White Rural Rage
Small Towns, Big Trouble
“Friend, Jason Aldean recorded a song praising small-town values, and the Radical Left has canceled him for it. Why? Because they want every small town in America to look like the socialist disasters in California and New York.”
This was the beginning of a fundraising email from the National Republican Congressional Committee in July 2023, responding to the controversy over “Try That in a Small Town,” the single that country star Aldean had recently released. The song’s lyrics present a list of alleged liberal urban horrors—people spitting in cops’ faces, robbing liquor stores, burning American flags—as well as the specter of gun confiscation, and they issue a challenge: “Well, try that in a small town / See how far you make it down the road.”
Aldean, whose oeuvre is heavy with well-worn tributes to rural life, was not “canceled.” In fact, his fantasy of vigilante violence meted out against urbanites supposedly ready to bring their criminal mayhem to the idyll of rural America became his greatest success. Conservative media defended him, Republican politicians praised him, and “Try That in a Small Town” became Aldean’s biggest crossover hit, shooting to No. 1 on the Billboard
Had Aldean released his ode to resentment and vigilantism a decade earlier, it might not have made the news, let alone become the controversy it did. But coming out when it did, with hostility between rural and urban America intensifying as the country headed into a presidential election that promised an even more profound division between the two, the song was bound to produce a fiery reaction. For Republicans, it was a gift, yet another implement they could use to convince their rural supporters that blue America was a “socialist disaster” to be feared and hated. The criticism the song received from liberals only reinforced this point.
The undercurrents that produced this controversy are the reason we wrote this book. We stand at what may be the most dangerous moment for American democracy since the Civil War. A great deal of attention has been bestowed upon rural Whites since Donald Trump’s ascension in 2016, yet that discussion has overlooked a vital political truth this book hopes to illuminate: The democratic attachments of rural White Americans are faltering.
Rural America has suffered greatly in recent decades. Layered atop cultural resentments that are nearly as old as our country, this suffering has produced powerful antipathies that are aimed not just at certain groups of Americans, but often at the American democratic system itself. Were rural White Americans as disempowered as they believe themselves to be, their anger would be impotent. They would mutter “Try that in a small town” to themselves, indulging in meaningless fantasies of revenge against the liberals and urbanites they despise. But they are not disempowered. In fact, in critical ways, they have more power than any other large demographic group in America.
This power has already distorted the outcomes our system produces, leaving us in an age of minority rule in which—to take just one example— the party that won fewer votes in seven of the last eight presidential elections managed to assemble an activist 6–3 supermajority on the Supreme Court, one that is now busy remaking the laws all of us live under to conform to a right-wing policy vision that overwhelming majorities of the public do not share. This minority rule is a consequence of the disproportionate power wielded by rural Whites, power that is often justified on the right by the insistence that these are the worthiest Americans, the ones most possessed of virtue and “values,” and that, therefore, it is only proper that their votes count for more.
The fact that their votes do count for more is why Donald Trump became president in the first place, and if he should regain the White House, it will be rural Whites who return him there. Yet even as the threat to American democracy Trump represents has become the subject of enormous concern and debate, few have connected that threat to its essential source: rural White America.
Name a force or impulse that threatens the stability of the American political system—distrust in the fairness of elections, conspiracy theorizing, the embrace of authoritarianism—and it is almost always more prevalent among rural Whites than among those living elsewhere. Even as they are in some ways the greatest beneficiaries of democracy’s distribution of influence, rural Whites are the least committed to our system.
While at various times in American history some extraordinarily creative and progressive movements began in rural areas, today most of rural America is gripped by a right-wing politics that is angry when it should be constructive and passive when it should be engaged. To many of the most cynical and malevolent characters in the political world, this is all part of the plan: Keep rural Americans bitter, and they’ll be an easily manipulated force of destruction when democracy doesn’t produce the proper results. The worse rural Americans feel, the better this plan works.
The devastating force of late-stage capitalism has inflicted enormous damage on rural Americans. But we are more concerned with how the political system responded and, specifically, why so few rural Americans have noticed that they’ve been exploited and lied to by the conservative politicians they elect. Their own leaders deploy a sophisticated propaganda system meant to ensure that every problem rural America faces will be blamed on faraway forces and people who have little if any actual influence on rural Americans’ lives. It’s the best way to stoke the voters’ seething—that and telling them the solution to their problems will always be to elect more conservative Republicans, who will continue to spend more effort in ratcheting up rural anger than in addressing the problems confronting rural communities.
So, when urban America suffers from a spike in unemployment or violent crime, the right-wing noise machine quickly points its collective finger at liberals, minorities, and Democrats who dominate cities. Cities, they are told, are both nightmares of depravity and a threat to rural Americans. But when rural America suffers from precisely these same problems, who gets blamed? Those same liberals, minorities, and Democrats from faraway, scary cities. Almost daily—hourly on talk radio stations from Maine to Maui—those constituents hear Republican politicians and their conservative allies in the media redirect rural fury toward the boogeyman of the moment: immigrant caravans this month, critical race theorists next month, woke professors the month after that. Though most rural citizens are represented at all levels of government by conservative Republicans, those officials somehow bear no responsibility for their constituents’ problems.
But Hollywood didn’t kill the family farm and send manufacturing jobs overseas. College professors didn’t pour mountains of opioids into rural communities. Immigrants didn’t shutter rural hospitals and let rural infrastructure decay. The outsiders and liberals at whom so many rural Whites point their anger are not the ones who have held them back—and as long as they keep believing that they are, rural people won’t be able to find their way to an effective form of politics.
This book is not intended to be mere polemic or a broadside critique of rural Americans or White rural citizens specifically. Rather, it is a warning about a growing problem that politicians and the media are reluctant to discuss. Rural voters—especially the White rural voters on whom Donald Trump heaps praise and upon whom he built his Make America Great Again movement—pose a growing threat to the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. Rural discontent and grievances are hardly new. But 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.
In order to be complete, this story must be told from multiple vantage points, some high enough to view the entire country and decades of history and some directly on the ground. So, we have woven together data on economic and physical well-being and voting trends, and from public opinion surveys, with our own on-the-ground reporting from rural counties spread across the country, to describe the political reality of rural America today and what it portends for the rest of us. We examine not only what happens at the ballot box but also the underpinnings of rural culture and rural ideology. We journey from the Electoral College to West Virginia coal country, from the Affordable Care Act to the Arizona desert, and many places in between.
The story that results is often a disheartening one. Though the various parts of rural America differ in important ways, as a whole, they are weighed down by their struggles: resource economies where powerful interests extracted wealth and left the people who toiled to remove it with little or nothing to show for their decades of labor; manufacturing jobs that fled overseas; inadequate healthcare and physical infrastructure; limited opportunities that push talented young people to leave; and much more.