It’s no secret Donald Trump benefited from rural voters. But Democrat or Republican, they usually tell Katherine Cramer – who has spent a decade visiting residents of small-town Wisconsin – the same thing: it’s the cities that get all the breaks, and then have the gall to look down on them, too
Katherine J Cramer
Monday 19 June 2017
Joe’s voice takes on a mocking tone.
“You gotta quit driving!” he says. “Don’t drive as much.” He rolls his eyes and looks around at his pals, a handful of them perched on moulded plastic lawn chairs in a tiny town in central Wisconsin. He’s talking about the way city people look down on rural folks like himself. In his normal voice he adds: “You gotta drive 20 miles to work? You can’t cut that in half.”
Joe gathers with his friends every morning over coffee to solve the problems of the world. With a wink, they call themselves the Downtown Athletic Club (the closest downtown is 30 miles away) and are a mix of independent contractors in construction trades, an independently employed auto mechanic, and several retired public school teachers. They have a mix of political leanings among them, but most of them openly support Donald Trump.
You might not always guess it. After the cost of healthcare and gas, the most frequent topic of conversation is economic inequality – which many of the group blame on corporate CEOs. “The other big issue I think for our whole nation is the discrepancy [between workers and bosses],” says one of the retired teachers, Gary. “The top of the corporations are taking off profits greater than ever before in history. And that’s really driving a bigger separation between the richest in America, and the common belief is that we’re losing the middle class.”
Does he share this belief? “Well the business element is: the town is dying,” he says, as if it were both so obvious and so familiar to him that it was barely worth comment. “All the small towns in the area are having a hard time keeping grocery stores, and gas stations, and everything.”
Look at the old service station here, with its pumps no longer in operation because they no longer made money, and you can see what he means. The boarded-up buildings along the street say the same thing. So too do the worries in the group about the local schools disappearing through school consolidation.
I have been visiting coffee klatches and residents’ groups throughout the state of Wisconsin since 2007. I seek them out, in various types of places, to understand how they are making sense of politics. From the very beginning, the conversations in small communities like this one surprised me. I have heard time and time again about the struggle to make ends meet, and the lack of response from anyone with the power to make life better. I have heard men like Joe say those idiots who tell us to drive less have no clue what our lives are like.
These groups have a class analysis of what is going on in their country; and what’s going on is essentially about where things are going: to the cities.
The members of the Downtown Athletic Club don’t want to live in a downtown, but they do know that society as a whole confers respect to such places. There is a sense in conversations that people in rural America are not getting their fair share of attention, resources, and respect. They think they deserve more, and that cities and the people within them are getting more than they deserve. They mainly blame racial and ethnic minorities, but also white urban elites.