​Imagining Instability

Many of those who voted for Trump claim to be facing economic hardship. They aren’t.

Flyover States

Support for Trump in communities formerly driven by the mining and manufacturing industries has clear origins. The near-elimination of these job markets has left many unemployed, without other practical skills or applicable experience. Trump’s frequent and direct addresses during his campaign solidified these communities’ indignation and prolonged their grieving—by promising the return of their jobs, he’s allowed them to ignore the harsh truth that their industries have irrevocably faded due to natural (and what should be welcome) progress. Caught in the cross-stitches of economic renewal and technological amelioration, these people have endured and continue to face job displacement and financial misfortune.

However, this popular narrative authored by Trump’s administration can only account for, at most, a couple hundred thousand of the almost 63 million people who voted for Trump. And while older upper-middle-class conservatives who typically vote red account for much of Trump’s constituency, many others who align with him unite under the guise that they are enduring severe economic hardship, like the miners and factory workers. And for many of these voters, particularly those in the Midwest, this is simply not true.

While massive disparities in economic health exist across the country, Midwestern states remain almost consistently among the most economically stable. A study led by the Director of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies highlighted that no Midwestern state was among the most economically volatile in the years following the 2008 recession. In fact, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Dakota were among the 10 states coping best with the national economic downturn. All of them voted for Trump. By contrast, the least economically stable states resided primarily in the South, which categorically, and unsurprisingly, voted Republican in 2016. In summary, despite uniting under a false commonality of financial difficulty, only some of the states that support Trump have really endured significant hardship.

As California houses the thriving conglomerate of the tech industry, and the Northeast continues to attract cultural innovation and financial power, the Midwest fails to feature a glamorous economic specialty. But the Midwest is not dying, at least according to the numbers. Compared to other regions in the U.S., the Midwest more than adequately subsists on its economic output. Yet Midwesterners still feel as though they lack something in comparison to the rest of the country, and perhaps rightly so. Midwestern states experience difficulty both retaining and attracting those with upper-level education and high-earning potential—college graduates are more likely to move to the coasts, or at least larger cities in the region, such as Chicago or St. Louis. The Midwest is remarkably inept at developing and attracting new and exciting opportunities that make people feel as though it’s flourishing.

Thus, the region has locked itself in a positive feedback loop consisting of both a lack of input and a lack of interest. Viewed by the rest of the country as an aged-but-revered preserve of old-timey America, the Midwest has often embraced this title, feeling comfortable resisting change as it revels in its isolation from the rest of the country. Still, with this pride comes sheepish insecurity and glaring consequences; feeling locked in a cultural standstill is a long brewing result of reluctance to integrate with a broader national culture of fast-moving innovation and risk-taking.

This leads us to believe that the “financial hardship” narrative is really just a way to hide, whether subconsciously or not, the real factors motivating much of Trump’s constituency—a cocktail of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, coupled with a fear of change and the discontent that accompanies feeling two steps behind the rest of the country. His supporters’ urgency to move down Trump’s path of economic redemption successfully packages culturally-based anxieties into seemingly productive ends. His political promises, such as the wall between the U.S.-Mexican border, sometimes attempts this through promises of economic gain; part of Trump’s logic for the wall builds on the internal economic benefit we would supposedly experience. In reality, policies such as these are half-heartedly disguised discrimination, with no true purpose except to alleviate the diminishing whiteness of the country. Trump’s efforts allow Midwesterners to assign real consequences to perceived issues in society, even if the two phenomena are unrelated.

Very few of Trump’s racist or sexist supporters would proudly declare themselves as such, but decrying economic instability allows them to backwardly incorporate their prejudices into policy. Supposedly recovering from financial difficulty makes them vulnerable, creating a harder demographic to challenge: Who can tell another that they aren’t going through hardship? It is true that these people feel vulnerable. But their fears aren’t based in fact. They’re rooted in prejudice.

Kelsey R. Thomas ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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