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Understanding Trump Country

Tim Carney’s latest book, Alienated America, almost alienated me before I even opened it. Reading over the jacket blurbs, I was assured that I would walk away with a better understanding of “why Donald Trump won”. That elicited a groan. Is there anyone left alive who cares about that question, and hasn’t already answered it to his own satisfaction? We’ve spent years debating the rise of Trump. Let’s move on, please!

Pushing past the front cover was a good decision in the end. My own view of “why Trump won” was not radically overturned, but it was nuanced, which is worthwhile—especially as we move into another election year. Combining on-the-ground research with a hefty dose of sociology, Carney puts Trump country under the microscope, diagnosing its social ills with exquisite precision in a book that manages to be compassionate without turning into a dirge. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Carney is that he seems to have a chip-free shoulder. He doesn’t come across as being hungry for vengeance, either against middle-American “deplorables” or against coastal elites. He just seems genuinely interested in figuring out what might help to revitalize families and communities, in regions of this country where life no longer seems to be very good.

If you’ve read recent trade books on this subject (Coming Apart, Our Kids, Hillbilly Elegy, or Them), Carney’s narrative and methodology will have a familiar ring. You already know that many regions of the United States have been hard-hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs, a resurgence of recreational drugs, and the rise of atomizing technologies that leave people searching for reasons to step out their front doors. You know about the collapse of marriage, community, and mainline religion. You’re aware that this toxic combination of evils has left terrible tragedy in its wake: crumbling buildings, falling birth rates, and a wave of despair deaths.

If that’s all familiar, you probably also know that Trump did rather well in the regions most afflicted by these challenges. Carney’s numbers show just how true that really is, while refining our sense of what truly distinguished Trump-friendly counties. Looking especially at primary election data, he convincingly argues that Trump found his foothold in places that were suffering from a widespread collapse of family and community life. Where social capital was low, Trump’s numbers were high.

In healthier subcultures, Trump was roundly rejected at least in the earlier stages of the 2016 election. Carney offers Mormons, the Dutch, and affluent professionals as three examples of people who have still managed to  form thriving communities where social capital is high. In these regions, Trump had no initial appeal. He may have gained begrudging support in the general election when options were limited, but his reception in the primaries was ice cold. By contrast, crumbling Rust Belt towns preferred Trump by huge margins from the start. Trump voters were not themselves the most unfortunate; the data suggest that their incomes and life circumstances were in general less than desperate. But they came from regions where institutions had crumbled, and daily life had become a struggle. Trump’s initial supporters weren’t drug addicts or labor force dropouts, but they were the neighbors of those people. When Trump talked about the “carnage” of the American social landscape, that language resonated.

How did we get to this point? It’s a difficult question, and Carney tries to answer it with careful precision. Each chapter of Alienated America seems to hold a particular piece of the social puzzle up to the light. Why did marriage collapse? When did people stop going to church? What role do government programs and popular media play in this equation? Carney tries hard to turn his causal arrows in the right direction, and in the process he raises objections to nearly every popular theory about the rise of Trump. This is harder than most of us seem to think.

In some ways, the social decline of Middle America really is somewhat extraordinary. Human suffering is ubiquitous across history, but usually the cause is more brutal and more evident. Earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates; the Irish potato famine was the unfortunate consequence of a water mold (Phytophthora infestans) and a lack of biodiversity. Invasion and plague obviously take their toll on local populations. None of these catastrophes befell Middle America in the early 21st century, and yet it declined, over a remarkably short period of time. What happened?

Most obviously, the manufacturing jobs disappeared. Just a few decades ago, Rust Belt towns like Youngstown and Flint still boasted a rich supply of stable jobs with decent salaries. Across the 80’s and 90’s, outsourcing and automation encroached on this resource, and factories started to close. Ten years ago the American auto industry collapsed. As jobs dried up, young men could no longer be confident that a regular work day would enable them to support a family and the people started leaving. As populations declined, local businesses lost customers, and the diners and bowling alleys started closing as well. Community life started to fray.

As a quick read, this explanation makes some sense. Still, it doesn’t adequately explain the magnitude of cultural collapse. Why did people stop getting married? Why did they stop going to church? Economic decline is surely an element in this story, but even in hard times, things go much better when people stick together and offer mutual support, instead of finding solace in addictive substances and empty entertainments. Why wasn’t Middle America more resilient? What invisible toxin leached away our once-thriving heartland culture?

There are plenty of popular answers to this question: capitalism, materialism, the Sexual Revolution, atomizing technology, recreational drugs. These may all be factors, but they have something important in common: they are all non-coercive. The Sexual Revolution didn’t sweep through West Virginia and Ohio like a tornado. Capitalism isn’t an invading army, forcing people to drop their ploughshares and pick up their video game consoles. Layoffs admittedly are involuntary, but people chose to abandon many other aspects of the culture that produced them. There are places in the world where people are far more destitute, both in material terms and in their available opportunities. Many of them have still managed to draw together for mutual support, in ways that we haven’t seen in Trump country.

In short, the decline of the Rust Belt goes far beyond economics. It has cultural and moral elements that the economics alone cannot adequately explain. We have to acknowledge this, not for the sake of laying blame, but because it’s relevant to the question of what might help to rejuvenate desiccated subcultures. Even if we could restore the jobs, is there a good reason to think that people would return to church, or dust off the wedding bells? Demagogic pundits like Tucker Carlson have become expert at describing cultural collapse in a way that lays blame where they want it. That’s one good reason for lambasting elites who don’t “preach what they practice”, or for repeating as a quasi-axiomatic truth, that “women won’t marry men who earn less than they do”. (Note how this latter formulation implies that female preference is the driving force behind the collapse of marriage. Men can’t do anything to improve their own lot, until someone agrees to pay them more.) These arguments are appealing in part because they offer hope that it might be possible to reverse the decline just by replacing a few broken cogs. Alienated America effectively punctures that oversimplified picture.

In that spirit, some readers may be frustrated by the things Carney doesn’t recommend. He doesn’t think it would be either feasible or helpful to try to bring back the factory jobs. He doesn’t call for a raft of new state programs to bolster working class families. He’s warm to the possibility of rebuilding some form of union or worker’s guild (with suitable modifications from the old format) and he’s strongly in favor of religious freedom protections. Overall though, his policy suggestions are relatively few. It’s clear that Carney is personally sympathetic to the suffering denizens of Trump country, but he’s still very reluctant to enlist big government in a top-down effort to help them. It won’t work, he thinks, because community is the key, and social capital is of necessity an organic creation.

This hands-off stance has led some commentators to question the value of Carney’s contribution. While Carney is cheerleading for Little League teams and parish mom’s groups, other right-wing figures, such as Oren Cass, are rolling out more dramatic suggestions. Personally I’m more sympathetic to Carney, though I think his stance does require us to accept a hard truth: some of these suffering Rust Belt towns are going to keep bleeding for some time to come. Some aren’t going to recover at all. This is tragic, and we shouldn’t try to paper over that fact with blithe bromides about creative destruction.

Cultural rejuvenation isn’t impossible, though. It requires energy, patience, and courage that government initiative cannot provide. A revitalized American heartland won’t look exactly like our nostalgic memories from the 1980’s, but there’s no good reason to think that life can’t ever be good again for the descendants of America’s Greatest Generation. We simply need to roll up our sleeves and get to work, building effective institutions and communities in places where they are lacking. It will take some time. Most worthwhile endeavors do.

Even if you’re tired of debating the rise of Trump, Alienated America is worth a few hours of your time. Moving on is an admirable goal, but it has to start with a sober assessment of what it might take to make life better for our most alienated compatriots.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 07, 2019 at 10:16:34 am

At first impression, one would think that THE question to be asked is "HOW would you"roll up our sleeves and get to work, building effective institutions and communities in places where they are lacking. "

Upon minimal reflection, the PROPER question becomes, WHY would you "roll up our sleeves and get to work, building effective institutions and communities in places where they are lacking" when all around you are megaphones denigrating those very institutions and cultural values that were, in rather large measure, responsible for the "nostalgic memories from the 1980’s,"?

After all, you are nothing but a deplorable human being burdened by the sins of your fathers, etc.

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gabe
on May 07, 2019 at 12:37:35 pm

It’s not rocket science. It is very simple. Somewhere along the way the “elites” in DC lost their everloving minds. They are completely out of touch with America.

Trump was a bomb we threw on that fetid swamp.

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Jayden Lewis
on May 07, 2019 at 12:51:15 pm

Capitalism isn’t an invading army, forcing people to drop their ploughshares and pick up their video game consoles

Actually, it is. See Enclosures. Also, Agribusiness. 50 years ago people forced by capitalism to drop their ploughshares could get jobs in the local factory, or maybe they had to move to Gary or Cleveland to work in a factory there. Today, all that awaits them are EBT cards and video games. And opioids.

Men can’t do anything to improve their own lot, until someone agrees to pay them more.

This made me laugh out loud. Substitute "women" for "men" and you have just summarized feminist theory of the last 50 years.

We simply need to roll up our sleeves and get to work, building effective institutions and communities in places where they are lacking.

Vacuities like these will ensure the writer is never promoted out of adjunct hell.

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QET
on May 07, 2019 at 13:54:40 pm

Exactly. Not one mention of hordes of illegals burdening our infrastructure from schools to emergency rooms to refugees who refused to assimilate and make more and more demands. or how about mentioning that the middle-class cease to be the largest group in 2015.

There was a time we could teach our children to work hard, get a good education and they would succeed. now we have to worry more that they don't have enough diversity boxes to check.

I suspect that those in the Ivory towers along with our ruling Elites just don't understand us peasants in flyover.

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Lydia
on May 07, 2019 at 16:06:05 pm

"How did we get to this point? It’s a difficult question, and Carney tries to answer it with careful precision. Each chapter of Alienated America seems to hold a particular piece of the social puzzle up to the light. Why did marriage collapse? When did people stop going to church? What role do government programs and popular media play in this equation?”

The answer lies with the battle between de Tocqueville and Marcuse. Both saw that the great strength of American democracy was the decentralized social structure. Local unity through churches, schools, civic organizations and ethnic groups provided the opportunity for significant social flexibility. De Tocqueville saw this as a feature, Marcuse saw it as a bug. Marcuse was, after all, a communist. He viewed the flexibility as interfering with what he saw as a more modern approach: central government planning.

No one talks much today about de Tocqueville, but the bitter Marcusian fruits of Critical Theory and Deconstruction are completely imbedded in the academy, and have played havoc on our social institutions for almost 75 years. Today the national government encodes everything from school curriculum and where your child must attend school, to the definition of marriage, to who can and can’t belong to an organization, to whether or not the puddle in your front yard is a navigable waterway, etc. ad infinitum.

That is how we got here.

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Kevin
on May 07, 2019 at 18:22:33 pm

I disagree that Trump didn't do well in "healthier communities", unless you define healthier to mean elitist, vacuous, self-pitying, virtue-signaling, self-hating white upper class communities.
There's nothing "healthy" about Code Pink members. Nor ANTIFA members. Nor college students demanding speech codes and coloring books in safe spaces. Nor crumbling, poverty stricken inner-city communities. Or Hollywood. All of these communities roundly rejected Trump, but he was cheered in hard-working, patriotic communities. That's a healthy community to me.

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Diggs
on May 07, 2019 at 19:39:14 pm

Excellent contrast, vis, de Tocqueville and Marcuse. The tentacles of big government are everywhere, choking local initiative and grass roots organizations.

To extend your list of nationalized disgraces, the Supreme Court is to decide on an employer's dress code in Harris Funeral Homes v EEOC, under a claim of gender identity discrimination.

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Forbes
on May 07, 2019 at 22:59:52 pm

Maybe its just Atlas shrugging? The Political Class has taken over the soul of our nation. Everybody is a victim,everybody is entitled,etc.,etc. What is amazing is that this takeover took less than 2 generations. Maybe it is time to "Go Galt." Stop the motor of the world and then rebuild from the ashes. America has had it's run ,it was once a great idea that has been ruined by collectivism and it is beyond saving. Maybe it is time to start over.

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libertarian jerry
on May 08, 2019 at 06:24:01 am

What happened is that folks realized that some powerful people believe they have more in common with people across national borders than they do with their fellow citizens, and that they instituted policies that benefited those people to the detriment of their fellow citizens. It was a massive betrayal of Americans for the so called greater good. Of course, these powerful people still believe we are just too stupid to understand it all.

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Augustine
on May 13, 2019 at 00:59:30 am

Professor Lu:

The most direct and honest explanation of the Trump success, the Trump phenomenon, is this:

+TRUMP IS NOT, AND NEVER WAS, A POLITICIAN

+HE SPEAKS ENGLISH, MAYBE NOT WITH GRAMMARIAN PERFECTION, BUT CERTAINLY WITHOUT WEASEL WORDS

and more importantly,

+HE IS CLEANING UP THE EIGHT YEARS OF BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA NONSENS!!!

It is that simple, Professor, nothing more complicated than that. Good luck to you with the snowflakes, the bleeding hearts, the Francis and lib/lefty/"progressive"/moral relativist/subjectivist/Democrat slaves, and other assorted delusional idiots. We, the subscribers, or preferably, the products of, natural law, will win; WE WILL WIN. And the pathetic dreamers will lose, simply because they are attempting to pervert natural law.

We are pleased that you would ask. Anytime. We are happy to help, we are happy to clarify any doubt about reality and common sense. Just ask. Anytime. Really, anytime.

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Luis
on May 14, 2019 at 17:54:19 pm

What a thoughtful essay on a (presumably) thoughtful book regarding the need to understand "Trump Country," and the complicated and subtle challenges that assail this region. Thank you, Prof. Lu.

And what remarkable testimony provided by the comments: People boil down this complex interplay of challenges into pat conspiracy theories. Our problems are all the fault of THEM--some malevolent force out to subjugate us! Projection at its finest.

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nobody.really

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.