Friday, June 14, 2024

Rural White Rage - A Review


Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman, White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy, (NY: Random House, 2024), 249 page

White Rural Rage examines the white rural population as a minority block of angry, threatening, and violent voters ready to empower Donald Trump and the Republican Party to bring down democracy in exchange for arbitrary rule. The authors explain in their prologue they write as a warning to complacent members of the majority who might be discounting the threat.

The authors develop their arguments in eight chapters where the first chapter defines four compounding causes of our dangerous politics. They list and give brief descriptions of the four causes: 1. white despair, 2. outsize political power, 3. veneration of white culture and values, 4. media triggering of whites. Then they identify a “Fourfold Threat” from viewpoints common to rural whites: 1. Racism, xenophobia, anti-urban disdain, and anti-immigrant sentiment, 2.  Acceptance of conspiracies as facts, 3. Undemocratic and anti-democratic beliefs, 4. Justification of violence.

Chapter 2 narrates the mostly economic problems generating white despair that include the loss of population, jobs, and the closing of basic services and essential health care.  In chapter 3 the authors describe how and why rural America has political power much greater than its numbers should allow. Discussion of the gerrymandered House and malapportioned Senate provide much of the answer.  

The next two chapters describe the ways and means Fox News and their political commentators work to generate resentment and hatred in the urban-rural divide, then on to Donald Trump as the unlikely leader of rural America. Chapter 6 returns to a more detailed discussions of the “Fourfold Threat” where the justification of violence holds most of the threat. Chapter 7 describes the rural population, currently at 76 percent white, but the 24 percent minority share is up in recent years, especially the Latino community. Discussion here describes the unique hardships of rural minorities as they provide cheap labor to a still depressed economy. The last chapter combines the cumulative evidence with an incredulous discussion of a divided America. Having assembled a well-documented book full of evidence of America’s social and political decline the authors might be wondering how America could fall so far.

I found a broad theme of Republican Party division mentioned at various places through the book. For example, at page 147 I found Trump “exposed a profound division between the Republican Party and the base of voters upon whom it relied, making clear that the base and the elite are different people with different priorities.” The Republican elite has worked relentlessly to convince white rural America they are an aggrieved minority justified in hating urban Democrats.

Republicans have succeeded in getting the white rural vote by wide margins while they ignore the rural population and do absolutely nothing for them. Schaller and Wardman document Republican party efforts to make rural life worse over time that include promoting private school vouchers, defunding public schools and public colleges.  They have successfully run off OB-GYN physicians as part of attacks on abortion rights and birth control. State governments create the local governments with enabling legislation, but state legislatures have the sovereign power to eliminate local government authority at any time. They can cancel elections and appoint their Republican operatives or deny local governments from providing services such as broadband service, preserving it for corporate monopolists.

The white rural population consistently votes against their own economic interest but no one should think they do not understand what they are doing. The authors apparently agree as I quote them: “With wide eyes and full hearts, rural Whites recognized Trump’s exclusionary, reality defying, undemocratic and violent tendencies- and rallied behind him because of, not despite, his repeated disregard for America’s most sacred democratic traditions.”

Remember that 18- and 19-year-old white boys of the south fought the Civil War and died by the tens of thousands to preserve slavery for rich plantation owners. In exchange the survivors got to claim to be in a class superior to the black freedmen. Before the Civil War southern white boys did not lynch blacks, they were a plantation investment. After the war Jim Crow and lynching made life quite dangerous for blacks, all to maintain class relations with the acceptance of the white elite that controlled the south. Never underestimate the power of class as a source for violence and political breakdown.

The rise of Trump has brought the country some unlikely sycophant followers. Senators Elise Stefanik and Ted Cruz, to wit, both graduates of Harvard College; maybe Harvard breeds more arrogance and egotism than knowledge and principle. Schaller and Wardman discussed politics with politicians that do not worry Trump misconduct will ever affect them. They express privilege as their just due with or without democracy. They pander to Trump violence toward objectors with no sign of reservation.

The authors of White Rural Rage did an impressive job organizing and documenting their varied assertions.  There was a variety of economic data, polling and voting data, stories of Trump followers planning violence such as the plan to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Witmer. They also consulted a variety of non-profit funded research from places like the Brookings Institution and others. I for one would not challenge any conclusions they made, but I will suggest a return to America’s recurring racism takes first place as the cause of this new round of America’s disintegrating politics. Trump merely threw out all restraint with a more aggressive brand of vulgarity and overt threat of violence than George Wallace from the 1970’s or any previous presidential candidate.

Trump has repeatedly vowed to end constitutional government which makes it impossible to believe he can take the presidential oath of office to protect and defend the constitution. He is not a legitimate candidate, but corporate America with their campaign money bags sits mum on the side lines, apparently in the belief Trump will not interfere with them or hurt their profits. The authors make an excellent case of the threat to democracy, but the threat of violence and civil warfare permeates the discussion. Readers can decide for themselves what they think are chances for widespread violence of Trump as president.

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