In 2019, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman encouraged rural Americans to “get real.” In a column for the New York Times, Krugman listed several problems about rural America with what even he acknowledges is “typical big-city condescension.” According to Krugman, these problems — most notably, economic decline as represented by a reduction in the numbers of farmers, miners and rural manufacturers — have no clear cause. Instead, rural Americans are mere casualties of market whims, the people who currently suffer due to “powerful economic forces that nobody knows how to stop.” Throughout the piece, Krugman shares his disdain for people who were never the “real America,” insinuating that rural Americans thrive on the notion of moral superiority to cope with their increasing economic precarity.
Still, Krugman is not unique. Just last week, writers at the Associated Press embarked on what Sarah Jones in Dissent called the “Trump Country Safari,” a process in which coastal liberals enter Middle America to ogle at country folk like zoo animals. The piece, which primarily focuses on Athens, Ohio, is a perfect example of “parachute journalism,” where reporters cover regions they have little understanding about. The author, Tim Sullivan, knows enough about Appalachia to know his intrusion may not be welcome. He writes, “Rural Appalachians have long bristled at the way outsiders have portrayed them, replacing their complicated reality with stereotypes about poor and ignorant mountain people.”
Still, his piece illustrates that, like Krugman, he hasn’t scratched beneath the surface to discover why. Among other things, the piece explicitly indicates that rural areas have not been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and that rural communities have been watching “race issues from afar.” This is despite the fact that the Wall Street Journal published a detailed essay on Black Lives Matter protests in rural, predominantly white communities. COVID-19, too, has been felt in rural communities as well, with Max Fraser documenting the rural hotspots in Dissent’s summer issue.
Jones, in her piece, “Scapegoat Country,” clearly writes with these misconceptions in mind. She begins by citing a gross misrepresentation of a rural Minnesota town by the German journalist Claas Relotius in a 2017 article for Der Spiegel. She writes that the “Trump Country Safari” itself is a form of pornography, a self-indulgent mechanism for media outlets to access the cultures they abhor after Trump’s election as wholly foreign to their own. The problem with these attempts, Jones continues, is not merely that they are untrue, indulgent or stereotypical — it’s with the discursive impact of these problems, the fact that it enables racism by erasing rural people of color, classism by erasing rural wealth and elitism by erasing rural education.
This depiction of rural Americans is ideologically motivated. As liberals in the United States have shifted their responses from shock to horror post-Trump and journalists and academics have grown more comfortable with using terms like “fascist” and “totalitarian,” many of them have also shifted blame to those supposedly responsible for the rise of Donald Trump: the often-white, rural members of the Rust Belt working class. Indeed, the depiction of the “white working class” feels analogous to an Arendtian “mob”: a “residual” class of people who, as Krugman indicated, are being shut out of the bourgeois class by virtue of living in dying communities with dying ways of life. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” German-American philosopher Arendt writes of the pre-totalitarian mob, saying: “While the people in all great revolutions fight for true representation, the mob always will stand for the ‘strong man’, the ‘great leader.’ For the mob hates society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented.” American liberals portray rural America in crude, derogatory language because they see rural Americans as the instigators of a Trumpian dystopia.
The problem, though, isn’t the lack of similarity between Arendt’s mob and MAGA-hat-wearing, COVID-denying Trump populists. It’s that liberals use their disdain for this mob to both justify their own elitism and ignore the underlying realities that created Trump — and rising right-wing populism and authoritarianism around the world. The “Trump Safari” isn’t a process of seeking understanding. It’s a process of searching for justification for the ensuing liberal disdain. Quite literally, liberals are searching for a piece of themselves in rural America — and out of fear of finding it, they seek the most reductive take about the so-called “heartland.”
This attitude approaches its own mob mentality. Many American liberals have shown throughout the 2020 election process that loyalty to the Democratic Party supersedes even their values, with the #VoteBlueNoMatterWho phenomenon intent on expelling Trump electorally despite his repeated indications that he will not go quietly, as well as the irreversible changes to the Republican Party regardless of Trump’s electoral success or failure. These liberals are best represented by a several-times-viral sign from the 2017 Women’s March: “IF HILLARY HAD WON, WE’D BE AT BRUNCH NOW.” But if the Democratic Party is both resistant to changing the underlying conditions which created Trump — rampant income inequality, rising white supremacy and increased economic volatility — and would prefer to operate its campaigns on personality rather than policy or ideology, it becomes unclear whether the #resistance genuinely understands how dire this moment is.
Essentially, the Joe Biden campaign is responding to Trump’s influence on working class white voters by creating its own vapid personality campaign: making Biden seem like a really, really nice guy. But anyone who understands the Trump movement knows that MAGA is not about a cult of personality. Instead, it’s about exerting white power, capitalizing on Evangelical political power and feeding the upper class. But Democrats don’t pander well to working class Americans. Prominent liberals regularly get lambasted on Twitter for photographs of rural poverty captioned with “MAGA,” as if to say, “Look, folks! Here’s someone who votes against their interests!” But it doesn’t come across as educated or funny. Instead, it’s alienating, classist and out-of-touch.
Thus, when journalists parachute into rural America, they see the region as stagnant, declining without reason. Krugman reveals his obvious disdain, but Sullivan hides his fascination in indulgent depictions of what folks in rural areas have “always done,” the rosiness of the prose counteracting with the abject poverty he chronicles. It’s not that Sullivan isn’t right, on some level; Rural communities often do experience disproportionate poverty. They do vote for Trump at higher rates. But the implication that these Americans are less intelligent, more tribal and less human lingers below the surface.
It’s impossible to adequately combat authoritarianism without addressing this problem of characterization. The work of anti-Trumpism — let alone a more comprehensive ideological project — is no small feat. But there’s no way to do this while further alienating the Trump base and scoffing at the validity of their rage. There’s no way for it to not cultivate anger when columnists like Krugman both acknowledge openly that their way of life is dying and that it is not worth saving.
Krugman was right. It’s time to get real about rural America. But it’s also time to get real about liberal tribalism, classism and disdain. This includes providing a substantial alternative to liberals’ own mob leader — the fantasy that a simple #VoteBlueNoMatterWho will have us back to brunch on November 4.
MCKINSEY CROZIER is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.