Election 2016

It's Not Rural Voters Who Put Trump in Office—It's White People

And this is a crucial distinction.

Photo Credit: Marc Nozell / Flickr Creative Commons

Politico called it “The Revenge of the Rural Voter.” Stephanie Coontz wrote a piece for CNN saying that she understood “why people who have felt trampled on by ‘the system’ for many years had trouble making meaningful distinctions between the respective vices of [Clinton and Trump].” Bernie Sanders said in an interview on Monday with CBS News that the election results are due to the Democratic Party’s inability to connect to low-income voters—a fact that has left him personally feeling “deeply humiliated.” 

In the wake of a shocking election, the postmortem discourse has centered on what we refer to as the “rural working class” in polite discussions (although this euphemism can often be used interchangeably with “rural America,” “middle America,” “the rust belt,” “People of Walmart,” or just plain “poor people” when we think they can’t hear us). The tone in these discussions has ranged from accusatory to empathetic, but the majority of commentators seem to agree on at least one thing: The rural working class hand-delivered this election to Donald Trump.

But in this election, the “rural” vote is a canard. When commentators talk about the “working class” or the “rural” voter, what they mean is the white working class. The people who voted for Trump were overwhelmingly white, regardless of where they lived. According to the Pew Research Centre, white voters preferred Trump over Clinton by 21 percentage points.

So why are we blaming the “working class vote”? Because it’s uncomfortable to talk about who really delivered the election to Trump: white people, across every class and education and gender line.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Sanders added that Trump won “because his campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger, an anger that many traditional Democrats feel.” That anger, he implied, was an anger at the “wealthy and corporate interests” being valued over the needs of the people.

But to discuss socioeconomic class as a single defining issue—as Sanders does—is to gravely underestimate how intersecting forms of oppression work. Social class and income have an enormous impact on a person’s quality of life, but changing them won’t magically erase other forms of marginalization. In fact, in many instances, marginalization unrelated to class or income is what leads people to live in poverty. As Ta Nehisi Coates outlines in his brilliant essay “The Case for Reparations,” it is anti-Black legislation in America that has largely been responsible for the economic suppression of Black people. Taking on Wall Street may do a lot to alleviate some of the stressors in people’s lives, but that action alone won’t end social ills like racism.

Speaking of racism, I wish that Sanders would be less disingenuous about what exactly Trump’s campaign “tapped into” with rural white voters. Trump’s economic pitch to voters was largely predicated on racism—on lies about how immigrants and refugees and racial others have threatened the livelihood of white people. If he tapped into any anger, it was the anger of white people who feel that social progress has stolen something from them.

For them, civil rights is an equation that presents the gains of Black and Brown Americans as their loss. Now Donald Trump has given them a language to articulate that equation, and a forum in which to vent their fury over it. The phrasing of Trump’s slogan is important in this context: He doesn’t just say that he will make America great, but rather make America great again—promising white people the return to a time of post-war prosperity, a time whose economics depended heavily on disenfranchising people of color in order to benefit white people.

While it’s tempting to take the view that Sanders does—namely that the Democratic Party lost the white rural vote—a more accurate way of looking at it would be that Trump won the white rural vote by running on a platform of white nationalism.

And yet, in spite of all of that, the blame being heaped on white rural Americans is misplaced. The rural vote is a red herring. While it’s true that Trump garnered a much higher share of the rural vote, this can only account for so much of the final results. That same Politico article that refers to this election as the revenge of the rural voter has some very telling numbers buried in its later paragraphs. Perhaps the most interesting—certainly the most relevant to this discussion—is that exit polling showed that rural voters only made up 17% of the electorate this year.

So why are so many progressive media outlets focussing on who the rural working class voted for?

The main answer to that question is: Because they’re not us.

Using the rural working class voters as our scapegoat is appealing because, for the majority of us, they are very much other. They aren’t our neighbors. They aren’t part of our social groups or our business networks. When we take to social media to mock them or chastise them or even just flat out blame them for the election results, they don’t show up in the comments to defend themselves. In some ways, they’re the perfect enemy: poor, uneducated, and presumably too unintelligent to understand that by voting for Trump they’re voting against their own economic interests.

White liberals take comfort in the idea of the white rural voter carrying this election because we want so badly to believe that it wasn’t white people like us—the good whites, the educated whites, the liberal whites. What’s much harder to confront is the fact that many of the people who voted for Trump are not so different from us. Fifty-four percent of college-educated white men voted for Trump. Forty-five percent of college-educated women voted for Trump. White Americans make up nearly 70% of all eligible voters, and of that enormous group of people, 63% of white men and 53% of white women voted for Trump. 

Also consider this: While much has been made of Trump tapping into economic desperation, in fact, more higher-income people voted for Trump, and more lower-income people voted for Clinton.

So no, it wasn’t the poor uneducated yokels who carried Trump. It was white people, across all swaths of class, household income, education, and gender.

And that’s the place we have to start from: Whiteness voted for Trump. Because whiteness will benefit from Trump.

So let’s stop with the discussions about how Trump tapped into this working class anger against Wall Street fat cats. Not only is it condescending to assume that white rural Americans didn’t properly understand who or what they were voting for, it’s also just plain wrong. They knew exactly what they were voting for. They were voting for white supremacy and misogyny and transphobia and homophobia and ableism. Those weren’t things they overlooked because Trump had an otherwise amazing platform—those things were his platform. White rural voters chose them, and white non-rural voters chose them too.

When we nice white liberals are looking for someone to blame for the outcome of the election, let’s look to our own backyards. Because no matter how progressive our politics are or how staunchly we campaigned against Trump, the overwhelming whiteness of Trump’s support base is also our burden to bear. And, as difficult a pill as it might be to swallow, the best thing to do now is to look at the ways in which Trump voters are like us—not because we should hold hands and make peace, but because it’s not until we see ourselves reflected in them that we can begin the work of unpacking the ugliness of our own whiteness.

It is white people’s job to dismantle white supremacy, and clearly we’ve got a lot of work to do.

 

Anne Theriault  is a Toronto-based writer, activist, and social agitator. She is the author of My Heart is an Autumn Garage, a short memoir about depression. Her work can be found in the Washington Post, Vice, Jezebel, the Toast, and others.

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