Red Country, Blue City?

Since the years of the George W. Bush administration, pundits have been poring over electoral maps, and drawing inferences – alternately illuminating, plausible, and at the very least interesting (though quite often false) – from the information conveyed in those representations.  By this point, enough pieces focused on the fundamental cultural and political divisions between rural America and urban America have been published that one could probably assemble an edited volume on the topic.

The latest of these, Red State Blue City, by David Graham, has just come out in the Atlantic.  It raises much of the same issues as the previous decade and a half of similar pieces.  If instead of focusing on the state-by-state electoral map, and you focus on the counties, it is clear that, with a few exceptions that seem to be based on racial demographics, there’s a significant and well-established split at the county level.  Rural counties go hard red, the majority of their voters supporting Republicans.  Urban counties show the opposite trend, deep blue, supporting the Democrats.  The urban counties, of course, wield a lot more votes  since they are densely populated, but there are far more rural counties, at least in most states.

The suburbs, the border zones, or areas not only of sprawl, but transition, often get ignored in these sorts of analyses, but really would bear much more scrutiny (perhaps a good topic for a later post and discussion).  The main point that many of these county-wide electoral analyses do come to some consensus upon is that when it comes to the deepening cultural divisions within our country, reflected along political voting lines, one of the most significant differences is the urban-rural geographical divide.

There definitely is something there – all you have to do is pore over the state electoral maps – and this also seems to be a self-perpetuating division as well.  If you grow up, live in, or move to an area where you’re surrounded by people who – very  broadly speaking – embody and espouse the agenda and mindset of the Reds or the Blues, presumably over time that environment exerts its effects upon one, and after some time, you start thinking and seeing the world in a similar way.

And, when you look across the divide to “those other people” – perhaps making a daytrip to see how the proverbial other half lives, or going by the now infinitely available images on social media or programs – you can observe an entirely different mindset at work, pushing values, making claims, and setting out arguments opposed to your own.  This is, granted, a gross oversimplification of the complex factionalization that has been occurring within our country for decades, but you get the point.

What this particular Atlantic article stresses is that we ought now to expect to see a lot of political clashes – outside of election season – between city and countryside (with the suburbs perhaps poised between them).  I tend to agree, for example, on the bedeviled issue of sanctuary cities that is already coming to a head in the new administration (there’s a lot more to be said about that issue as well, both in general, and in the times of the new Trump administration particularly) – that is going to involve serious conflict nationwide, and may take years to come to some resolution.

There is one aspect of this overarching narrative of fundamental blue urban vs. red rural cultural and political schism that I find difficult to buy into, and my misgivings about it stem from observing two things here in Wisconsin, one of the key “battleground” states that delivered Trump his electoral victory over Clinton.  I live and work in downtown Milwaukee – a very blue area, so blue that for a number of local offices, there was only one candidate on the ballot, a Democrat – and I also know quite a few people who intended to vote, and then did vote for Trump (I wasn’t one of them).   What was interesting was that, for the most part, they kept that fact to themselves, both in face-to-face conversations and in social media, mainly to avoid conflicts, arguments, harassment, and the like.

The flip side of this was that, until the actual election results, most of the the Clinton supporters I know were in full triumphal mode here, confident of their impending victory. Even after the election, there were many people who openly supported Clinton who made the rather implausible complaint – “I don’t know anyone who voted for Trump” – when quite likely, they knew quite a few who did.

Now, that is admittedly anecdotal information I’m providing here about these two aspects of blue urban electoral politics – first that many people in a blue area did vote along red lines, and second that they largely kept that voting intention and preference to themselves, revealing it only to fellow Trump supporters, and to those others (like me) who they trusted not to adopt hostile, dismissive, or inquisitorial attitudes towards them.  So, let’s get away from personal experiences and stories, and look at sheer numbers.  What do they reveal to us?

Clinton solidly won Milwaukee county, as expected.  She took 66.4% of the vote, 288,986 votes – going by Politico’s data.  That sounds quite good, and if you look at the map, that sets Milwaukee county as a solidly blue island in a sea of surrounding red – the suburb counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Racine.  That picture is a bit misleading, though. Trump got 61.6% of the vote in solidly Republican Waukesha county, 57.1% in Ozaukee, but only 49.8 in Racine (where Clinton took 45.4).

Clinton did even better, understandably enough, in the City of Milwaukee itself, winning 76.5% and 188,657 actual votes.  But notice something.  Trump got 18.4% of the votes in the city itself, and 29.0% of the votes in Milwaukee county.  That’s significant, in a state where the contest is close.  He got 45,411 votes in the city of Milwaukee, and 126,091 in Milwaukee county.  That is just 19,428 fewer votes in Milwaukee county (where Trump lost) than in Waukesha county (which he won by a significantly smaller percentage margin than Clinton  won Milwaukee).

Where else did Clinton win in Wisconsin?  She won Dane county – where Madison, the state capital, major university town, and a deep blue liberal enclave, sits.  And she got a higher percentage there than in Milwaukee.  Trump still got 23.4%, or 71,270 votes. Looking south and west where four other counties went blue, it was a lot closer in all of those.  Interestingly, three of those blue wins are clearly rural counties, and Rock county probably could be considered to be so as well.  You might argue that they present that anomaly by being dragged into the electoral wake of Dane county, for one reason or another.

Where else?  Those thinly populated blue counties at the top of the map, where Clinton got in the low 50s, and Trump in the low-middle 40s.  Menomonee county went resoundingly blue, 78.4%, but gave Clinton just over 1000 votes. La Crosse and Eu Claire – both counties with university towns – also went blue, as did Portage, which has UW-Steven’s Point. With each of those, again, low 50s for Clinton (except Portage, where she got 48.6% to Trump’s 45.4%).

There were a few red counties where Trump just barely eked out a victory – Door County is a prime example, 49.3% Trump to 46.1% Clinton – but if you look at many of them, there are double-digit gaps between Trump’s and Clinton’s percentage of the vote.  And, when you add up all those small contributions, they are significant.  But, consider this – the two most important counties that Trump lost, Milwaukee and Dane, gave him 126,091 and 71,270 votes. Nearly 200,000 votes from those blue, urban, liberal counties.

Clinton lost Wisconsin by a bit over 27,000 votes.  She won those two urban counties put together by over 309,000 votes (those two counties alone account for 36.6% of her total votes in the state), but she lost almost 200,000 votes in those counties as well to her main opponent.  That is a lot of people in what was supposed to be the strongholds of Democrat territory, in a state where the vote clearly mattered, who did vote for Trump over Clinton.

When you look at other state maps, particularly those where the state counts were close, you see similar patterns.  Trump and the Republican party sweep most of the rural counties, with a few exceptions (for example, those in the south with large African-American populations) – and those votes do matter, but aren’t enough to give him a win.  He also does well in some of the suburb counties, depending on how they lean.  He loses the major urban counties, and even some of the university town counties, but for Clinton’s purposes – at least in quite a few states – he doesn’t lose them by enough.  He garners significant support in those urban counties where presumably Trump supporters are few and far between, and in several states, this tips him over the edge, and gives the Republicans an electoral victory in the 2016 Presidential Election.

This is a win for Trump and for the Republicans that came as an upset for anyone who was relying upon the polling prior to the election.  Nate Silver’s up-to-then solidly predictive models, for one example, had given Trump a 28.6% chance of winning the electoral college (and specifically a 16.5% chance of winning Wisconsin) on November 8 – and that was bullish compared to many of the his predictions of the last few weeks.  What happened?

I suspect – though this would be quite difficult to find data to support – that quite frankly many of the polls were off because people who intended to support Trump told pollsters that they weren’t doing so – that they were voting Clinton, a third party, or were undecided.  I don’t think this was the case with the level of support for Clinton in the polls.  Why would people do that?  This is where we get back into these red vs. blue generalizations, analyses, and inferences about political and cultural divides.  It seems quite clear – in our blue urban counties, there is a sizable minority of people who do support Trump, who do identify much more with the Republican agenda and coalition, but who don’t make those allegiances public.

Why is that the case?  Does it make sense for them to adopt that stance?  And what are the implications for our fractured and factionalized liberal democratic society?  Those are issues that still remain to be explored, but clearly addressing them is going to require coming to terms with it actually being the case, enough so to exert significant effects upon presidential elections.

6 thoughts on “Red Country, Blue City?

  1. Thanks for some interesting reflections, Greg. I, like many people, have spent a lot of time off-and-on since the election pondering what happened and what it means. I don’t have any startling revelations, but I thought I’d point to a couple of items I found helpful.

    First is She’s With Him, a project by Jayne Riew, an art photographer, who found 7 women who voted for Trump but who don’t fit the “rural, uneducated” stereotype—and who were willing to let themselves be photographed for the project. Many nonstereotypical, Trump-voting women that Riew found were not willing to participate, apparently because they did not want to be “outed.” Riew herself voted for Clinton. She is also Jonathan Haidt’s wife. Since there are only seven persons interviewed, obviously their testimony doesn’t prove anything about the attitudes that drove educated Trump voters in general. Still, what they say is interesting, and certain themes occur repeatedly.

    Second is this article from Politico by Michael Kruse, which describes the people in rural Pepin County, Wisconsin. Pepin County traditionally goes blue, but went Trump in the last election. It is in western Wisconsin on the border with Minnesota. Besides the local people who grew up there, the county has seen a large influx of relatively well-to-do, urban liberals from nearby Minneapolis–St. Paul—artists, retirees, a gay couple who run a hipster pie shop (where the “expat” urban liberals tend to congregate)—you get the picture. The article focuses in part on the dismay—shell shock, really—of these urban liberals who thought they’d moved to a John Mellencamp vision of blue small town America only to find it turn red on them. More importantly, the article also examines the attitudes and motives of the Trump voters in Pepin County, asking how a county that went for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since 1972 could have gone Trump this time. (Hint: economic hardship apparently had little to do with it.) The piece is long but provides a great deal of insight into what is going on. Incidentally, some elite urban liberals in my own family bought land in western Wisconsin and retired there a few years ago, where they run their place as a small “farm” in just exactly the manner of some of Kruse’s déraciné urban liberal interviewees. I wish I had read this article when I saw them at Christmas; I’d like to have asked them about their feelings about their new community in light of the election. I’m sure they are just as Kruse describes.


    • David, thanks for those linked pieces! I’d say the second is one of what we might call “making sense of the rural voters for Trump” genre. Those are quite interesting – I saw similar tensions when I lived in the Hudson Valley (until we moved back to Wisconsin), where it was the relatively wealthy NYC people (and mostly baby-boomers) who had been buying up land and changing the culture, in some places pretty much taking over. I’m more interested here in what is going on precisely in the much more populous urban areas themselves. I suspect there’s a dynamic that is similar in that it involves that “we’re not as dumb or backward as you city liberals make us out to be”, but it also involves the keeping one’s views to oneself.

      The womens’ explanations and experiences set out in the first piece/site are much closer to this batch of issues about the recent election and urban (and perhaps suburb) voters. What this means is that, in addition to what we might call red “oases” in predominantly blue areas (for example, particular municipalities within a county), we have a lot of “red-voters” more or less on their own, living, working, playing, etc. in deeply blue urban environments, keeping their views and voting preferences to themselves.

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    • Thanks for those references, David. I can’t say I found a single one of those Trump supporters sympathetic, or even entirely intelligible. One can see why they’re angry; with a little imagination, one can see why they’re angry at the Democrats. But nothing in any of those pieces really explains why any of them voted for Trump, something that requires a further explanation that few of them manage to give.

      Except, I suppose, for this guy:

      One evening, for example, during my time in Pepin County, less than 20 miles from Stockholm Pie, past cows in fields and cars in yards, past silos and still-standing Trump signs, I found myself in the tucked-away hamlet of Arkansaw, at a bar called the Rec Hall, where the regulars had on flannel and camo and a rifle was being raffled off. On the stool to my left was a man named Scott Sievwright.

      Sievwright told me he had grown up nearby and had never left; he paid his bills cutting wood and working part-time for a dairy farmer. He told me he had voted for Obama in 2008, Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016, but it was clear he held no politician in high regard. He said Bill Clinton “sold us out with that NAFTA crap.” He said George W. Bush had “f—-d us good.” He said Obama’s eight years “sucked.” He called Hillary Clinton “a mean ol’ heifer.” And he expressed hardly any confidence that Trump would do well as president or make his own life better. “I don’t think he’ll get a second term,” Sievwright said. “It’ll be turmoil for four years. He’s like a firecracker in a keg of dynamite.”

      Why, then, I wondered, did he vote for him?

      He put down his brandy in a plastic cup and looked at me.

      “Why not?” he said flatly. “Let it blow.”

      The main point, Sievwright told me, was this: “The bastards out here in the country are sick of the bullshit.”

      I mentioned I had spent part of the afternoon down in Stockholm, at the pie shop. Sievwright didn’t pause. “I know about the pie store,” he said. “You got lesbians and yuppies—that’s great—but stay where you are. I don’t quite agree with that whole shit. I don’t. This country makes laws to protect them. That’s retarded. Protect the gays and lesbians? You want to be gay or lesbian? Stay in the closet.”

      He took a sip of his drink.

      “That’s that end of the county, though,” he said.

      Well, that’s certainly explanatory enough. The explanatory variables are: bigotry, nihilism, irresponsibility, and a colossal sense of entitlement. I can see the connection between those things and a vote for Trump (since Trump perfectly expresses every one of them), but there’s nothing to sympathize with there–i.e., no reason to think, “Having listened patiently to what Trump supporters had to say, I now see the plausibility in their claims, and can see why someone would vote for Donald Trump.” I’m not sure that sympathy was the point of the articles, but if it was, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not forthcoming.

      Sympathy aside, I’d like to think that the articles had an explanatory point, and apart from Scott Sievwright, I don’t see that, either. My hunch is that the same lack of candor that confounded the pre-election polls confounds any attempt to understand what is really going through the minds of Trump supporters. Few of them are going to admit, candidly, to the bigotry (etc.) that motivates them if and when it does:

      I got sick of having to be sensitive to the tender sensibilities of these uppity ethnic folk that now seem to have inundated the country, so I decided to say ‘Fuck you all, I could care less what happens to you; what matters is what happens to me, and Trump has my back, and the backs of people like me, so I voted for him, and I feel better because I don’t have to give as much of a shit about people like you as I once pretended to.’

      In lieu of saying something like that, they come up with these quirky-sounding pseudo-explanations that give off a “sophisticated” aura (i.e.: prove that Trump supporters are often hip, urban, and well-educated) but don’t really explain anything.

      My own candid reaction to them: having spent two (or two+) summers teaching in Palestine, I’ve had to deal with (teach, spend time with) people who had grievances of a sort that these Trump supporters could not begin to imagine, and that frankly, make their grievances look like a bad joke.* Some of my Palestinian friends/comrades/students insisted on a positive, non-violent approach to the occupation (taking magnanimity to somewhat absurd extremes), but some supported Hamas. It’s remarkable that support for Hamas is widely thought to be beyond the pale in the United States, and yet support for Trump is now something we’re obliged sympathetically to (try to) understand and (eventually) take in stride.

      There’s a sickening double standard at work here, and it’s most acute in the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiments of the Trump supporters themselves: the policies they so fervently support abroad have made other parts of the world a living hell. Example 1: The Syrian refugee crisis is in large measure an unintended consequence of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in particular of the Republican desire to rebuild Iraq in order to keep Israel safe on its northern and eastern flanks. But their candidate wants to exclude Syrian refugees from the country, even if he has to violate the Constitution do it. Example 2: the now fifty-year-long Israeli occupation of Palestine is motivated the same way, and most fervently supported by the same cohort. But their candidate has no fundamental objection to the occupation. As far as he’s concerned, another fifty years of it would be just fine.

      That’s what Trump’s supporters voted for and can be held responsible for. But for some reason, their nihilistic displays of rage are something we’re supposed to take seriously, and consider in a spirit of brow-furrowed sympathy. Meanwhile, the equal and opposite displays of rage coming from the Muslim world are to be anathematized and vilified (as indeed are Muslims themselves, whether they’re expressing that rage or not: they just have to be “associated” with it). The truth is that the Hamas supporters I met in Palestine had more dignity (and made more sense) than any one of the people interviewed in the articles you’ve posted. They had suffered more as well, in tangible, articulable ways. If Scott Sievwright were a farmer or shepherd in Beit Umar, he might understand. But understanding would take moral imagination of a kind he and so many people like him conspicuously lack.

      I’m sure there’s more to be said on behalf of Trump’s supporters than is said in these articles, but apart from the glimpses they offer into the variety or forms of incoherence and psychopathology, I don’t see what else we get from the articles themselves. Obviously, this is neither a criticism of your having put the articles up, nor of the articles themselves. It’s a commentary on the people in them, and of the cottage industry that consists in making excuses for their conduct.

      *Ironically, the exception to that rule may well be the people around Cliven Bundy (involved in the seizure/occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and similar activities), a parallel that my leftist friends have rejected with a kind of reflexive revulsion, but makes sense to me. I don’t think we’d have a violent militia movement in the United States if the federal government owned less of the West, and was less reluctant to dictate resource-use at gunpoint to the “indigenous inhabitants,” exactly the mechanism of control in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

      State control/management of natural resources is the common denominator that gives violence in the American West an affinity to violence in the West Bank (and gives the militia movement an affinity with Hamas). That’s a grievance–or those are grievances–I can sympathize with, even if I think the Bundys’ or Hamas’s methods for responding to them are pointless and unjustified. But the Hamas/Bundy comparison is one that no one on either side of the partisan divide wants to talk about or hear–and is not something that comes up in any serious way in the interviews in these articles.

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  2. So this comment, unlike my last one, is on Greg’s original post and the Atlantic article mentioned in it. I basically agree with Greg’s analysis as well as David Graham’s in the Atlantic article. I would just add a few observations and friendly amendments based on my experiences in New Jersey, and my having pored over the county-by-county electoral map here.

    For one thing, I would very much second Greg’s point that the suburban border zones get ignored and need better discussion. The standard discussions revolve around the supposed split between cities and rural areas, but the suburbs are transitional between the two, but belong to neither category. The red state/blue city analysis tells us little about what is going on there.

    Second, a quick comment on this:

    If you grow up, live in, or move to an area where you’re surrounded by people who – very broadly speaking – embody and espouse the agenda and mindset of the Reds or the Blues, presumably over time that environment exerts its effects upon one, and after some time, you start thinking and seeing the world in a similar way.

    There’s a profound truth in that, but in a small state like New Jersey, it’s worth distinguishing workplaces from living spaces. (Here’s a relevant post from November, with an electoral map of New Jersey.) If you live in a blue enclave, as I do, you may not encounter many red voters where you live–full stop. But if jobs cluster in locations of high population density, many red voters will be commuting to jobs in bluish enclaves. It matters very much whether these red voters are candid or covert about their political views, or alternatively, whether open political discussions take place or don’t take place at one’s workplace. I happen to live in a blue enclave, but I also happen to live maybe 20-30 minutes’ drive from solid red counties. Since I happen to work at a university, it is unlikely that my co-workers are pro-Trump, but that won’t be true of people who work “normal” jobs. So the idea of being “surrounded by” like-minded people seems to me to apply more to where one lives than where one works.

    That said, now that Trump is president, in my experience, pro-Trump voters have become more open about sharing their views. I now regularly see pro-Trump paraphernalia (bumper stickers, etc.) displayed in supposedly blue enclaves. The message seems to be: “we’re here–get used to it.” (On a recent visit to the doctor’s office, my physician told me that he’d voted for Trump, and then explained why–the reasons having to do with the regulatory burdens of the ACA.) So one needn’t make “a daytrip to see how the proverbial other half lives.” In some cases, you can just make a trip to the cafeteria on your work site.

    This is, I guess, another way of agreeing with what Greg says a bit further down:

    Even after the election, there were many people who openly supported Clinton who made the rather implausible complaint – “I don’t know anyone who voted for Trump” – when quite likely, they knew quite a few who did.

    Right–they just didn’t know them under that description. But they may well know them now, regardless of where they live.

    It seems to me that this point is the most crucial one:

    What was interesting was that, for the most part, they [Trump supporters] kept that fact [their support for Trump] to themselves, both in face-to-face conversations and in social media, mainly to avoid conflicts, arguments, harassment, and the like.

    There are two ways of interpreting this reticence. One is to view it as a form of justified prudence: who wants to be harassed by rabid, unthinking liberals simply for holding views at variance from the complacent liberal consensus? Another is to view as a form of moral and intellectual cowardice: hide your political views from scrutiny because they can’t survive scrutiny; then cry “harassment” when people take you to task for holding them. (Then attack “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” on campus because political correctness is a contemptible thing.) I’m curious what people think about these two interpretations.

    In either case, I think the irony is that reticence is a consequence of a set of left-liberal dogma about “privacy.” According to these dogmas, the “right to privacy” entails a right to conceal what one really thinks about “private” matters; and no one has a “right” to inquire into anyone’s “private beliefs,” so that the attempt to query anyone’s “private beliefs” is a breach of etiquette or civility. Here is Thomas Nagel’s version of the doctrine, from his famous 1998 paper “Concealment and Exposure,” intended (ironically and ludicrously enough) as a defense of the Clintons:

    What I have offered is not legal analysis but social criticism — trying to describe desirable and undesirable ways of handling the conflicts that pervade our society through conventions of reticence and acknowledgement and management of the limited and easily disrupted public space in which we must encounter all those with whom we may differ profoundly. It is an anticommunitarian vision of civility. And it is entirely compatible with the strict protection of the individual rights of persons to violate the conditions of civility in the context of collective political deliberation, i.e. a strong legal protection of freedom of expression.[8] Finally, the same public-private division that tries to avoid unnecessary clashes in the public sphere leaves room for the legal protection of enormous variety in the private, from pornography to religious millenarianism. It is wonderful how much disagreement and mutual incomprehension a liberal society can contain in solution without falling to pieces, provided we are careful about what issues we insist on facing collectively.

    In many ways, it seems to me that the Trump phenomenon–reticence about and concealment of one’s “private beliefs” about public matters–is an unintended consequence of the sort of view that Nagel had defended. Trump’s supporters exploited the conception of “privacy” that liberals had long defended, and in doing so, blindsided the liberals themselves. In other words, the Trump phenomenon is yet another come-uppance for a complacent liberalism that hadn’t reckoned on competition of the kind it’s now had to face. Better late than never, I guess.


  3. Inspired by Greg’s post, I revisited the electoral map with a view to getting a better handle on the details about how people voted where I live. I said in the preceding comment that I live in a blue enclave, which is technically true, but turns out to be a little misleading. The results are very mixed, and depend a lot on how one describes “where one lives.”

    By one description, I live in New Jersey, which went to Hillary Clinton, by a ratio of 55:41. By another, I live in Essex County, which also went to Clinton, by a ratio of 77:21. By yet another description, I live in Bloomfield Township, which went to Clinton, 68:28. I spend a fair bit of my leisure time in the neighboring town, Montclair, which went to Clinton 84:11. My hometown, West Orange, went to Clinton 73:23. I lived a decade in Princeton, which went to Clinton 80:15. I work at a university with two campuses, one in Lodi and one in Rutherford. Lodi went to Clinton 61:37. Rutherford went to Clinton 54:42. All of that suggests that I live and work in blue enclaves (or in a single blue enclave).

    Oddly, though, I drive through the towns of Nutley and Wallington every day on my way to work, and spend a fair bit of time in both towns. Nutley, adjacent to Bloomfield, went to Trump 49:46. And Wallington, adjacent to Lodi, went to Trump 56:41.

    Those results suggest that the idea of a “blue enclave” is misleading, at least in places like New Jersey, where municipalities proliferate like weeds, and each municipality has a discernibly different character, guaranteed by its system of planning and zoning, its master plan, and its local governance structure. Contrary to what I said in the preceding comment, though I live in a blue enclave, the nearest red area is not a 20-30 minute drive, but a 5 minute drive from where I live–the next suburb over, not some distant rural area. I don’t know whether the degree of municipal subdivision involved here is unique to New Jersey or generalizes beyond it; in any case, it’s described in detail in Alan J. Karcher’s New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness.


  4. I couldn’t have invented a better articulation of the view I was discussing in my February 11 comment above than this column by Nicholas Kristof in today’s New York Times, “Fight Trump, Not His Voters“*:

    I understand the vehemence. Trump is a demagogue who vilifies and scapegoats refugees, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, racial minorities, who strikes me as a danger to our national security. By all means stand up to him, and point out his lies and incompetence. But let’s be careful about blanket judgments.

    My hometown, Yamhill, Ore., a farming community, is Trump country, and I have many friends who voted for Trump. I think they’re profoundly wrong, but please don’t dismiss them as hateful bigots.

    The glove factory closed down. The timber business slimmed. Union jobs disappeared. Good folks found themselves struggling and sometimes self-medicated with methamphetamine or heroin. Too many of my schoolmates died early; one, Stacy Lasslett, died of hypothermia while she was homeless.

    This is part of a national trend: Mortality rates for white middle-aged Americans have risen, reflecting working-class “deaths of despair.” Liberals purport to champion these people, but don’t always understand them.

    In Yamhill, plenty of well-meaning people were frustrated enough that they took a gamble on a silver-tongued provocateur. It wasn’t because they were “bigoted unthinking lizard brains,” but because they didn’t know where to turn and Trump spoke to their fears.

    One obvious absurdity here is the idea that you can fight Trump without fighting the people who put him in office, and are supporting him while he’s there. But that absurdity is the whole point of the column.

    Then there’s the explanatory gap between “people out there are having a hard time” to “you can’t really blame someone having a hard time for voting for Trump, despite Trump’s being a lying, bigoted, dangerous, incompetent demagogue.” Really? You can’t blame people having a hard time for doing something wrong?

    First of all, to make a good old fashioned Republican point: not everyone who’s having a hard time deserves sympathy; some people bring hard times on themselves. But even if you put that point aside, there is no obvious explanatory connection between “relief of hard times” and “Trump administration.”

    Further, it’s not as though the voters Kristof is discussing faced some clear-cut two-way choice between Trump and Ebenezer Scrooge. They had to narrow both the Democratic and Republican fields before they ever got to Clinton vs. Trump (rather late in the game), and then vote for Trump over Clinton, construing a vote for Trump as a vote for “struggling good folks.” There’s more than one step there to the finish line, and more than one set of options along the way. So it’s a puzzle why they “didn’t know where to turn” but Trump.

    In any case, aren’t undocumented aliens also “struggling good folks”? Apparently, Kristof’s “struggling good folks” had to go out of their way to ignore or downgrade the struggles of undocumented aliens, and in many cases, participate avidly in the protracted hate-fest against them. Surely some of these Trump supporters are guilty of something. And surely many of them are hateful bigots, despite whatever undeserved suffering has come their way.

    For decades, Republicans and conservatives have derided the idea that suffering is an excuse for political malfeasance. Urban blacks are having a hard time? Well, that doesn’t mean they should be taking Jesse Jackson or the Rainbow Coalition seriously. Arabs and Muslims feel oppressed? Well, that’s no excuse for Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. Native Americans are having a tough time out on the res? Well maybe–but only a fool would have sympathy for the American Indian Movement. Latinos feel dispossessed? Well that’s too bad, but the fact remains that La Raza is a racist organization. No excuses! No whining! Suck it up! Toughen up! Reasonable people keep a stiff upper lip and express their politics accordingly.

    After forty or fifty years of derision for radical left-wing politics, and as many years of suggesting that the oppression suffered by minorities is really not that big a deal (or is their fault), these same people see an uptick in the white mortality rate and conclude that the time has come to embrace their own form of identity politics–the identity politics of the white middle-aged American working class. Instead of applying the same Dickensian strictures to this group as they’ve applied to every other, they’ve demanded an outpouring of sympathy and excuse-making for reactionary politics in their name. Then they’re sorely puzzled that the sympathy isn’t universally forthcoming.

    Is it really implausible to conclude that the “principle” involved here is a matter of racial solidarity? As long as the people suffering were non-white, their suffering was a matter of obloquy. Now that the people in question are white, it’s all different. It’s Excuse Time.

    The preceding dynamic may not explain the motivations behind every vote for Trump, but it surely explains something significant. Assuming it does, how does it differ from the sympathy for the Nazis expressed by white middle aged German workers under the Weimar Republic–who were frustrated enough to take a gamble on the high pitched Austrian who spoke to their fears? If it’s bad that union jobs have dried up in Oregon, how much worse would it have been if they’d dried up under Weimar-style hyperinflation? In that case, would Kristof have told us that we should fight Hitler but not the Nazis?

    No, we can’t make the blanket judgment that all Trump supporters are bigots, but at some point, they’re going to have stop hiding behind the misfortunes they’re suffering and take responsibility for putting him in office.

    *That’s the title in the print edition.


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