should have let them keep the “Christmas” party!) The argument that they were not responsible for the rise of Trump — who was the fault of elites who did the working class wrong!  — was illogical and insulting. Surely, these voters, like all voters, have agency and are accountable for their decisions, whether in their everyday lives or in their politics.

Now that Trump has been shown to be just as ignorant, unhinged, racist, incompetent, authoritarian and unfit as his critics said, the Trump voters (sporting an uncanny willingness to deny reality or just lie) don’t seem so interesting; they just sound wacky. Rather than the repositories of moral truth, they sound mean-spirited and selfish. They can’t see the real victims in society because they are convinced they’re the real victims.

Trump’s mental meltdown

Instead of spending more time studying this tribe of Americans, maybe the media should climb into Volvos, pack their Starbucks travel mugs and head for college-educated suburbia. There they will find another tribe of Americans, bigger than the non-college-educated male contingent. This group of voters may be the subject of next year’s most important political science study project.

Meet the college-educated women. In 2016, for example, white college-educated women were 20 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls; white non-college-educated men were 16 percent.

What if the college-educated women got very angry and very motivated, voting in record numbers? What if they decided that one party was harboring abusers and predators, acting like jerks and, by the way, not doing anything? Well, that would be a big deal, if for example Democrats could win college-educated white women by, say, 16 points and nonwhite college-educated voters by more than 60 percent. That actually happened in Virginia in 2017, and the result was a blowout for Democrats. (Overall, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam had a 22 percent advantage with all women voters.)

So head out to the ‘burbs, fellow journalists, and find those women. Forget greasy diners. Try trolling hot-yoga classes and book clubs. Hang out at gleaming office parks where professional women congregate at lunch time. Instead of Walmart and McDonald’s, try the Barnes and Nobles (if you can find a brick-and-mortar one), the salad bars at upscale supermarkets and the frozen yogurt shops. Go to college campuses, where women now outnumber men.

When you get there, see their reaction when you tell them that Trump wants to impute as income the waived tuition to graduate students. Remind them that Republicans tried to cut Medicaid that their mothers and fathers in nursing homes need. Their eyes may narrow and a faint look of contempt and anger may appear on their faces. You’re kidding, right? Tell them that under the GOP tax plan, teachers in their cash-strapped school districts won’t get to write off school supplies that they buy on their own dime. These women may blurt out, “That’s idiotic!”

And then — brace yourself first — ask them about Trump and the legions of alleged sexual predators and harassers who’ve been named. Trump? A loud-mouthed, know-it all bully who reminds them of their ex-husbands. The harassers? They got what they had coming and every last one of them should be bounced from office. You’ll hear the stories. (“I had a boss once …“) Ask whether they are thinking of voting in the midterms. “I’ve been to marches and formed my own ‘Resistance’ group!” they may tell you.

Find some Republican women and ask whom they voted for in 2016. “I couldn’t vote for Trump,” many will say. Would, you — you know — go back to voting Republican again? The answer may be something along the lines of: I’ll be damned if I ever vote for those no-good [they would say something spicier than “no-good"] people again. They made Trump president after the “Access Hollywood” tape!? Roy Moore got banned from a mall,  for crying out loud. How would I ever tell my kids I voted for these people?!

But don’t take my word for it. Scout out some PTA meetings (women will invariably be most, if not all, of the officers) or some ballet recitals. Mill around a department store with a good shoe department. Eavesdrop on a Metro platform at rush hour. Listen to what women are talking about at the gym or in the workplace cafeterias. Better yet, just listen to the sound of their voices. You’ll hear anger but also energy and fierceness. You’ll hear defiance and camaraderie. That’s the sound of a second gender revolution gaining steam. And if you thought 2017 was a wipe-out for Republicans, wait until 2018.

Read more by Jennifer Rubin:

It takes skill to draft a bill this unpopular

Don’t celebrate Franken’s disgrace. And don’t let Trump and Moore off the hook.

A to-do list for the new congressional reform caucus

How Congress can protect Mueller and head off a constitutional crisis

The sexual assault epidemic is real

And about the 25th Amendment …