On a hot, sunny day this August, President Donald Trump’s motorcade arrived at the Whirlpool washing machine factory in Clyde, Ohio. It was the first time since 1912 that a sitting president had visited the county. Clyde residents guessed the route the President would take and lined the streets with Trump flags. They showed up en masse, sitting in lawn chairs by the side of the road and wearing Trump’s name and campaign slogan on everything from hats to socks. The whole event had the air of a festival or county fair. All day, trucks drove up and down the streets with Trump flags streaming behind them, flipping off the small group of protesters gathered on a street corner. Full disclosure: I was with the protesters. Clyde is my hometown, and I couldn’t let the President pass through entirely unopposed.
There is a constant refrain among liberals: “how could anyone vote for Trump?” It’s always a rhetorical question, and usually an exasperated one. Seeing my former teachers, close friends, and classmates proudly wave Trump flags made that question feel more urgent to me. I could not shake off the feeling of a stone sinking in my stomach every time I thought about it. How, truly, could the community that raised me with such compassion be the same community that embraced a president whose ideology is riddled with misogyny, racism, and homophobia? How did they not see the harm he was doing? The answer, like all worthwhile answers, gets more complex the more it is examined.
Before delving into the answer, a few important notes: First, much of my evidence comes from personal experience and my conclusions are localized to the residents of Clyde, Ohio. I cannot extend generalizations to other populations with whom I have no experience. Second, what matters here is not facts, but perception. Ultimately, supporting Donald Trump is not about the policies he advocates for. Policy has so little to do with it that the 2020 Republican National Convention eschewed publishing a party platform altogether. What drives people, especially the rural voters I am talking about, to support Trump is a series of perceptions and feelings. In order to understand them better, one must set aside the “but that’s not true!” instinct. It is neither constructive nor helpful here. Additionally, I recognize that supporting and voting for Donald Trump is not, so to speak, a victimless crime. The people I am talking about have contributed to putting a large number of people in danger, whether through this administration’s immigration policies, its failure to contain the spread of COVID-19, or its emboldening of hate groups. In examining what makes them support him, I am not trying to defend their moral character or suggest that they are innocent of all wrongdoing. I often struggle to extend empathy to proud Trump voters myself, but my proximity to them has forced me to see that whatever else they may be, they are also human.
Rural places certainly do one thing well, and that’s community. In a place like Clyde, many families go back for generations; almost everyone is related, went to school together, or worked together at some point. As someone whose family moved to the area well after I was born, my view of this network is from its outermost edge. Still, I feel the power of those connections. Clyde is a cancer cluster, which means that a higher percentage of the population gets cancer than in other places. The cause of this phenomenon is not known, but in Clyde it often strikes children,and every single time another child is diagnosed with cancer, the community rallies. When I was in eighth grade, it was one of my friends. Last year, it was a football coach. Each case is met with a flurry of spaghetti dinner fundraisers, T-shirts, 5k runs, and other efforts to donate and show solidarity. That is the kind of community that small towns are capable of being.
Of course, that sense of community has its shortcomings. For one, it only extends to those who belong, and the criteria for belonging are riddled with unexamined prejudice. Family ties suddenly seem less sacred when they bind conservative parents to their queer children. For another, the pride and strength people derive from tradition impedes the community from embracing change. There is deep resistance to anything new, whether it’s wearing a mask or transitioning to sustainable energy.
In a place so deeply rooted in community, support for Donald Trump is not something that happens on an individual level. Instead, positive impressions of the president seep into the ideological groundwater of the place, where every member of the community is exposed to them. In the absence of any dissenting opinion, it isn’t hard for outspoken Trump voters to muddy the waters until no one can see clearly. Did the President really say that thing about grabbing women? Maybe, but it could have been made up by the press to make him look bad. Or maybe it was taken out of context. In any case, nobody around here seems to be bothered by it, so it probably isn’t a big deal. In addition, Trump merchandise is ubiquitous, which normalizes support for the President. When trusted friends and family members endorse Trump on their hats, socks, and t-shirts, their politically apathetic circle of influence typically follows suit.
The other reason for Trump’s hold on my hometown is more complicated and, perhaps, harder to see at first glance. Over the last two hundred years, the population of the United States has steadily concentrated in urban areas. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, by 2010, over eighty percent of the U.S. population lived in an urban setting. Since 2010, Clyde’s population has decreased by 2.83%. Rural communities have watched for decades as their young members leave, taking their passion and potential elsewhere. Until recently, the blow was softened by the reverence with which mainstream culture treated rural life. Movies like The Wizard of Oz and Oklahoma! exemplified the ideal rural lifestyle: simple, traditional, and rooted in faith and family. There is little left of that nostalgic attitude in mainstream culture. Instead, mainstream media makes broad gestures towards progressive ideas—Captain Marvel getting featured in a Marvel movie, celebrities tweeting about social justice, and corporations celebrating Pride Month. Clyde residents perceive this cultural shift as an attack on traditional values, which allows them to feel countercultural for daring to be conservative.
At the same time, the reality that mainstream news outlets report on is inconsistent with the reality that residents of Clyde experience. Take the most recent iteration of Black Lives Matter protests, for example. The impression that Clyde residents got of those protests was, based on my conversations with several people in the community, one full of burning buildings, opportunistic looting, and total chaos. They heard activists say “All Cops Are Bastards” and failed to square that with all of the cops they were friends with or related to. According to the World Population Review, Clyde is almost 95% white, and only 0.08% black. Residents lack the contextual framework necessary to engage in discussions about race, and the result is that liberals in some far-away city seem to be burning down buildings over a problem that, as far as the Clyde resident can tell, does not exist. Of course, Clyde’s overwhelming whiteness has its roots in the very white supremacy that its denizens refuse to acknowledge, but we must attempt to understand the lenses through which rural Trump voters see the world, and that requires seeing past our reflexive objections.
Together, the mainstream coast-dominated culture’s abandonment of rural nostalgia in favor of a progressive vision and the national news’ lack of alignment with rural reality create a pervasive us-against-the-world sense in Clyde. Supporting Trump is a retaliatory response to the perceived wrongs that have been done against rural life by “The Establishment”. And to be fair, working-class rural people have suffered some great losses over the decades. Agri-business has reduced the viability of farming as a career, and minimum wage in other fields is no longer livable. Healthcare is expensive, and pre-existing conditions are common. Clyde is surrounded by other towns that were devastated by factory closures like Mansfield and Lordstown. If Whirlpool, the factory Donald Trump visited, were to close, it would take three thousand jobs with it. Clyde’s population is just six thousand. The knowledge of this dependence on a corporation hangs over the town. Responding to that existential threat by supporting Trump is a middle finger to the political establishment that created those conditions.
Donald Trump doesn’t care about procedures and decorum. He speaks in simple terms and says what he thinks, even when what he thinks is wildly inappropriate. He uses executive orders to accomplish things rather than wading through red tape and legislative bodies that are constantly deadlocked. He flouts the establishment ethos at every turn, and it’s wildly refreshing to watch for a group of people who are disillusioned with the political system. Even his 2016 campaign slogan was carefully crafted to appeal to rural voters: Make America Great Again. For the community that treated Trump’s visit as a festival day, that phrase evokes a powerful image of a time when things were easier; a time when jobs were stable, when everyone went to church, when no one was asking them to reexamine their place in the world, when it didn’t feel like their way of life was under attack. In a community as rooted as Clyde, inertia tempts people to look to the past for comfort rather than looking to the future for solutions.
Despite Trump’s sound defeat in the 2020 election, the residents of my hometown still exist, and so do their opinions. They will not disappear when their leader does. Leaving them behind as we try to repair our broken political system will only exacerbate the abandonment they feel. Treating them like a lost cause will only further their alienation. The only way forward, for me, is to stop dismissing their concerns and start treating them as legitimate participants in the political process.