Even after more than two years, the notion that America elected an ignorant, racist, profane, incompetent, reality show buffoon as President still seems incomprehensible to the rational, reality-based world.
What is even more inconceivable is that Trump seems to have taken some 40 percent of Americans down his hate-filled, myth-fueled, anti-science rat-hole with him. Worse, the Republican Party is abandoning democracy and a sizable number of citizens seem prepared to join them, with 52 percent of Republicans saying they’d back Trump if he suspended elections in 2020.
How did hate-speech, white nationalism, and authoritarianism gain so much ground in the “home of the brave and the land of the free?”
The answer is complex, and there’s a virtual cottage industry forming to explain it. We have to start with understanding that it is mostly non-metropolitan (rural) Americans and white suburban males who support Trump and the Republican fear machine. First let’s examine the usual suspects, then we’ll take a look at a factor that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
The Usual Suspects
Citizens in small states have always enjoyed a disproportionate amount of power by virtue of the way the constitution was negotiated. For example, voters in Wyoming have about 290,000 people per Senator, while in California the ratio is about 19,020,000 people per Senator. And as the population has grown, citizens in states with only one Representative have had their voices amplified even further. Since the electoral college is defined by Congressional representation, this plays out in the Presidential contests.
Republicans have also embarked on a campaign to disenfranchise any geographic or demographic cohort that supports Democrats through a systematic campaign of voter suppression and a well-funded national strategy designed to subvert democracy by Gerrymandering the hell out of our electoral map. All of this has contributed to weakening the voices of the young, urbanites, and minorities, while further strengthening small states and rural voters.
Among other reasons offered are the fact that Russians have actively and successfully worked to influence our political landscape. Trade agreements have eviscerated American manufacturing and created a race to the bottom; the Republicans have initiated a relentless campaign of fear, scapegoating, racism, and xenophobia for decades as part of what amounts to a defacto coup by the oligarchy (something the Russian's propaganda built on). Finally, the rise of a segmented news environment in which people get their information from ideological monocultures that reinforce their biases and prejudices, with social media further insulating them from any exposure to alternative views, has allowed people and media to substitute myth, rumor and outright lies for data, reality, and context.
Less often, folks will point out that, until Sanders, Democrats no longer offered a real alternative, because they’ve been spouting progressive ideas around election time, but embracing moneyed interests and the elite once elected. The resulting cynicism has cost them dearly. In the 1960's 50 percent of Americans identified as Democrat; today less than 30 per cent do. Despite this decline, the party leaders are fighting to avoid abandoning their corporate centrist ideology, as Pelosi, Schumer and Hoyer once again embrace their failed centrist strategy – despite the fact that progressives fueled their 2018 blue wave, and they risk losing to Trump in 2020 if progressive once again decide the party doesn’t deserve their support.
All of these contributed to America’s current WTF moment in history, but none of them answer a critical question: Why is it that rural Americans and white males were susceptible to these techniques and influences? Why were they turned from flag-lapel-pin-wearing, deficit-hating, law-and-order loving; value-voting uber ‘Mericans into the current crop of Russia loving, anti-FBI, anti-rule-of-law, unhinged, anti-science/anti-Enlightenment whack jobs?
The Rise of Communities Without Consequences
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Prior to the Bush’s Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, rural America had been undergoing a steady demographic shift in which it was depopulating and growing older, but otherwise they remained mostly white. Since the recession, the pace of change in rural America has become blinding, with depopulation, death, and diversity completely altering the character of rural life.
Rural population may be going down, but it’s also changing. Hispanics make up more than one-half of the people added to rural populations. This kind of fluidity means the old community as conscience may not be working any more.
These changes have had a profound impact on what had been a relatively stable community structure. While books like Hillbilly Elegy documented the slow bleeding of rural communities, and statistics like alcoholism, suicide, opiate addiction and a shrinking lifespan have been explored in detail, the effect of the evaporation of the rural community structure has been less well explored.
The old intact communities served to keep crazies from both sides in check, even when population was declining. When your Aunt Alice lived around the corner, and your second-grade teacher lived up the street, you were less likely to march around spouting Nazi or nationalist slogans, or to quote the Communist Manifesto, for that matter. The point is, your political and personal actions had consequences, so you were less likely to express – or even hold – extreme views.
But now this kind of community governor no longer exists. And the same demographic transience can be found in many suburban areas, and with it, the lack of constraints.
Worse, people can now form communities of like-minded people on the Internet. This isn’t simply the creation of specific news and information tailored for people’s prejudices – this is the creation of virtual communities in which people’s worst fears, prejudices and biases are reinforced, not tempered. In short, these communities create a culture that not only fosters the most heinous species of propaganda, but allows it to be more sweeping in its influence. Communities without conscience allow the extremes to expand.Aunt Alice isn’t looking, your second-grade teacher doesn’t know, and even your mom may not see what you’re thinking and what you’re up to.
This decline in real communities and the rise of virtual communities is the missing piece explaining why the Russian propaganda and the Republican coup worked so well in non-metropolitan America.
Not surprisingly, in such an environment, grousing, blame, hate and scapegoating are rampant, as Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow discovered in his exhaustive study of anger in rural America. As they watch their towns change and their fortunes decline, people want someone to blame and without a constraint, these communities without conscience go to unhinged extremes. Republicans and Russians have given them targets for their anger: Washington, the Democrats, the elites, liberals and immigrants. All those who are different. This is how we got Trump. Reason rarely aligns with anger, misinformation and frustration.
The solutions are a progressive and populist set of policies like those in Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Only hope can extinguish despair; only concrete action can counter empty rhetoric.
Sadly, the Democratic leadership seems intent on embracing the tired old tactics of identity politics, faux progressive rhetoric, and pay-to-play neoliberalism in lieu of a set of real progressive policies that would lift all Americans, mitigate climate change, and unite us in the process.