By Paul Theobald
For the past thirty-five years I have been a student of rural history and rural literature. But as a Midwesterner, like so many others of my ilk, I’ve never been inclined to wear my accomplishments, such as they are, on my sleeve. Today I’m going to make an exception, because the election of Donald Trump via the electoral college and the sweep of states that might be labeled, at some level, rural, has left people everywhere asking why rural people feel such an affinity with the Republican Party? On the surface, it makes no sense.
I have published well over 50 journal articles and book chapters, plus several books, and almost all of that work has focused on the rural experience in this country. I bring this up merely to point out that what I have to say has more warrant than most of the answers you will hear from high-profile journalists, living in the nation’s urban centers, who wouldn’t know how to begin a conversation with a farmer to save themselves.
Let me start with a typical disclaimer, rural America is not monolithic, there are differences that stem from history, geography, demography, ethnicity, religion, etc. For example, there are Progressives living in rural America. Indeed, rural America was once the heart and soul of Progressivism in this country, among Democrats and Republicans alike. The Great Plains, in particular, served as the democratic conscience of the nation in the early years of the 20th century. Simply put, the great-grandparents of the current generation of voters would have never countenanced the near-total capitulation of the Republican Party to the whims and desires of the corporate elite. But the current generation has. Why?
The question seems more acute when you look at the socio-economic make-up of rural America and the agenda of the Republican Party. Rural people love their public schools and will steadfastly defend them, yet the Republican Party wants to do away with public schools. Rural dwellers are disproportionately dependent on Medicare and social security, yet the Republican Party wants to do away with these programs, or, short of that, dramatically decrease the cost through benefit reduction. Rural dwellers are disproportionately represented on ACA roles, yet the Republican Party wants to do away with Obamacare. In my state, Nebraska, the construction of a foreign pipeline threatens the state’s largest resource, the Ogallala Aquifer, something absolutely pivotal to successful farming and ranching here, but Nebraskans elected Republican Congressional leaders who support the pipeline.
Rural dwellers, in the main, are not wealthy. In fact, the median welfare recipient in this country is rural, white, 40 years old, and male, not a black “welfare queen” living in the inner city. The nation’s poverty rate is highest among rural dwellers. The “get big or get out” philosophy that has driven agricultural policy in this country for the past 50 years, orchestrated by the Republican Party on behalf of agribusiness behemoths like Con Agra and Monsanto, has left rural communities reeling, struggling to keep their schools, their hospitals, their newspapers, and other businesses. Despite decades of slow community erosion, a process that has enriched mega-corporations, and not just agribusinesses, but also box-stores like Wal-Mart; rural people continue to vote overwhelmingly Republican. Again, why?
The answer is not an easy one. There are historical forces at work in this, and they are not directly observable. One of my greatest laments concerning many excellent rural novels is the off-hand way characters refer to Native Americans as “savages,” clearly a class of people far beneath hard-working white farmers. Natives were a nuisance to be cleared away from the advance of white, Christian settlement. Anyone who has read the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder will have a good sense for this. This sentiment didn’t appear naturally, but was in fact cultivated by western philosophy concerned with advancing free market capitalism. John Locke famously defended the process of enclosing the commons and dispersing tens of thousands of rural dwellers, arguing that they simply must muster the requisite “industriousness” to make their way in the world. Max Weber and R. H. Tawney documented the ideological fit between Locke’s emerging capitalism and Protestant Christianity. Anyone unwilling to labor in the earth and render it productive was ignoring the will of God, and under such conditions they should fully expect to have God’s earth taken from them. All of this legitimated the dispossession of Native groups and the settlement efforts of white Christians. Once again, sadly, you can see this sentiment clearly in the nation’s rural literature.
But I want to stress again, the subtle racism represented in the rationale for white settlement, for manifest destiny, was not something sewn into the very nature of humankind, but rather was something to which humanity could easily fall victim. While there can be no denying that ease, the sweep of rural history in this country, as mentioned earlier, was typically on the side of justice, at least outside of the South. The success of Progressive Era reforms were largely attributable to the success of America’s first rural populist moment during the 1890s. Also noted earlier, the rural focus on justice, on checking corporate power, dominated political discourse among rural dwellers early in the twentieth century.
Where is all of this leading? I believe the subtle racism cultivated specifically to legitimate the dispossession of Native Americans has been cultivated again, only this time it is blacks and Hispanics who are not doing Christ’s will. It’s blacks and Hispanics who are aborting babies, who are hanging around inner cities unwilling to lift a finger, waiting in line for their welfare checks, or worse, waiting for the right moment to commit a violent crime. Somehow or another, these are the people who are responsible for community erosion, for low paying jobs in rural America, for taxes being too high, etc.
Again, humanity doesn’t “naturally” develop this kind of racial explanation for one’s circumstances, this kind of racial explanation has to be cultivated. The Republican Party, having made the decision to capitulate to the super wealthy, had a problem on its hands. They needed people to vote for them. Thus the campaign of misinformation intended to lure rural dwellers into, or keep them in, the Republican fold. Corporate America, that is to say huge corporations owned and controlled by a tiny sliver of the population, orchestrated this campaign through “the nightly news,” with a constant barrage of coverage detailing black urban crime, lazy black welfare recipients, with coverage that made the Republican Party out to be the party of family values, the anti-abortion party, the party of guns: the party that would support any and every wedge issue that might generate a vote from someone who would otherwise be a victim of Republican policy.
Huge sums were devoted to this campaign, even the creation of a new network, Fox, dedicated to ramping up racialized explanations of why America’s middle class was shrinking, why a sense of community was eroding. The Republican Party became the defenders of white America, the anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-minority party. And since through misinformation and outright lies rural Americans came to believe that immigrants and minorities are diminishing their life prospects, that Muslims are out to kill Americans, they chose to vote Republican—even while recognizing that Republican politicians work against their interests. They believe that if the Republicans can stop immigration (which, of course, they have never had any intention of doing, immigrant and refugee labor is crucial to maximizing corporate profits), protect them from Muslim terror attacks, and punish minority free-loaders, their lives will improve to the point that they can make up for the lost social security and Medicare benefits, the lost schools and hospitals.
Of course, Donald Trump is something different altogether. In just his first week he created a diplomatic mess with one of our nation’s largest trading partners—the largest trading partner for the state of Nebraska—a circumstance that has upset many farmers and ranchers who no doubt voted for this man. Inside that same week, Trump vowed to renew construction on the Keystone Pipeline, an effort that leans on a weak legal argument: namely, that a foreign corporation can declare eminent domain in the United States. And then, of course, there’s the perhaps the stupidest diplomatic idea of all time, asking a foreign power to build a wall to keep out its own citizens. The problem with this last blunder is that Donald Trump has never shown anything remotely like the courage required to admit that he made a mistake, meaning that US taxpayers may have to spend $27 billion on a wall at a time when illegal immigration rates have been steadily declining.
The question regarding the fidelity of rural dwellers to the Republican agenda depends largely on how aggressive the party is with respect to legislating ever greater economic inequality by cutting the programs on which rural people rely. There is undoubtedly a tipping point and the Republican leadership knows this. Some believe they should merely come as close to that point as possible. Others believe they should grasp for everything while they can, regardless of the political consequences. The outcome of that debate will likely determine how long rural dwellers will vote against their own self-interest.