White Rural Rage Is Shallow Pandering to Elitist Liberals

White Rural Rage, full of tired tropes about the bigotry of rural white Americans, distorts more than it reveals about the growth of the Trumpian right. It’s a shallow exercise in pandering to the prejudices of liberals.

Flags and a sign supporting Donald Trump and Mike Pence are displayed on the side of a highway in rural Pennsylvania. (Paul Weaver / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

These are not good times for #TheResistance.

The election of Donald Trump was a day of infamy that changed everything, and elite liberals can’t seem to escape the specter of November 2016. They’re still playing the old hits — Trump is an Existential Threat! America is becoming like The Handmaid’s Tale! — while the public increasingly yawns and tunes them out.

Seven years later, #TheResistance resembles Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab: maniacally hunting Trump and his voting base — who seem nigh unkillable at this point — at the expense of their own sanity. In polls, the former president is neck and neck with Joe Biden.

Enter Paul Waldman, the Washington Post columnist whose new polemic, White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy, makes it clear that his white whale is still the white working class. His quest to paint them as undereducated rubes blinded by their own gleeful racism, sexism, and xenophobia has been going strong since at least 2016. “If you have any sense, you’re coming to the realization that it was all a scam. You got played,” he wrote about Trump voters in a postelection 2016 Washington Post column. “While you were chanting ‘Lock her up!’ he was laughing at you for being so gullible.”

Cowritten with political scientist Tom Schaller, White Rural Rage is a book-length version of that argument — but with the MSNBC-friendly amendment that rural whites aren’t just dumb hicks, they’re Public Enemy #1. “More than at any point in modern history, the survival of the United States as a modern, stable, multi-ethnic democracy is threatened by a White rural minority that wields outsize electoral power,” they proclaim.

Forget Davos, capitalism, global war, or climate change — democracy truly dies at the Iowa State Fair with dudes who care a little too much about their Ford F-150s.

Their argument goes something like this: a combination of economic, social, and health care woes, along with a sense of being left out of contemporary culture and discourse, has led whites in small-town America to go beyond their usual bigoted beliefs and increasingly reject the legitimacy of the political system itself — by, well, voting for the Bad Candidate.

For Waldman and Schaller, these democracy-hating conservatives hold disproportionate electoral sway — as demonstrated by Trump’s 2016 victory via the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, as well as the so-called “mythic power” they hold in the form of flattery and attention bestowed on them by the media and politicians.

In the New Republic, the authors warn that it’s only getting worse, that “as the rest of the country moved away from Trump [in 2020] rural whites lurched toward him by nine points, from 62% to 71%.” If Trump wins in 2024, “it will be — once again — because rural white people put him there,” they conclude.

There is some truth here, but it’s distorted. The book supports its thesis with a blizzard of facts, polls, and anecdotes — which, while mostly accurate, are cherry-picked for maximum effect. Attitudes expressed in opinion polls, rather than violent incidents themselves, are treated as proof of a tendency toward violence. But if white rural Americans really are the tip of the spear of coming fascism, wouldn’t there be more cases of organized political violence coming from that group since January 6?

Waldman and Schaller also ignore the fact that only 20 percent of Trump’s support actually comes from rural America, while some fifty-eight million votes in 2020 were cast for Trump in cities and suburbs. The country’s eleven largest metropolitan areas gave Trump more total votes than all of rural America combined. Los Angeles County handed Trump 1.1 million votes, but no one is writing a book called What’s the Matter With the San Fernando Valley?

Nor is there any mention of the class dealignment that’s more clearly emerged since 2016. Trump’s support is no doubt highest among whites, but over 40 percent of working-class Latinos also voted GOP in the last election, while black votes for Trump jumped from 8 percent in 2016 to 12 percent in 2020. For better or worse, the Democrats have increasingly become the party of highly educated, socially liberal urbanites, and Republicans are more and more making inroads among non-college-educated, working-class voters of all races.

Instead of addressing these inconvenient truths and attempting to provide serious recommendations about how to combat the rising far right, White Rural Rage would rather serve up calculated journalistic White Urban Rage against working-class people who vote for pandering politicians who only pay them lip service — which, of course, is not a feature exclusive to poor GOP voters.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that the book argues that white rural people feel an unearned sense of victimhood that helps fuel a politics of grievance and then demonizes them for these attitudes. The existence of White Rural Rage is itself the sort of evidence that will confirm the beliefs of those who think coastal liberals despise them — thereby fueling the very cultural grievances that drive many voters to the Right.

Not that we should be surprised: elites scapegoating the white working class is as American as apple pie. Critics of rebellious indentured servants in seventeenth-century Virginia called them society’s “offscourings,” a polite term for shit. Early American landowners described the rural poor as foolish “crackers” and idle, vagabond “squatters.” My favorite is an 1877 Chicago Tribune editorial, which called striking Irish and Czech workers “hordes of ragamuffins, vagrants, saloon bummers, and generally speaking the dregs of society.”

I can almost hear Waldman quoting those lines in White Rural Rage, while rasping the old 2016 mantra: “But her emails. . . .”