Over the summer, my little sister had a soccer tournament at Bloomsburg University, located in central Pennsylvania. The drive there took about three hours and many of the towns we drove through shocked me. The conditions of these towns were terrible. Houses were falling apart. Bars and restaurants were boarded up. Scrap metal was thrown across front lawns. White, plastic lawn chairs were out on the drooping front porches. There were no malls. No outlets. Most of these small towns did not have a Walmart, only a dollar store and a few run down thrift stores. In almost every town, there was an abandoned factory.
My father, who was driving the car, turned to me and pointed out a Trump sign stuck in a front yard, surrounded by weeds and dead grass. “This is Trump country, Tori,” He said. “These people are desperate, trapped for life in these small towns with no escape. These people are the ones voting for Trump.”
My father understood Trump’s key to success, even though it would leave the media and half of America baffled and terrified on November 9th. Trump’s presidency has sparked nationwide outrage, disbelief and fear.
And, while I commend the passion many of my fellow millennials feels towards minorities and the fervency they oppose the rhetoric they find dangerous, I do find many of their fears unfounded. I don’t find their fears unfounded because I negate the potency of racism. Or the potency of oppression. Or the potency of hate.
I find these fears unfounded because these people groups have an army fighting for them. This army is full of celebrities, politicians, billionaires, students, journalists and passionate activists. Trust me, minorities will be fine with an army like this defending them.
And, I would argue, that these minorities aren’t the only ones who need our help. The results of Tuesday night did not expose a red shout of racism but a red shout for help.
Journalists are now reporting that Trump won because rural America voted for him in droves. I see a lot of journalists reporting about the what, the who, and the how of this election, but not many are tackling the why. I do not at all feel qualified enough to discuss the why of this, but I don’t see anybody bringing up the astounding poverty found in rural America and that the desperation found in these areas is what prompted the rise of Donald Trump. Perhaps this will inspire more intelligent people than I to look into this more deeply.
It’s easy to point to these small, impoverished towns and name racism, the second amendment or plain stupidity as the only reasons why these people would ever vote for a man like Donald Trump. I find this to be highly intellectually dishonest, though. To write this off as simple racism is to ignore the very real and very heartbreaking struggles small town America faces.
The majority of rhetoric going around says that if you’re white, you have an inherent advantage in life. I would argue that, at least for the members of these small impoverished communities, their whiteness only harms them as it keeps their immense struggles out of the public eye.
Rural Americans suffer from a poverty rate that is 3 points higher than the poverty rate found in urban America. In Southern regions, like Appalachia, the poverty rate jumps to 8 points higher than those found in cities. One fifth of the children living in poverty live rural areas. The children in this “forgotten fifth” are more likely to live in extreme poverty and live in poverty longer than their urban counterparts. 57% of these children are white.
Education, particularly college, is less attainable to those living in rural areas. 64% of young people in rural areas attend college, compared to the 70% of students who attend universities in metro areas. 47% of these small town students who end up attending college only go for a two-year degree, while only 38% of urban students attain only a two-year degree. And, when these students do fight the odds and attend a university, they don’t come back to their place of origin due to the lack of jobs.
Rural Americans also suffer from a lower life expectancy. Those living in Appalachia regions, in particular, have a life expectancy that is declining at a rate that is worse than anywhere else in the USA. Those living in rural America are more likely to suffer from depression. Alcohol and substance abuse is prevalent in rural America and 25.9% of those entering rehab for addictions are between the ages of 12-17. The chronic pain that comes from vocations such as mining has caused the heroin epidemic sweeping small towns.
The most well-known ailment of the rural Appalachian mountain region is mountain dew mouth, which is the rotting of teeth caused by an overconsumption of Mountain Dew. This soda is prevalent in Appalachian culture because it’s cheaper than milk, Mountain Dew originated in the Appalachian region and the water in these areas is often too polluted to drink. In extreme cases, mothers have even been documented feeding their babies Mountain Dew out of bottles.
Those living in rural America don’t even have access to many of the same services those living in urban America do. This includes health services, like clinics and hospitals, and social services.
Lauren Gurley, a freelance journalist, wrote a piece that focuses on why politicians, namely liberal ones, have written off rural America completely. In this column she quotes Lisa Pruitt, a law professor at the University of California who focuses many of her studies on life in rural America. Pruitt argues that mainstream America ignores poverty stricken rural America because the majority of America associates rural poverty with whiteness. She attributes America’s lack of empathy towards white poverty to the fact that black poverty is attributed to institutionalized racism, while white people have no reason to be poor, unless poor choices were made.
“For better or worse,” says Pruitt, “when we talk about poverty, we focus on black poverty, and we focus on Hispanic poverty. We’ve collapsed our nation’s poverty problem into our nation’s racism problem and it leads us to turn a blind eye to rural poverty.”
For arguably the first time since President Kennedy in the 1960’s, Donald Trump reached out to rural America. Trump spoke out often about jobs leaving the US, which has been felt deeply by those living in the more rural parts of the country. Trump campaigned in rural areas, while Clinton mostly campaigned in cities. Even if you do not believe Trump will follow through on his promises, he was still one of the few politicians who focused his vision on rural communities and said “I see you, I hear you and I want to help you.”
Trump was the “change” candidate of the 2016 election. Whether Trump proposed a good change or bad change is up to you, but it can’t be denied that Trump offered change. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was the establishment candidate. She ran as an extension of Obama and, even though this appealed to the majority of voters located in cities, those in the country were looking for something else. Obama’s policies did little to help alleviate the many ailments felt by those in rural communities. In response, these voters came out for the candidate who offered to “make America great again.”
I believe that this is why rural, white communities voted for Trump in droves. I do not believe it was purely racism. I believe it is because no one has listened to these communities’ cries for help. The media and our politicians focus on the poverty and deprivation found in cities and, while bringing these issues to light is immensely important, we have neglected another group of people who are suffering. It is not right to brush off all of these rural counties with words like “deplorable” and not look into why they might have voted for Trump with such desperation.
It was not a racist who voted for Trump, but a father who has no possible way of providing a steady income for his family. It was not a misogynist who voted for Trump, but a mother who is feeding her baby mountain dew out of a bottle. It was not a deplorable who voted for Trump, but a young man who has no possibility of getting out of a small town that is steadily growing smaller.
The people America has forgotten about are the ones who voted for Donald Trump. It does not matter if you agree with Trump. It does not matter if you believe that these people voted for a candidate who won’t actually help them. What matters is that the red electoral college map was a scream for help, and we’re screaming racist so loud we don’t hear them. Hatred didn’t elect Donald Trump; People did.