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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016 12:21 am

Country blues

What the Trump win says about our rural parts

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS


Looked at in one way – actually, looked at in several ways – Donald Trump’s win was the revenge of the countryside against the city. While the billionaire common man couldn’t carry Illinois, he did prevail in every county outside greater Chicago. He did least well in the most urbanized counties, but very well indeed out where the Chipotles give way to the dollar stores. In Menard County the vote for the new president went 66-28, as it did in Cass. In Morgan it was 62-32, in Macoupin 65-30, in Montgomery 67-27, in Christian 69-26, in Brown 76-20, in Greene 75-22.

Which left many a commentator asking, Who are these people? Just folks, for the most part, but a fair number compose a rural white underclass. Compared to the state as a whole, they are ill-educated. They are under-motivated and burdened by substance abuse and gun violence. They live in local economies kept alive by transfusions of government money in the form of unemployment aid, Social Security and disability payments.

Illinois’ rural people also are among the least healthy of all Illinoisans. In this they are like their cousins in other states. The social indicator that best predicted the vote for Trump was how many non-college whites were in a local population. But an Economist magazine analysis discovered another set of statistics that did just as well predicting which counties were likely to break for Trump – an index of public-health statistics compiled by the University of Washington that included data on life expectancy and the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking and slack exercise habits. That is not to say that you had to be sick to vote for Trump, of course, but if you are ignorant of the risks of an unhealthy lifestyle you are also likely to be ignorant of the risks of picking a president.  

In addition to these physical pathologies, country people share with the urban underclass various social pathologies, most conspicuously social isolation. The two are related; what are damned as unhealthy aberrations in a more cosmopolitan society become, in isolated populations, social norms. One result is that all they know about the wider world they know from TV, which means many of them know a lot about the world except that most of what TV tells them about the world is not quite true.

Take the well-known fact that America is being overrun by immigrant hordes, like Walmart on Black Friday. (In fact America is being overrun by Walmart, but that’s another column.) During the campaign, I was intrigued that Trump’s xenophobic rants polled strongest on the immigration issues in those parts of America that had the fewest immigrants, and where, presumably, locals knew the least about them. In Scott County, which went 75-20 for Trump, immigrants compose 0.23 percent of the population; in Menard, where he won 66-28, 1.23 percent. In the Downstate urban counties, where Trump did least well – McLean, Peoria, Champaign – immigrant populations range from 10,000 to nearly 24,000. Yes, Trumpism is a complex phenomenon, and people voted for him for lots of reasons, but to me it all smacks of children and monsters in the closet.

You’ve heard the reasons why Trumpism grows in the countryside like weeds – the economic malaise of the white working class, the revolt against elitist condescension, the protest against the status quo that’s left rural and small-town people with no status. This was news to many urban elites, but it was anything but new. A century or so ago, our farms and small towns were excoriated in novels and plays as narrow-minded in religion, conventional in manners, stand-pat-ish in politics, suspicious of cosmopolitanism and of culture beyond the Bible and the church social. They were places the earnest young wished to flee, as critic and biographer Carl van Doren (who grew up in rural Vermilion County) recounted that era in his 1921 book, Revolt from the Village.

To social backwardness these places have added – or rather have had thrust upon them – economic backwardness. It warn’t immigrant workers who done it, but immigrant capitalists. The railroads made it possible for factories selling to markets in faraway places to open in the country towns, which is why there is a white working class in our rural parts. Since the 1970s the search for compliant labor has taken U.S. capitalists to Asia and Mexico. It’s brains and inventiveness and ambition that the capitalists want now, and our brightest kids who have them left the country towns.

Left behind are those whose aptitudes and appetite for advancement are not as compelling or (probably just as often the case) lack what it takes to thrive in an advanced service economy. The effects of this evaporation of the talent pool are pretty much what you’d expect. The Brookings Institution has noted that Trump won more than 2,600 counties, Clinton fewer than 500, or about 16 percent of the total. But Clinton’s 500 counties generated 64 percent of America’s economic activity in 2015. The urban counties where Clinton won are where America is being remade; the countryside is where it goes to die.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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