Review: ‘White Rural Rage’ by Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman

Patient attempts to “understand” Donald Trump’s voters and their grievances have occupied frequent-flying journalists for nearly a decade. The rules of those reporting trips, which are rarely broken, stipulate that the worn-out vinyl booths in a thousand diners in the heart of a thousand small towns are judgment-free zones.

Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman are here with a correction. These voters, Schaller and Waldman write in “White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy,” are complicit, and the authors are in no mood to acquiesce to them. Someone write a new elegy for the evil hillbilly, because these authors went for his jugular.

It is not that the authors are discrediting legitimate grievances. They dutifully document how the country – the modern world – has left rural America. People who live there are demonstrably worse off than their city and suburban cousins. Good healthcare, good jobs, good schools and even good WiFi are scarce; drug addiction, gun suicide, and crime abound (yes, Oklahoma do have a higher violent crime rate than New York or California). But what Schaller and Waldman also painstakingly document is how much outsized power rural white voters have but squander on “culture war trinkets.” Wyoming has two senators for less than 600,000 people; The two in California serve about 39 million. Because of the way our democracy is set up—not just the crooked Senate, but the electoral college on the scale—rural Americans could be the biggest beneficiaries, if not the driving forces, of this democracy. They are not. According to Schaller and Waldman, they aren’t even the biggest fans.

Instead, the authors write, rural white voters pose a quadruple threat to democracy: They are more likely than average Americans, or even average white Americans, to have racist and xenophobic tendencies; to accept violence in pursuit of their beliefs; believing conspiracy theories; and to harbor anti-democratic ideas.

Not all rural white Americans have these attitudes, Schaller and Waldman admit. But they “are overrepresented in all four of these threats,” and that is what animates their status as what the authors call the “essential minority.”

Plus, they vote Republican. This confuses the authors because “there is no demographic group in America as loyal to one political party as rural whites are to the Republican Party, which gets less out of the deal.” By less, they mean policy prescriptions – things that could improve their lives. What these voters do get from Republicans, the authors argue, is someone to stoke their anger — to fan the flames from a bottomless pile of cultural kindling. Republicans figured out long ago that it’s actually blue that makes rural white voters see red. Exacerbate the villainy in the city-country divide and you have some reliable voters.

Enter the Pied Piper of dark traits, “a walking rejection of every value that rural Americans claim to have.” He may be a billionaire from Queens who disputes the truth, but he has no understanding of “shithole” countries, Mexican judges, traitorous generals, Soros-backed “animals” and radical leftist criminals who live like vermin. What’s not to like about it? Or better yet, since this is a Christian nation, worship?

“Never before in American politics has a single syllable carried so much symbolic weight,” the authors write in a chapter they call “The Unlikely King of Rural America.” “’TRUMP’ is hurled at liberals, sung at high school games when the other team contains many non-white kids, shouted into the air and scrawled on the sidewalk, with boundless aggression in its percussive simplicity. It says I am angry And We are winning And look at it all at once.”

Perhaps it starts with the preferential status that rural Americans have long enjoyed as the country’s “real” Americans. It’s not the coastal elites who think they’re better than everyone else, it’s the heartlanders. And the funny thing is that the coastal elites have always tended to agree with them. The authors quote Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that “cultivators of the earth are its most valuable citizens. They are the most powerful, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are linked to their country and linked to its freedom and interests by the most enduring bands.”

However, there are not many growers left in rural America. In Jefferson’s day, most Americans were farmers. In 2019, the authors write, only 7 percent of rural Americans goods. The national identity is now diffuse and difficult to pin down. The book contains some strange digressions on this front. It devotes almost an entire chapter to the mythical qualities of the pickup in the national imagination. You need an 8-foot bed to carry full sheets of plywood, but standard pickups now have 8-foot beds. You can radiate rural robustness even if you don’t build a shed.

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As for the “enduring gangs” that bind these citizens to their country, Schaller and Waldman argue that rural whites are “conditional patriots” and that “their strident, outright defense of Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on American democracy” is the greatest evidence of that of is.

The authors are not asking skeptics to take their word for it; the book is “not intended merely as a polemic,” they say, so they fill the chapters with empirical data, citing dozens of polls and studies.

But they don’t use much lipstick either. Their characterizations aside, “basket of deplorables” sounds almost quaint, and many readers may find guilty satisfaction in that.

The threat to American democracy

By Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman

Random house. 299 pages $32

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