Why Did Staunchly Democratic Counties Go for Trump?
Researchers Jon Shields and Stephanie Muravchik recount their fascinating findings
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The following is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields, authors of the book Trump’s Democrats. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m Aaron Ross Powell, and this is Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. A good way to understand the appeal of Donald Trump is to talk to the people who voted for him. One of the most interesting ways to approach that is to talk to voters and counties that flipped, long voting for Democratic Party candidates until suddenly in 2016, they didn’t. That’s the background for Trump's Democrats, a book that looks at three communities that turned to Trumpism after having been solidly blue basically forever.
I’m joined today by its authors, Professors Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields of Claremont McKenna College. Their fascinating book explores why Trump clicked with these voters and why many of the very things that turned so many of us off about him were the very things they found so appealing. We’ll discuss machine politics, political bosses, honor cultures, localism and what it means to identify strongly with a narrowly circumscribed place. The story that emerges is a good deal more complex and nuanced than the easy tales we sometimes tell ourselves about us and them.
Stephanie, Jon, your book is part of a genre we have seen come out of the Trump years, with academics and journalists going to small towns that voted for Trump, sitting in diners and asking Trump voters why they believe what they believe. I think your book is the best example of that I have come across, the one that I certainly have learned the most from and the one that puts the most work into really getting at the ideas motivating Trump supporters. Can you tell us a bit about what prompted this and how you approached this project?
Jon A. Shields: Yes. Thanks, Aaron, for having us, and thanks for the compliment. This is a book that really started on election night in 2016. Like lots of Americans, and, I’m sure, like yourself, we were up late that night watching the returns come in. It was really the most astonishing and surprising election in our lifetime, in our living memory. Immediately, we were eager to get outside of our little academic town and get a feel for what happened.
In the weeks that followed, our sense of surprise really deepened. First, we discovered that there were all these Obama-Trump counties. There were all these places that had voted for Obama on two occasions—in fact, there were over 200-some counties that did this—and then flipped for Trump. That itself is very surprising and unusual, especially in this age of polarization, where partisan IDs and loyalties are especially sticky.
But then, quickly, we not only discovered that there were all these Obama places that flipped for Trump; we also discovered that a lot of these places had voted Democratic for a very long time. Many of these places had a pretty unbroken record of voting for Democratic presidents, some stretching back to Reagan, some to Nixon, some much further back. In fact, one of the counties we ended up studying was a place that had never voted for a Republican president in its history. This is a county formed in the 19th century and—it’s really astonishing—had never voted for a Republican. In the Western world, that’s probably the longest streak of any polity voting for just one party.
That was interesting. Of course, we’re accustomed to thinking and talking about the Nixon Democrats in ’72 or the Reagan Democrats in ’84. In some ways—in lots of ways, actually—the Trump Democrats were much more interesting. Nixon won in a huge landslide in ’72, as did Reagan in ’84, so it’s not so surprising that in those years, you get lots of Democratic places that flip. That’s not weird. In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote, and yet he managed to win some of the most loyal Democratic communities in the country despite that.
So we got really interested in not just the red-blue divide, but a divide that had opened up in blue America. We were curious. We wanted to make sense of what had happened. In our college community, Trump is a loathed figure, a sort of proto-authoritarian, a dangerous person. We more or less agree with that point of view. I think there’s a lot to that, but then there are all these other Democratic communities that see him in a radically different way.
They see him as one of the greatest presidents in American history, and so we were really deeply interested in that question. Then all these places we studied in 2016, I should add, remain loyal to Trump in 2020. These are places that are really drifting into the Republican Party. Trump is the character who shepherded all these communities into the Republican column, and so that’s quite interesting. That’s how we got interested in the project.
Not Your Tea Party Types
Aaron: You mentioned Nixon and Reagan and so on, and we have seen that Trumpism represents a populist movement. We have seen prior waves of things that look like populism, the most recent probably being the Tea Party movement. As you point out, the three communities that you looked at, they didn’t go Republican. They didn’t vote Tea Party candidates. What was different? Was it something that had happened to them—i.e., economic changes that hurt these communities and they said, “Now, it’s time to vote for a Republican”? Was it something about the community, or was there something that really set Trump apart from past populist candidates or waves?
Stephanie Muravchik: Well, I think one piece of it is just how deeply blue these communities were. The Tea Party really emerged out of places that had some significant Republican organization movement identification, and there simply weren’t enough Republicans on the ground to get attention for that in most of the places—Iowa might have been a little different, but certainly in Rhode Island and Kentucky. We had one Democratic local-level party leader in Rhode Island—we were asking him about his relationship with Republicans—and he said: “I don’t know any Republicans in this town. I don’t think there are any.” There just weren’t enough even for the most knowledgeable Democratic leadership to know them. So I think part of it was that it would have been hard to get the attention of the local Democrats.
Then the other piece that I think stands out is that there was a lot of libertarian rhetoric out of the Tea Party. There’s some controversy about how top-down that was, how “astroturf” that was, et cetera, but that libertarian rhetoric is really not at all resonant with the Democrats that we talked to. That was not the piece of the populism that appealed to them. I think that’s another piece of the answer. Jon?
Jon: Well, I would just simply add—I guess this is really echoing what Stephanie said— you have to keep in mind that these are really one-party towns. The party, locally, for these folks is really the individuals who lead the party: the county-level or town-level elected officials. So these are mayors, city council people, county commissioners, and they’re really the face of the party.
The other thing to add is that they really insulated these local communities from national politics in some ways. In a lot of ways, these places were pretty provincial. When they thought about the Democratic Party, they didn’t think about national leaders for the most part. They thought about people in their own community, and so Trump really shook these communities. It was a shock to them and really got them thinking about national politics and questions and controversies. It really took someone like a Trump to do that. The Tea Party was something that just didn't—it was a movement that was pretty remote from a lot of these places.
Boss Politics and Honor Culture
Aaron: One of the really interesting parts of this book is when you’re talking about how politics worked or works in these small towns, and I’m reading it sitting inside the Beltway, having that as my frame of reference for politics. I’ve mostly lived in big cities and so on, where national politics is about—during the Trump years, he’s pushing against the guardrails, if not leaping right over them.
We have our norms and institutions, and that’s the way that we tend to talk about these things. It was fascinating, the stories that the two of you tell about how different politics is in these small communities. Can you talk a bit about that? That also, you say, plays into a part of Trump's appeal.
Jon: Yes, sure. One of the things that really struck us, Aaron, is that in these communities, politics is much more Trumpian in all kinds of ways. It was Trumpian before Trump, right? The local public officials reminded us of Trump in various ways. They were thin-skinned. They were brazen. They were tough. They were macho. They were the local daddies of their communities.
They were there to take care of their flock—that is to say, they weren’t particularly ideological; rather, it was a sort of friends-and-neighbors politics. They were going to do particular favors or provide for particular constituents. It echoed back to a sort of machine politics, which has deep roots in the Democratic Party. Politics in these places weren’t very ideological really. They were much more boss-centered. They were really about providing for and taking care of local constituents. Political leaders were expected to do favors for their constituents. We saw all of this in all kinds of ways. Maybe Steph wants to jump in and give some examples, give some flavor and feel for some of these characters.
Stephanie: In all three of the places in this town in Rhode Island, in this city in Iowa, in this county in Eastern Kentucky, there had been a strong-boss politics—perhaps most strong in Kentucky. These little rural counties are often dominated by these people called judges. They’re not judicial figures. They’re county executives essentially. There was a man in the county that I was looking at who had held office almost continually for about 30 years.
When I arrived there during the Trump administration, he had been out of office due to the fact that he had been brought up on federal charges in a votes-for-gravel scheme. This was after about some 30 years in office. The county had fallen on hard times. The main way that he was able to show his friendship to voters was by providing loads of gravel to them at county expense. A lot of these people live on little far-flung farms in this rural district. They need to have little roads that connect their farmsteads to the main public arteries.
The roads need to be constantly refreshed with gravel, and he was dumping loads of gravel in the months leading up to an election. The Feds came after him, and he pled. He had to deal with them basically so he would be free, but he pledged never again to run for office. The county’s political imagination had been very much shaped by this man’s long reign. He remained a very popular—although controversial—figure in the county when I was there.
Jon: There were echoes of this, too, in another town we studied, which is Johnston, Rhode Island. On the surface, you might think it would be a place with a radically different politics than Appalachia, right? It’s in New England. It’s a suburb of Providence, but in many ways, actually, the politics was really similar. It’s a very Italian-American community, and they still practice old-style machine politics.
The mayor there is Joe Polisena. He rules with an iron fist. Again, he’s like everyone’s daddy, right? People go to Joe. They need something done. They need a favor. Sometimes they ask for things he can’t deliver. When we asked Joe about this, he said, “Yes, sometimes they’ll come in, my constituents, and they’ll ask for something off the wall.” Joe would have to tell them, “Gee, I can’t do that. That’s illegal, but I can do something else.”
Likewise, people in that community feel like if they don’t support the machine, if they don’t support Joe Polisena and other Democratic candidates, they’ll be basically shut out. They won’t be able to get any goods from the city, because they’ll be punished by the mayor, who can be very vindictive. Again, very different, seemingly, kinds of communities. They’re regionally different. One’s rural, one’s suburban, et cetera, but a very different style of politics. It’s a kind of politics that used to dominate the Democratic Party.
We forget about it in college towns and big urban cities because we’ve cleaned up this kind of politics, right? We want a politics that’s more policy-oriented—politics without nepotism, without wheeling and dealing in this sort of favoritism—but it’s a kind of politics that survived in a lot of these Democratic communities. It survived in those places because there are fewer college-educated, good-government types who wanted to clean up this kind of politics and get rid of it. That’s one way in which the politics of these places was distinctive, but they also had a particular political culture, and we could talk about that if you like, Aaron.
Aaron: Just briefly before we turn to that: I’m curious, do the people in those towns view this as a kind of politics that needs to be cleaned up but just can’t for various reasons, or do they think this is the right way to do politics, even if it sometimes is a little messy and looks corrupt?
Stephanie: Yes, I think there’s definitely a view among some voters—and they’re all men; these men are all somewhat controversial and have their detractors—who don’t like how personalized the politics are. I spoke to one. Mayor Polisena in Johnston, Rhode Island, is very widely popular. He gets very high margins in elections, and lots of people had lots of good things to say about him, but he did have his detractors.
I was trying to talk to one of them, and he was quite anxious about talking to me and said, “Well, you know how things are in this town.” Then he paused a beat, and then he said: “Well, you’re not from here. Maybe you don’t.” There was this sense that there were critics, and they would often say: “This is too personalized. There’s too much retribution for disloyalty. This is America. We should be able to express alternate opinions and not be personally penalized by the powers that be in our locality for this.”
One colorful example from Elliott County was an executive who was no longer in office because of this federal deal and had one very outspoken opponent in the community. When they would be paving roads, like county roads, the new asphalt would stop at this man’s property line and then start up again at the next property line. Only in front of his farm would there be no paving. That kind of stuff rubbed some people the wrong way for sure.
Jon: I would just echo that. I think it was somewhat mixed, but I think there was also a sort of sense in these places that this is just how one does politics. These are the main models of politics. It wasn’t clear to many, I think, what the alternative to this might look like. In many ways, it’s a sort of model that grows up out of their own community. It’s the kind of politics that grows out of a traditional family in some ways. It’s the sense that, “Well, there’s a patriarch who’s the head of the household but also the head of the community.” They should provide and take care of their community. In exchange, they should get the loyalty of their constituents and their supporters.
There’s also a sense that their loyalty is the main way that they pay back their benefactors, those who have supported them. Even if they have some misgivings or grumblings, or they think the mayor can be a little too iron-fisted or whatever, there’s also a sense that they should be loyal to that person because they owe them something.
Aaron: Given all of that, and given the personal and transactional nature of the politics and the politics as extended family, as you describe it, the initial motivation of this book and the ethnographies that you conducted was that there was something new about Trump or Trumpism, or Trump as a candidate. It attracted what had been historically very, very exclusively blue communities. These were Democratic strongholds.
Given all of this, within this context, what does it mean for them to have been Democrat? You said this wasn’t really about policy per se, so were they meaningfully Democratic in the way that we would think about it, from the perspective of looking broadly in American politics? Democrats represent a set of policy preferences and a certain coalition. Do they even fit within that? Or was it more just that this was a label, but they could have had a different one slapped on, and it wouldn’t have been meaningfully distinct?
Stephanie: Yes, I think one thing that became very clear was that because of the relationships with these party elites in their local community, what the party meant, meant relationships with these local party leaders. What they understood “Democrat” to mean had been very much reflected or filtered through these local party leaders. A lot of their, I would say, social-cultural ideas were quite conservative.
Some of them made a point of saying, “I’m a Democrat and I’m a conservative.” For example, we met a woman in Rhode Island who was from a deeply political family herself and had been a low local-level political leader—so not someone who was out of touch or disengaged at all. She talked about the revelation that Democrats were pro-choice. For her, this was a shock.
She had to wake up to this fact because she herself and her family were fierce Democrats. She had been told since she was a child that if the Republicans get into power, we’ll all starve. It was that kind of rhetoric we've heard from a lot of people. But she was also from this deeply Catholic, church-going, mass-going family. She said she would go to mass and see her elected local leaders also taking communion.
It never crossed her mind that these people would not be pro-life. On a lot of the social-cultural issues in Elliott County, which was very rural, one big issue had to do, of course, with guns and the Second Amendment. All the Democrats were very pro-Second Amendment in Elliott County. They didn’t feel a sense of cognitive dissonance because their understanding was so local.
Jon: And as Stephanie suggested, too, in some ways, they do have a sense that Republicans are the party of the rich. That resonates with what a lot of Democrats might say about the Republican Party and have said for a long time, but it’s a very class-bound, New Deal, Democratic sense of the parties. Indeed, in some of the restaurants in these towns, it’s not uncommon to find pictures of JFK or FDR.
They had a sense that those were the patron saints of the party. They did have a sense that they were part of something larger than their own local, particular community. It’s like the culture wars were this thing that was blowing beyond their own local lives, and they didn’t have a sense of where the parties landed on guns or abortion or those kinds of questions. That surprised us. That was interesting.
In lots of ways, of course, these people, on a lot of these issues, they’re kind of conservative. They’re pretty pro-Second Amendment. They’re fairly pro-life. Although on economic questions, they’re more moderate or even left-leaning. Ottumwa, Iowa, for example: It’s a place with a meat-packing plant. There’s a strong tradition of unionism there.
Basically, it’s as if you froze the Democratic Party in the North in 1960 and took a peek at it; that’s more what these places are like. It almost felt like going back in time a little bit. We got to peer at the old Democratic Party, as it used to be. We were reminded that it didn’t all change overnight—that there are still these vestiges of this old party that have endured partly because they’re isolated and they have this strong localism. The local leads buffer them from some of the big changes that are happening at the national level.
Indeed if you talk to local people, one of the major things they’re trying to do is create their own brand, because they know that there’s a big ideological divide between them and the national party. They want to keep the Democratic Party as localized as they can. Trump has made that a lot harder for them in all kinds of ways, because a lot of these folks are starting to become more aware of the national party and the ways in which it’s different from their local party.
Localism versus Cosmopolitanism
Aaron: One of the broad theses of your book is that Trump appealed to these communities in part because the very things that those of us in our coastal, rootless, cosmopolitan enclaves were often dramatically, viscerally turned off by about him were the very things that felt the most familiar about him to the voters in these communities. As just discussed, he looked like the politicians that they’re used to. What we saw as wild corruption and nepotism and so on was just business as usual—that’s of course how politicians operate.
I want to move to another one that you discuss, which is honor cultures, because Trump for many of us was this famously belligerent but thin-skinned bully who couldn’t back down. Constantly, anytime anyone said anything, he needed to come back at them, even if he looked ridiculous doing it. It seemed very off-putting to all of us. As you point out, this is like a quintessential “honor culture.” What is an honor culture, and why do we see it in communities like this?
Stephanie: Well, an honor culture is a way of understanding reputation and conflict that makes it imperative that a person, particularly a man, demonstrate his toughness, his willingness to meet any insult—or certainly an assault—but even just an insult with a kind of fierceness and a willingness to use violence to avenge his reputation, to reestablish his reputation.
Men in all these communities have all kinds of personalities, just like in any other community, but they understand that they’re expected to do this. If they don’t, they risk really losing status in their communities, and they also risk inviting further insult and even violence. I think it was pervasive in all three communities. I think some of the most colorful examples probably come from Ottumwa, from Iowa.
Jon: Well, there’s a lot of examples. I would just say by way of defining honor culture that on the one hand, it’s unfamiliar to a lot of folks who live in highly educated bubbles like college towns and blue urban centers, but it’s the default culture in a way, right? It exists around the world. It still exists in lots of places in the United States. It’s a much more common mode of conflict resolution than we often imagine.
The play Hamilton reminds us that it used to exist in our national political culture, because, after all, Hamilton died in a duel defending his honor. But that play misleads us, too, because it suggests that this honor culture is some ancient, barbaric, strange cultural thing that existed in the past and that we’ve done away with it. In fact, as Steph said, it existed in all these communities.
I guess we should give some examples. I guess before I get to Iowa, I would start with Rhode Island. The mayor, Polisena, very much practiced this honor culture. We really first saw this in action during a town council meeting, because every month or so, Joe Polisena holds court and various citizens come. They have various complaints and they want to give the mayor a hard time.
Mayor Polisena doesn’t do what politicians might do in, say, a college town when they hear a complaint. When people come to complain to Polisena, he gives them hell. He starts calling them names, and it doesn’t matter who they are. In fact, this one old woman used to consistently go and complain to him, and he would just let her have it. Polisena would say, “You’re a malcontent.”
Later, as the meeting spilled out into the parking lot, he even audibly called her a douchebag. He doesn’t mince words, and we asked him about this. We said, “Joe, what are you doing? Why are you so rough with these constituents? Why can’t you do what Michelle Obama suggests? She said, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ Why can’t you take the high road?”
His response was very telling. He said, “No, I can’t do that. If I do that, they’re just going to roll over me. I’m just going to show my weakness. They’re going to take advantage of me.” He said, “Look, I have to be a street fighter when it comes to politics. I have to be tough, because that’s the only thing that people understand, is strength.”
We saw this again, as Steph suggested, in Ottumwa. There, a fight nearly broke out at a local Democratic county meeting. This is back in 2016 during the primaries. The county commissioner was a guy named Jerry Parker. He supported Hillary Clinton. There was a guy named Alex Stroda, who was on the other side. They were fighting over who to endorse. It nearly came to blows. There was a belly bump, but not an actual fight. Again, those were two guys who couldn’t just talk it out. There was a sense that an insult had to be forcefully confronted. That was normal in these places and that’s also how Trump operates, right?
For Trump, you’re either a strong person or you’re a weak person, and that’s how he divides the world. Nationally speaking, some of the candidates that gravitated toward Trump early also shared some of that honor culture. You think about guys like Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie. They too have some of that in them. That’s a flavor for this culture.
To sum up, I guess the final thing I would say is that Trump—I think you said this well, Aaron—but Trump to us, to people in our community, seems like he’s pathologically thin-skinned. And maybe he is, right? I’m sure Trump has all kinds of personality disorders, but that’s not how it’s necessarily read in the communities we studied. To them, his behavior is totally normal. Of course you punch back. Of course you don’t let things roll off your back. That’s not how politicians behave in their communities. He doesn’t seem weird even if he does have all kinds of personality disorders, which I’m sure he does. He doesn’t read quite that way in these places.
Aaron: You’re conducting these interviews after Trump has been in office for a bit, so they’ve gotten to see him not just with the bluster of a candidate, but actually as the leader of the free world. Was there a sense of the disconnect between how they perceive him and how he is perceived elsewhere?
For example, you quote a handful of people about this. One guy, and I’ll just read the quote, he says, “I think other countries are afraid of him, which I think is a good thing. I hate to say it, but with Bush and Obama, they were pushovers. With Trump, he’s not a pushover. You’re going to have to deal with him. There’s no playing games with him.”
This is really striking because it became very clear in Trump’s presidency that other world leaders were just constantly playing games with him. They saw his thin skin, his reactivity, his susceptibility to flattery, and they just manipulated the hell out of him. They were maybe afraid of him in the sense that he was a loose cannon, but they weren’t afraid of him as a tough guy that they had to take seriously. Were the communities aware of that disconnect, of how he was perceived on a world stage?
Stephanie: No, I think that the idea of a leader that might speak quietly and carry a big stick just doesn’t make a lot of sense to them. In their own sphere of understanding, the way that you make people understand that you will not be messed with is through this thin-skinned response. It’s this kind of machismo. I think that that was how they understood. I was at a church service in Kentucky and the minister there was trying to get the churchgoers to be more assertive in their faith.
He said, “Growing up, my big brother always taught me”—basically, he meant in the context of working at a job site like a construction site—“don't back up. Never back up.” That was seen as a deep truth that had application in all realms of life. They heard Trump making those sounds. It’s a pretty policy-wonkish person who could then read and trace actually what the consequences might have been, which you were just alluding to.
Jon: I think it’s important to bear in mind that what’s happening here is a kind of identity politics. When they see a candidate like Trump who behaves in ways that are familiar to them, in ways that they might behave, in ways that their leaders might behave, it signals to them that this candidate is one of them. That’s how most voters behave, right? They don’t think very systematically, for the most part, about politics or ideology. Really, they’re interested in candidates and the extent to which they feel some sort of a social proximity to them. The closer they feel to them, the more they feel like they can trust them.
I think the people we talked to just have a sense that Trump, because he seems familiar, because he seems trustworthy, will do the right thing on the international stage in these contexts that are removed from their knowledge or expertise. In that way, they’re really different from the wonky people one might meet in Washington, D.C., who are pulling their hair out because Trump is getting rolled by China and Putin, et cetera.
Class, Not Race
Aaron: One of the other things that is characteristic of Trumpism—and it was certainly present throughout Trump’s campaign—was nationalism, and then what often looked like racist dog whistles, if not just quite audible whistles. What has seemed to be characteristic is that Trumpism and Trump’s supporters are intensely nationalistic and often have—let’s call them racially charged views. What you found pushes back on that, at least in some ways, and you argued that it has more to do with the sense of place. Can you talk about how sense of place plays out and what that says about nationalism as a Trumpist phenomenon?
Stephanie: All three of these were places we chose precisely because they represented a larger group of counties mostly that had voted twice for Obama and then flipped. We were interested in part because that seemed to be complicating what seemed like a clear-cut story of the kind of bigoted appeal, the appeal of bigotry that the Trump campaign represented. Then spending time there, what really stuck out in all three of the places was the localism and we've talked about some facets of that.
These were all places where the people who lived there felt deeply, deeply connected to their hometowns and even so much that in the Johnston Rhode Island community that we were in, they had long had a phrase that was Johnston First—long before Trump was on the political landscape, that there was a sense of belonging to each other and needing to help each other and work for the community. This sometimes then resonated out to a nationalistic commitment. For example, in Ottumwa, Iowa where there were these strong unions, where there had been the car industry, it was difficult to buy a non-American made car in Ottumwa.
They linked Ottumwa to the nation in a sense. In all of these places, there was that intense localism. For example, I was asking some women in Elliott County, Kentucky early on. One of them mentioned that they had read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and there was some other women at the conversation that I was having and the other women hadn't heard of the book, but they said, "Oh, was he from Elliot?" Then the response was, "No, because he's actually from another county that's an hour or two away, also part of Eastern Appalachia." Fairly indistinguishable from my eyes, but when they were told, "No, not from Elliot county, from this other county," they all laughed like, "Oh, okay, well that's a different county, we don't know about that county." Even the county boundaries of this tiny rural county really mattered to the civic imagination of the residents there.
Jon: The other thing I'd say along these same lines is these are all places that are struggling to varying degrees and have been for quite some time. When Trump came around and said he was going to Make America Great Again, what they heard is not so much that he was going to make the nation writ large great again in some general way, what they heard rather is that he was going to make Ottumwa Great Again and Elliot Great Again and Johnston Great Again. That very nationalistic rhetoric, they heard in this very localized way. The fate of those communities matter to them partly because their social identities are so connected to those places.
In these communities is where they're really socially known, where they really have reputations, where all their kin are, where all their kin are buried, and so to leave those places because they can't find the jobs or that they might need, for example, is a social death. Here it's a really a class-based difference. If Steph and I get offered a job at, say, Harvard and we go, our social reputation actually enhances because the nature of our communities is really different. It's not neighborhood-based, it's not especially place-based. Our communities are much more based in our professions. We're having this conversation with you across thousands of miles and that's the nature of our community.
We don't know our neighbors all that well and it's certainly not the center, it's not really where our social identities are fundamentally based. The fate of these communities matters in a existential way to them in a way that I think it's sometimes hard for those of us who are part of the professional class to notice and to see. The other thing I'd say about race is, as we mentioned, these are places that voted for Obama twice. In that way, they're also different from places that were touched by the Tea Party. As soon as Obama's elected, you get the tea party, and I'm sure some of that was racially driven. He's our first black president but notably, it wasn't these communities. Obama really didn't create some massive counter mobilization in these places. These are places that voted for him twice, Obama was their president for eight years. Some of these places did grow disenchanted with him in the second term, and particularly in Elliot county where the policies of the Biden administration was particularly hard on the coal industry there. But for the most place, these weren't places that had some allergy to Obama. These were places that, in fact, voted for him and supported him.
In general, I think we would say that to those studying Trump is that I think it is true on the one hand that these folks, they do think of Trump as a patron of the white working class in some ways. I think that's true. I do think, especially today, things have become more racialized. I'm sure if we went back into these communities in the wake of BLM and everything else, the racial politics has changed. Perhaps they think of themselves more fundamentally as white citizens and that's probably likely. But when we arrived there, I guess we were struck by the fact that they didn't particularly think in those terms and their social identities were much more class-based, they were much more place-based. I think we have to keep in mind that however much race plays a role, their politics aren't reducible to race either, that they have other social identities. I think that's hopeful in some ways.
Stephanie: Just to put a point on the comment with one example that comes to mind in terms of Elliott County. Elliott county, Kentucky, is a particularly white area. There's very few people that are non-white.
Jon: In fact, if I could just add, I think it's the whitest county that voted for Obama, which makes it interesting.
Stephanie: All the political conflict there that sometimes can be racially charged in other places all happens within whites. For instance, when there's lots of grumbling about welfare and they're all looking at their white neighbors who are ethnically, religiously identical, racially identical to them. One thing I discovered among some of the older, this is not common among the younger, but the older people in Elliott County will sometimes complain about foreigners. When they talk about foreigners, they mean people from Ohio who are coming across the border or other counties, other white people.
When there's lots of talk about invidious distinctions between us and them or between “othering” someone in the jargon of the academy, but in this case, they're “othering” white Ohioans, so the racial divisions aren't always the most important divisions to them.
Jon: Just a quick footnote to that. It should remind us that, in some ways, their identities are much more provincial than whiteness. White America, that's a pretty big group of people. For the most part, it didn't seem like that was a community they felt especially close to. As Steph said, they feel like they're white neighbors and a neighboring county are, in some ways, outsiders and not part of their community.
Aaron: The main issue of Trump's campaign, the thing that he ran on and drove home from early on his presidency was anti-immigration. That was his hobby horse. Is it then the case that for these communities, an anti-immigration view is less about race, ethnicity, nationality, immigrants with their weird languages and weird foods and more that if your community is intensely socially interconnected in a way that makes it look more like an extended family, then the immigrants look like the person who marries into that family and has a hard time fitting in because they didn't grow up in it, then they physically look different from us?
Jon: Yes, you could see this in, I think, most notably actually in Ottumwa, Iowa, which of the three communities we studied has the highest level of immigration and they've come there really to work the meat packing plant. I do think there's something to what you're saying. There's a sense that these folks are outsiders who don't quite share our norms, and therefore, it's harder to have the tightly knit homogeneous community. We know from research on social capital that ethnic diversity, at least in the short and median term, undermines community and feelings of trust and belonging, and so diversity is a challenge to community.
If your community is fundamentally neighborhood-based, then immigration can be a cost to those communities. Again, it's really quite a contrast from our college town. Here, we benefit from immigration on all kinds of ways. We pay immigrants in California, some in California, they cut our lawns, they clean our houses, they care for our children, they allow us to neglect our neighborhoods and tend to the communities that we care about, which is really our broader, professional, more diffuse, virtual kinds of communities. But in places like Ottumwa, those communities, again, are much more neighborhood-based.
There is signs though that does sort of change over time as immigrants become part of the community. This is why I think it has more to do with culture than race. One Ottumwan, for example, told us about one of his neighbors, really about the Latinos in the community. Generally, he said, well, they're not even Mexican anymore because they don't speak Spanish. It was an interesting way of saying this was fundamentally about race. They may look a little different, but what matters is that they've socially and culturally integrated into the community.
Policy Is Not the Answer
Aaron: Looking forward then for those of us who are deeply worried about what Trumpism represents on the national stage, look back at the four years that he was in office and the real damage it did to American institutions and so on, and are worried about the continuing prevalence of this fundamentally illiberal views in the American electorate, what lessons should we draw from this? These people are speaking to genuine interests in cultural needs and affiliations. The book is very good at pointing out how much those of us in the cosmopolitan cities don't understand the way that class really works.
There's a very nice line in it where you mention how much in colleges the future generations of progressive leaders are taught lots of courses in gender and race, but very little, if anything at all, in class and how important class is to this conversation. What lesson should we draw from what you've learned in these communities as far as understanding and preventing some of this from turning into the really dangerous illliberalism that we all fear?
Jon: I think it is certainly heading that way. When we were in these communities at the time, it was still relatively early in their romance with Donald Trump, so they were not talking a lot of crazy conspiracy theory. Now we're really at a different place and I think partly what it highlights is the dangers of identity politics in some ways. There's a sort of cultishness that has really grown around Trump. Again, we were there and saw the beginnings of that, but we were just, in fact, at a rally in Wyoming, and Trump was there to officially nominate Harriet Hageman who's taking on Liz Chaney. It was everyone was in their Trump gear. Everyone had Trump T-shirts, lots of folks had Trump flags.
If you've been to an NFL game, it had that feel to it like everyone's on the same team rooting together. Maybe that would be okay if Trump was less reckless. I think in many ways, we're in this moment because of Trump's bad character. Not so much that he appealed to people's place-based or class-based identities and mobilized this group of folks, but the power of that social connection has been so badly abused by him and so recklessly done, exploited. In a way, I think there'll be more responsible people. I hope there'll be more responsible people who will follow some of his example and leave other parts of it behind.
I think there's responsible ways to appeal to these folks. I think it's important to remember, there's a decent part of this world. There's a decent morality there. Not all of it exports well up to the national level. I think honor culture, for example, for reasons we can explain, we think that maybe it's not great anywhere, but it works much better locally, and when it's exported up to the national level, it doesn't play out well. There are folks who I think are trying to take some of the Trump's playbook. One good example is this candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, Fetterman, who's a Democrat, and very Trumpy in all kinds of ways.
If you haven't bothered to look, on one of his forearms, he has a huge tattoo of a ZIP code of his hometown. Talk about appealing to place-based identities. This guy's really figured it out. On his other arm, he has the names of all those who died in his community while he was mayor. Very personal concern about his own hometown and community. Look, I don't know what kind of governor he would be if he makes it that far, but it strikes me that's, particularly for Democrats or even really Republicans, who are thinking about how do you mobilize some of these social identities in a way that's less reckless than Trump, I think it can be done.
Again, I think it'd be done responsibly and that's partly because there's something admirable and something to like about the localism of these folks.
Stephanie: Yes, I think a lot of the things that we found that we highlight in our book, the moral vision behind them has to be understood. Even something like the boss nature of politics, which is often something that's considered very sleazy in the kind of communities that John and I have lived really has a lot to do with this ethic of friendship and loyalty. It's a way that voters understand friendship and loyalty more than any policy-minded way of assessing candidates. I had one woman tell me, actually, a few people say things like this, but one woman comes to mind in Kentucky who was a very disengaged voter and worked a minimum wage, a pretty crappy job.
She was one of the defenders of this disgraced county executive and she said: "At least when David was in office, you could get a load of gravel when you needed one." It was her sense of this was a true mark of friendship. I think that certainly the boss style politics, which has to do with personal loyalty, which, of course, resonates very large with the unusually intense following that Trump has at the national level, the localism, again, is about community and loyalty. I think candidates that can speak that cultural jargon can signal that it's more important to signal that than it is to have policies. The policies aren't the draw I guess. I saw some Trump voters who said to me Trump Democrats in Kentucky who said, "Oh, we have great internet. We got that under the Obama administration," but there was no sense that they gave credit to the Obama administration for this policy that clearly helped them. They giggled about. Or the same with Obamacare. We saw people in Rhode Island say, "Oh, well, yes, I am dependent on Obamacare," but didn't give much credit. I think what they want is a feeling of being represented by someone they can identify with and trust and they're much more attuned to social-cultural clues, maybe all of us are, when picking candidates.
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