Trump and the Political Hysteria of Rural Life

Trump and the Political Hysteria of Rural Life

Just for a moment, let’s ponder President Trump’s claim that the caravan of 5,000 Hondurans embarked on an epochal walk to the United States contains “unknown Middle Easterners” and other presumably would-be terrorists.

There is, of course, no factual basis for Trump’s claim. Even as a hypothetical, though, it doesn’t make sense. Terrorist wannabes should want to slip across our borders undetected. Coming in a caravan of 5,000, subjected to the relentless eye of the media, doesn’t seem the way to do that. Should the caravan actually make it to the border, it will definitely be detected and then some—its members all locked up and investigated, if not sent back to Honduras immediately.

But then, Trump isn’t particularly concerned with the accuracy of his characterizations, or even the plausibility of his hypotheticals. He has Fox News and his fellow Republicans to bolster his charges by sheer dint of repetitions and variations on his theme. Newt Gingrich, for one, has termed the march an “invasion.”

With the Kavanaugh passions fading, the Republicans have decided to crank up this xenophobic echo chamber as the best way to turn out their base come Election Day. If that’s what it takes to get their targeted voters—insulated from facts, drenched in Goebbelsesque fake news, disproportionately white, elderly, and rural—to go to the polls in sufficient numbers, so be it.

And this strategy is hardly peculiar to American Republicans. The electoral divide in nations too numerous to quickly count now runs along the same lines. On Sunday, Poles went to the polls to elect their local governments, and while urban Poles soundly defeated candidates from the nation’s virulently xenophobic and increasingly authoritarian ruling party, rural Poles conferred victory after victory on such candidates in one small town after another.

Marx famously bemoaned “the idiocy of rural life,” while counting on the urban proletariat to wage socialist revolutions. In the period in which he wrote, however, most proletarians had only recently relocated from farms to factory towns and cities, a transformation with which he was fully acquainted. He didn’t write or mean, therefore, that people in rural areas were themselves idiots; he meant that the conditions of rural life—in which workers were dispersed and didn’t come together as workers in factories were compelled to do—weren’t conducive to building class consciousness.

Today, the distinctive political consciousness of white rural and small town life in many nations appears to have less to do with Marxian class consciousness or the absence thereof, and more to do with a sense of cultural, racial, religious, and (only then) economic distance from, apprehension about, and anger toward increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan cities. It’s about those residents’ perception that they’ve been dropped from their once honored place in their respective national narratives, replaced—worse yet—by other races with other religions and other values.

Such sensibilities may or may not emerge spontaneously, but to rise to the level of electoral majorities, they need to be whipped up. Right-wing parties and media do all they can to increase their potential voters’ sense of victimization, of being cast aside, of being imperiled by alien hordes, helping foster a collective consciousness more successfully than Marxian proletarianization ever did. West Virginia, the state that gave Trump his biggest margin in 2016, has virtually no foreign-born residents; in such a state, it takes a media echo-system and ecosystem to create a sufficiently intense and widespread fear of immigrants and cosmopolitanism. There is no idiocy of rural life; increasingly, there is, if properly stoked, a distinctive hysteria.