Kris Notaro / flickr

A toxic brew of economic suffering, racism, and community decline prepared the ground for authoritarian populism in America’s devastated rural areas. Trumpism will not be defeated unless the Left can promote a progressive agenda to rebuild rural America.

In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, the liberal intelligentsia belatedly realized that rural and small-town America was in crisis. One sector of liberal opinion insisted that the key to Donald Trump’s victory lay in racism rather than economic distress (partly because of its own complicity with the neoliberal, free-market project). Another sector, blind to the central importance of racial inequality for US capitalism, preferred to stress narrowly economic explanations for Trump’s rise.

Both schools of thought failed to grasp the different ways in which economic suffering, racism, and community decline have interacted to prepare the ground for authoritarian populism. They also grossly underestimated the human toll of the catastrophe engulfing rural areas and small towns, overlooking the “social pathologies of collapse” that have become ever more glaring.

Since the turn to more cutthroat free-market policies in the 1980s, American capitalism has systematically underdeveloped rural and small-town regions of the United States. The 2008 crash poured gasoline on the fire. Mutual savings banks and credit unions, cooperatives, mom-and-pop businesses, local industries and newspapers, health and elder care facilities, schools, and libraries have all fallen victim to relentless austerity policies or private-equity raiders.

As people could no longer share in the wealth they had produced, while community tax bases and social institutions withered away, “rural resentment” and economic anxiety boosted fear of cultural and demographic changes and heightened receptivity to authoritarian appeals and conspiracy theories. Aggrieved masculinity and a loss of white privilege were certainly vital ingredients in this toxic brew, along with the question of gun rights. But such “cultural issues” were also bound up with economic decline and social fragmentation: white men who have experienced economic setbacks “are the group of owners most attached to their guns,” and the ones most likely to view the home as a bunker requiring defense against threatening outsiders.(Marc Edelman)

Posted by The non-Conformist