White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy
By Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman
Random House, 320 pages, $32

Why does a book like this exist? For one thing, it exists to serve the demand for books among people who lack the patience for reading literature. These books are some of the many consumer items that serve as tokens of college education. By visiting the front-most display table at Barnes & Noble and picking up a copy of The Sixth Extinction or Freakonomics, one affirms one’s place among the civilized few who “read.” With White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy, Paul Waldman and Tom Schaller toss another forkful of silage into the troughs of the book-club class. 

Of course, a book like this is also intended to provoke a reaction from its targets. The authors are counting on it, as they make clear when they predict that some will conclude that “as two coastal cosmopolitans, we have no right to offer this critique of White rural politics.” The anticipated backlash is an essential part of the marketing strategy. Yet even those disinclined to offer such a response are likely to find the authors’ analysis of rural, white America inadequate.

Waldman’s and Schaller’s thesis is threefold. First, rural whites—due to the Electoral College and gerrymandering—have political power in excess of their numbers, as well as a kind of cultural prestige as “real Americans” that induces the media and politicians to bend over backward to understand and mollify them. The authors seemingly live in a world where media talking heads and politicians quake in fear of offending their rural overlords. This is not the world I live in, but I accept that we all inhabit distinct perceptual bubbles. 

The second part of the thesis is that the amount of power that rural whites enjoy is to be regretted, since they really are pretty awful people on the whole. They are the most racist, xenophobic, and generally bigoted of all people, the most likely to believe in conspiracy theories, the least likely to respect our democratic norms, and the most likely to see violence as the answer to their problems. Waldman and Schaller provide an impressive number of “receipts” (a term they apparently prefer to “citations”) to support these claims, which I wouldn’t presume to challenge. 

It is the third part of their thesis on which I would like to raise some points of information. Waldman and Schaller assert that, despite their ruling stature, rural whites “paradoxically” fail to demand anything of their political leaders. The authors admit that rural whites have some legitimate sources of anger, particularly the economic hollowing out of their regions by “late-stage capitalism.” However, having despaired of correcting this, rural whites lend their electoral clout to Republicans, who offer a program of cultural vengeance without any redress of rural whites’ material grievances. There is a lot of truth to this. I would just add that pretty much all Americans have seen their communities hollowed out by capitalism, and pretty much all of them have despaired of receiving very much from their representatives. Those who plan to trudge submissively to the polls for President Biden in November are hardly more demanding subjects than those who will cast a vote for Donald Trump. 

Also, though, I think Waldman and Schaller underrate the admittedly limited degree of political activation that has taken place in rural America recently. They end their book with a recommendation to which I am entirely sympathetic: that rural people need to form a political movement apart from the Republican Party that can make real demands of the democratic system. The problem is that I am altogether certain Waldman and Schaller would vehemently oppose such a movement. I know this, because this movement already has a potential existence in MAGA-ism, which Waldman and Schaller refuse to see as having any relevance to what they consider the justifiable complaints of rural whites. 

“54 percent of Trump voters favored the government breaking up monopolies.”

Consider this remark from the authors, in reference to a 2023 conference in Nebraska about preventing agricultural monopolies: “Rural folks are gradually realizing that corporate consolidation, not socialism, is destroying their economies.” Judging by the record of the Grangers, the People’s Party, William Jennings Bryan (who is briefly cited in the book as a typical rural bigot) the Non-Partisan League, the American Society of Equity, Robert LaFollette, the National Farmers’ Organization, Estes Kefauver, the American Agriculture Movement, the National Save the Family Farm Coalition, Tom Harkin, Paul Wellstone, and others, I would suggest that rural people made some hesitant advances toward this insight before 2023. Indeed, a poll conducted by Open Markets Institute in 2018 showed that 54 percent of Trump voters favored the government breaking up monopolies, and only 28 percent were opposed. Moreover, some of the most visible MAGA firebrands are thoroughgoing antimonopolists. Perhaps some of the “gradual realization” Waldman and Schaller delight in when it is expressed in small activist conferences is also reflected in the far more formidable MAGA movement.

Waldman and Schaller paint MAGA-ism as an exceptionally worrisome political development, while also conflating it with a general tendency going back to Reagan for rural whites to “vote against their own interests.” By their own admission, Trump was more uniformly successful in rural areas than previous Republicans. As they note, 206 rural counties that went for Obama twice went for Trump in 2016 (a fact they brilliantly manage to square with the assertion that Trump was elected on white, rural backlash against the first black president). Perhaps Waldman and Schaller should consider that Trump was so successful in rural America because he didn’t ask rural whites to vote against their own interests. The models of inchoate frustration and gullibility used to explain more limited rural support for previous Republican administrations may not be adequate to explain the fervid enthusiasm for MAGA. Of course, Waldman and Schaller would agree. They think Trump’s unprecedented popularity is due to his being more vocally hostile to minorities and cities than any candidate before him. Nevertheless, they might find it worthwhile to explore some other possibilities. 

One quote in particular helps illustrate Waldman’s and Schaller’s blindspots when it comes to how rural people press their material interests. The authors cite, as an example of how politicians are punished for perceived slights against yokels, a statement that got Obama in trouble in 2008. Given rural whites’ economic struggles, Obama said, “it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Now, Waldman and Schaller assert, there is nothing offensive about this statement. Obama was simply “describing ... the cultural war displacing material arguments as the main focus of politics.” Material arguments were replaced with culture-war issues like ... trade

Throughout the book Waldman and Schaller manage to classify MAGA’s attack on neoliberal trade as somehow outside the realm of “material issues,” as though free trade weren’t one of the most salient and destructive features of what they call late-stage capitalism. Along with other hate-mongering notions spouted by Trump on the campaign trail, they list the gripe that “the economic powers that be stole your jobs and sold them to China.” Well, didn’t they? Elsewhere, the authors claim that since no one can reverse offshoring, Trump’s vituperation against trade wasn’t even meant to be taken seriously, but just as a means for voters to let off steam. “Trump couldn’t make all the immigrants disappear or force China to give us back our jobs; nor could he undo decades of social advancement for women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ+ Americans,” they write. Not only does this statement classify opposition to free trade, long a cause of the left, with opposition to “social advancement,” it partakes of exactly the kind of economic fatalism that defines neoliberal ideology, which Waldman and Schaller claim to oppose. 

It is true that Trump, like every other recent president, has a disappointing record of delivering on his promises. But the promises a candidate feels compelled to offer to a constituency matter, because they tell us something about what his constituency demands. If you go to Trump’s campaign website, the top three issues listed are “Rebuild the Greatest Economy in History,” “Fair Trade for the American Worker,” and “Unleash Energy Dominance.” How much faith do I have in Trump’s ability to accomplish these things? The same amount of faith I have in the promises of any other politician. But I also know that they are material issues, and that the inclusion of “Fair Trade for the American Worker” among the promises of the likely GOP presidential nominee represents a change in what Republicans feel compelled to promise. This is at least in part a reflection of increasing assertiveness and political consciousness on the part of rural whites, something Waldman and Schaller are incapable of seeing because it doesn’t fit their idea of acceptable protest

If and when a new rural political movement on the order of the People’s Party develops, it will probably grow out of the ferment surrounding Trump. Because of this, it will probably bear a significant family resemblance to MAGA-ism. It will seek to make a reality of the kind of renewal that Trump has only promised. Like every rural movement in American history, it will provoke scorn, fear, and disgust among urban Americans. Waldman and Schaller will be even less ready to accept rural Americans who are conscious and organized than they are willing to accept the less organized movement that has gathered around Trump.

Hamilton Craig is a Compact columnist and a doctoral student at CUNY researching farmers’ movements in the United States.

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