Misunderstanding Trump’s Rural Appeal

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Abandoned farm in NE Montana repurposed as public recreation area.

If you visit rural America to urban-splain what is wrong in rural America, please stay home. If you want to urban-splain how Trump is an embarrassment, just stay home. Rural folks already know all about your views from the press and mass culture. It is you who are ignorant of their views.

That sounds harsh, but it really is factual. Since the press largely does not cover rural issues at all and always from an urban perspective, how could you understand? Take it as a challenge not an insult.

Since last year I have travelled to rural Nebraska twice, Wyoming, and made many trips around rural Colorado hiking, fishing, hunting, and for the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission and Greater Outdoors Colorado.  I also read writers actually trying to engage rural Americans.  That is the most important word to understand – “engage”. A great example is Chris Arnade. Arnade has spent the last two years travelling the US writing and engaging with rural and rust belt Americans. And a month before the election he wrote the definitive piece on why Trump was winning in rural and rust belt America.

Engage means to participate in the activities of rural America. Rural Americans in my experience favor traditional fast food.  A larger percentage of them than urbanites, fish, hunt, work the land, mine as a hobby, attend religious services, own guns, and do all sorts of things urbanites disdain. They know their neighbors. They help them around the farm, ranch, or house regularly. So, to engage means to do those things.

With one of the most “engaged” people I know, Yuma County Commissioner and fellow Democrat Dean Wingfield, on his family farm in Vernon, Colorado. Elected three times in deeply Republican Eastern Colorado.

It gives you credibility, if you are sincere in wanting to understand your fellow Americans.

Things not to do:

  1.  Do not urban-splain that rural broadband and retraining will give rural folks the chance to be programmers. This is one of many arrogant  ideas that keeps coming up at conferences and in the press. People who live in rural America want fast Internet and we should get it to them. Then, we should ask them, “how can we help maximize it?” What I hear is to build a local recreation industry.  Establish entrepreneurial cottage industries such as one of the US’s premier gift operations located just outside Beatrice, Nebraska. Develop programs to connect family farmers to potential new farmers. These folks know their communities and their possibilities. I have never heard a local mention retraining as a remote programmer. Never. Not once.  Your retirement plan is not their future.
  2. Be careful about talking politics. It is obvious to readers of my blog that I have a lot of respect for Americans living in flyover land. If Trump comes up on your visit to rural America, just listen. Try and mention something Trump did right – perhaps bombing Syria when they used chemical weapons. Keep the conversation going, so you can understand the speaker.  If you have to go into the “Resistance” mode at the mention of Trump, understand you are contributing to his re-election.
  3. Be respectful of religion.  If you really want to engage folks, attend a local church service or volunteer at a church charity event. Whatever you do, please do not tell rural folks that religion is superstition and is why they live in a declining place. The respect point also applies to opinions on the rest of rural life.

The most important point. It is not what you mean to say, it is what folks hear.  “Cling to their guns and religion” and “deplorables who are irredeemable” are examples from President Obama and Secretary Clinton. They were talking about political opponents. But, rural Americans heard those comments directed right at them.

And here is my bottom line – support for Trump is growing in rural America.  Trump’s rural voters are satisfied. They are not necessarily conservatives. They voted for a change agent. And the screams of protest from the rest of us only validate Trump is driving change.

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