Like many, I was up most of the night last night, patently unable to believe what was happening. I had a lot of time to think, albeit not thinking very clearly. Lots of people with actual expertise will be weighing in on what happened but here’s something I want to say. In laying out who They are, those who voted for Trump, I think a lot is missing. We see most often those “white working class” sorts who are willing to wear t-shirts calling Clinton a cunt or bitch, eager to call for her imprisonment, people in thrall to rightwing or alt-right news sources. Apart from the fact that wealthy white folk had a substantial, ugly share in this result, I don’t recognize the “white working class” or, more accurately, “rural whites” as I know them in these portrayals. I have no interest here in trying to rehabilitate the choice to vote for Trump as other than a catastrophic choice, but I’m struggling to find my way through my reactions, the most distressing of which is running up against the reality that many of these voters are “my people” in a deep sense. I come from them, I am them, and I love many of them.
When I’m not doing philosophy, I farm. I am the fourth generation in my family entrusted with a beautiful few hundred acres resting in the hills of the Ozarks, hillbilly country. Philosophy, I often tell myself, is just my town job: If you’re going to own a farm, you need town job since making a living at farming makes academia look like easy money. But because I do farm and come from rural white people, I live half my life with them.
My extended family and farm neighbors include many farmers, some schoolteachers, veterans, waitresses, folks living on government assistance, and some who make their money in mysterious ways best not closely examined. In my generation, my kin all did finish high school – I am, perversely, the lone high school drop out. Some have more than others but none are financially comfortable; some live on a financial knife’s edge and see collecting walnuts in fall at $15/hundredweight income they can’t decline, though gathering walnuts at this price entails getting far below minimum wage for pretty miserable work. Still, those walnuts are like money just laying there on the ground.
One of my cousins sees my nuclear family as somewhat intimidating. My parents are college-educated, both scholarship kids, and had fully professional lives. My brother and I both hold PhDs – his is in math – and work as academics. This makes us outliers of sorts and statistical anomalies, though anyone who knew our grandparents could see the bright line from their ingenuity to our academic successes. But being academics is different than being more generally “smart.” My cousin received the news that I had gotten my PhD in philosophy with some serious side-eye, saying, “I’m sort of scared to talk to you since that means you probably know what I’m thinking.” He regularly raises our school-smarts as a contrast to his own farm-smarts, suggesting that our lives are comparably easy and require fewer truly difficult challenges. I don’t disagree with him. Looking around our farm and seeing all the make-do arrangements and engineering feats borne of necessary thrift is a lesson on what the psychologists would call “divergent creativity.” To take but one example, we have many basic tools of my grandfather’s devising that work better than store-bought, tools made out of ingredients like swing-set pipe poles. And calf bottle nipples – sticking these in the top of your poled tool makes the grip tolerably soft. That people with my training can’t pull off this sort of thing makes us, if not immediately suspect, set apart and less agile with life’s perceived necessities.
Another cousin both farms and coaches, having made his way to college via athletic scholarships. He couldn’t keep up with the news if he tried. Most mornings, he’s out feeding his stock and handling periodic farm disasters before sunup, then he works all day at his town job, and returns home to feed and do farmwork again, often till after dark. He has one of those Fitbit style devices and daily totes up over 30k steps without ever “exercising.” It also tells him he typically sleeps 95% of the night without disturbance. Before there was Crossfit there was farming, lots of the same movement but with the bonus of manure and ticks. My cousin mostly worries about keeping all of this going so his children will be able to farm too.
Keeping things going is the perennial concern. Our own farm essentially failed about a decade ago when my uncle’s arthritis made the twice daily milking impossible and there was no money for paid help. My uncle, a Vietnam veteran, struggled to live after that, selling every bit of scrap metal he could scare up to get a little income, running a flea market stall, and renting pasture to a wealthy big-time farmer who rarely tended his cattle and left them to ravage the fences when they overgrazed their pastures. My uncle couldn’t fix those fences either. Aside from arthritis, he also had PTSD, though undiagnosed, and while he reliably voted Democratic, Vietnam instilled in him a deep, intractable dislike of the government. One disagreement he had with my grandfather in the 1980s concerned whether to take a government subsidy to dig a manmade pond in one of the pastures. My uncle couldn’t bear to take government money since he despised it all as hopelessly corrupt and cruel in its indifference to men like him. The pond was built and to this day bears the pejorative name, The Government Pond.
When my grandfather died a few years ago and my husband and I purchased the farm to save it from going to auction, my uncle regaled us with the farm’s history and much local knowledge. He knew exactly what, out of all the myriad volunteer plants growing on the farm, could be eaten, from the obvious things like pokeweed to the less obvious like daylilies. He was our sage as we struggled to be remotely equal to the work. But after long years of alcoholism, he committed suicide last year, shooting himself at the gates of the small family cemetery on the farm. When we went into his house we discovered he’d been living with nothing but a kerosene space heater through winter, the furnace having failed sometime back and him too proud to tell anyone. My husband and I cleaned his blood from the soil and fence of the cemetery ourselves.
One cousin, younger than me, joined the military after high school, seeing this as a good bet because of the signing bonus, and was promptly sent to Afghanistan and then Iraq. He’s not been the same since. He collects military assault rifles, takes his young children out to learn to shoot them, drunkenly drove my uncle’s tractor into a pond because the tractor was muddy and he thought to wash it that way. It’s not worked since of course. More painfully, his demeanor and manner evoke for me Flannery O’Connor’s nihilistic Misfit who believed that after a certain point there’s “no pleasure left but meanness.” I’m a little afraid of him, to be honest.
His mother, my aunt, is twice married. Her first husband spent time in jail on drug charges. She herself has a criminal record of sorts. When she was doing better, she got a small business loan to start a dog breeding business. Through a combination of poor management, indolence, and general malign neglect, it quickly devolved into the worst sort of puppy mill, ending only when the place was raided and herself charged with 70-something counts of animal cruelty. Since then, she has lived largely on disability following the “lucky break” of falling in a parking lot, an event that brought in a lawsuit settlement and rendered her more broadly eligible for disability aid. One thing the lawsuit money brought was repair to her teeth. She had the broken mouth so often seen in the very poor and with her new largesse was able to have all her teeth removed, the broken and whole, and implants put in. The lawsuit money is long gone. In the last month, she’s collected four truckloads of walnuts from the farm. Because she has serious mobility issues, she gathers them while sitting on the ground and shifting place by sliding along the dirt when she’s collected all she can reach.
Some of my kin and neighbors are deeply church committed, but not in the simplistic way most often portrayed. For most of my young life, I attended church near the farm when with my grandparents for summers. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1980s that the church got indoor plumbing, though the outhouse was kept for several years after. The Depression and WWII generation members couldn’t see tearing it down since longstanding thrift made them see it as insurance in case the indoor works broke down. During the Clinton years and ever increasingly since, the sermons have taken on a more political cast. The hymns remain mostly early 20th century standards patently written during periods of poverty with their promises of mansions just over the hilltop and a tendency to represent this present life as great travail. But the sermons in the tiny congregation are no longer about hope or coping, but tend to represent the world as hostile and frightening.
I gave up attending even to be agreeably filial some years ago, but this distressed my grandfather, a lifelong FDR Democrat on the basis that he remembered what poverty looked like before FDR. He spoke to the preacher about the political sermons, but to no avail. Other relatives suggested I attend but just do as many in the congregation do: bring knitting or crosswords or a book to read during the sermon. Church is not, for many there, about the sermons and indeed one can sense a great awakening when sermons end – not a spiritual awakening, but people returning to wakefulness from the wool-gathering or napping the sermon induced. What the church really affords is community. Let some one of its members or kin of its members die, and the food will begin to arrive for the bereaved like so much manna from heaven. Let a tractor break down during haying and folks will arrive with their equipment to get it done. Let someone move house, and a crowd will come for the heavy lifting. Such is to say that the church informally operates as that vaunted safety net conservative politicians extol when they want to cut off government aid. Loss of that aid would be a disaster for most of the rural churches’ members, but they do recognize their church experience in how these politicians talk. It bears noting that even though I don’t attend and my reasons for this are known, its members would still circle round me if I had need. The politics don’t really matter where that’s concerned. Technically, doctrinally, I’m one of the lost, as are cousins who work as strippers, suffer under various addictions, and generally fall afoul of the law. But we spiritual and literal outlaws by and large don’t suffer a retraction of caring on account of this.
These are all more personal anecdotes but the nearest town of any size is a lesson on the complexities of the environment, on its vulnerabilities. Last year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Ryan’s Buffet restaurant closed abruptly. Workers showed up for their shifts to find a sign, posted without any warning or notice, announcing the permanent closure on the door. Lay offs are a commonplace too. Wal-Mart is seen as one of the few steady employers, good work if you can get it. More generally, most of the people who work in town live in country, in trailer homes, in old tarpaper houses, and sometimes in more modern or nicer digs. [Visuals of the area’s aesthetics here for the interested.] And most either are themselves, or have family, much like mine described above. And most economically live on a razor’s edge while having little time for thinking about the big policy issues that inform these economics, much less gathering information about it. They likewise have a reasonable suspicion of those who know nothing of this kind of life suggesting they know best how to help. I say it’s “reasonable” just because there are so many inescapable, ubiquitous signs that others don’t get their lives. Because I live two sorts of lives I see this and recognize it in my own experience.
There is a deep class divide rarely explicitly acknowledged in our academic work. Academia is a bubble and They, people like mine, are far, far outside it. My sister-in-law and I used to joke about this, about our shared experience in academia. For example, she took Rotel dip to her first faculty potluck. People loved it. Until they asked about it and discovered it is made with Velveeta. Then, in shock, they turned up their noses. Somehow despite their patent disdain, she boasted, it was nonetheless the only dish completely devoured, as it sat alongside what she counted esoteric fare like hummus (“What IS hummus anyway?” she asked me.). So she always made a point of bringing her most “white trash” offerings to potlucks just to enjoy watching her colleagues eat these rare (to them) delicacies made from ingredients that would probably disgust them. For my own part, my husband gently teases me about my grocery shopping habits. Whenever I shop at the more boutique style healthy grocery stores in town, I tend to go immediately after to Dollar General for the relief and restoration of seeing the world is not all shiny and full of people paying, say, $6 for a bag of chips.
In what is surely my favorite tale of the academic/rural divide, I once emerged from the woods and blackberry picking, filthy and coated in sweat, to find two white suburban-looking college students on our dirt road. They approached me with such a demonstrable, fearful caution that I tried to set them immediately at ease. They were there on a summer internship doing bear-tracking and wanted to lay hair-traps on our land. Their relief upon learning I was a philosophy professor was comical – never have I seen college student so relieved to be in the presence of a philosophy professor. They told me how in preparation they’d been schooled on the local Ozark folks, about how to approach us with caution, not to enter any gates without invitation, and how to speak in a non-threatening way so as to best protect themselves from hillbillies who view them as government. They were at ease with me until they caught sight of my brother emerging from a barn, making them go all tense and watchful again. “Don’t worry about him,” I said, “he’s just an algebraist and won’t hurt you.” I still laugh this memory, but the trepidation in which these northern, suburban students were trained is a sad remark on how broad is the gap between the academic and the rural, between the more urban and country. The rural is so deeply other you best be on your watch. But this is not my own experience. I am at my most watchful and wary in academia.
Relative to your average philosophy conference, I feel far more at home, though I’m still a learner at most mechanical repair, at the parts counter of the farm and feed store. Unlike many conferences, the men (they’re all men) at the parts counter tend to take me as I am. If I know what I’m doing, we pass the time bemoaning whatever mechanical failure brought me there and I am regaled with tall tales of worse failures. If I don’t know what I’m doing, they eagerly but patiently instruct me, never suggesting I am dumb for not knowing in the first place. They’re not uncomfortable that I’m a woman, they’re not scornful of my sometimes deep ignorance. The only spanner in the works of typically happy accord is if they find out through conversation – and there always is conversation at the parts counter – I am a professor. Then the conversation tends to die. So I’ve learned to say instead that I’m a schoolteacher. All of this is to say that the watchfulness and wariness goes both ways.
I do not know what all of this adds up to, in the end. I confess to confusion. My husband, not himself of rural heritage, asked how we will sit at table and laugh again with our beloved family when some share of them voted for Trump. My instinct was to say we’ll sit as we’ve always done, but I too feel betrayed by it all. Still, I write all of this in the hopes that if some in academia can register just how complicated are the lives They, the “rural whites,” lead, it might help. Not to make anyone feel better but to register at least the enormous gulf that exists between lives and experiences. Like some of my kin, some of these rural whites are Democratic from the cradle, but they are thinner on the ground than they used to be.
Of course, the looming spectre I have not addressed is the biases, racial and sexist, that most often are ascribed to the rural white poor. There is some of this, racism especially – it is more than unsettling to see Confederate flags hung outside houses with pit bulls chained to tires in the yard. But that is not the people from whom I come. Rural whites are not all that. This is why I point out that for me, a white woman, I am more likely to find sexist tinges in my academic dealings than my farm dealings. While I trust my internal radar infinitely less here, I also don’t find many tinges of racial biases once one looks beyond the truly toxic sorts, sorts who tend to be seen as toxic blight even locally. I am sure that race, gender, xenophobia, and the whole litany of possible problems features in rural white voting patterns. I say all I say here not to deny that but to struggle to restore a sense of humanity to these rural white people among my academic colleagues. Absent some experiential sense of who they are, I see many of my academic friends engaging in talk of “Them” that just doesn’t catch their complexities, that doesn’t resemble at all the folks I know. And if we are to find a way forward, we’re going to need a sense of those complexities if persuading a better course is to be a goal. What I do know is that the derision I see in some of my Facebook feed will only widen the gap. Whatever else the challenges, there is much in these lives that does not warrant your scorn or derision. I am heartbroken at the result, but also at how deeply I feel the “divide” so often used to describe its cause. If you want to talk to Trump voters – maybe not today, but someday – in ways that might help, try harder and more imaginatively to close some of that divide.
UPDATE: I want to insert here a response I made to a comment by anon’ when rightly drawn up short by my far too confident and hasty dismissal of racial bias. I just want to clarify that this is *not* what I hoping to communicate and hope to have framed it better here:
My internal radar doesn’t count for much. My larger aim, however confused, was not to shift the burden to POC to feel compassion or give witness to white tears. I was trying, most of all, to quit *hiding*, to quit acting as if “these people” my academic friends deride and disown are nothing to do with me. They’re everything to do with me, they’re mine, and, I suspect, they need to become more the people of other white academics. And probably already are. White readers: You really have no Trump voters in your family, friends, or social circles? You sure? And, if you don’t, why don’t you? Why aren’t you out there getting your hands dirty with the folks to whom you have far more persuasive access than any academic POC will? Whose job is this if it’s not white people’s?
But if white people are going to bridge this white-to-white divide, they’re going to have deal with some of these class issues along the way. Sneering at poor rural whites to show you aren’t *that* kind of white person, or to avoid *being* that kind of white person is just not a promising strategy. A bunch of smug posturing about ignorant, rural white people by educated, urban and suburban white people seems again to just put the whole world at the mercy of white pathologies and anxieties, this time along vectors of white class and status dynamics. The “ignorant white people” won’t get fixed by others’ scorn and the educated, urban and suburban white people will just go on thinking they need no fixing, even as they perpetuate the conditions under which that poor white trash stays trash and Trump-susceptible.
I hope, most of all, I can express solidarity with what crunkshank says here: “White people—so-called liberal, progressive, radical, dare I say “woke” white people—it’s time for you to do your motherfucking work. Organize, mobilize, and strategize with and for your people. Work on uprooting white supremacy at your job, place of worship, and at the Thanksgiving table. Get your shit together.” http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2016/11/09/get-your-people/