Friday, August 10, 2018

Where exactly is 'Trump Country'?

Nyt 2016 election precinctsBack on 25th July, the New York Times published a truly phenomenal piece of electoral cartography - a zoomable, detailed, precinct by precinct map of the 2016 US Presidential election results. It is visually stunning and technologically pretty breathtaking. Have a look here. Look at the ocean of Trump red. Or, as many in the US media have called it, ‘flyover country’, ie the places and people you can avoid as you jet in business class between the ‘progressive' coastal conurbations.

Readers here will know that JD Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis caught my interest through the media reports around the time that it came out - when I was on holiday in the USA in July 2016 - journalists were intrigued by its references to the 'Scots-Irish', a group which the metropolitan media class by and large didn't know. Initially I saw this as a good thing, a profile-raiser for Ulster-Scots / Scotch-Irishness generally, but when I got the book and read it I was very disappointed.

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I’ve been through Appalachia - a vast region which straddles maybe 10 states - four times over 20 years. I don’t think that Vance or his publishers set out to make Hillbilly Elegy what the media turned it in to - for him it was a 'memoir of a family', but the urban media made it first a regional characterisation, crudely broad-brushing its social breakdown and disintegration themes across all of Appalachia - and then worse still, they used it later in 2016 as a political explanation of how the Trump victory had happened.

‘Trump Country’ became a euphemism for Appalachia and the ‘Rust Belt’. It was, and is, lazy and untrue. But many American commentators still perpetuate the myth - such as this article from just two days ago. All this does is show how little the supposedly educated city dwelling ‘opinion formers' understand and care about the rest of their nation. I watched online how smart, rooted, Appalachian bloggers and journalists - both progressives and conservatives - expressed their rage at the stereotype. It was Deliverance for the 21st century - an easy trope which gave the upper middle class permission to once again blame and mock the poor ‘basket of deplorables’ whites. The South as America's scapegoat yet again - Rod Dreher's 2014 piece summarises this theme well.

This map destroys that notion. Outside of the big cities, and the Democratic Party strongholds, all of America is ‘Trump Country’, for better or worse. I have regular readers here who I know are pro-Trump, and also regulars who are anti-Trump. I have no particular ‘truck’ with Trump as a personality, but I can very much see how he became a lightning rod for a population who looked at Hilary Clinton and saw her as the embodiment of a failed, entitled, insider-elite political class and system. He just exploited it. He defeated all of the establishment Republican Party candidates as well the Democratic Party’s chosen candidate Hillary Clinton. Sanders might have been a stronger choice for them. The map shows the scale to which Trump succeeded.

Ironically, the map also confirms one of Trump’s soapboxes - that you can’t trust the experts. If supposed or assumed experts are still talking about ‘Trump Country’ then new experts need to be found. The pollsters and commentators were wrong pre-election - and some persist in their prejudices and wrongness post-election.

The Scotch-Irish / Appalachia / The Rust Belt / The South are neither responsible, nor to blame, for Trump. The system made him and he took full advantage, coast-to-coast, north, south, east and west. 

There is a simple principle in politics - if you malign people, you might well mobilise them against you. That doesn’t matter if the numbers are heavily in your favour, but when it’s a close-run thing then that’s a disastrous strategy. As an outsider looking in from this side of the Atlantic on the relentless media ridiculing of Trump voters, the media class could well be ushering in a second term.

• This came up in the enjoyable discussion I had on BBC Radio Ulster with Bruce Clark and Dr Brian Walker, chaired by William Crawley, earlier in the year. You can listen to that on iPlayer here.

• the video below by the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute gives some interesting analysis: