clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

For years, I've been watching anti-elite fury build in Wisconsin. Then came Trump.

A housing development in rural Wisconsin
A housing development in rural Wisconsin
Education Images / Getty

Something extraordinary happened in rural America in the 2016 election. Donald Trump appealed to folks in rural communities in an unprecedented way — yet polls failed to capture the depth of support for him in such places. Many pundits have since taken stabs at explaining the problem, yet little of the commentary is rooted in actual research.

I did not predict the result of the presidential race, nor did I embark on the research project that resulted in the book The Politics of Resentment with presidential politics in mind. But since 2007, I have been inviting myself into conversations in rural Wisconsin to try to understand how people in such communities are making sense of politics. I have been listening in during early morning coffee klatches in gas stations that serve coffee, in diners, and in churches. The resentment I uncovered predates Trump, but it set the stage for his ascendance.

I continued to visit some of these groups during the 2016 presidential campaign, and I have revisited two of them since the results came in.

My intent was to explore the role of social class identity in the way people interpret politics. What I found was resentment of an intensity and specificity that surprised me. The pervasiveness of resentment toward the cities and urban elites, as well as urban institutions like government and the media, was inescapable after several visits to these groups.

Coffee, local chit-chat, and fury at urban elites

Almost a decade ago, I selected 27 communities in Wisconsin and asked locals to help me identify a coffee klatch in each. Some of these communities were urban or suburban, but the majority were rural. (I selected the communities by first dividing the state into eight regions, based on a variety of political, economic, and social characteristics, and then sampling a small town and a larger one in each. I later supplemented those selections with additional ones, to add variety. The result was a fairly representative swath of non-urban Wisconsin.)

I then walked into the gas station — or diner or other location — that I’d been directed to, at the appropriate time, and introduced myself as a public opinion scholar from the state’s flagship university. They tended to be welcoming, maybe in part because my thick Wisconsin accent made me less of a stranger.

Once I passed out my business cards, handed out tokens of appreciation like Badger football schedules, and turned on my recorder, I asked them, “What are the big concerns of people in this community?”

Regardless of geography, people in most of these communities talked about their concerns about health care, jobs, and taxation. But in the rural places and small towns, people expressed a deeply felt sense of not getting their “fair share” — defined in different ways. They felt that they didn't get a reasonable proportion of decision-making power, believing that the key decisions were made in the major metro areas of Madison and Milwaukee, then decreed out to the rest of the state, with little listening being done to people like them.

They also thought that they didn’t get their fair share of tax money. To them, too much of it went to the cities, to “undeserving” people. The undeserving included racial minorities on welfare but it also included lazy urban professionals like me working desk jobs and producing nothing more than ideas. (According to my analysis of state and federal 2010 dollars, rural counties in Wisconsin do not receive fewer dollars per capita than do urban counties, and they don’t receive a lower share of what they pay in taxes than do urban counties. But rural counties do have higher unemployment and poverty and lower median household incomes.)

But perhaps most significantly, the people I talked with thought that they were not getting their fair share of respect. They perceived that in the rare cases that people in the cities paid any attention to people in places like theirs, they ridiculed rural folks as uneducated racists.

These towns were not bastions of solid Republicanism

These people were living in communities that ranged in size from 500 to 3,500 people and had a median household income of approximately $43,000. They went 52 percent for Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker in 2010. I share that last figure to show that even in an election in which the state elected a Republican, these areas were not overwhelmingly Republican. Wisconsin as a whole voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and that was true of many of these particular communities, too.

My approach is largely qualitative, but I conducted a survey in 2011 that found that 70 percent of rural residents believed the government “ignored” their community, compared with 52 percent of urban respondents and 47 percent of suburban respondents.

Donald Trump is not a rural person, but his message resonated strongly with the rural folks I have spent time with. They talked about him as an agent of change, a person who was not a politician who would come in and overhaul the way things are done, basically overnight. Many pointed to his business background and were attracted by the prospect that he might actually run government like a business and not run up a larger deficit spending more money on government programs.

What about the racism — the characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists, accusations that American Muslims know about terror plots but hide that information, talk of “global bankers” that echoes anti-Semitic rhetoric? Is his appeal not fundamentally racist? I get asked that question a lot, but I think it often leads to answers that are inaccurate in their simplicity.

Racism is certainly a part of the story when these people make calculations about deservingness and who is or is not working hard. People would talk about opposing social programs because the recipients were lazy and not hardworking like themselves; those were often dog-whistle racist claims. But, at times, they were also talking about the laziness of desk-job white professionals like me.

So racism is a part of this resentment, but we are failing to fully understand these perspectives when we assume that racism is more fundamental than calculations of injustice. The two elements are intertwined. The way these folks described the world to me, their basic concern was that people like them, in places like theirs, were overlooked and disrespected. They were doing what they perceived good Americans ought to do to have the good life. And the good life seemed to be passing them by.

Part of Trump’s appeal was that he gave people a story, however false or partial, about whom the good life is going to. He also scapegoated the news media, immigrants, and Muslims as entities and social groups that our urban society was privileging to the country’s detriment.

The resentment doesn’t map cleanly onto economic statistics

It’s worth noticing that Trump’s appeal to these folks is not about facts or particular policies. It is instead the act of delivering a message that resoundingly resonates with the perspective of someone identifying proudly as a resident of a type of place that the dominant urban society does not care about or respect.

I think it is also important to notice that the willingness to blame minority groups or even the mass media was not obviously the result of drinking up Fox News — or involvement with alt-right groups. When I asked people where they got their news, the most common response was “each other.”

Some people did pay attention to Fox News, but such people were more rare than the prevalent stereotype of rural Republicans suggests. I never heard anyone talk about involvement with the KKK or other hate groups. That is obviously information that people might have chosen to conceal from me, but its complete absence from our conversations also runs against the grain of stereotypes of Trump voters.

This resentful perspective was not something handed to people during this presidential campaign. The people I interviewed have been telling these stories to each other for years, if not decades, and the resentment has been simmering.

Two days after the election, I hopped in my Prius to go back and listen to what members of two of these groups had to say. They were happy about the election outcome, a sharp contrast to what I was experiencing in most settings in Madison, where I live. Both were groups of middle-aged and older white men, on their way to work, or retirees. One meets daily in a coffee klatch in a warehouse that’s part of one member’s small business, in central Wisconsin. The other group meets in a gas station early every morning in the northwest part of the state.

They all told me that they didn't necessarily admire Trump’s character, but they hungered for the change that he promised.

Part of their support for Trump was surely a disdain for Hillary Clinton. They had been relating that disdain to me all the way back in 2008, during her run in the primary against then-Sen. Barack Obama. But they believe that Trump is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. As one man in central Wisconsin summed it up to me: “The Republican Party did not win this election. The people won this election.”

We did not see the Trump victory coming because at least one part of their resentment has grounding in reality: Urbanites have not been listening to the concerns of people in rural America.

Indeed, resentment is also part of another big story of this election: the inaccuracy of polls. If you are a rural resident who believes that urban institutions like mass media and universities ignore and look down upon people like you, why would you spend time answering one of their surveys?

People in both of the groups I visited after the election also suggested that people like them didn’t just ignore, but actively lied to, pollsters. And they gave me almost identical explanations, although they live 190 miles apart. If the people conducting polls think they are ignorant, racist sexists, why would they be obligated to answer pollsters’ questions truthfully?

The last thing many people want to do in the near future is listen more closely to Trump voters in the heartland of America. But it is clear that our failure to do so has left us blindsided.

Katherine J. Cramer is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and director of the university’s Morgridge Center for Public Service. Her latest book is The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at