Rural America says things aren't looking so hot for Democrats in 2020
There’s a look in the eyes of rural Americans now, the ones who used to vote for unions, Social Security and Medicare. It’s a look of disheveled exhaustion from years of clawing for a hope that’s always felt out of reach. Living here, I see it in their disinterested postures at the checkout lane at Walmart, many batting away news from D.C. like a pesky mosquito during those muggy Midwest summer evenings.
And it’s hard not to scream at the top of your lungs when each Trump tweet is a travesty. But to many Americans, especially those living in the Rust Belt, it doesn’t matter what he tweets or says or does. It didn’t matter during the election, and it doesn’t matter now. However, Democrats here still have some conjectured belief that if Trump flies far enough off the rails, people will see the light and elect anyone with a "D" next to their name on the ballot.
But it won’t be that easy.
Trying to ride the Trump Train to any positive policy outcome is like boarding the train in the Grateful Dead song “Casey Jones.” There’s trouble ahead, trouble behind. Keeping up with Trump’s Twitter antics, his endless desperation to be the center of America’s attention and his ability to distract from whatever problems plague the country is like a train ride we are all forced to take, but only half of America bought tickets.
“The working middle class is typically uneducated past high school, and a lot of them aren't active politically,” says Adam Keller, a 28-year-old firefighter who voted Libertarian in 2016. “So, if you're not active politically or pay attention to politics other than every four years when you have to vote for your president, you don't understand exactly what's going on.”
To some, it might seem like the Democrats have an honest chance at winning seats in 2018, and would have little trouble in 2020. But those ideas are a farce, especially if the party doesn’t reflect on why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, and what the party means to working class Americans.
“At the end of the day, people only care about their pocketbook,” says 25-year-old Chris Roth, a geographic information systems analyst and Democrat from Michigan who voted for Clinton in 2016. “Trump, who campaigned well, got into areas where Americans felt left out — coal country, manufacturing jobs — and said, 'I will bring your jobs back.' And for some people who haven't recovered from the recession, that was good enough.”
Away from Facebook, Twitter and TV’s endless stream of talking heads, the day-to-day fuckups of the Trump presidency are a distant problem to those making $10 an hour with a family to support. Michigan, an often Democratic bastion during national elections, turned red in 2016. While jobs have returned, to some extent, they are not the high-paying, low-skilled jobs they once were, leaving many to feel hopeless enough to cast a vote for chaos.
Democrats also have the issue of Trumpism spreading across the country. Look at Kid Rock — Trump’s musically mediocre clone — and his flirtations with running for the U.S. Senate. He’d be going against a Democratic stalwart, Debbie Stabenow. Yes, he’s trailing by 18 points in the latest polling, but Trump was an underdog the entire way, too. Don’t underestimate the desperation of voters.
Then there’s Roy Moore in Alabama, who just won his primary. Moore takes Trump’s worst behaviors and turns them to 11 — he’s a racist, bigoted homophobe. If Trumpism can survive and flourish without Trump, then Democrats will have trouble connecting with voters who see a candidate playing to their id as some savior for all their troubles. Just as Trump did.
“Trump sold himself to enough people in the right places — and it worked,” adds Keller.
To Democrats, identity politics and focusing on low-income Americans has alienated many middle and working class voters. It’s not that issues such as transgender rights, Black Lives Matter and gay rights aren’t important to these voters. These just happen to be issues that don’t help workers get jobs, pay their bills or keep food on the table.
“I feel Democrats have a philosophy that if they can get all these minorities and millennials, they can win,” says Keller. “This didn’t work in 2016. They have to include everyone in their plan.”
Democrats need a new strategy. The party doesn’t have to leave behind the minority coalitions they’ve built over the years, but they have to rebrand themselves as a party for the people who work fulltime and still have to have a second job to make ends meet. The Democrats are pushing policies that would help these people, but they are also fighting against a conservative propaganda machine that is great at stirring up fear without providing any sustenance.
“I think running off social programs is not working because there are not enough people who care about gay marriage and abortions,” says Roth. “Things that should matter don’t because it doesn’t affect them until it does. They need a new strategy altogether.”
What that strategy will be is anybody’s guess, but the party’s continued acts of resistance to Trump could very well backfire, because Trump does have a remarkable marketing strategy. It will only take him getting in front of a crowd saying he got nothing done because Democrats didn’t cooperate with him to again stir up disgruntled voters.
“The only thing we can do is hope people realize how bad Trump is,” says Keller.
But, again, it won’t be that easy.