By Horus Alas
Unfortunately, that’s of little political—though not personal—consequence for the man who now occupies the Oval Office. The Electoral College granted Trump a victory due to his commanding leads in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, or as we’ve called them perhaps since our last election cycle, the “Rust Belt.”
By now, much ink has hit paper analyzing the spectacular and unnerving upset of Trump’s win. We can safely conclude a key part of his support came from white working-class voters who’d seen their economic fortunes fade in the post-industrial American heartland.
For all our analysis on the coasts, few of us are keenly aware of the conditions that spurred white voters in middle America to vote for Trump en masse. The 45th president is the first one we know of to have successfully campaigned with resentment, animus and outright fear as rhetorical loci. Rationality and common sense be damned—he won.
Which can only mean conditions were at least propitious for Trump’s rhetoric of fear and loathing in the white American heartland. There must have been a real scarcity of jobs for people to believe, as Trump touted repeatedly, that they were being gutted by one-sided deals with China.
Whereas our major cities have mostly continued to thrive from the late 20th century to the present, rural areas have for the most part declined. The Atlantic’s CityLab reports “urban centers tend to specialize in knowledge-based work…” while “jobs with the highest skill requirements—engineers, executives, scientists, and analysts—were noticeably underrepresented in rural areas and were far below national averages.”
Kevin Williamson, of the conservative National Review, writes with stinging satire, “So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down,” and “Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”
That last remark might be a cheap shot, but it isn’t an inaccurate one.
The Guardian’s Chris Arnade recently undertook a 100,000-mile road trip to study poverty and addiction throughout the interior of the country. His findings illustrate a general mood of hopelessness, anger and drug dependency among the masses of poor whites who voted for Trump.
To cite one example from Clarington, Ohio, a town of less than 500 residents, Arnade recounts how:
“Lori Ayers, 47, works in the gas station. She was blunt when I asked her about her life. ‘Clarington is a shithole. Jobs all left. There is nothing here anymore. When Ormet Aluminum factory closed, jobs all disappeared … I have five kids and two have addictions. There is nothing else for kids to do here but drugs. No jobs. No place to play.’”
In Kingsport, Tennessee, a drug counseling therapist identified only as Kim tells Arnade that, “with the coal mines closing, middle managers laid off from the plants, we have new economic despair. Folks who have little, and little offered to them. It’s a breeding ground for addiction.”
As a general rule, large numbers of these communities in the heartland have taken to drugs as manufacturing and industrial jobs have evaporated. With no source of income and no opportunities for advancement, working-class whites in Appalachia and the Midwest have sunk into desolation and listless abandon.
In the city, we tend to stress the importance of education as a path to economic security. But in more rural areas of the country, Arnade recounts how “many residents often fail to go beyond high school, and if they do, it is an education cobbled together by night classes and community colleges, together with a concoction of loans, programs and overwhelming debt.”
The combination of poor career and educational prospects with an influx of drugs creates a penetrating miasma of despair throughout our post-industrial rural landscapes.
In an ocean of heroin needles and empty liquor bottles strewn about trailer park campgrounds, it’s not hard to see how the denizens of the heartland felt outright hopeless.
But one day, their champion descended a gilded escalator at the Trump Tower. He spoke brashly and plainly, in terms simple enough for those with only a high school education to understand. He blamed our country’s problems on Mexicans, Muslims and liberal elites running Washington who were out of touch with the problems of the working class.
In the city, we dismissed Trump’s antics as some kind of sick theatrical farce.
But in the heartland, people listened. They heard his promise to bring back jobs from China and limit trade to boost manufacturing. He would “Make America Great Again.” We would win again.
Trump sold the heartland a new kind of opiate—pride in their identity as working-class whites and a return to the days of yore, when they could feel like the backbone of their country.
They couldn’t shoot it up fast enough.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of WikiCommons.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.