In Trump’s mind, it’s still 1989.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Yes, Donald Trump is a vile racist. He regularly uses dehumanizing language about nonwhites, including members of Congress. And while some argue that this is a cynical strategy designed to turn out Trump’s base, it is at most a strategy that builds on Trump’s pre-existing bigotry. He would be saying these things regardless (and was saying such things long before he ran for president); his team is simply trying to turn bigoted lemons into political lemonade.
What I haven’t seen pointed out much, however, is that Trump’s racism rests on a vision of America that is decades out of date. In his mind it’s always 1989. And that’s not an accident: The ways America has changed over the past three decades, both good and bad, are utterly inconsistent with Trump-style racism.
Why 1989? That was the year he demanded bringing back the death penalty in response to the case of the Central Park Five, black and Latino teenagers convicted of raping a white jogger in Central Park. They were, in fact, innocent; their convictions were vacated in 2002. Trump, nevertheless, has refused to apologize or admit that he was wrong.
His behavior then and later was vicious, and it is no excuse to acknowledge that at the time America was suffering from a crime wave. Still, there was indeed such a wave, and it was fairly common to talk about social collapse in inner-city urban communities.
But Trump doesn’t seem to be aware that times have changed. His vision of “American carnage” is one of a nation whose principal social problem is inner-city violence, perpetrated by nonwhites. That’s a comfortable vision if you’re a racist who considers nonwhites inferior. But it’s completely wrong as a picture of America today.
For one thing, violent crime has fallen drastically since the early 1990s, especially in big cities. Our cities certainly aren’t perfectly safe, and some cities — like Baltimore — haven’t shared in the progress. But the social state of urban America is vastly better than it was.
On the other hand, the social state of rural America — white rural America — is deteriorating. To the extent that there really is such a thing as American carnage — and we are in fact seeing rising age-adjusted mortality and declining life expectancy — it’s concentrated among less-educated whites, especially in rural areas, who are suffering from a surge in “deaths of despair” from opioids, suicide and alcohol that has pushed their mortality rates above those of African-Americans.
And indicators of social collapse, like the percentage of prime-age men not working, have also surged in the small town and rural areas of the “eastern heartland,” with its mostly white population.
What this says to me is that the racists, and even those who claimed that there was some peculiar problem with black culture, were wrong, and the sociologist William Julius Wilson was right.
When social collapse seemed to be basically a problem for inner-city blacks, it was possible to argue that its roots lay in some unique cultural dysfunction, and quite a few commentators hinted — or in some cases declared openly — that there was something about being nonwhite that predisposed people toward antisocial behavior.
What Wilson argued, however, was that social dysfunction was an effect, not a cause. His work, culminating in the justly celebrated book “When Work Disappears,” made the case that declining job opportunities for urban workers, rather than some underlying cultural or racial disposition, explained the decline in prime-age employment, the decline of the traditional family, and more.
How might one test Wilson’s hypothesis? Well, you could destroy job opportunities for a number of white people, and see if they experienced a decline in propensity to work, stopped forming stable families, and so on. And sure enough, that’s exactly what has happened to parts of nonmetropolitan America effectively stranded by a changing economy.
I’m not saying that there’s something wrong or inferior about the inhabitants of, say, eastern Kentucky (and no American politician would dare suggest such a thing). On the contrary: What the changing face of American social problems shows is that people are pretty much the same, whatever the color of their skin. Give them reasonable opportunities for economic and personal advancement, and they will thrive; deprive them of those opportunities, and they won’t.
Which brings us back to Trump and his attack on Representative Elijah Cummings, whom he accused of representing a district that is a “mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Actually, part of the district is quite affluent and well educated, and in any case, Trump is debasing his office by, in effect, asserting that some Americans don’t deserve political representation.
But the real irony is that if you ask which congressional districts really are “messes” in the sense of suffering from severe social problems, many — probably most — strongly supported Trump in 2016. And Trump is, of course, doing nothing to help those districts. All he has to offer is hate.
Nobody knows how to reverse the heartland’s decline.
But it’s also important to get real. There are powerful forces behind the relative and in some cases absolute economic decline of rural America — and the truth is that nobody knows how to reverse those forces.
.. But reviving declining regions is really hard. Many countries have tried, but it’s difficult to find any convincing success stories.
Southern Italy remains backward after generations of effort. Despite vast sums spent on reconstruction, the former East Germany is still depressed three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Maybe we could do better, but history is not on our side.
What’s the matter with rural America? Major urban centers have always been magnets for economic growth. They offer large markets, ready availability of specialized suppliers, large pools of workers with specialized skills, and the invisible exchange of information that comes from face-to-face contact. As the Victorian economist Alfred Marshall put it, “The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air.”
But the gravitational pull of big cities used to be counteracted by the need to locate farming where the good land was. In 1950 U.S. agriculture directly employed more than six million people; these farmers supported a network of small towns providing local services, and some of these small towns served as seeds around which various specialized industries grew.
Nor was farming the only activity giving people a reason to live far from major metropolitan areas. There were, for example, almost half a million coal miners.
Even then, rural areas and small towns weren’t the “real America,” somehow morally superior to the rest of us. But they were a major part of the demographic, social and cultural landscape.
Since then, however, while America’s population has doubled, the number of farmers has fallen by two-thirds. There are only around 50,000 coal miners. The incentives for business to locate far from the metropolitan action have greatly diminished. And the people still living in rural areas increasingly feel left behind.
Some of the consequences have been tragic. Not that long ago we used to think of social collapse as an inner-city problem. Nowadays phenomena like the prevalence of jobless men in their prime working years, or worse yet, the surge in “deaths of despair” by drugs, alcohol or suicide are concentrated in declining rural areas.
And politically, rural America is increasingly a world apart. For example, overall U.S. public opinion is increasingly positive toward immigrants. But rural Americans — many of whom rarely encounter immigrants in their daily lives — have a vastly more negative view.
Not surprisingly, rural America is also pretty much the only place where Donald Trump remains popular; despite the damage his trade wars have done to the farm economy, his net approval is vastly higherin rural areas than it is in the rest of the country.
So what can be done to help rural America? We can and should make sure that all Americans have good health care, access to good education, and so on wherever they live. We can try to promote economic development in lagging regions with public investment, employment subsidies and, possibly, job guarantees.
But as I said, experience abroad isn’t encouraging. West Germany invested $1.7 trillion in an attempt to revive the former East Germany — more than $100,000 per capita — yet the region is still lagging, with many young people leaving.
I’m sure that some rural readers will be angered by everything I’ve just said, seeing it as typical big-city condescension. But that’s neither my intention nor the point. I’m simply trying to get real. We can’t help rural America without understanding that the role it used to play in our nation is being undermined by powerful economic forces that nobody knows how to stop.
His trade war will hurt business at a time when the rural population is aging, and it will probably hollow out farm communities... The president is here to trumpet a $12 billion plan to aid American farmers. Why do they need aid? For Iowans, it’s because 33 percent of our economy is tied, directly or indirectly, to agriculture, and Mr. Trump recklessly opened trade wars that will hit “Trump country” — rural America — hardest and that have already brought an avalanche of losses. Indeed, the impact of his tariffs will probably be felt by family farms and the area for generations... Once those markets are gone, they will be difficult to recover. Commodity prices continue to drop, and good weather suggests an excellent crop is in the making, which will drive prices further down... Rural America is going to be hollowed out very quickly. Farms will become consolidated, and towns that are already in trouble will certainly die.
Iowa’s farmers are aging, and younger farmers aren’t replacing them proportionately. Sixty percent of Iowa farmland is owned by people 65 years or older, and 35 percent of farmland is owned by people 75 or older.
.. the average age of the American farmer was 58.3 years. This isn’t because young people in rural America don’t want to farm; it’s because, if it isn’t already the family business, the costs are much too high to allow many of them to get into it.
.. losses and farm consolidation accelerated by Mr. Trump’s tariffs will make the devastating 1980s farm crisis look like a bump in the road as it drives a significant rural-to-city migration.
.. Smaller operations don’t have the capital to weather a trade war and will be forced to sell, most likely to larger operations.
.. Another casualty: our community banks. As farms get larger, farm loans are less likely to be local. A big operation with farms in dozens of counties that maybe even cross state lines probably won’t use local banks for credit.
When our community banks are gone, one of the major economic engines of our small towns will be gone.
.. At a certain point, populations won’t be enough to support rural hospitals and clinics, and they, too, will be gone. Rural hospitals are one of the major employers in the community. Even if you have a good manufacturing company in town, if you lose the hospital, they won’t be able to attract the employees they need.
.. Some of the farmers I speak with are unwavering in support of the president; they’d vote Republican even if Mr. Trump personally slapped the heck out of the preacher at the church potluck. But others are starting to recognize how the economic impact of the tariffs is hitting them personally.
.. Farmers take out lines of credit in the spring — usually due the following Jan. 1 — to pay for seed and other input costs, and then pay the loans back after harvest. Like any other loan, there are consequences to not paying, including losing the farm. Farmers are going to know before the midterm elections if they are going to be able to pay back loans.
.. The larger farm operations and the larger agribusinesses will be hovering, looking for any weakness, and ready to purchase smaller farms. And rest assured, when the Trump payments are made to farmers, the larger operations will be the ones that gobble them up.
.. most rural Republicans aren’t farmers, and many are Fox News devotees. So when they turn on Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity, the hosts will likely extol the “virtues” of Mr. Trump’s farm policies and tariffs rather than the reality of their failures.