It’s no wonder rural Trump voters hate the libs.
Michigan United for Liberty at the steps of the capital in Michigan protesting stay-at-home orders, May 14, 2020. Alamy stock photo
When white militia groups began showing up in this election, when we were all shocked at how 70 million Americans could still vote for Trump despite a chaotic, scandal-ridden four years, where the president was actually impeached, with so much overt corruption and in the face of the prosecution and arrests of eight Trump associates, it is clear that Democrats missed a mandate from rural white voters, who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump. Why do we still seem to be tumbling headlong into authoritarianism, despite a huge mandate from Democrat voters whose platform is to decrease social inequities and expand social safety nets?
Everyone has been answering with dismay and deep shock, “racism.” But racism is learned, and it is fed by scapegoating. If there is a societal problem, especially one that is about money, jobs, resources, and opportunities, it is much easier to blame a group than deal with the tough problems of jobs, education, healthcare, and opportunity for the poor. It is much easier to divide them into the “deserving” and “undeserving” and blame one party for ignoring the other.
The Republicans figured this out long ago. They framed Democrats as deciding that whites are “undeserving” while framing blacks as “more deserving.” Politics is about the message, and Republicans played that message, and Democrats, like the proverbial fiddle. It was so simple as to be laughable, and we fell for it. It was so much easier to attack Trump, and look smart; ignore the voices of rural white voters, and not to say “white” when it came to talking about poverty and social inequities, like for healthcare, education and jobs. But the vast majority of rural white voters have the same inequities as POC, with a bare degree of difference. The hot-button issue of racism made Democrat candidates afraid to say the word “white.” And we almost lost Democracy over it. We might still.
Republicans know that it is so much easier to go about the business of making money when poor groups fight against each other. And cheaper to provide funds and arms and fan the flames of racism than to create jobs and opportunities for poor rural whites and blacks. It is carpetbagging leveraged by the applied social science of propaganda and division. It works, and if we didn’t know before, we know now.
When I examined the photo of the armed alt-right militia, Michigan United for Liberty, at the steps of the capital in Michigan that went viral in the media, protesting Michigan’s stay-at-home order against the Coronavirus lockdown, two things stood out— that these groups were demanding the right to go to work to feed their families, ostensibly and really, and that they were armed with expensive weaponry. An AR-15 for example, runs anywhere from $500 to $1500 dollars. Ammunition costs about $50 for six magazines. The vests are another expense, along with accessories. Why would they spend this money on weapons, instead of money for food or rent? Then, duh, I slapped my liberal forehead. They are being funded for arms, by extreme right Republicans and grassroots crowdfunding. That fact is a whole separate discussion than this one. But is another mandate, a symptom of a deep problem we ignore at our peril.
What I noticed on closer look is how poor this group, and others like them, look. Look at the clothes they are wearing. The khakis and blue jeans and shoes. This group looks poor. The blue jeans are worn and faded. The woman with the glasses peeking over her mask? That is not “eyewear” as the wealthier liberal enclave buys. They look years old, out of style, past prescription date, bought long ago at a cheap outlet chain or maybe a Medicaid or Medicare choice. It is all strictly Walmart under the expensive military weaponry.
I am not fashion-shaming here. I am wondering how blind I have been in my comfortable liberal West Coast bubble to not notice how poor most of these protesters are.
I began to wonder how many of the white rural voters who overwhelmingly voted for Trump live in deep poverty.
As it turns out, a lot. A lot. Almost all of them. I looked at the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service Data Product figures for poverty by ethnic groups for 2018, and guess what? 60 million Americans live in rural areas, those same rural areas that voted for Trump. Of that number, an astounding 73.4% live in poverty:
“However, the majority of the rural poor are White. Whites account for 84.8 percent of the overall rural population and 73.4 percent of the rural population live in poverty.”
If you look at poverty shifts from 2013 to 2018, you see an overall reduction in poverty for American Indians, Black and Hispanic groups, who are nevertheless still “winning” the poverty race, with blacks gaining ground but still extremely poor. But if you look at the rates of rural whites, they make up a significant portion of the rural poor, approximately 44 millions of white rural Americans as measured by USDA guidelines.
Forty-four million rural white Americans, poor AF. And you have to consider how low those federal poverty guidelines are set by the Department of Health and Human Services. For a family of three, that poverty line is $21,720. Roughly $1800 per month. Do the math for your own household -housing, food, clothing, non-covered medical expenses, utilities, transportation, and educational costs. It is an underwater calculation at best. During a pandemic and with a recession underway and massive unemployment, these white rural groups see themselves as “most likely to be left behind” -still.
When you add that to wages that have been stagnant for 40 years, the poverty measures used by the USDA far underestimate the percentage of poor:
Republicans, despite the overall mandate against Trump, did far better than Democrats expected, and that is because as they drift toward the extreme right, they understand how to effectively deploy weapons of division, distraction, and propaganda, leveraging this power exponentially using social media. And actual weaponry. And they understand that Democrats made few inroads to what we call “the Trump base.”
We are still in the midst of massive protests against police brutality against black citizens, against systemic racism, with calls for justice and fairness for people of color. When these protests break out into violence, it feeds into the extreme conservative narrative of black citizens being violent and criminal. Videos and pictures of violence in the media during these protests is news that helps fan the flames of racism. Blacks, according to right-wing media, are dangerous and unlawful. Reality shows that most of the people in these protests act lawfully, but there is nothing like a news clip of vandalism or violence to counter that narrative.
It is inarguable that some protesters, and yes, some black protesters act violently or unlawfully in the wake of another police killing of a black citizen. But, we also understand that black citizens have real grievances outside of this issue, shorthanded in the phrase “inequality of opportunity.” But, so do Trump supporters, especially in the rural areas of America. Not because of Democratic racism against whites, but because they don’t get the help they need. Poverty leaves them vulnerable to promises by politicians, and really vulnerable to racist narratives pushed by right-wing media across all media platforms.
The story the GOP sells so effectively is that immigrants steal American jobs and poor people of color get more in social safety nets; more welfare, more free schooling through grants, and a break going up the ladder through affirmative action programs. And in a sense that is true, especially in terms of social programs at city and county levels and federal grants for higher education -because they are poor enough to qualify.
For the second lowest income rung (the one just above the USDA poverty line) -the next tier of poor white rural voters - those benefits are denied, because their income doesn’t qualify. They float just above the mark, often by only a couple hundred dollars. The same holds true for other types of help, such as housing assistance, food assistance, childcare assistance, and other programs available for the extremely poor. In that next tier, just above that poverty line, a medical bill or a transmission failure or a job cutback puts them under the line but not qualified for assistance until 30 days later, more in some states. They are less secure than the poorest, running at a deficit each month.
Floating just above that income line leaves them hanging in tough times. If you ask someone who works in the welfare system as a caseworker, they will admit there is truth to this, and they themselves make the best example. The wages a typical caseworker makes puts them just above the income line for help with food assistance, housing assistance and federal schooling grants, needs they also have as they go month after month in a personal budget deficit. It is a system designed to foment resentment. And it is deliberate.
The rural white poor are easy to lie to, because they need to believe that some politicians care about them. After all, not one Democrat candidate mentioned the problems of poverty in rural areas. If they did, they didn’t use the word “white.”
The Democrat campaign, caught like all of us in the middle of pandemic, all but abandoned the planned “deep canvassing” in rural areas that political research has shown as effective. However, the robust economy under Obama didn’t reach rural areas, and his campaign’s canvassing efforts were seen afterwards with understandable cynicism. As election after election leaves them behind, rural voters can’t be blamed for concluding that all politicians are crooked; lie, and do not care about them or their children. They struggle to access and pay for healthcare, find jobs, and/or jobs with livable wages. They simply can’t pay for continuing education, and the high school dropout rates are high when they see no path forward. Even online schooling remains out of reach for rural areas without robust internet infrastructure. They don’t have transportation systems that work for them, leaving ongoing education that leads to better jobs literally out of reach.
That they are at least recognized by the GOP gives them hope, even though that hope has not played out under Trump. This is dangerous for democracy, and a national security issue.
Trump voters have been framed by “the liberals” as gullible, stupid, and too stubborn to see “our point of view” or the “truth.” It has been said that they really don’t care about the “truth.” There is something to that. They wanted -want -someone to really represent them, someone that doesn’t speak in the careful code of the elite, educated politician. They were willing to ignore Trump’s corrupt behavior (because all politicians lie and cheat). On social media, the division has only widened, a wave of name-calling and mutual hatred, stirred up by foreign state propaganda farms from without; white nationalist groups from within, and a piling on of Trump’s misdeeds by journalists who became locked in the abuse cycle, easily baited and offended. And by liberal contempt and shaming online.
It is no wonder so many rural white voters hate “the libs.” We have basically called rural America the “shithole countries” of the United States.
The thing rural voters don’t want to say out loud is “Hey, we are poor. We need help.” And although they do need help in the form of expanded social assistance programs, what they really need are jobs that can sustain them, infrastructure for the internet and transportation, access to healthcare, education that is well-funded, and much more. But in the meantime, someone to help them create a path forward.
And for the rest of us to stop shaming them.
Mainstream Democrats have not heard the calls by people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to address the povertization of America. And even progressives like Sanders and Warren have not specifically addressed the needs of rural whites in their efforts to not appear racist. They need to use the word “white” and quit dog-whistling to the advantage of extreme conservatives.
All Democrats, including me and others on social media need to stop Demsplaining and talking down to the white rural poor. We have get to the heart of their real issues, and start creating equities for poor rural whites and people of color, but mostly, and soon, directly address the real issues of the millions of white rural voters who feel cheated. It is time for us to use the word “white.”