Outside liberal bubbles: How Trump won small-town America
‘What made so many of Truman’s people cast their lot with this blustering would-be caudillo’
A coal-mining conveyor belt states across a road in Manahoy City, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Mark Makela/Getty Images
Liberal Americans like to think we know the answer to a lot of things – including why those who live outside liberal bubbles chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Small-town people, we liberals think, are Republican people. At their best, they are pious, respectful, and conservative; at their worst they are smug and self-righteous, small-minded and yet capable of broad prejudice. People in the hinterlands, we think, are just different: all the adults are church-going puritans with a neatness obsession, and all the kids long to escape and finally be themselves.
But there’s another way of looking at it, and it is just this: small towns are dying.
Donald Trump doesn’t really reflect the moral values of middle America. He is a consummate city slicker, a soft-handed, foul-mouthed toff who lives in a 58-story building and has been identified with New York City excess his entire life. But people in rural areas are desperate these days. Many of them chose Trump, despite his vulgarity and his big-city ways, because he promised to make them “great again”.
Watching movies won’t help you to understand this. You need to see the thing itself. And what you will discover, should you choose to undertake this mission in the part of the midwest where I come from, is this: ruination, unless the town you choose to visit has a college or a hospital or a prison in it.
With a few exceptions, the shops on Main Street will be empty or in mothballs. There will be deindustrialization and despair. Places where stuff used to be made will be closed down. Population growth will be negative. There will be no local newspaper, or else just a sliver of one. There will be problems with meth. There will be hundred-year-old homes that would be millionaire’s palaces were they situated in popular urban areas.
And there will be Trump signs.
One of the specific places I have in mind is the state of Missouri. It went for Trump in an overwhelming way: the fancy New York billionaire won every county except for the ones that contain the state’s big cities and its college town. Certain rural counties gave him more than 80 per cent of the vote.
It was not always thus.
Ten or 20 years ago, Missouri was a battleground state, liable to swing either way in a national election – in 2008, it was split almost evenly between Republican and Democratic. Barack Obama ran credibly in rural areas here. Go back even farther and you will find that Missouri was a reliably Democratic state which produced politicians such as Dick Gephardt, Stuart Symington and Harry Truman.
Even the state’s famous nickname – “the show-me state” – was partisan in its origins; it supposedly comes from a long-ago speech by a member of Congress who soliloquized as follows: “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
These are the basic facts, and yet if you think about it, they only deepen our mystery: there was a time when hard times and despair drove people to the left.
So why didn’t that happen this time around?
Let us start with a look at one of the most quintessential and representative small towns of them all: Marceline, Missouri, population 2,350, the home town of Walt Disney.
The Disney family arrived in Marceline from Chicago in 1906 and departed for Kansas City in 1910. Walt’s father, a farmer and construction worker, was a socialist – a political leaning that, once upon a time, was not all that unusual in the midwest.
Everyone I spoke to that morning seemed to take for granted that liberals held some kind of unfair moral advantage
Years later, after becoming famous, Walt Disney made his own rightward political turn, and as he did so, the small Missouri town where he grew up came to represent for him a sort of repository of all that was good and wholesome about American civilization. It became a nostalgic symbol of what modern-day America had lost.
Disney’s greatest homage to small-town life was, of course, the utopia known as Disneyland, which you enter via “Main Street USA”, a confection of gingerbread buildings, barbershop quartets and old-timey trains that Disney’s biographers agree was inspired in some way by Marceline. You might say that the town served as Disney’s model in his personal bid to make America great again.
It is unlikely that anyone proposing today to build a chain of utopian theme parks would take Linn County, Missouri – where Marceline stands – as their inspiration. These days, the place is in the grip of the same cruel economic forces as everywhere else around here, as a walk down its main drag plainly shows.
As we ponder this area’s slow advance into deep political redness, we can rule out one thing right away: the people in these counties didn’t vote the way they did because they have gradually become rich, satisfied burghers. Every prospect suggests the opposite.
As the farmer and former state legislator Wes Shoemyer told me: “If you’re in a county in Missouri that doesn’t have a college or a hospital, you’ve just watched everything disappear. Lost our coalmines, all union. We had brick plants, used to produce bricks for housing. (We) lost all the smelting, all those union jobs.”
Rhonda Perry, a Missouri farmer and the program director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, an organization that defends the interests of family farmers, spoke to me about how so many of the state’s rural voters came to side with the billionaire New Yorker. The way she sees it, what happened was not so much a matter of enthusiasm as an ugly but predictable choice.
“They were willing to overlook some of the really horrendous things about the candidate who got elected,” she told me, “because he said a lot of other things about what they were feeling.” Specifically, things Trump said about trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and how awful they are.
At first, it surprised me to learn this.
I knew that Trump was critical of trade deals, of course. But I have always thought of farmers as big fans of free trade, since the US exports a huge amount of food. Farmers turned against Jimmy Carter because of his grain embargo on the Soviet Union, for example, and farm lobbyists are forever pushing for opening up trade with Cuba.
But these days, things are different. The way Perry tells the story, family farmers are now in the grip of a handful of immensely powerful international food companies, and the trade deals our government has been agreeing to for decades have only helped to strengthen those corporations at their expense.
A terrifying confirmation of this thesis came a little more than a year ago, when a World Trade Organization “appellate body” basically shot down a US supermarket rule called “Country of Origin Labeling” (Cool), which had required meat and vegetables to be sold with labels announcing where they came from.
American farmers loved Cool; it seemed like a commonsense sort of thing, and here was some shadowy, pro-corporate international organization vetoing it.
Plenty of the farmers who noticed that debacle found it easy to perceive similar threats in Barack Obama’s great hoped-for TPP deal, which Obama perversely insisted on pushing for even while his hand-picked successor, Hillary Clinton, tried to convince voters that she opposed it.
Then there was Obama himself. None of us city folk remember it today, but in 2008 Obama was regarded as a savior by certain aggrieved small farmers.
Unlike nearly every other national politician, Obama seemed to get it back then: he promised to enforce antitrust laws against big food conglomerates and to do something about corporate livestock operations. “He really ran a campaign that related to agriculture,” Rhonda Perry recalls.
“Part of his platform,” she continues, “was about reining in the corporate power and the monopolies that these companies have – it was about ensuring that there was going to be fair and competitive markets. None of those things happened.”
This time around, of course, the Democrat tried to persuade everyone that she was a reliable friend of business, while the Republican mouthed fake outrage against heartless multinational corporations.
“People have a sense that this corporatization is out of control,” Perry continued. “And they were willing to take a chance to try to rein it in and stop it, although in some ways that was a really unfortunate choice.”
Was she saying, I asked, that some farmers voted for Trump as a way of getting back at corporations? Yes, she replied. “Corporatization is out of control. Some people voted for Trump for that reason.”
Apple Basket Cafe
I got a slightly different taste of heartland political thinking when I sat down for breakfast in December in Macon, a town in the county over from Marceline’s, with members of the local Lions Club. The group meets regularly over red-checkered tablecloths in the back room of the Apple Basket Cafe.
The room itself, I was told, formerly housed the printing plant of the defunct local newspaper. On one wall hung the banners of all the other service clubs that now meet here: the Kiwanis, the Optimists, the Rotarians; on another was a Thomas Kinkade print. The members of the club, good-natured men of middle age, said the pledge of allegiance and worked on their plans to do what service clubs do everywhere: raise money for good causes.
Then we talked politics. By and large, these were men who had voted for Trump, but few of them seemed to really support him in the full sense of the word. They were apprehensive about his presidency, they didn’t know what to expect from it, but many of them had made the choice anyway.
Why? One of the men present told me you could summarize it with a single word: “Hillary!”
Another described it with a variant on Trump’s famous proposition to black voters, which these white people clearly felt applied to them, too: “Whaddaya got to lose by making a change?”
Certain predictable conservative issues came up: meddlesome government, for example. Farmers these men knew of complained bitterly about the Environmental Protection Agency. Small bankers, too, were said to feel micromanaged. “We don’t like to be told what to do, how to do it,” someone said.
But it was not all standard-issue Republican talking points. These men groused about how big banks avoided being taken over by the FDIC, they used “Goldman Sachs” as verbal shorthand for wealth and influence, and I even heard complaints about billionaires controlling the state’s political process.
What did crop up persistently when I talked to this group was a disgust with the perceived moral haughtiness of liberals. More than one member of the club referred to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”, for example. There was resentment of “Ivy League graduates” who felt entitled to “micromanage the rest of the country”. The man who told me that – a fellow wearing a US Army Retired cap – also told me that “if you want to be an obnoxious slob, you have a right to be one”.
This right-to-obnoxiousness raises a fascinating point: these men saw liberals as loudmouthed Pharisees, intolerant moralists who demanded that the rest of the nation snap into line – an exact reverse of the John Ashcroft stereotype liberals used to hold of conservatives.
Everyone I spoke to that morning seemed to take for granted that liberals held some kind of unfair moral- or decibel-based advantage over conservatives. Hillary voters were “the vocal ones”, a man told me. “Conservatives were afraid to speak up because of criticism from liberals,” he continued, “and by God, we showed them.”
And then a curious note: this same individual described how, as a boy, he once shook the hand of Harry S Truman. He had gone on an elementary school field trip to Kansas City in the 1950s, and the ex-president, then in retirement, met with his class. I asked his opinion of the Democratic president who – as he acknowledged – infuriated the right by firing Gen Douglas MacArthur.
“One of the best presidents we ever had,” came the reply.
Walking around these small towns, it occurred to me that perhaps nostalgia comes naturally here. The greatness of the past and the catastrophe of the present are things that smack you in the face with every step you take: the solid, carefully constructed buildings from the Benjamin Harrison era that are now crumbling, the grandiose swimming pool built by the Works Progress Administration under the New Deal.
There is nostalgia in Marceline’s impressive Disney Hometown Museum, which carefully documents the town’s relationship with the film-maker (the folks in town were so gracious and kind that they opened the museum, which is closed in winter, especially for me).
Nostalgia also in the collection of Harry Truman memorabilia that filled the parlor of the century-old house where I stayed during my visit.
Nostalgia in the shop selling old stereo equipment that I wandered into during my tour. (The proprietor was playing a vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, the ultimate piece of classic-rock nostalgia, on one of those fancy record players from the 1970s. He said to me, with a sunny enthusiasm that took me completely by surprise in those surroundings: “Have you ever heard this?”)
Maybe, in writing this essay, I’ve been like Walt Disney was in the 1950s, returning to the familiar places of his childhood and wondering what happened to America, and what happened to our democracy.
I want to suggest something different: that a nostalgic urge does not necessarily have to be a reactionary one
Maybe nostalgia is itself the problem. A Democrat I met in Macon during a conversation we had about the local enthusiasm for Trump told me that “people want to go back to Mayberry”, the setting of the beloved old Andy Griffith Show. (As it happens, the actual model for Mayberry, Mount Airy, a bedraggled town in North Carolina, has gone all in on the Trump revolution, as the Washington Post recently reported.)
Maybe it’s also true, as my liberal friends believe, that what people in this part of the country secretly long to go back to are the days when the Klan was riding high or when Quantrill was terrorizing the people of neighboring Kansas, or when Dred Scott was losing his famous court case. For sure, there is a streak of that ugly sentiment in the Trump phenomenon.
But I want to suggest something different: that the nostalgic urge does not necessarily have to be a reactionary one. There is nothing un-progressive about wanting your town to thrive, about recognizing that it isn’t thriving today, about figuring out that the mid-century, liberal way worked better.
For me, at least, that is how nostalgia unfolds. When I drive around this part of the country, I always do so with a WPA guidebook in hand, the better to help me locate the architectural achievements of the Roosevelt years. I used to patronize a list of restaurants supposedly favored by Harry Truman (they are slowly disappearing).
And these days, as I pass Trump sign after Trump sign, I wonder what has made so many of Truman’s people cast their lot with this blustering would-be caudillo.
Maybe what I’m pining for is a liberal Magic Kingdom, a non-racist midwest where things function again. For a countryside dotted with small towns where the business district has reasonable job-creating businesses in it, taverns too.
For a state where the giant chain stores haven’t succeeded in putting everyone out of business. For an economy where workers can form unions and buy new cars every couple of years, where farmers enjoy the protection of the laws, and where corporate management has not been permitted to use every trick available to them to drive down wages and play desperate cities off one against the other.
Maybe it’s just an impossible utopia, a shimmering Mayberry dream.
But somehow I don’t think so.