Recent headlines describe Trump's victory as revenge of the rural voter and call Americans to shame "dumb" Trump supporters. Such an overgeneralization of the election results paints rural America in a petty, spiteful, and uneducated light. At the same time, people across the nation have responded to Trump's success with genuine interest in understanding the rural vote. Productive dialogue is seen through the many, many, many on-line forums exploring the reasons why rural America voted for Trump.
An op-ed recently published in the New York Times gained traction by addressing the question, "Who are these rural, red-county people who brought Mr. Trump into power?" This is an important question. The op-ed's author, Robert Leonard, concluded that Republicans and Democrats fail to agree on issues such as gun control, regulations, and social justice because they live in "different philosophical worlds, with different foundational principles." Ending his piece, Leonard concluded that:
Rural conservatives feel that their world is under siege, and that Democrats are an enemy to be feared and loathed. Given the philosophical premises . . . presented as the difference between Democrats and Republicans, reconciliation seems a long way off.
Nothing is accomplished by villainizing the other side, regardless of which side one stands on. Rather than focusing on philosophical issues that Republicans and Democrats are unlikely to agree upon whether they live in rural or urban areas, it is more productive to approach the question of why rural Americans voted for Trump by addressing the legitimacy of their concerns and the problems they face in their communities.
Commenting on the widening urban-rural divide in the 2016 election, Katherine Cramer, Professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin described "rural resentment" in an interview with NPR:
[Rural Americans] feel like their communities are dying, and they perceive that all that stuff — the young people, the money, the livelihood — is going somewhere, and it's going to the cities.Now, there is a sentiment most can empathize with. Rural Americans watch lawmakers spend billions of dollars on improving urban infrastructure while rural towns die. As my friend, Willie Stein, pointed out in his previous blog post, Trump's campaign capitalized on painting a "portrait of a hobbled and deeply troubled America." There is no surprise as to why such a campaign strategy resonated with rural Americans given the decaying nature of many rural communities.
With his nod to President Reagan's campaign, Donald Trump used his presidential campaign to call Americans to action. Commentators maintain that "Make America Great Again" proved to be a successful slogan as it evoked an emotional response to better times for hard-working Americans in the United States.
But does nostalgia for the Reagan Administration make sense in the context of rural America? Many remember President Reagan's era as "Mourning In America." During Reagan's presidency, homelessness became a fact of life in many cities and towns across the country, even reaching rural areas. Moreover, while the rich continued to get richer, the wages of average workers fell nationally, increasing the wage divide.
A recent piece on The Washington Post, featuring the small town Wilmington, Ohio, addressed why Trump's campaign sparked hope in rural America. Eight years ago, Wilmington suffered a devastating blow when DHL shipping left, taking more than seven thousand jobs with it.
Michael O'Machearly, a former DHL bus driver, described the impact the loss of jobs had on his community:
There are people in this town that went through divorces because of it. That lost their homes because of it. . . . Our downtown used to be this precious place--it died . . . . My bank account usually has five bucks in it . . . I'm making my house payments--maybe just barely, but I'm making my house payments. . . I'm doing okay, but I do understand not everyone had that opportunity.
While politicians have praised America's economic comeback, Wilmington didn't feel it--they continued to struggle. When Donald Trump visited the town, twice during his campaign, promising to bring jobs back to the people of Wilmington, that mattered.
Josh Sams, a Veteran and resident of Wilmington, returned home from combat to a different town. He said, "You come back and it's kinda run down. There isn't the cash flow to maintain the everyday things you take for granted." Noting the success of Trump's campaign in his community, Sams stated: "That make American slogan kinda sticks out here, you know, to try to get the town back back to where it was."
Whether or not President Trump will follow through on his promises to the people of Wilmington (or the nation), it's easy to see why people in rural communities latched onto his campaign promises with optimism. While Secretary Clinton campaigned to build on the Obama Administration, Donald Trump proposed change and action. When you live day to day with five dollars in your bank account watching the home you knew and loved disappear, it's understandable why you might take a chance on change.