Can This Country Be United? Was It Ever?

[Note: For stupid technical reasons that were not my fault the blog had to revert to an earlier copy of itself before I wrote this last post. I have a copy, so here it is again.]

Some time last week in all the teevee election commentary, I remember someone said that Trump won parts of the upper Midwest where the covid rates were highest. And this was said in a tone of wonder and disbelief, because of Trump’s incompetent response to the pandemic. But of course that makes sense; it is because those precincts are full of Trump voters that the covid rates are high there.

Here’s a fascinating statistic:

In 2020, Biden won 477 counties that account for 70 percent of the U.S. economy, while Trump won 2,497 counties amounting to just shy of 30 percent of the economy, according to an analysis by Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, and his team. (A handful of counties are still awaiting final election results.) For Democrats, it was a notable increase from 2016, when Hillary Clinton won counties amounting to 64 percent of the U.S. economy.

The gap didn’t use to be so extreme:

In the 2000 election, Republican George W. Bush won 2,417 counties that drove 45 percent of the U.S. economy, while Democrat Al Gore won 666 counties that made up to 55 percent of the economy, a fairly even split of the economic map.

And here’s the part that tells us something, although I don’t know what exactly.

A Washington Post analysis of Labor Department data found counties that suffered economically under Obama’s second term flocked to the Trump in 2016, while prosperous counties moved toward Obama’s Democrat successor, Hillary Clinton. Contrast that with 2020, when the gaps were smaller, but Joe Biden saw the biggest shift in his favor in counties that saw the fastest job growth in the four years of the Trump presidency. Meanwhile, the largest shift to Trump in 2020 came from counties that saw the least job growth over his term. (Calculations are based on annual averages, and only use data through March 2020, the most recent month available.)

Why would it be true that counties that suffered the most economically during Trump’s tenure would be the ones with the biggest support for Trump? I would love to see data from those same counties to find out if those same voters believe Trump has been good for the economy, and if they believe they are better off now than four years ago, even thought he isn’t and they aren’t. And is there also something about those counties that makes them more impervious to economic growth (like, low education rates)? Maybe the reason those counties have low job growth is that most of the residents are MAGA heads.

There’s always been a big divide between city and country in the U.S. I understand the culture wars between urban and rural areas was particularly intense during the 1920s. The 1920 census marked the first time more Americans lived in urban areas (51.2%) than rural areas (48.8%). In the 2010 census, 80.7% of Americans lived in urban areas and 19.3% lived in rural areas.

Just for fun, let’s look at the latest covid map from the New York Times.

Sources: State and local health agencies. Population and demographic data from Census Bureau.

USA Today, Nov. 14: The Dakotas are ‘as bad as it gets anywhere in the world’ for COVID-19. You might not know that from the map, because on the covid map the Dakotas are mostly white with dark red splotches. I assume the red splotches are  where all the hospitals are.

It may be that at some point in the future the population trend will reverse. Technology is making it less necessary for all employees to go in to the same office. Maybe people will choose to move away from cities if they can telecommute most of the time. Better mass transportation would help, too. Someday.

Anyway — to the question of whether the country can be united and the gaps closed, in the short term I don’t think so. There is no working with people in denial of reality. How much the country was ever united is questionable. In the past it wasn’t so much united as dominated by the white and affluent part of the population. Now we’re finally trying to blend more people in, really for the first time, and it’s bumpy.

Trump’s supporters are nursing humongous grievances, obviously. They are angry. They blame far-away “elites” for their problems. They feel entitled to a life they are not getting, and they think it must be because someone less deserving has butted into the line ahead of them. They feel very, very alienated from the larger, national culture in which they live. I’ve written in the past about why alienated people turn to dictators and fall into cults of personality; see:

I could go back a few more years. The point is that this doesn’t have anything to do with what we might call objective reality. Trump supporters may be our neighbors, but in truth they are living on a different planet, and I don’t know what it’s going to take to bring them back to this one, assuming they were ever here.

I predict the focus on Trump will fade away eventually. He’ll be very diminished once he has left office, and I don’t think anyone is going to step into the Il Duce role right away. Eventually, maybe. David Frum:

Since the election, some of Trump’s supporters have begun to ponder pursuing a “Trumpism without Trump,” crafting a Trumpist ideology severed from Trump’s self-harming personality and grudges.

There are at least two big problems with this concept.

First, it’s not at all clear that such a thing as Trumpism exists, apart from Donald Trump’s own personality and grudges. Subtract Trump’s resentments and the myth of Trump the business genius and what’s left? Are immigration restriction, trade war with China, and blowing up NATO really such compelling concerns? Are those goals what energized 71 million Americans? Would they energize voters to support Tom Cotton, Dan Crenshaw, Josh Hawley, or Marco Rubio? That seems unlikely. And while there are potential contenders for the resentment vote—the cable host Tucker Carlson, Trump’s son Don Jr.—they cannot offer the myth of business success. Worse, they overdo the resentment. That’s fine for carving out a cable-TV or Facebook-based business. But if resentment didn’t work politically for George Wallace in 1968, it’s not going to work for George Wallace knockoffs in 2024.

It was never about policy. It was never about making good on his campaign promises, since he didn’t. It was about giving voice to rage and permission to act out about it. That’s what Trump did for people. That’s why they love him. And that’s the only reason. Trumpism is nothing but a cult of personality. Trump and Trumpism will fade, but I don’t see that rage and resentment and alienation going away.

4 thoughts on “Can This Country Be United? Was It Ever?

  1. I could only save the comments in one lump.  Links are lost, alas.

    Not Sure Who Wrote This:

    I think all the comments have merit and the paradox is a real poser.  Why does Trump and Trumpism appeal to who it does?  It appeals to those who are not located in places of high population density.  These places  are economically, let us say more stressed.  Church affiliation is more a part of the identity of  the person and sometimes of the whole area and community. These places also tend to have huge disparities in wealth and lifestyle, with little chance for social mobility.  If you are from outside the area, do not expect to ever be totally accepted,  You may be tolerated, but the xenophobia wall will never totally disappear.  

    Thomas Frank in What is the matter with Kansas gave the issue and paradox some thought before it spread to surrounding areas.  I am  not sure he ever got the big picture, but he did a fine job of identifying the social phenomenon.  What attracts people to politics that are not in their best interests?  Why cannot they see that which is so apparent to those who are outside their group?  Remember they do love their cultural walls.  Sound familiar?

    c u n d gulag:

    I really hate saying it, but Fat Stupid Nixon does have charisma.

    It's a weird, dark form of charisma.  But it's charisma nonetheless.  tRUMP is charismatic.

    I could easily be mis-cast as one of the MAGAts.  I fit a good part of the profile: I'm a 62 year-old white, hetero male, with a shaved head, who's large, loud and rambunctious.  And while I'm upset about my lot in life, I'm not bitter or angry.  I hate confrontations, so I'm not violent.

    Where I branch off, is I have a BA, and I'm an Atheist. 

    And while I'm rambunctious, I'm not mean or belligerent.  I'm basically a big, bald, emotional pussycat.

    Basically, I think religion has a lot to do with being a tRUMP MAGA cultist.

    tRUMP's charisma is good.  Why?  Because his form of charisma is unique to him.

    Imo, tRUMPism will have a schism; or many. The hate will remain. 

    But instead of tRUMP 's big tent of 5-tool* haters, we'll have more narrowly hateful groups:  racists, misogynists, homophobes, xenophobes, religious bigots, etc…  Sure, they'll be combo groups. 

    tRUMP's Walmart of hate, will deevolve into mom & pop hate groups.

    Tom Elliot:

    Good stuff Barbara.  One thing though, you ask " Why would it be true that counties that suffered the most economically during Trump’s tenure would be the ones with the biggest support for Trump? " 

    I would suggest that it is because trump doesn't "politic" as normal politicians do, emphasizing his successes, assuming he has any.  He's a grievance pimp massively selling grievance to gain support for himself.  Republican voters in those counties that are suffering are responding to his message of "blame the elites" and not blaming him.

    It's probably the scariest thing about this period of the rise of trumpism.


    I don't buy simplistic explanations of Trump – he's a unique phenomenon that the GOP will find hard to duplicate. Not because Trump is brilliant – he's a dummy, not much brighter than a ventriloquist's partner.

    He's rich.

    The Evangelical mantra equates wealth with virtue. You don't have to tell me that Jesus had a very different opinion about greed. "..You cannot serve both God and money." Matthew 6:24 But the truth about US Evangelicals who attend many magachurches is clear. They want their pastors to live like kings with mansions, jets and yachts. The flaunting of wealth is something politicians can't do but Trump has built his brand on it and he was the non-political politican according to his cult followers. 

    He's openly bigoted.

    With his TV show, Trump built a legend about his wealth. (The legend is fake. Trump inhereted his wealth.) Followin his TV noatariety, Trump entered politics by attacking Obama racially with baseless birther theories. For most, this would have been the kiss of death but the cult Trump was already building equated wealth with virtue. There's a racial tinge about the money – there's a resentment of black athletes and musicians who make large sums of money and aren't properly grateful to their white masters. (Like by taking a knee.) And Trump exploited the resentment Evangelicals have voiced for centuries – they think the founders intended freedom of christianity, not freedom of religon. (Jefferson's writings settle the matter for anyone curious – the Constitution says exactly what they intended.) 

    Cruelty is the point.

    Over and over, seen authoritarian cruelty against Trump's perceived enemies. Occasionally, it's been thwarted, but publicly declared. Over 500 children are orphans by design. Trump has openly encouraged police brutality. Trump tried to use the military against protesters (and may be at it again – Esper is gone.) Trump threatened to withhold the vaccine from New York to get back at the governor. Despite this, more people voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. Cruelty against the people they hate is a feature, not a bug for Trump, but I don't see that anyone can do it and succeed. 

    But the trifecta can't readily be duplicated – obscene wealth, bigotry (racial and religous) and cruelty can't be combined or cultivated in any of the GOP candidates. They will try but I can't see anyone filling the cult boots Trump filled so well.


    A couple things. First bit of data I've seen on people leaving California (because of high prices, COVID, fires, and: the rise of remote work):

    Scams and Soaring (moving) Prices as Californians Move out

    The exodus has been going on for some time, especially among the young. I LOVE remote work, and feel the need to lower my cost basis in order to compete with other remote workers, and so I will likely be leaving also. I’d love to go to Canada or New Zealand, but that probably isn’t practical.

    Despite Trump’s shenanigans, and despite the Dems tenuous hold, I feel the country will stand down a bit as some of its problems (COVID) get solved, and so we’re probably safe until 2022 or 2024. The next fascist running for President – and it will be someone as bad or worse than Trump – won’t be as incompetent. Trump paved the way, and the rank and file right wingers want more. There is no shortage of full blown fascists who will be happy to jump in. Two to four years is all we have left.

    Mary Ellen:

    Excellent post, Maha, and I tend to agree with you.

    I recommend a 2003 book on US social history by a professor of pol ici at Brown, James Morone, called "Hellfire Nation", which I think you'd enjoy. It's about the part religion has played in our national development, and is a great, fascinating read; particularly it goes into the cyclical swings between liberal and conservative, withdrawal and expansion. Prof  Morone's written more recent books, according to Wikipedia, and I bet they're good too. One of his special areas is public health policy

  2. A couple quotes from Marianne Williamson's twitter:

    From a pathetic negligent response to Covid; to heartless withhold of financial assistance to assuage the pressures and pain of rent and hunger; we will look back on our government’s response to this pandemic as worse than “Let them eat cake.” It’s more like “Let them drop dead.”

    If Republicans say something someone doesn’t like, they tend to say it again louder. If Democrats say something and someone doesn’t like it, they tend to back off. That’s what progressives refuse to do and it’s starting to work.

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