Fear and Resentment of a Changing America
A revealing comparison of Republican districts that deny and don't deny the 2020 outcome.
The NYT continues its long-running investigation into the plight of rural whites with “Their America Is Vanishing. Like Trump, They Insist They Were Cheated.” The web version is slightly interactive but the story appeared on the front page of the New York print edition as “Suspicion and Blame as Their America Vanishes.”
After the obligatory anecdote about racist rednecks, we learn:
A shrinking white share of the population is a hallmark of the congressional districts held by the House Republicans who voted to challenge Mr. Trump’s defeat, a New York Times analysis found — a pattern political scientists say shows how white fear of losing status shaped the movement to keep him in power.
The portion of white residents dropped about 35 percent more over the last three decades in those districts than in territory represented by other Republicans, the analysis found, and constituents also lagged behind in income and education. Rates of so-called deaths of despair, such as suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related liver failure, were notably higher as well.
Although overshadowed by the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the House vote that day was the most consequential of Mr. Trump’s ploys to overturn the election. It cast doubt on the central ritual of American democracy, galvanized the party’s grass roots around the myth of a stolen victory and set a precedent that legal experts — and some Republican lawmakers — warn could perpetually embroil Congress in choosing a president.
To understand the social forces converging in that historic vote — objecting to the Electoral College count — The Times examined the constituencies of the lawmakers who joined the effort, analyzing census and other data from congressional districts and interviewing scores of residents and local officials. The Times previously revealed the back-room maneuvers inside the House, including convincing lawmakers that they could reject the results without explicitly endorsing Mr. Trump’s outlandish fraud claims.
Many of the 139 objectors, including Mr. Nehls, said they were driven in part by the demands of their voters. “You sent me to Congress to fight for President Trump and election integrity,” Mr. Nehls wrote in a tweet on Jan. 5, 2021, “and that’s exactly what I am doing.” At a Republican caucus meeting a few days later, Representative Bill Johnson, from an Ohio district stretching into Appalachia, told colleagues that his constituents would “go ballistic” with “raging fire” if he broke with Mr. Trump, according to a recording.
We’ve known this for a very long time, no? Scads of Republican office-holders or would-be officeholders, ranging from Ted Cruz to Lindsey Graham to J.D. Vance who once decried Trump and his influence on their party have become toadies in order to preserve their viability.
It’s both perfectly understandable and rank cowardice. There are more important things than winning elective office. And, frankly, what’s the point of being in office if you can’t stand up for what you believe is right?
Certain districts primarily reflect either the racial or socioeconomic characteristics. But the typical objector district shows both — a fact demographers said was striking.
Because they are more vulnerable, disadvantaged or less educated white voters can feel especially endangered by the trend toward a minority majority, said Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies the attitudes of those voters.
“A lot of white Americans who are really threatened are willing to reject democratic norms,” she said, “because they see it as a way to protect their status.”
Again, this isn’t surprising. We’ve been talking about this phenomenon, which predates Trump’s rise by years, for quite some time. There are a lot of people who consider white America to be America. While it certainly overlaps with racism, it’s something more fundamental. It’s about what culture and set of norms dominate the society.
Of the 12 Republican-held districts that swung to minority white — almost all in California and Texas — 10 were represented by objectors. The most significant drops occurred in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs and California desert towns, where the white percentage fell by more than a third.
Lawmakers who objected were also overrepresented among the 70 Republican-held districts with the lowest percentages of college graduates. In one case — the southeast Kentucky district of Hal Rogers, currently the longest-serving House member — about 14 percent of residents had four-year degrees, less than half the average in the districts of Republicans who accepted the election results.
This isn’t surprising but the causality is complicated. It’s not simply about economics. Plenty of folks without college degrees are doing just fine in our society. A good plumber or electrician is making more money than a schoolteacher or college professor.
Is it a matter of a college education giving people a more cosmopolitan perspective? Or folks without a college education feeling that they’re looked down upon? The piece seems to be suggesting the latter:
While Mr. Nehls’s district exemplifies demographic change, Representative H. Morgan Griffith’s in southwest Virginia is among the poorest in the country. Once dominated by coal, manufacturing and tobacco, the area’s economic base eroded with competition from new energy sources and foreign importers. Doctors prescribed opioids to injured laborers and an epidemic of addiction soon followed.
Residents, roughly 90 percent of them white, gripe that the educated elites of the Northern Virginia suburbs think that “the state stops at Roanoke.” They take umbrage at what they consider condescension from outsiders who view their communities as poverty-stricken, and they bemoan “Ph.D pollution” from the big local university, Virginia Tech. After a long history of broken government promises, many said in interviews they had lost faith in the political process and public institutions — in almost everyone but Mr. Trump, who they said championed their cause.
Having driven through it a number of times going back and forth to Alabama, I’m well aware that the state continues beyond Roanoke. But, frankly, I don’t give much thought to Roanoke when I’m not driving through it. Even though I’ve been in Northern Virginia twenty years now, I’m much more attuned to what’s happening in DC and its Maryland suburbs than I am to the rest of Virginia (aside from Richmond, the state capitol). But that’s not a matter of condescension but rather one of lifestyle and affinity.
In a bustling clinic called the Health Wagon in Mr. Griffith’s district, Paula Hill-Collins sees low-income and uninsured patients with maladies from tooth decay to heart conditions and diabetes.
Since the last election, they have often raised another complaint: the false claim that Democrats stole Mr. Trump’s victory.
“‘Did you see that box of votes that was thrown away? Did you see they found extra ones?’ This is what we hear from our patients,” said Ms. Hill-Collins, a nurse practitioner who grew up in the town of Coeburn, population 1,600.
Residents of the area — former coal towns at the southern end of Appalachia — have felt cheated for generations, she said. “They believe it because look what’s happened to us,” she said, recalling the exploitation of her community first by mining interests and more recently by drugmakers. “That’s fed a culture of suspicion.”
Families still swap stories about underhanded land deals that prospectors struck with residents more than a century ago for minerals under the hills. Now, the number of coal miners has plunged to less than 2,000 from more than 10,000 employed at about 340 mines three decades ago, according to government statistics.
Again, this goes far deeper than race. It’s a deep-seated sense of grievance that, while almost certainly rooted in reality, is rather disconnected from today’s politics.
Although not all are so hard-pressed, the districts of the House objectors share similar disadvantages. Households there had nearly 10 percent less annual income in 2020 than those in other Republican areas. Not only were college degrees less common, so were high school diplomas.
The G.O.P.’s hold on those districts reflects its shift away from its former country club image to become the party of those left behind. The residents of Democratic districts, on average, are better educated and earn significantly more.
That they glommed on to a guy who literally lives at a country club when he’s not living in a New York City penthouse is ironic, I suppose. But Trump fed their grievances in a way that no serious presidential candidate in my memory has managed to do. (Indeed, the closest I can think of is Bernie Sanders, who did it in a very different way.)
Tim Wilson, a 60-year-old Army veteran who owns a business in Christiansburg that provides wigs and other supplies to cancer patients, said he won a town council seat last year to help attract business and jobs.
Yet he feared the cultural cost of outside investment. A big employer “would also bring with it all the executives and what comes with it from Northern Virginia or California, one of the strong blue regions,” he said. “There is this fear.”
The same distrust drove feelings about the last election, he said: Democratic elites in the big cities — the ones who took people “from being coal miners to being put out on the street” — were pushing what he called the myth that the election had run perfectly.
“If we don’t show the people that are a level above us and a level above them in elected offices that we mean business, it’ll never change anything,” he said. “We need to show them that we have the courage to stand up to the status quo.”
I honestly don’t even know what to do with this. They want the money that the big cities have but not the attitudes that come with it. They want improvement, yes, but they want it without change. That’s a hard ask.
Others took offense at the suggestion that election doubts were tied to income, education or faith. (Districts of objectors had higher concentrations of evangelical Protestants than other Republican-held areas, according to the most recent data available.)
Instead, some residents said that their reasons for questioning the results should be obvious to anyone: the relatively small size of Mr. Biden’s rallies, the overnight disappearance of Mr. Trump’s early lead as more votes were tallied, the allegations about stuffed ballot drop boxes.
“It’s not a political thing. It’s a we-love-our-country thing,'” said Alecia Vaught, 46, a homemaker and Republican organizer in Christiansburg. “You’re either for America or you’re not.”
As I’ve recounted before, my late mother, who watched television, tuned either to Fox News or a home shopping channel all day, was absolutely shocked when Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 over Mitt Romney. Despite Obama having led in the polls for all but a couple of days of the entire campaign cycle, she had somehow become convinced that Romney was going to win in a landslide. Part of that was simply the propaganda she was being fed by Fox. A lot of it, though, was that everyone she ever talked to was voting for Romney so the idea that Obama had more supporters was simply unfathomable.
There’s quite a bit more to the piece but it’s all similarly depressing.