"They frankly laugh behind the backs of their own voters": How Republicans bamboozle rural whites

In "White Rural Rage," Paul Waldman and Thomas Schaller reject the narrative that treats Trump voters like children

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 5, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort Hotel And Convention Center on February 24, 2024 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort Hotel And Convention Center on February 24, 2024 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

It's become a tedious trope, the Beltway journalist who goes on a red state safari to ask Donald Trump voters if they still like Trump. It frustrates smart readers because invariably the answer is "yes" yet the rationale is typically incoherent babble. Even that would be fine, if these reporters dug an inch deeper, to get at the various bigotries that are actually driving the MAGA movement. Instead, most of them seem too in awe of redhats sitting in diners, as though they've just encountered a rare species of bird in the wild, to bother interrogating them in a way that reveals anything genuinely valuable. 

If readers see the title "White Rural Rage: The Threat to Democracy," they might think it's more of the same. But this book, by former Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman and University of Maryland, Baltimore professor Thomas Schaller, is a very different animal. Waldman and Schaller believe that rural white people are functioning adults who have agency and are not the childlike ciphers of Fox News. As such, the book refreshingly holds rural white voters to account for their choices, and for willfully gobbling down right-wing propaganda. It calls on rural Americans to take responsibility for themselves, by asking the harder question of what it would actually take to improve their communities. 

Waldman and Schaller spoke to Salon about what rural America actually needs, and why Republican voters stubbornly refuse to admit it. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

This book got at something that I find frustrating in a lot of the discourse about rural white conservatives. I grew up in a county that had one person per square mile in Texas. I know these people well. I resent how they're discussed in the mainstream media. Almost as if they don't have agency. Your book just really blows a hole through that argument. 

Schaller: In 2016, Kevin Williamson wrote this piece about the white working class in National Review. A very controversial piece. He was asking, don't these people have agency? Aren't they part of the representational system with elected officials? Why don't they ask for more? Are they children? A lot of people took offense to that, and we're not making an argument as aggressive as that. He had a little bit more safe harbor to do that, coming from the right. But we're basically saying that the problem here isn't the Democrats. They always get blamed for not doing enough or not reaching out or not being respectful.

It's really the quality of the Republicans that they're electing. And as Paul has pointed out, it's because of the economic malaise, because of the healthcare maladies and because of the brain drain and people moving out of rural communities. Two-thirds of rural counties lost population between 2010 and 2020. That's incredible. And a majority of counties in the nation lost population between 2010 and 2020. To our knowledge that had never happened between two consecutive censuses. This is creating this rural ruin, as we call it. We understand the anxiety that that creates. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

One option is to blame faraway cities and liberals and minorities and woke and CRT and antifa and college professors like me for all of your problems. You'll be rewarded if you say that. There's a steady diet of conservative talk hosts, from Fox News and OANN and Newsmax, who will tell you that's where all your problems come from. Read Katherine Cramer's book, "The Politics of Resentment," about Wisconsin. That's where they think all the problems come from — Milwaukee and Madison — and that everything that's going wrong in the upper part of Wisconsin is because of liberals in the cities, and Blacks in Milwaukee and the college professors in Madison. That might make you feel good on Election Day, but it's not going to solve your material problems. What rural America needs is to stop waiting on Democrats to rescue them, even though it is Democrats who are bringing rural broadband.

"Conservatives are constantly being told that not only that cities are hellholes and places that are alien to your values, but also if you send your kids to college, which is the path to more economic opportunity for most people, that they are going to reject you and your values."

There was just a piece in the Washington Post about the dramatic decrease of uninsured rates under Obamacare. Biden specifically convinced vaccine skeptics to get vaccines in rural America, with a program he never put his name on. He saved the lives of the people least likely to vote for him. Even though Democrats are doing all this stuff, in the end, rural whites are not going to vote for those Democrats. So they need to start voting for a better class of Republican. 

Waldman: There's an irony in all of those safari articles where reporters go to the diner and find out that the Trump supporters still love Trump. Those are largely coastal, highly educated reporters who, in their own lives, are probably more liberal or at least center left. And yet they have assimilated all these ideas about how Trump Country people have a kind of moral superiority to them and deserve this kind of respect.

So you get a reporter who works in Washington and grew up in Massachusetts, and goes to some place in Appalachia or to Ohio, and has assimilated this idea that these are the real Americans. And even if some of their views might be repellent, I have to treat them with respect because they're the true voice. And that I find deeply problematic. It's always worthwhile to understand people. But too much of that reporting is just deferential. It assumes that these people are the most real of Americans, and therefore their views don't shouldn't be subject to any kind of real moral judgment.

And not only are they more real Americans, but they are somehow still less intelligent. As if they can't be engaged with in any way because they're both above us all morally, but beneath us intellectually. We're expected to handle them with kid gloves. There is no interrogation of their beliefs, where they come from, beyond an assumption they've been brainwashed by Fox News propaganda.

Schaller: They want to get mad at us, at this book, and dismiss us as a couple of liberal professors who live in the D.C. area and went to fancy schools. That's fine. We can deal with it. But when Ted Cruz says, my pronouns are "kiss my ass" or  "you can't limit me to two beers," now he's more insulting. What he is saying is, these voters are so easily won over by performative politics. I can reduce their core urges and reflexes to this. And I don't have to deliver a thing for rural Texas. I don't have to go to these counties. I don't have to live their experiences. I don't. I can go to Cancun on vacation and they'll still vote for me as long as I'll put on a flannel shirt and say, "my pronouns are 'kiss my ass'" and that's good enough to get me reelected.

Nobody is more insulting to rural voters than the people who are giving them nothing and taking their votes. They claim Democrats are insulting, but Democrats are doing something for them and getting none of their votes. But nothing's more condescending than getting votes and doing nothing in return. J.D. Vance, Elise Stefanik and Tom Cotton: All these people were educated at Harvard and Yale. They frankly laugh behind the backs of their own voters to some degree, right? Those are the people who are really insulting. There's an old D.C. adage about stabbing people in the front. Republicans look you right in the eye and stab you right in the front.

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Waldman: You see it in your home state of Texas almost more than anywhere else. Republicans have carefully gerrymandered the state legislative districts, using rural areas as a kind of leverage to make sure they stay in power. Yet there are huge problems in rural Texas that the legislature never addresses. They've got terrible infrastructure problems. They've got problems with the water systems and the electrical systems. Because they refused to accept the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid, rural hospitals are closing all over. There are people in Texas who have to drive 200 miles to get to prenatal care.

There was an interesting study that we cite in the book that found that there were three things that really determined whether a rural area was going to be able to prosper economically: Do you have strong schools? Do you have good broadband that businesses [can] rely on so they can prosper and flourish? Do you have access to contraception so women don't have to have babies before they're ready? If you have those three things in place, then your area can prosper. And those, of course, are three things that Republicans are undermining.

They shortchange the schools and they try to shift money away from public schools into private school vouchers. And in a lot of rural areas, there are no private schools. They couldn't take advantage of that even if they wanted to. Republicans stood in the way of expanding broadband. And of course they promote abstinence-only sex education and make sure that women don't have access to contraception, which I know you have written about a lot. 

I could go on all day about lack of contraception access in a small town. But I want to ask about another hobby horse of mine, and almost no one is talking about it: The brain drain issue. We're seeing a lot of young people growing up and leaving these areas and never coming back. It is an underrated source of the resentment and the anger that we're seeing from rural white people. 

Schaller: It's decimating. Rural America is older on average than any other part of the country. In the suburbs and the city, 40% of people tell their children they should consider leaving. But 60% of rural people tell their children they should leave. The best and brightest students are encouraged by their parents and their teachers to leave and get an education. Some of them may have come back to become a doctor or a lawyer locally. Most of them graduate school and maybe they had loans and they needed to move to the city to make an income to pay it back. And Paul can tell you some stories about Shawna Claw, a woman we met who was running for the Navajo Nation seat, one of the 24 seats in the Navajo legislature. Or Mila Besich, a Latina mayor of Superior, where she went to high school.

Waldman: Everywhere we went, people said there weren't enough economic opportunities. The kids who were smart and ambitious, they decided to leave. So Mila Besich, just a good example: She's the mayor of Superior, Arizona, which is this dusty little town in the desert. When she was getting ready to graduate high school, her guidance counselor told her, you have to get out there. The copper mine is going to be closing. I will do everything I can to get you a scholarship, but there's going to be nothing for you here. She got out, but she came back and she's now the mayor. We heard the same thing from Shawna Claw on this Navajo reservation.

Schaller: Shawna said, you know, I have two kids. My son is in the Air Force and is in Seattle. And her daughter wants to be a cosmetologist, but they don't have a salon on the reservation. So she lives in Phoenix. And we heard the same thing from people in West Virginia: There just aren't really good jobs here. You can get a job at the Dollar Store, but what is that going to do for you?

Part of it is just the basic problem of being in a lower-density area. You could be the best auto mechanic in your area, but if there's only two people a week who need their car fixed, you can't build a thriving business. But some part is the lack of investment. There's an inability to build something in a place where nothing else is getting built. The only businesses that are thriving are the Dollar Stores.

The brain drain is also affecting the personality of rural and urban Americans. Will Wilkinson wrote this massive study called the "Density Divide" in 2019. He showed it's not just that red America and blue America have different economies and there are different attitudes. You can now predict where people score on the basic big five personality characteristics. People who score high on "openness to experience" are more likely to leave rural America. People who score low are more likely to stay. It's creating a personality blue/red divide.

The Trevor Project, which studies LGBQT+ issues, found that 49% of rural youth said that their communities are unaccepting of gays and lesbians. That's about twice the rate in the suburbs and in the cities. That's another reason young people don't want to come back. In addition to few economic opportunities at home, they feel some hostility, especially if they're liberal.

Waldman: That's how it feeds on itself and becomes a cycle. Conservatives are constantly being told that not only that cities are hellholes and places that are alien to your values, but also if you send your kids to college, which is the path to more economic opportunity for most people, that they are going to reject you and your values. That they're going to hear all these alien ideas and that's going to break up your family. And it is sometimes true that you go to college and you get exposed to all these different ideas. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're "woke" ideas, but there are things that you never thought about. A lot of kids do come home from college and say, "You know, Mom, Dad, I don't think you're right about this anymore." People don't like that. 

What's interesting to me about that narrative is both sides of that particular conflict feel like the victims. I'm on one side of that conflict with my own family, and I definitely feel like the victim. I'm not the one who embraces this intolerant worldview or voted for Donald Trump. I don't live in this racist, homophobic, sexist bubble. Their attitude is I was taken away from them by these forces. When both sides see themselves as a victim, it seems very difficult to traverse that conversation. 

Waldman: It's really hard. This is also a media story. News media in rural areas has really been decimated. The newspaper industry is in crisis everywhere, but especially in rural areas. Local papers have shut down. The ones that remain got bought out by some private equity firm and they don't really report on local issues anymore. And they used to cover issues that can bind people together, stuff that that doesn't have to do with partisanship. Questions like, "Are we gonna build a new city hall? " or "Is there going be a festival in in town next summer?"

If that source of information is not there, not only are people disconnected from what's going on in their community, but the only messages that they get, especially from Fox News and conservative talk radio, is all about how they are besieged. That they're surrounded by enemies who want to literally destroy them and their way of life.

We went to Llano, Texas, where they have one of these library controversies over whether there are going to be certain books allowed in the public library. The conservatives that we talked to, they all said, oh, we are the reasonable ones. They said all these crazy liberals want to put this pornographic filth in the library, and we just want to make sure things are age-appropriate. But we also heard from a lot of people there who said that things have just gotten meaner since this thing with the library started. It's just all nasty, and we used to all like each other. Once you have these issues that crop up with these national overtones, it can make it feel like this is something that can't be resolved. That my neighbors, even if it's it's a minority, are my enemies.

We talked to a librarian named Kathy Zappitello in Ashtabula County, Ohio, which is a rural area. It's one of those places that went for Obama twice and then swung hard to Donald Trump. She decided to run for a state rep against somebody who was a homeschooling advocate who didn't have any children in the schools, but had gotten put on the state board of education deciding what's going on in public schools. And Kathy ran against her. Just because she was running for office, people started to come into her library and look for "problematic" books. She said that people would come up to her at some of her events and almost whisper to her, "I support you, but I can't take a sign because if I do, my neighbors are gonna tear it down. I'm afraid of them." There's a bubbling up of real nasty antagonism towards the liberals who live in these areas.

Is there any solution? Is there any hope? Because you guys describe a vicious cycle of rural white people hurting themselves by electing Republicans, and then playing the victim, even though they did it to themselves. 

Waldman: Well, you could argue that the rural whites who have been electing Republicans ought to elect Democrats. But at the very least, they ought to get themselves better Republicans. They need to start demanding more. There's many politically barren places where the Democrats don't go because they're never going to win and Republicans barely go because they know that they're always going to win. That population is not demanding anything of Republicans. Republicans come in at the end of the campaign and say, "Don't you hate liberals? Yeah, me too."  And then they vote those people back into office. They need to start saying to their Republican representatives, "What are you actually doing for us? Are you improving the quality of our lives? Look at our communities and what have happened to them! What are you doing about it?"

If they start doing that, then you going to get some political competition. You're going to get people who are held accountable for whether they provide for the people who elect them. That can actually lead to some positive change. Rural white people need to engage politically and get something that's not just about saying that they're mad at liberals. If they start demanding more of their Republican representatives, then they might actually provide something better and you could have a more active politics in those places.

Schaller: You have people in rural areas saying socialism is destroying their economies. But if you look at why the mom-and-pop shop closed and got replaced by a Dollar General? That's late stage capitalism. That ain't socialism. Right? If you look at why hospital and treatment facilities are closing, it's because rural hospitals don't turn a profit. That's capitalism, pure and simple. The same people who are complaining that socialism and communism are taking over America are watching their communities being decimated by late stage capitalism. And they're pointing fingers at cultural elites in faraway cities.

Somebody needs to go in there and say, pay attention to what's destroying your communities. Pay attention to who did it and who voted for those people because it's not the people that you think it is. Just like the old metaphor at the poker table, if you're not sure who the mark is at the table, it might be you. Which is not us saying that rural people are stupid. We actually think they're quite smart. As I told you, nobody insults them more than the people who take their votes and give 'em nothing in return. They're picking their pockets, electorally and politically. And frankly, they're picking the pockets of their future.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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