An ethnographer has a new explanation for Donald Trump’s support in small-town America

An ethnographer has a new explanation for Donald Trump’s support in small-town America
Image: AP Photo/Elko Daily Free Press, Ross Andreson
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On a recent trip to a rural area outside Paris, Texas, I got to know a man I’ll call Robby. He was a nationally recognized calf-roper who had lost his thumb in a freak accident on the job. I was an ethnographer with the consulting group ReD Associates, studying the lives and values of truck owners on behalf of a major US auto manufacturer.

Over the course of the project, our team met with more than 60 families in Texas and Colorado. I went to truck rallies and rodeos, whiled away time listening to the local gossip of ranchers at the feed store. I attended family gatherings and sat in on intimate family rituals, from a grandmother leading her grandchildren in prayer to a father teaching his son life lessons under the hood of a pickup. And I spent hours listening to men like Robby express fears about where the country was heading, the dangers of the “homosexual” and “feminist” agendas and the moral pitfalls of political correctness.

By the time I came back from the field, I considered myself an expert in dozens of ways to hitch a trailer. I was also convinced of a new explanation for rural America’s support for Donald Trump. There is definitely truth to the idea that economic marginalization and prejudice have contributed to Trump’s following. But the Republican candidate has also managed to tap into small-town America’s unique blend of individualism and intense sense of duty to the community.

To date, much of the “coastal” media discourse on Trump’s supporters has focused on structural aspects—jobs, wage levels, racial segregation. See, for example, Gallup’s latest poll of 87,000 people and the cascade of follow-on articles interpreting their meaning. Other analyses reduce Trump’s supporters to backward, racist hillbillies—a sentiment recently voiced by Hillary Clinton as well, who said that half of Trump’s supporters belong to a “basket of deplorables.”

But the day-to-day social interactions and dynamics that organize life in Texas and Colorado suggest other factors are also driving support for Trump. Take one conversation I had with Robby’s family about activists for marriage equality. “They’re just selfish!” Robby’s wife told me. As a gay, progressive New Yorker, this struck me as a poor attempt to justify homophobia. Liberal media channels often interpret such statements in much the same way, offering them as illustrations of the bigotry entrenched in Middle America.

But during my time in the field, I began to arrive at a more complex interpretation. It is true that fundamental prejudice plays a role in some conservatives’ attitudes toward minority groups. It is also true that, to Robby’s family and others like them, groups of people who are actually fighting for basic human rights look like individuals who have decided to elevate their own identities and needs and appear to be calling for special privileges. This idea is anathema in communities that value, and in many ways are structured around, subsuming individual needs and desires for the good of the group. For many I met in rural America, “minority” agendas and the individualism they are seen to represent are a manifestation of a larger problem: the vanishing respect for duty and self-sacrifice for the sake of the local community.

When I asked families how their towns had changed in the past five or 10 years, the most common response was that their neighbors today seemed much less willing to help others. This seemed at first like trite, overly romanticized nostalgia for the “good old days.” But evidence for the continued importance of mutual obligation and duty in small town life was everywhere.

Take, for instance, the informal schemes for agricultural equipment and land exchange among farmers and ranchers in central Texas. Friends and acquaintances in the community share equipment, from expensive specialized tractors to everyday cattle tools. This approach ensures that members always have access to the equipment they need. But it also requires an enormous amount of trust, and is built on a shared sense of obligation to the immediate community. It’s kind of like a militantly anti-Socialist communitarianism.

Another example comes from local feed stores—akin to the Italian piazza—a gathering place where locals linger for hours to catch up and gossip. The stories at the feed store that elicited the strongest indignation from locals were almost always about people who had somehow neglected their duty to family or community. One local high school student, Clay, was the target of the most ire. He moved to the city to go to the state university, leaving his ailing grandmother to fend for herself.

And, because the flavor of day-to-day social behavior is both so personal and experience-based in rural America, Trump’s persona feels far more authentic than that of more polished political elites. His frequent appeals to loyalty are a great example of how this works. Loyalty is, by definition, a deeply personal and contingent thing, and it’s a trait he has systematically attempted to build into a pillar of his personal brand (his proven track record of disloyalty is beside the point). At a recent town hall event in Wisconsin, Trump said: “Folks, look, I’m a loyal person. I’m going to be loyal to the country. I’m going to be loyal to Wisconsin.” And in an interview: “It’s so important … And it’s one of the traits that I most respect in people. You don’t see it enough, you don’t see it enough.”

The logic of such appeals to loyalty—contingent, personal, experiential—taps into a deeper reality about how many people relate to each other in rural America. For example, I frequently observed people making personal “exceptions” to abstractly racist, misogynistic, or homophobic beliefs as a result of experience-based character judgments. One of my informants described a member of his construction crew as “a Mexican, but a good Mexican.” This type of exceptionalism is, of course, also racist. But it points to an important truth about how every day social interactions work in rural America.

A similar phenomenon was noted in a recent New Yorker story in which writer George Saunders reflected on his conversations with Trump supporters at rallies. At these rallies, Saunders would sometimes tell Trump supporters about a woman named Noemi Romero, an undocumented immigrant who has lived in the US since she was three but is ineligible for naturalization. Trump supporters tend to be sympathetic when confronted with the story of a particular person:

Is she a good person? the Trump supporter might ask. I couldn’t feel more sorry for her, he might say. That kid is no better or worse than I am and deserves the best God can give her. Or he might say that deportation would have to be done on a case-by-case basis.

Far from being abstract, the social infrastructure of small town America is extremely concrete and personal.

In this way, Trump is tapping into rural America’s community-first structures and values, as well its highly individualistic and personal dynamics of everyday social interaction. At first glance, these two logics that play such an important role in small town social life—communitarianism and individualism—appear contradictory. But the gap between the individual and immediate community in these small towns is extremely small. In many ways, the community is an extension of the self. It’s a simple point. But it’s something liberal politicians often fail to appreciate when trying to engage small-town America: they focus on either highly abstracted notions of American ideals, or prioritize the rights of individual self-expression.

Until the coasts develop a more nuanced understanding of everyday life in rural America—how values like service, duty, generosity and authenticity are actually experienced—we will continue to have a reductive view of Trump’s supporters, which may in turn further deepen the country’s political and social rifts. In this, the most divisive election in modern history, it has never been more important to think deeply about why certain messages resonate with voters across the center of our polarized nation. Without such a concerted effort, attempts to engage rural American voters will be as flat as our stereotypes of them.