Working class whites delivered the election to Donald Trump, and Kathy Cramer can help explain why. For the past nine years, the political science professor has been studying the politics of rural Wisconsinites, returning to the same people over and over, analyzing their views and tracing them over time. This election cycle, she's had a front-row seat to the rise of Trump.
We first spoke to Cramer last week before the election. Her research emphasizes how personal identities and frames of mind shape the political beliefs we hold — even the facts we choose to see. In her recent book, “The Politics of Resentment,” she explains that the perspectives of rural voters of Wisconsin are dominated by their belief that the government and city elites disrespect them and deprive them of their “fair share.”
In this worldview, racial and economic anxieties shape — and are shaped by — people’s personal values, like their beliefs about who works hard, and who deserves what. As Cramer writes in her book:
This is how the politics of resentment operates — it works through seemingly simple divisions of us versus them, but it has power because in these divisions are a multitude of fundamental understandings: who has power, who has what values and which of those values are right, who gets what, and perceptions of the basic fairness of all of this.
After the election, we returned to ask Cramer for her reaction. Wisconsin was supposed to be part of Hillary Clinton’s “blue wall” — but in the end the state went to Trump, largely thanks to the white working-class and rural voters that Cramer studies. Some of these Trump supporters may have even voted for President Obama in 2012.
This time, we tried to further unpack how Trump’s campaign invigorated racial resentments, and vice versa. Throughout this past year, there has been a drawn-out debate over the true nature of Trump’s appeal — do people like him because he stirs up racial resentments, or because he speaks to their economic struggles?
These questions are even more important now, because the answers speak to the nature of Trump’s mandate. Did Americans elect Donald Trump because he promised to deport millions of immigrants? Or did they tolerate his statements about Mexicans and women because they believed he would make life better for them economically?
(The following has been condensed and edited for clarity. Sometimes, Cramer — who herself is a native Wisconsinite — slips into the voice of her subjects. We've tagged those statements in italics.)
Were you surprised at the election results?
I think I was surprised, but also not surprised. I guess my work allowed me to see that the people who support Trump are not all a bunch of crazy idiots.
He hasn’t hoodwinked a bunch of people. The people that I have spent time with see his flaws. They know he’s got this crazy character, that he’s very flamboyant and irrational. They supported him not because of his character, but because he represented substantial change.
That’s really interesting to me. The media has focused a lot of attention on the nastiness that erupts at Trump campaign events. From those incidents, it’s easy to assume that all the people who voted for Trump were crazy racists.
But you’re describing a kind of racial indifference. Many Trump voters probably don’t care about what Trump is threatening to do to immigrants or Muslims — or at least, that’s not their primary motivation for supporting him. They might even find his comments on minorities distasteful. But they think Trump is going to be good for their own communities, and that’s all that matters to them.
Right — there’s definitely this view that racial justice is not a concern. The term “racial justice” isn’t even in their vocabulary. It’s not their thing. It’s not something they think the world should be worried about in this moment.
Just this morning I was in Central Wisconsin, and there’s this group that meets in the back of a warehouse. We talked for a long, long time. They’re happy that Trump won. They have a lot of hope for the future, because they think that finally, we have someone who is not a politician. There is a chance he will run the country like a business, and he will stop spending money that we don’t have.
They don’t have much to say about what a great person or great leader he is. They think that he’s kind of arrogant. But his promise to shake things up, to overturn what we have been doing, to just do things completely differently in Washington, D.C. — that was really appealing to them.
Here’s the thing that was really eye-opening to me this morning. Eventually, we got around to discussing specific policies. I asked, “So what are you hoping he accomplishes in the next four years? In what ways do you think he’s actually going to make your life better?”
And they kind of looked at me. And they said, Well, probably nothing. Presidents don’t do anything for people like us. But at least he’s going to balance the books and stop spending money that we don’t have.
They did believe that Trump was going to boost the economy. They thought there would be 4 percent growth in the economy under him, and there might be more jobs and things would perk up. But they also said, Well nobody even notices that this place exists, so it’s probably not going to affect our lives that much.
I think that’s a good indicator of the perspective that folks are coming from. They are feeling so stuck. Even this person, whom they support because he represents overnight change to them — they still don’t have hopes that he will significantly improve the quality of their lives.
The people that you study are from upstate Wisconsin, which is mostly white. So I wonder: To what extent do they have experience with diversity in their own communities?
Not much. There are Latino immigrants in Wisconsin, in the dairy farming industries, and in the cities, but not as much as in Iowa, for example. In rural Wisconsin in general, especially in the northern parts, if people have interaction with people of different ethnic backgrounds it’s with Native Americans. The racism in northern Wisconsin is mostly about Native Americans.
The community I visited this morning is tiny, about 300 residents. I don’t think there are a lot of immigrants there. I could be wrong. But maybe the more important thing is that they perceive they have no interaction with immigrants. They certainly have little to no interaction with African Americans.
I ask that question because I’m thinking within the framework of contact theory. There are people in the South who voted for Trump who live around black people and have experience with diversity. But in these rural northern communities, I think it’s little different. I wonder if it’s easier for people’s attitudes to be affected by someone speaking loudly about race when their own concepts of race aren’t rooted in their own lived experiences.
This morning, the group I talked to asked me a lot of questions about the level of crime in Madison. It was part of a conversation about Black Lives Matter. Their perception is that things had gotten really out of hand, that it’s very dangerous in Madison right now. One guy even said, I’m not going to Madison right now. I wouldn’t come anywhere near there.
To me that kind of fear sounds like fear that comes from sensationalized information, as opposed to personal experience.
I told them, “My impression is that if there’s fear of crime right now, it’s that African Americans are afraid of law enforcement folks. It’s not an unsafe city.”
In your book you talk a lot about how it’s not all about racism, that the resentments of small-town America are broader, and have many different targets. But as your research has emphasized, a lot of political opinions are influenced by storytelling and framing. I wonder how the stories that Trump tells have affected people.
I do too. There’s been so many reports across the country of people yelling “Build the wall!” at people who look Latino. It’s happened in Wisconsin too. That’s just such a vibrant indicator that there’s a campaign effect. People didn’t come up with that phrase themselves. They’re saying it because Donald Trump said it.
It’s an unleashing. It’s validating that certain people are a target of blame, that certain groups are the other, the them.
The group that I talked to this morning, they’ve had a lot of things to say about Black Lives Matter — about how distasteful it is, and how Obama really let things get out of hand. Now our race relations back to where they were in the 1960s. This is primarily coming from one guy in the group, but the other people weren’t arguing with him.
They’re also talking about how illegal immigrants are taking our jobs. That subject came up this morning way more than it ever has in this group. I think that’s a campaign-induced thing. Because seven or eight years ago, when I’d go around and ask about people’s top concerns, immigration just never came up.
Some people on Twitter have been asking: Why do we need to be the ones who now need to go out and understand the white working class, Trump voters, and rural people? Shouldn’t those people also have a responsibility to understand city folk, immigrants and minorities?
In the group that I visited this morning, they were asking me, What is going on with those students in Madison? How can they vote for Hillary Clinton? How can they not see what a liar she is? What a total say-whatever-will-get-her-ahead politician she is?
In other words, they were saying to me basically what people in Madison say about residents of upstate Wisconsin. How can people be so stupid?
In a democracy, we’re making choices that govern each other. So yes, we all have an obligation to understand each other. Rural parts of the United States have to understand that the people in cities are humans too, that they are working hard to make ends meet, that they have families and struggles of their own.
But I think the fact that most of our information is produced in the cities means that we have to put special effort to understand what is going on in rural places. I think the way this election caught many of us by surprise is a case in point.
People have been talking about the power of media bubbles, of Fox News, and sites like Breitbart. In what ways are the rural folks you’re studying getting their information and forming their opinions? Like, the stuff about Black Lives Matter that you mentioned — those protests probably happen very far from the lives of people living in rural Wisconsin, yet it seems to loom large in their concept of present-day America.
It depends on where I am in the state. Fox News is a factor, and so is conservative talk radio. I don’t hear people talking much about internet-based information sources — but part of that is that the download speeds are slow in parts of rural Wisconsin.
More often than not, they talk about each other as their sources of information.
Conservative media gets input into these groups, but it’s not because everybody is watching Fox News or is devoted to this or that talk radio host. It’s that one or two of the people in the group comes with something they’ve heard, and it gets passed around.
Also, email chains seem to be a big deal. People are commonly telling me about something they read on their email. It sounds to me like stuff that somebody somewhere reads and it gets passed on and passed on.
In our previous conversation, you mentioned many of your subjects liked Obama because they saw him as an agent of change. Looking at this past election, it was stunning to see how many counties flipped from Obama to Trump. It really does seem that some people voted for Obama and for Trump. I think they saw in both of them, maybe, a potential to shake things up in Washington.
That’s absolutely spot-on. I remember going around to some groups [in rural Wisconsin] right after the Iowa caucuses in 2008, and asking people, “Were you surprised at the outcome?” And many groups would say, Actually, I can see a black president or a woman president. It’s about time we had something different in there! I heard that in a lot of places. Not universally, but in a lot of places. They really did see the possibility that the first African American president could offer something different.
It’s not surprising to me that people would vote for both Obama and Trump — they both promised some kind of change. It just goes to show, too, just why Hillary Clinton was so distasteful to so many people. They just see her as so political-class.
In the aftermath of this election, I think it’s become clear that this wasn’t just about people being attracted to Trump, but people being repelled by Hillary Clinton. How did the people you talked to feel about her?
There was a lot of focus on the liar thing, seeing her as very dishonest. In this group this morning, they talked a lot about the email stuff. They talked about how sketchy it was that there would be news that came out about all these emails on her private server, and then a few weeks later the news would just kind of evaporate. They saw that as something very fishy going on.
There’s definitely guilt by association with Bill Clinton. Especially his philandering, which rubbed off on her. The part of being the D.C. establishment. The Trump line — she’s been in there 30 years and we don’t want more of the same.
So it’s mainly those three things. I see her as part of her establishment, she’s dishonest, and she’s married to Bill Clinton.
All of those arguments were central to the way the Trump campaign attacked her. You’ve been talking to these same people for a very long time. Did Trump’s attacks change their minds about her?
I first met most of these groups back in 2008, back when she was running for president the first time. Even then, the attitude was, anything but Hillary Clinton. And I think over time they were given new reasons to dislike her. Certainly I’m overgeneralizing here, but in these groups of guys in these rural communities who were white and older, I can’t remember coming across anybody who had anything positive to say about her.
There’s a great line from your book: “Listening in on these conversations, it is hard to conclude that the people I studied believe what they do because they have been hoodwinked. Their views are rooted in identities and values, as well as in economic perceptions; and these things are all intertwined.” Is there a way to illustrate that concept to people who might not understand exactly how that works?
I think health care is a great example. Lefties in the cities will say to me, “How can they not support Obamacare when they can’t afford health insurance?”
So in the past year I’ve been more openly saying to folks in these rural groups, “People are asking, ‘How can you be voting against your own interests’?”
And this morning, one guy said back to me, “You mean they’re saying, ‘How can people be so stupid?”
And I said, “Well, yes, that’s sometimes how it’s put!”
We did talk about health care this morning, and one fellow was saying, “Obamacare hasn’t helped us. I’m on Medicare so it really hasn’t affected me, but it’s made the cost of things go up.”
And another guy in the group said, “Before Obamacare I couldn’t afford health insurance, so if Trump gets rid of that, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But the thing that really gets us is having to pay a fine unless we get health insurance.”
So I said, “Even though Obamacare is actually saving you money, you think it’s bad because you’re being told you must buy health insurance?”
He said, “Yes.”
To some people, that would be an example of ignorance. There’s a clear cost-benefit calculation there. These people are better off under Obamacare.
But no — not if you open it up to identities and values. To a group of people who feel completely ignored and disrespected by their government, it makes sense for them to say I oppose a policy that tells me what I have to do with my money.
It’s just a different, very different way of seeing it. But it’s not being hoodwinked.
That’s such a wonderful example. I think it really shows that people are pretty self-aware. They aren’t ignorant of Obamacare’s benefits. But they also recognize the costs. And to them, the costs — to their freedom, for instance — feel like they outweigh the benefits.
Exactly. Part of the cost is not just the money, right? It’s the cost of having this additional burden put on them by this very distant force that, in their minds, has shown them no regard.