For some two generations now, way too many American liberals have been beguiled by the facile trope of “the Southernization of America,” which blames the nation’s shift to the right since the 1960s on the South’s rapid political, economic, and cultural ascent. If early takes on the 2016 presidential election, which chalk up Trump’s upset triumph to the “revenge” of the rural white voter in traditionally blue northern states and essentially leave it at that, are any indication, we may soon see “ruralization” supplant “Southernization” as the primary threat to political liberalism in this country.
(Dare we undermine so simple and straightforward a take on so complex and unexpected an occurrence by asking just how severe this threat could be in light of the ongoing, and in some cases dramatic, shrinkage of the rural white population? As Kinky Friedman would most assuredly say, “Why the Hell, Not?”)
There is surely no denying that ardor for Mr. Trump burned hottest and sometimes manifested itself most frightfully among nonmetropolitan whites whose turnout figures exceeded all expectations this year, most notably in the Clinton camp, where supreme confidence in the strength of urban support appeared to make rural a marginal consideration.
Still, there are fundamental flaws in the rush to lay Trump’s victory off on the hicks in the sticks. The most obvious of these lies in the raw numbers showing that, with half of the population now clustered in just 146 of the nation’s largest counties, rural America supplied but 17 percent of the votes cast this year. In Wisconsin, for example, Donald Trump carried rural Florence County by 71 percent compared to Mitt Romney’s 63 percent in 2012, but this amounted to a grand total of 252 additional votes. Fond du Lac County is larger, but Trump’s 2+ percent margin over Romney still adds up to only 699 votes.
On the other hand, Ms. Clinton trailed Barack Obama’s 2012 total by 58,000 in Milwaukee alone on her way to losing Wisconsin by just over 24,000 votes, and her vote in metro Detroit counties fell some 83,000 short of Obama’s in a state that she came up scarcely 13,000 ballots short. In Pennsylvania meanwhile, the estimated 130,000 African American no-shows roughly doubled Ms. Clinton’s margin of loss, but it isn’t simply that, as some writers for Politico observed, “black voters in Philadelphia didn’t love Clinton more than the displaced steelworkers hated the people like her who dealt away their jobs to foreign countries,” it’s that countervailing white and black Democratic turnout in numbers even approaching those of 2012 failed to materialize in the largest urban/metro centers in three states that, rural and small town white outrage notwithstanding, could otherwise have made Hillary Clinton president.
In 2016, as in so many elections, the significance of one trend was dependent on another, as high rural white turnout coincided with slumping urban black turnout.
On the national scale, there is no denying that Trump cashed in heavily among whites without college degrees, but that should not obscure his victory with college-educated white men and his 45 percent tally with white women with college degrees. Likewise, writing off his election to the success of his “populistic” appeal to the anger and paranoia of economically and culturally imperiled whites amounts to making unlikely populists of voters with incomes exceeding $100,000 in key states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina with whom he bested not only Ms. Clinton, but his Republican predecessor in 2012.
It seems more comforting to many commentators to rationalize this election as a distressingly powerful affirmation of Donald Trump by increasingly marginalized rural whites than to entertain the prospect, her million-ish popular vote plurality aside, of a potentially more telling rejection of his opponent across a broad spectrum of the electorate.
The decidedly underwhelming general enthusiasm for Ms. Clinton that had been almost palpable throughout the campaign became a crushing reality on election day, even within her own party. Where Donald Trump claimed the votes of 91 percent of white Republicans, Hillary Clinton won the support of only 84 percent of whites in her party. It was anticipated that she would run behind President Obama in the black vote nationally, but perhaps not by a full five points, which hurt all the worse in light of a general slippage in black turnout.
In an interesting slant, a Pew Foundation survey shows Ms. Clinton ran behind Barack Obama in 2012 with Americans of every Protestant and Roman Catholic demographic, most notably coming up 8 points shy with Hispanic Catholics and trailing by 2 percent among the “religiously unaffiliated.”
Overall, once again, even presumed outrage over Trump’s promised wall and mass deportations, failed to yield enough of a Hispanic/Latino “surge” to be of much help to Ms. Clinton, who actually trailed Obama’s 2012 performance with this group by 6 points.
Beyond the brutal, but ultimately legitimate question of whether Hillary Clinton is “likable enough” to be president, she clearly did herself no favors in rejecting advice to pay more attention to blue collar voters instead of running what seemed to many outside her little bubble as an aloof, glam-besotted, utterly tone deaf campaign typified all too well by the $250,000-a ticket gala where Barbara Streisand provided the entertainment, but HRC made the wrong kind of headlines by dismissing half of Trump’s supporters as loathsome, bigoted “deplorables.” It is easy enough to see why not only rural whites acutely sensitive to slights, but a good many others in the suburbs and elsewhere may have jumped off the fence on Trump’s side at that very point.
None of this is to suggest that Ms. Clinton did not face serious opposition rooted in racial and sexual bigotry, not to mention the economic and cultural anxiety so ruthlessly and recklessly exploited by her opponent. Nor is there reason to dispute that these pathologies seem more readily and menacingly apparent in some rural areas than elsewhere. Yet, it would only compound the tragedy that so many Americans already see in this election to consign these insidious traits and attitudes solely to those who lack the sophistication to conceal them or, sadder still, merely see nothing to gain by trying.
If anything, though, it would be even more unfortunate to overlook a clearly substantial, much more influential and advantaged segment of the electorate who might deplore such hatred and blind anger publicly right up until they close the curtain in the voting booth where, upon rethinking, these sentiments, however regrettable, suddenly become a tolerable means of furthering their own class and political ends.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is a big-time who proudly casts himself as a representative of the “educated, socially progressive, Hollywood” crowd, even as he is cast by others as the embodiment of “why people hate liberals.” Sorkin was not necessarily incorrect, however, in telling his daughters in a livid morning-after rant now gone viral that “the Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons.”
His mistake, and a most egregious one at that, lay in implying that they or others of their ilk could have pulled it off without a lot of help, some of it admittedly inadvertent, from a great many others who scarcely fit the conveniently narrow and villainous “Trumpster” profile he had constructed, including, ironically enough, the likes of Sorkin himself.