In the Land of Self-Defeat

What a fight over the local library in my hometown in rural Arkansas taught me about my neighbors’ go-it-alone mythology — and Donald Trump’s appeal.

Editors’ Note: Excerpted from The New York Times, October 4, 2019.

By 

CLA view of Van Buren County, Ark. Rural counties like Van Buren voted for Donald Trump in 2016 by big margins; Mr. Trump won 72 percent of the vote here.INTON, Ark.  —  Inside Washington, there’s a sense that this scandal really is different. Even the White House’s memorandum of the phone conversation President Trump had with the Ukrainian president in July makes it clear that Mr. Trump asked a foreign country to help him undermine a political rival. But while national polls show support for impeaching him is growing, it’s still divided sharply along partisan lines. Democrats strongly favor it, while Republicans tend to oppose it.

I’ve been following this story from my little corner of the world in rural Van Buren County, Ark. Tim Widener, 50, who lives outside my hometown, Clinton, summed up the town’s attitude well: “It’s really a sad waste of taxpayers’ money,” he told me.

Mr. Widener could have been talking about anything. His comment reflected a worldview that is becoming ever more deeply ingrained in the white people who remain in rural America — Washington politicians are spending money that they shouldn’t be. In 2016, shortly after Mr. Trump’s victory, Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, summed up the attitudes she observed after years of studying rural Americans: “The way these folks described the world to me, their basic concern was that people like them, in places like theirs, were overlooked and disrespected,” she wrote in Vox, explaining that her subjects considered “racial minorities on welfare” as well as “lazy urban professionals” working desk jobs to be undeserving of state and federal dollars. People like my neighbors hate that the government is spending money on those who don’t look like them and don’t live like them — but what I’ve learned since I came home is that they remain opposed even when they themselves stand to benefit.

Since coming back, I’ve realized that it is true that people here think life here has taken a turn for the worse. What’s also true, though, is that many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor.
A considerable part of rural America is shrinking, and, for some, this means it’s time to go into retreat. Rather than pitching in to maintain what they have, people are willing to go it alone, to devote all their resources to their own homes and their own families.

It makes me wonder if appeals from Democratic candidates still hoping to win Trump voters over by offering them more federal services will work. Many of the Democratic front-runners have released plans that call for more federal tax investment in rural infrastructure. Mr. Widener told me he had watched some of the Democratic debates, and his reaction was that everything the candidates proposed was “going to cost me money.”

As long as Democrats make promises to make their lives better with free college and Medicare for all sound like they include government spending, these voters will turn to Trump again — and it won’t matter how many scandals he’s been tarnished by.

Economic appeals are not going to sway any Trump voters, who view anyone who is trying to increase government spending, especially to help other people, with disdain, even if it ultimately helps them, too. And Trump voters are carrying the day here in Van Buren County. They see Mr. Trump’s slashing of the national safety net and withdrawal from the international stage as necessities — these things reflect their own impulse writ large.

The community was outraged over the idea of raising the librarian’s salary to $25/hour; some called it “typical government waste,” adding, “It’s the same thing in Washington.” The typical private-sector wage in Van Buren, $10 to $13 an hour, was right for the county, many people said. Anything more than that was wasteful, or evidence of government corruption. They believe every tax dollar spent now is wasteful and foolish and they will have to pay for it later. It is as if there will be a nationwide scramble to cover the shortfall just as there was here with building the new library.

As long as Democrats make promises to make their lives better with free college and Medicare for all sound like they include government spending, these voters will turn to Trump again — and it won’t matter how many scandals he’s been tarnished by.



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