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.