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  • Matt

How the Least Rural Person in America Makes Us All Very Afraid

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

What if I told you that rural is a great place to connect with diverse perspectives?

Suppose you get into a feisty ideological exchange at a public meeting one morning. That afternoon, you realize that you and The Other both signed up to hand out snacks at your daughters’ soccer game. Later, your partners share a heartfelt conversation at the grocery store. Soon you’re making their family a home-cooked meal because they’re in a time of need. You know they would do the same for you.

In this way, rural communities require a more sophisticated way of relating than urban ones. It’s more difficult to harbor an Us vs. Them approach in daily life, because everyone isn’t inoculated in like-minded enclaves. The poor kids and rich kids and red-state kids and blue-state kids all go to the same schools, same workplaces, same stores. The day-to-day wellbeing of each person is more closely tied to those nearby, whether or not they have the same political sign in their yard. You have to live with the uncomfortable reality that you need people who do not support your views.

For this reason, I’ve always wondered how Donald Trump became so popular in rural. He doesn’t seem to possess many of the qualities rural people value: things like humility, selflessness, loyalty, down-to-Earth-lead-by-example-integrity, thoughtful deliberation, commitment to place, or self-sufficiency. (I’m not sure Trump has ever changed his own lightbulbs, let alone the oil in his car.)

Imagine Trump visited a small-town café…not as a politician or celebrity, just a guy driving through. It’s easy to picture him being rude, complaining about the coffee, saying something snarky about how he should buy and bulldoze the joint. He’d stomp out with his expensive socks and Big Deal swagger.

That attitude doesn’t fly in close-knit rural communities. In fact, it’s hard to imagine someone who more fully embodies the term “city slicker” than Donald Trump. Yet he dominated the rural vote. It’s as if the nation’s bluest cities embraced Garth Brooks as their ideological patron. (Imagine Garth Brooks flags flying in Brooklyn!)

Many have shared their guesses about why this could be. Here are my $.02:

  1. Rural communities have an extraordinary sense of internal self-agency. They want to do the right thing because they know it’s the right thing, not because a bureaucrat mandates it. They like to find solutions, not have them provided. They see bloat, dysfunction and inefficiency in government, starkly contrasting with their own efforts to make do with what they’ve got. Urbanites who enjoy a feeling of self-sufficiency when camping get a taste of what many rural residents experience every day. But rural people also know this independence is a precious and precarious gift. It resonates when Trump says that their way of life is at risk.

  2. Trump is a master at riling people up. He knows how to activate the human nervous system (increased heart rate, clenched jaws, anxiousness in the chest, etc.). Have you ever felt those things when listening to him? Me too. Conservatives react to his threatening portrayal of national denigration. Liberals fear his brash use of me-and-my-kind-first power. Paradoxically, he makes the nation’s most self-reliant people feel like they need his protection, and the nation’s economic centers feel like feeble sitting ducks.

Maybe what we should pay attention to isn’t that Trump won rural, but that Trump won 100% of the fear vote. Trump scares his supporters into hating others and scares his opponents into hating him. When we are triggered into fight or flight mode, we don’t respond with wisdom or insight. We get reactive tunnel vision. I don’t see how this is good for any of us, or our country.

Of course, many successful politicians have made hay by demonizing their opponents. But Trump seems to have mastered this tactic to such a degree that we can no longer comprehend one another, let alone have a decent conversation. How could they have voted for ___?!?

I’m concerned because it’s a sure bet Trump will continue to do this in his next chapter. The ongoing reactivity he provokes will continue to threaten our stable democracy.

Fortunately, we can learn to remain grounded when others try to rile us up. Who wouldn’t like that superpower? And who doesn’t need it? We cannot solve the problems we face when we are divided and reactive. We can’t mend our divisions when we’re triggered.

So how do we maintain calm, courageous clarity instead of being triggered into reactivity? I’m working on my version of the technique…stay tuned and wish me luck!


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