Understanding “Trump Country”

Books | How those facing a collapse of community helped push Trump over the top in 2016
by Timothy P. Carney
Posted 8/29/20, 10:58 am

Tim Carney’s Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse breaks down the 2016 presidential election into two parts. When Donald Trump was running in the Republican primaries against opponents like Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, his base was “white evangelicals who do not go to church.” Phase two support came once Trump won the nomination: “white evangelicals who go to church.” In the following excerpt, courtesy of HarperCollins, Carney shows how people in strong communities rejected Trump in the early primaries, but those “alienated, abandoned, lacking social ties and community rushed to him immediately.” Alienated America made WORLD’s short list for 2019 Book of the Year in the Understanding America category. —Marvin Olasky

Trump Country

We began in the Villages of Chevy Chase [Md.] and Oostburg [Wis.] because they were the exception. Trump dominated the Republican primaries across the country, winning the nomination fairly easily. He won the general election without a majority or even a plurality, sure, but 46 percent of the electorate is not shabby. He also showed strength in places where past Republican candidates had been weak, which is why he carried Ohio easily, and also won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

What Hillary Clinton thought was her “firewall” proved to be Trump Country.

I say Trump Country intentionally.

Sometimes when we talk about elections, we talk about demographics: the Soccer Mom Vote, the Hispanic Vote, the Youth Vote, or other ways of describing people by personal traits. If we imagine all Americans lined up in alphabetical order, or age order, and then sortable into these traits of race, age, sex, income, ideology, wealth, and so on, we commit a fatal abstraction. To understand the phenomenon of alienation and coming apart, we need to do more than consider who these people are. We need to consider where they are.

Geography, more than we typically assume, is destiny.

Employment is far worse in rural counties, but not only in rural counties. Most of Hillbilly Elegy’s tale of alienation took place in the Ohio suburb of Middletown. Death rates, especially death by suicide and overdose, correlated with Trump’s best counties (again his strong primary showings and his increases over the typical Republican). Educational attainment is lower in Trump Country. More people are on unemployment. More people are on disability.

These economic indicators are devastating, and crucial. But more telling are the social indicators. More men have dropped out of the workforce. Marriage rates are lower. Illegitimacy is higher. Divorce is higher.

These economic indicators are devastating, and crucial. But more telling are the social indicators.

Trump did better in the primaries among people who didn’t go to church, polls show. “Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week,” Peter Beinart reported. “But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.”

When data show that the white working class was Trump’s base, it’s easy to see the phrase “white working class” as a simple statement of race and income. It’s more important, though, as a description of a social class—even a way of life. “White working-class Americans of all ages,” writes Emma Green in the Atlantic, citing research by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic, “were much less likely than their college-educated peers to participate in sports teams, book clubs, or neighborhood associations—55 percent vs. 31 percent said they seldom or never participated in those kinds of activities.”

This had political salience. That PRRI poll, taken in mid-primaries, when Ted Cruz was the last viable challenger, found Trump leading among GOP voters 37 to 31. But among GOP voters who were “civically disengaged,” Trump led 50 to 24.

Oostburg voted Cruz and Chevy Chase voted Kasich. Within the context of Republicans, churchgoing white Christians are conservative while wealthy, highly educated white suburbanites are moderates. You could see these two things as opposites, but the stories of Kasich Country and Cruz Country are the same story: People enmeshed in strong communities rejected Trump in the early primaries while people alienated, abandoned, lacking social ties and community rushed to him immediately.

Trump’s best large county in the Iowa caucuses, Pottawattamie, had the weakest civil society—churches, neighborhood groups, volunteering, voting—of any large county in Iowa, and is known instead for its neon-lighted casinos erected to bring in out-of-state gamblers. His best small county is notable mostly for church closures and the shuttering of its largest employer in early 2016. It also ranks at the bottom of the state in widely used measures of civil society.

His other best places in those early primaries—places like Buchanan County, Virginia; and Fayette County, Pennsylvania—looked similarly vacant.

Everyone trying to explain Trump’s rise early on noted that he had “tapped into a deep sense of frustration.” That phrase became a cliché, but it was true. Articulating that frustration precisely and explaining its causes were a lot harder. Almost every politician posited that the frustration happened to reflect the very criticism that same politician already had of current affairs: war, national debt, insufficient safety net, overgenerous safety net, bank profits, et cetera.

After the election, conservative intellectual Yuval Levin put his finger on it best. “At the root of the most significant problems America faces at home is the weakening of our core institutions—family and community, church and school, business and labor associations, civic and fraternal organizations.”

To explain Trump’s core supporters, many commentators pointed to the factories that were closing, but they should have been pointing to the churches that were closing.

Trump was one symptom, which traveled together with the other symptoms of working-class woe—the deaths, the dropping out of the workforce, the poverty, the illegitimacy. Idleness is the word scholar Nick Eberstadt used to describe the central problem of the working class. Charles Murray documented the collapse of certain virtues in white working-class America. It’s easy to see these judgments as attacks. “Idleness,” after all, is often counted as a root of many sins.

To explain Trump’s core supporters, many commentators pointed to the factories that were closing, but they should have been pointing to the churches that were closing.

But if we see the problem as primarily a dissolution of civil society, a collapse of community, then it becomes clear that “idleness,” if you want to call it that, can be understood not as a sin but as an affliction. These people have been deprived of meaningful things to do.

In places like Chevy Chase or Oostburg, people are given things to do. Any longtime member of a robust religious congregation has laughed and warned someone, “Oh, don’t go talk to Sally Davis unless you want to be given some ministry to run.” If you belong to a small neighborhood swimming pool, you probably can spot the look in the eye of the board member when he’s coming over to ask for volunteers.

Our bosses, our wives, our husbands, our neighbors, and our kids’ swim coaches rope us into stuff. Those of us tangled up in thick webs of civil society show industriousness not mostly because we are self-starters. Our industriousness is thrust upon us.

Strong communities function not only as safety nets and sources of knowledge and wisdom, but also as the grounds on which people can exercise their social and political muscles. These are where we find our purpose.

If we want to say that parts of America like Fayette, Pottawattamie, and Buchanan Counties are low on virtue, we need to recall that virtue is not some inherent inner state. Virtue is a habit. As a habit, it requires action. And most human actions that are tied up with virtue are human interactions. Many virtues, if not most, are developed socially. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, trying to figure out the causes of a disturbing rise in middle-aged deaths, granted that an erosion of virtues is likely part of it, but they added, “Virtue is easier to maintain in a supportive environment.”

Someone lacking the proper social settings is as handicapped on virtues as an athlete without access to proper training facilities, coaching, or even opponents. In desiccated communities, men and women lack these opportunities. A sociologist might say such communities are poor in terms of social capital.

Sociologist Robert Putnam defines social capital as “social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness.” Places poor in social capital are places with fewer and weaker networks and thus less trust.

This dissolution of civil society leaves people alienated. Robert Nisbet, author of The Quest for Community, defined alienation this way: “The state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility.” The alienated individual “not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it.”

Someone lacking the proper social settings is as handicapped on virtues as an athlete without access to proper training facilities, coaching, or even opponents.

Alienation is the disease of working-class America. Its most important accompaniment is family collapse. Strong families are the necessary condition of the good life, of economic mobility, and of the American Dream. The story of Election 2016, the story of the working-class struggle in America, the story of rising suicides and crumbling families, and the story of growing inequality and falling economic mobility, is properly understood as the story of the dissolution of civil society.

Why do so many people believe the American Dream is dead? I think the answer is this: because strong communities have crumbled, and much of America has been left abandoned, without the web of human connections and institutions that make the good life possible. More of America is a wasteland of alienation. Less of America is the “village.”

Can this change?

America has more Chevy Chases today than it did a generation ago, but that’s because wealthy people are clustering more. Making more Chevy Chases is a zero-sum game: It means drawing the skilled, the active, the educated, the leaders out of other communities and concentrating them in places where normal folk can’t afford a house. There is also a clear limit on how many pockets of elites America can have, because by definition, the elites are few.

But remember the second village. There could, conceivably, be more Oostburgs. The raw material is more renewable there, and arguably it used to be more plentiful and could be again. It’s a sense of duty to one’s neighbors—a duty that includes a sense of duty to one’s family. It’s a sense of both being looked after and being needed. It’s a sense of a common, higher purpose. It’s shared, resilient mediating institutions. And frankly, in America at least, that common purpose is a common faith, and those mediating institutions are really the church.

From Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse by Timothy P. Carney. Copyright © 2019. Published by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Timothy P. Carney

Tim is the senior political columnist at the Washington Examiner and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Comments

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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Sat, 08/29/2020 12:17 pm

    Once again World puts out anti-Trump propaganda trying to diminish Trump and his supporters? Why exactly are you doing this now during the election? Do you want Biden to be president? What good will that do for the Christian cause?

    I find your article arrogant and condescending. The Christian intellectuals are so "wise" that they  will not support the simple man that God chose to defend His church. They are trapped in their intellectualism so they become fools! 

  • PAMom
    Posted: Sat, 08/29/2020 01:45 pm

    Well put, Cyborg3! I agree. Our choice is very clear. Either you want to live in a Marxist, socialist society, or you want America to be the great country it has been. If people don’t decide that they want a different future, this is the future. They are going to have to choose to not have this “the new normal.” I am very disappointed in WORLD's coverage of this entire planned pandemic. It doesn't seem to me that they have searched for alternative news sources; they've just been telling us the same things that the Main Stream Media does, which comes from the people who want to see America die.

  • savedsinner
    Posted: Sat, 08/29/2020 01:52 pm

    Amity Schlaes: The Forgotten Man.  jhf in PA

  • ASLAN4ME
    Posted: Sat, 08/29/2020 03:05 pm

    This isn’t an article written by World, this is a book excerpt that quotes statistics that are facts showing the elements in America that created the fractions in our society. That these fractions were responsible for the election of Donald Trump is the author’s opinion and insight. 

    I found the article interesting as a call to Christians to look beyond their communities to serve and minister to the people described as needing a purpose, the very thing Christ came to offer, along with salvation and hope. 

    I didn’t read it as anti-Trump. Maybe there’s a desire for World Mag to make a clear endorsement, but that isn’t the readers privilege to demand. Could this demand be an effort to receive confirmation that ones candidate is “blessed”?

    I’m pleased with World’s reporting, I don’t read any biased opinions just a  Biblical world view. Please keep up the good work. 

  • not silent
    Posted: Sat, 08/29/2020 03:14 pm

    I personally agree with you, Aslan4me.  At the same time, I can see why people who strongly support Mr. Trump would be upset by this article.  I guess I would hope that we could exercise grace and acknowledge that it's possible even for strong and committed believers to disagree about important issues like politics.  

  • Paul
    Posted: Sat, 08/29/2020 06:46 pm

    This article is simply a review of one author's assessment of the 2016 Trump victory. And in that assessment (at least in World's brief excerpt), I heard a hint of Hillary's deplorable language. So, was the decision to promote this book an indication of WorldMag's view of Trump - or of his supporters?

    Trump apparently won the White House by attracting enough confused and alienated voters to surpass the more educated and enlightened supporters of the Left. 

    Perhaps Carney is right, at least in his demographic research. If so, Trump may have taken Lady Liberty's offer seriously: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me!"

    If that's so, may America always be blesssd to have such an option, at least at the foot of the cross and at the doors of its churches, if not at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

  • LR
    Posted: Sun, 08/30/2020 10:04 am

    Mr. Carney has "nailed it", but what I don't see anyone saying yet is that America is going through another :industrial revolution"--only, this time, it's a technology revolution. Jobs in industry are being lost, not just to less expensive labor markets overseas, but to robots.

    I hope World will begin to look at that issue.

  • JW
    Posted: Sun, 08/30/2020 12:54 pm

    What Mr. Carney misses is that people support Trump because they don't support abortion, same sex marriage, the new green deal and the agenda to move government more toward socialism. Most of the Trump supporters I know are part of a stable traditional family are employed and are not drug addicted or suicidal. Those that can't understand how Trump was elected miss this fact.

  • MTJanet
    Posted: Sun, 08/30/2020 04:24 pm

    As someone who has a hard time believing polls, I would need a lot more information to determine if this article has enough truth in it to be of either interest or pertinence.  

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Sun, 08/30/2020 09:10 pm

    I read and reread the excerpt from Carney's book.  It was an unsettling view of a portion of America that is almost described as disdainfully helpless.  It is an elitist view of people who found Trump plausible in a field of individuals who had no moorings because they were all politicians.  It does not fail to amaze me when elites try to find a reason why and then box up and tie a shabby bow around the people would vote for a man like Donald Trump.  Wouldn't the better question be, why would a man like Donald Trump put himself through this?  He has not had a moment of peace, respect, or credit for all he accomplished in the first term of his presidency.  He and his family have been the object of persecution, ridicule, lies and scorn by the elitist politicians and 95% of the media. Yet, he continues to serve and accomplish what he said he would do which is why people voted him into office.

    In flyover country I find people to be honest, hardworking, family oriented, faithful and not ashamed of this country.  They aren't perfect but they have backbone.  Even people who have lost their way, don't need an elitest to show them the light.  It is elitists that cooked up a legal drug to replace street drugs to make our society look better.  Giving a legal drug like methadone or suboxone to a drug user does not cause them to work toward sobriety.  It simply gives them a legal government approved product that they can manipulate in their bodies and on the street.  When the elites move to these areas (to get away from the ghettos their cities are becoming) they have the idea that they can make their new destination better because they are smarter than they locals.  Yet, they actually bring ideals into quiet and pretty decent communities that have nothing to do with family, faith or freedom.  They invade our schools, governments, civic groups and churches soon we see our communities turning into the cities the elites left.

    I don't think Mr. Carney intends to sound as superior as his writing reveals, but he just doesn't get it.  There are things that cannot be figured out with demographics or repaired with some utopian ideal "village".  There are matters of the heart involved in what is taking place in America and his elitist views simply don't address this.  

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Sun, 08/30/2020 09:25 pm

    Aslan4me,

    Certainly it is a book excerpt, but why pick this book now?  The goal of World Magazine should be to inform voters so they can pick the best candidate. How exactly does this book enable that end when it clearly presents Trump voters in a negative light. Why not pick the many books that tell of the accomplishments of Trump? World never does this so one is left to wonder what is the political objective of the editor and organization. Is World really presenting a Christian world view or is it presenting their own agenda? We need to be like the Berians who searched out the scripture to see what Paul said was accurate and biblical. In our case we need to evaluate whether World is leading its readers along a path that is consistent with the Christian world view.

    Here is one paragraph that is very telling:

    Trump was one symptom, which traveled together with the other symptoms of working-class woe—the deaths, the dropping out of the workforce, the poverty, the illegitimacy. Idleness is the word scholar Nick Eberstadt used to describe the central problem of the working class. Charles Murray documented the collapse of certain virtues in white working-class America. It’s easy to see these judgments as attacks. “Idleness,” after all, is often counted as a root of many sins.

    Of course this is an attack even though he goes on to call it an affliction or disease. He talks about the collapse of “civil society”, the “loss of virtue”, the alienated working class, and on and on. Trump supporters are presented as problem people unlike his elite and educated self. 

    Would World take an excerpt from a book from pro-choice people condescendingly describing pro-life people? Of course not! But you come back with the defense that the author is just presenting the statistics so we should just accept this as the truth and the Christian world view. If you are educated, you should understand that you can present the data in a very positive or negative light and possibly anywhere in between.  This is clearly written for the “never Trump” crowd or the “Democrats” or “left”.  The fly over states are a disease without virtue and an afflicted people. And World chooses to promote this trash and you defend it! Shame on both of you!

    You go on to ask the following:

    “Could this demand be an effort to receive confirmation that ones candidate is ‘blessed’?”

    Yes, Trump is the candidate that God would have us vote for if we look at the issues: religious liberty; maintaining a civil and lawful society; supporting life; promoting judges that are Christian friendly; promoting economic prosperity; fighting the anti-Christian bias that is growing in America; fighting racism of BLM and other organizations; promoting law and order in society; and so much more. A vote for a third party candidate is essentially throwing your vote away and any wise Christian will not to do this. I Timothy 2:1-4 tells what we should pray for in a king, governor, president or other official. If we should pray for this should we not vote for this?

  • BjW
    Posted: Mon, 08/31/2020 09:37 am

    .

    When an elitist writes about the working class, I distrust their conclusions. Perhaps the reason that the “educated” are less likely to vote for Trump is because those liberal progressive ideals were planted for years by educators.  The longer young minds are immersed in the current education system, the more likely their souls are corrupted.

    We rural folk are less likely to trust words and more prone to look at actions. I very much dislike Trump’s over the top bullying. But I sure support many of his actions.

    I have been very civically engaged my whole life (volunteering many days at church and community). The distress and stress affecting my voting is a reaction to the war against Biblically based values in many Democrats.

    I remember that World recommended we throw away our votes in 2016 and not vote for Trump.  That was a most elitist view.  I am so thankful that I voted for Trump, despite his imperfections.  His actions have been better than I hoped for. The press trumpets his bullying, but does not report his compassion.

  • CJ
    Posted: Sun, 09/06/2020 09:13 am

    This excerpt examines the demographics of geographic regions that voted strongly for President Trump. The writer made no judgement about these voters. He demonstrates empathy for their plight which has rendered them alienated and feeling useless as their community life and means of employment have shriveled up. We recently returned from an area of TN greatly hurt by the Great Recession. There are no jobs. Local mom and pop businesses have closed. People have moved away. Retirees who don't need work have purchased homes once occupied by generations of a single family. President Trump, with his decisive demeanor and business acumen offered hope to the hopeless. Of course they voted for him and they will again. I'm scratching my head over the criticisms of this article and of World for publishing it. Have some lost all capacity for objectivity? No wonder we are in such a mess. 

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