Peeking around the corner from the “basket of deplorables,” what explains Trump’s appeal to small-town inhabitants, who comprise a lion’s share of Trump support? In an essay for Quartz, Morgan Ramsey-Elliott, an ethnographer, writes:
But during my time in the field, I began to arrive at a more complex interpretation. It is true that fundamental prejudice plays a role in some conservatives’ attitudes toward minority groups. It is also true that, to Robby’s family and others like them, groups of people who are actually fighting for basic human rights look like individuals who have decided to elevate their own identities and needs and appear to be calling for special privileges. This idea is anathema in communities that value, and in many ways are structured around, subsuming individual needs and desires for the good of the group. For many I met in rural America, “minority” agendas and the individualism they are seen to represent are a manifestation of a larger problem: the vanishing respect for duty and self-sacrifice for the sake of the local community.
Ah, community. It’s become an illusive and rare commodity in the U.S., certainly. Communities, I should imagine, depend on a critical mass of a local population sharing common values and broad experiences. Communities would also be necessarily small. How else to know one’s neighbors?
Viable cities may achieve “community” in numerous distinct neighborhoods or districts. I think of Seattle’s Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Magnolia, and West Seattle, for example. Insofar as these areas succeed as communities, they do so by capturing and promoting unique identities of place, but also lived traditions. Thus, they are essentially conservative in collective disposition, however liberal and progressive its individual residents’ political and social attitudes may be.
In contrast, suburbs prevent community-formation, save for ad hoc religious groupings based on physical churches. Too many distinct houses and miles of roads conspire to deny even neighborhoods.
Small towns, idealized to be sure, provide the requisite ingredients for community. They are typically older, marked by lived traditions over generations of inhabitants. People know one another and are both willing and able to help each other out in times of distress. I suspect that small-town residents harbor hostilities toward newcomers and “others” who do not look or behave like them. It is impolite to rise above the rest. Moreover, they are suspicious of cultural “isms.” As Ramsey-Elliott puts it:
Far from being abstract, the social infrastructure of small town America is extremely concrete and personal.
I’ll end with quoting the last paragraphs of the writer’s piece:
In this way, Trump is tapping into rural America’s community-first structures and values, as well its highly individualistic and personal dynamics of everyday social interaction. At first glance, these two logics that play such an important role in small town social life—communitarianism and individualism—appear contradictory. But the gap between the individual and immediate community in these small towns is extremely small. In many ways, the community is an extension of the self. It’s a simple point. But it’s something liberal politicians often fail to appreciate when trying to engage small-town America: they focus on either highly abstracted notions of American ideals, or prioritize the rights of individual self-expression.
Until the coasts develop a more nuanced understanding of everyday life in rural America—how values like service, duty, generosity and authenticity are actually experienced—we will continue to have a reductive view of Trump’s supporters, which may in turn further deepen the country’s political and social rifts. In this, the most divisive election in modern history, it has never been more important to think deeply about why certain messages resonate with voters across the center of our polarized nation. Without such a concerted effort, attempts to engage rural American voters will be as flat as our stereotypes of them.