Since the election, as I have mentioned many times on this blog, I have been trying to understand the reasoning many of my fellow citizens took when casting a ballot for Donald Trump. This has left me with more questions than answers. One thing I have come away with is a much more deep and keen awareness of how deeply divided this nation is–there is a far deeper and wider chasm than I thought possible. The two halves are far more removed from each other than I suspect they each were aware of prior to the last 18 months.
One of the best written and thought provoking articles in my reading–which I am continuing to do on this topic–was called The Little Man’s Big Friends–and one I hope others will also take a few minutes to read this piece. The cultural and political currents run deep–and as this story reminds us–makes for a history that can in ways wrap around and greet one again.
The ongoing need points up two consistent features of life and politics in the hill country. The first is its isolation, cultural as well as geographical, which endures despite the patina of sameness conferred by fast-food chains and motels. The other is a conflicted attitude to government among its warily hospitable residents. They still think it’s a racket, and, as ever, take pride in self-sufficiency. Here, says Ronald Jackson, whose family has lived in Winston County since before the civil war, “you don’t depend on the government, you take care of your own.” At the same time, unblinkingly and understandably, they want a bigger chunk of its largesse.
“I don’t answer to no professional politicians,” Folsom said in 1944. “I answer only to the people.” He had never held office before, and like Mr Trump’s his shoestring campaign was staffed by inexperienced relatives and friends. Hardly any newspapers endorsed him; as George Sims notes in “The Little Man’s Big Friend”, he was written off as a lightweight showman. Demotic, entertaining, tirelessly peripatetic, the show worked. Rather like Mr Trump’s baseball cap, the army boots he wore on the stump marked him as a regular guy. He toured with the Strawberry Pickers, a hillbilly band, plus a corn-husk mop and suds bucket (for contributions), with which he promised to clean up Montgomery, the state capital, just as Mr Trump said he would “drain the swamp”.
But then on the other hand we need to be reminded of the nation as a whole and how the national demographics are swinging away from the backwoods to the urban diversity that moves and shapes society. One could argue 2016 was a freakish anomaly and the voting demos in the years to come will move America out of its current embarrassment.
(Trump’s) chief ideological adviser, Stephen Bannon, openly yearns for a more closed, clannish America. In a 2015 radio interview Mr Bannon grumbled about the number of Silicon Valley CEOs from Asia, saying: “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” Candidate Trump promised to be “very loyal to the country” and that “American hands will rebuild this nation”. In a post-election speech he laid out his credo: “The relationships that people value in this country are local: family, state, country,” he thundered. Similar language thrills many in ageing, anxious Europe. It resonates in Trump’s America—a world of rural counties and small, bleak towns that, on many measures, is more like Europe. Polling data show that Trump supporters have a median age of 57, almost nine in ten of them are white, and most do not have college degrees. Overall, Americans have a median age of 38 and attend college at steadily rising rates; about a third of them are non-white. Trumpian nationalism is potent stuff. It is also backward-looking and tribal. That’s not the American way.