Updated: Jul 11
There’s a lot of nuance and complexity packed into my thinking on this subject, and the following essay will barely scratch the surface. But it might be the start of more exploration. I have listened to and been an active participant in countless debates searching for an understanding of the reasons so many white rural men are driven into the arms of xenophobia, racism, aggressive hyper-masculinity, and a loathing of the elites, coastal liberals, the higher educated, scientists, feminists, LGBTQ members, and other progressive-minded or just different folks.
“How can they think that way?”
“Why are they so unreasonable?”
“Why did they vote for HIM?”
For, perhaps, a tiny bit of insight I invite you to tag along the next time I visit with an arrogant elite (self-proclaimed or bona fide, it doesn’t matter), coastal liberal, or highly educated. Or even some of the more snotty members and advocates of minority demographics and other progressives who don’t really know me but judge based on my appearance and lifestyle. To be fair, I’ve had a lot of fantastic, positive interactions with people in these groups, counting several friends among them. But I recently had a bad experience that I thought of as a microcosmic example of issues much bigger than me and my petty problems. It was during a conversation with a coastal liberal working for one of the more prestigious northeastern publications — a young and brilliant editor with a multiethnic bloodline, an enviable education, a modern sense of style, and a decidedly progressive ideology.
I also possess a decidedly progressive worldview, but you can’t tell it by looking at me. I am bearded and middle-aged, a cud-chewingly slow thinker, a barely published writer springing from the whitest of bloodlines, and a late-bloomer graduate from a small and largely unknown college. I own both "dressy" and "everyday" flannel shirts and ball caps.
While I know it might be hard to fathom for some of you, even as a member of that privileged group — the white men — and almost always sharing political ideology with the person that will passive-aggressively belittle me, I am often the target of condescension and ‘splainin’ clearly and unapologetically geared toward conveying information in a way that my cornbread-simple mind can comprehend. Because anyone droppin’ all those “Gs” and twangin’ like a banjo is obviously a level or two lower in intellect than those who enunciate with precision. This is what the young editor did right up until I ended the conversation by apologizing for wasting his time.
In other conversations I've been outright dismissed, and some folks say they are surprised that eloquence and intelligence could accompany an Ozark drawl and ragged cap or floppy hat. I always receive those words with pride because, to my mind, demolishing an underestimate is the sweetest of vindications. But think for just a minute about how that sentiment would land on someone from any other demographic.
Contrary to popular thought, not all white men are endowed with the same amount of swaggering privilege that’s been the top-listed characteristic of being white and male for quite some time now. I openly acknowledge that among the legion of impediments to my success and prestige, skin color, genitalia, gender, and sexual orientation have never been among them. But I’ve still met plenty of people — of many colors, both sexes, genders, and a few different sexual orientations — who have eagerly and sometimes gleefully let me know my place in the hierarchy based on a superficial judgment.
I suffered only mild irritation during the exchange with the young editor and never forgot my manners, but there’s a whole bunch of other men bred like me who wear their cultural insecurities right out there on those flannel sleeves. Several of this bunch are also my friends, and if you live in a rural area you probably know some, too. As a group, they don't meet many east-coast editors, but they're talked down to regularly by a world that barely acknowledges their existence beyond stereotyped roles. Some of that disrespect is processed, packaged, and published by a conservative media force working hard to keep them voting against their own self-interest. But there's plenty of organically produced fodder for that feed trough, and it's everywhere. I'm sure several have experienced it in person and locally. Given this, it’s not at all difficult to see how they can perceive hypocrisy in liberal and progressive thought that cries for acceptance and respect for seemingly everyone except the blue-collar “dependables” -- the men who punch a time clock every day knowing they’re only one illness or accident away from foreclosure on their family’s home; our fathers, the men drafted into duty in Vietnam and Korea because of their low socio-economic station; the “rednecks" who voted for whomever they voted for based on an existential fear for themselves and their sons, and that their relevance is fading into oblivion as the world changes around them. Circumstances, perspectives, and a societal-wide dismissal of their problems because they are deemed "privileged" as a whole tend to foment base-level, primal emotions that will trump logic every day.
Tribal anger is also one of those emotions.
You can point to many little shifts that led to Trump defeating Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election, but one watershed moment was Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark. Of course, it was taken out of context, weaponized, and aimed directly at tender cultural insecurities that have been exposed for decades. There is no more sure-fire way for a Dem to clean out the support of fence-sitters in swing states than to make a bold, boneheaded, and unapologetic demarcation between “us” (the clean) and “them” (the unclean) because it is a given that conservative media will spin it into a bombardment on a region and cultural values -- the two of which combined create a person's " sense of place" and the core of who that person is. Brilliant strategy on the part of conservative media, by the way, because manipulating a person's emotions about their sense of place is an extremely effective means of spreading propaganda. That's obvious, though. It worked.
I’m not saying that there wasn’t truth in Clinton’s statement. I’m not saying that a lot of Trump supporters — a lot of rural white men — aren't racists, sexists, xenophobes, and otherwise hate-filled assholes. I am not saying people should be given a pass for racism, sexism, xenophobia, ignorance, and bullheaded refusal of science. I’m not saying that straight white rural men are totally justified in their feelings. I’m not saying that straight white rural men are suffering at anything close to the level of truly disadvantaged groups. But for reasons I still can't find logic to support (remember, though, logic hardly ever weights a vote), the rural white male votes for Trump were votes for self-preservation. A huge step toward healing for the nation is a clear-eyed understanding of the rural white man problem. Despite its trivialization, this is a very real problem that no one seems to care about (that is often the butt of a joke) until those fears and insecurities bubble up into political rage and/or violence. People don’t reach this level of seething indignation — which is blood in the water for any semi-talented manipulator with power on his mind — without a festering wound of fear and pain at the core. The wound will never heal when there’s always someone so eager to rub salt in it, and there’s already a well-oiled conservative media machine at the ready to point out any old wounds and pick at them until the infection oozes right into the voting booths or violence to other people or even to the rural white man himself.
While I understand and widely promote the idea that rural white men are responsible for facing our insecurities head-on and altering our storyline, I don’t think we can do it alone. And I don’t have the foggiest notion about how to tell a population who has been taught since their first steps to "pull yourself up and walk it off" that they need help. Sadly, I do know that those existential fears and insecurities run so deep and have for so long that many of my people are inextricable from the politics the negative emotions have cultivated. The situation doesn't leave me totally hopeless, but definitely despondent. Things must change on many levels.
For those whose politics align with mine — the progressives, feminists, environmentalists, BLM, LGBTQ members and advocates, the indigenous people members and activists, and all others working toward equality, justice, and a better world for all — the path to that better world requires an understanding that the rural white male demographic is not a monolith. It also requires an understanding of where its demons come from if there's ever a chance of exorcising them. Or you can ignore all of this if you want another Trump. Because that's how you get another Trump... or worse.
We must realize that fighting for progress, equality, and justice is not fighting the white man as a demographic. Rather, we need as many white men as we can get because we’re fighting those hideous, and monstrous ideologies constructed by an elite who have manipulated the system and the people for centuries.