The Great American Fallout: How Small Towns Came to Resent Cities
Joe’s voice takes on a mocking tone.
“You gotta quit driving!” he says. “Don’t drive as much.” He rolls his eyes and looks around at his pals, a handful of them perched on moulded plastic lawn chairs in a tiny town in central Wisconsin. He’s talking about the way city people look down on rural folks like himself. In his normal voice he adds: “You gotta drive 20 miles to work? You can’t cut that in half.”
Joe gathers with his friends every morning over coffee to solve the problems of the world. With a wink, they call themselves the Downtown Athletic Club (the closest downtown is 30 miles away) and are a mix of independent contractors in construction trades, an independently employed auto mechanic, and several retired public school teachers. They have a mix of political leanings among them, but most of them openly support Donald Trump.
You might not always guess it. After the cost of healthcare and gas, the most frequent topic of conversation is economic inequality – which many of the group blame on corporate CEOs. “The other big issue I think for our whole nation is the discrepancy [between workers and bosses],” says one of the retired teachers, Gary. “The top of the corporations are taking off profits greater than ever before in history. And that’s really driving a bigger separation between the richest in America, and the common belief is that we’re losing the middle class.”
Does he share this belief? “Well the business element is: the town is dying,” he says, as if it were both so obvious and so familiar to him that it was barely worth comment. “All the small towns in the area are having a hard time keeping grocery stores, and gas stations, and everything.”
Look at the old service station here, with its pumps no longer in operation because they no longer made money, and you can see what he means. The boarded-up buildings along the street say the same thing. So too do the worries in the group about the local schools disappearing through school consolidation.
I have been visiting coffee klatches and residents’ groups throughout the state of Wisconsin since 2007. I seek them out, in various types of places, to understand how they are making sense of politics. From the very beginning, the conversations in small communities like this one surprised me. I have heard time and time again about the struggle to make ends meet, and the lack of response from anyone with the power to make life better. I have heard men like Joe say those idiots who tell us to drive less have no clue what our lives are like.
These groups have a class analysis of what is going on in their country; and what’s going on is essentially about where things are going: to the cities.
The members of the Downtown Athletic Club don’t want to live in a downtown, but they do know that society as a whole confers respect to such places. There is a sense in conversations that people in rural America are not getting their fair share of attention, resources, and respect. They think they deserve more, and that cities and the people within them are getting more than they deserve. They mainly blame racial and ethnic minorities, but also white urban elites.
People living in rural communities across the US face difficult odds. American economic growth and recovery is concentrated in a small number of highly populated urban counties, such as LA County in California and Miami-Dade in Florida. The rural population is declining, from more than half of the US population in 1910 to just 20% in 2010. The abandoned main streets show the wear and tear of an economy that has shifted away from rural people, and of public policy that has forgotten to pay attention.
You could say that low-income neighbourhoods in our cities show similar scars. But there is no sense of common cause here. It is the cities that are home to the decision-makers who have brought on this mess, according to rural Wisconsin. This includes corporate CEOs, but more importantly, in their view, it includes government, and Democrats who say more government is the answer.
The same conditions that might lead you to believe people in such places would turn towards government are instead seemingly causing a desire to overhaul it – to “drain the swamp.”
Even in one left-leaning group, the “Brunch Bunch,” who meet in an artsy tourist enclave in the north-west corner of the state, I have heard women talk with resentment about the advantages that city people have, directly attributed to public policy.
The Brunch Bunch is made up of older white women who gather once a week (originally in a private room in an American-style restaurant, but now in a protestant church because the restaurant went out of business), and again represent a mix of political leanings. Some called themselves “Obama Girls.” Others openly support Republican governor Scott Walker.
But Democrat or Republican, they regularly wonder aloud about the unfairness of their location. Sally believes cities get too much public money. “The cost of the water and sewer here is outrageous compared to what they pay in Madison,” she said. “So here is big rich Madison, with all the good high-paying jobs, getting the cheapest water, and we have people up here who have three months of employment [because of the short tourist season], what are they paying? There should be more sharing – less taxes going to Madison.”
The wealth is in the cities, as they see it, and they are consistently on the short end of the stick. They admit that their community – and others like it – benefits from the tourism industry when city folks “bring some of that fresh money up”, as one man in a northern Wisconsin diner put it. But urbanites also get blamed for taking that money away. When I first met the Brunch Bunch, in June of 2007, one of the women showed me a roster of all of the families who had moved out of town. She said those people could no longer afford to stay, because wealthy urbanites’ holiday homes had driven up property taxes.
“It just doesn’t seem right,” said one of the Brunch Bunch. Another added: “Because of the high cost of living, people – especially families – aren’t moving in because there is not a job to support them to be able to live here. So the school enrolment doesn’t increase, and we still have to pay the burden of the school as part of the taxes.”
She mapped it like this: “The money is collected here, it is sent to Madison, and it is dispersed to Milwaukee and Madison primarily. So our return on what we spend is very little, you know?”
The sense of unfairness regarding resources was widespread, but so was a sense of urban arrogance.
“As a former educator, I highly resented comments such as: ‘There is no education north of Highway 8’,” said one of the Brunch Bunch, referring to a highway that bisects the state east-west. “We send them such absolutely excellent and well-prepared students there that the attitude that [we are] the hick area of the state was painful.”
The perspective that people in rural communities don’t get their fair share of attention from decision makers in cities, public dollars or respect, set the stage for Donald Trump. These people were saying that government is basically an urban entity, driven by decisions made in cities. Their “dying” towns were evidence that whatever government was doing: it was not working for people like them.
They work hard, they said, often in multiple jobs, and they still couldn’t afford healthcare. So how could it be right that they were paying for the healthcare and pensions for public workers? When Obamacare came around, how could it be possible that a programme designed by people who paid no attention to them was making their lives better?
They told me they weren’t opposed to government spending outright. But in their mind, if they paid higher taxes for things like public education, the chances were slim that their money would come back to their community.
In other words, their resentment towards cities and the governments within them is not the same as a desire for smaller government. It is a desire for something drastically different, because in their eyes, the system is rigged against them.
And Donald Trump told them they are right. His prepared comments for a rallylast August in West Bend, Wisconsin, north-west of Milwaukee, said this:I am fighting for you. When we talk about the insider, who are we talking about? It’s the comfortable politicians looking out for their own interests. It’s the lobbyists who know how to insert that perfect loophole into every bill. It’s the financial industry that knows how to regulate their competition out of existence. The insiders also include the media executives, anchors and journalists in Washington, Los Angeles, and New York City, who are part of the same failed status quo and want nothing to change.”
Observers wonder when “these people” will wake up and realise that Trump does not have their interests at heart. But rural folks have gotten used to a system that does not have their interests at heart.
In fact, the Trump supporters I spent time with in rural communities don’t seem to believe that even their president is going to do much for them.
The Monday morning after the 2016 election, in a gas station in a logging town in north-west Wisconsin, I asked a group of retired and working men what they thought Trump would do to help them.
Ron, a logger, replied: “Nothing. Nothing. We’re used to living in poverty, we’re used to it. It ain’t never going to change. How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”
He told me the country had to try something different, even if it wasn’t going to help his town.
“Because this country has got to change. It’s wrong. And when you got guys that are on these programmes driving around $60,000 pick-ups, it’s not fair to the people who have been going to work all their life.”
His left-leaning friend, Mitch, chimed in.
“I agree with that now, and I’m on the other side of the fence. I vote mostly Democratic, but I hate the giveaways. I can’t stand it. It’s wrong. It’s real wrong.”
The Downtown Athletic Club had told me essentially the same thing several days earlier when I’d asked how Trump would improve life. “We’re not sure” and “nobody knows” were two of the answers.
What are they hoping for? “I don’t think no matter what president gets in it’s going to change any lifestyle around here for us,” said Fred.
I first met the Downtown Athletic Club nine years ago. In May of 2012, they had to move their lawn chairs across the street into Joe’s warehouse. The service station where they used to meet shut down after Jake, another member, could no longer afford to keep it open. The day he closed shop, he left a note on the door:
“First, I want to say I’m sorry to all my customers for abruptly closing the shop. An opportunity came along for me to work less hours doing what I enjoy while actually getting a real paycheck again. Not that I didn’t enjoy working, for the most part, with all of you. It has been a struggle for the past few years keeping this shop open with the poor economy and a small town where everyone drives 25 miles to work, shop, and ultimately get work done on their vehicles. I did not regret my decision back in 1993 to come to work here but as time went on, our little village kept getting smaller and so did the profit margin in the shop.”
It is no secret that Trump benefited from the support of voters in rural places. But the rural resentment is bigger than Trump. It preceded him, and will outlast him. The system is rigged against many workers, in most types of places. But because it is currently a winning strategy to draw voters’ attention to “undeserving” others, who are conveniently associated with cities in the public mind, and because so many of our cultural divides correspond with geographic ones, we should expect to keep hearing that the injustice is not between the people and the system, but between rural folks and our cities.
Author's note: As the subjects for this article spoke as part of an academic research inquiry, names and places have been changed or omitted.