Reporting in From Trump Country, 2020
Four years ago (almost exactly), I wrote about Darke County, the place in Ohio where I live, and how I expected it would vote in the 2016 presidential election. Darke County is a small rural county, and like most small rural counties in the United States, it skews pretty seriously conservative and Republican. As part of the 8th District of Ohio, it hasn’t sent a Democrat to the House of Representatives since 1932, and it hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964. It’s as reliably Republican as you can get, and in 2016 I predicted that Donald Trump would take the county with about 70% of the vote, a number I picked out of the air based on the share of the vote previous Republican candidates for president garnered in the county while I was living in it.
Well, I was wrong about that. Trump won the county with 78.53 percent of the vote — not just outstripping my own prediction by eight and a half points, but winning the county by the largest percentage of any presidential candidate going back at least to 1856, that being the presidential election where Wikipedia stops breaking down the Ohio presidential votes by county. He also did so by a substantial margin over the next highest percentage-getter (that would be Mitt Romney, with 71.72%).
Regardless of whether I like it or not — and I don’t — Trump was a historic candidate for Darke County, and one whose selection cannot merely and entirely be explained away by reflexive Republican lever-pulling. My county chose Donald Trump, specifically. The vast and unambiguous majority of the voters here wanted what he was selling. And, well. They got it, all right.
Now it’s 2020, and you may ask: How does Darke County feel about Trump four years on?
The answer, at least as far as I can see: Pretty much the same, actually, and those who are in the tank for him are even more obviously in the tank for him than they were four years ago. Four years ago in Bradford, the town where I live, there were Trump street signs, like the one in the picture above. Here in 2020, there are multiple signs per yard, and banners, and flags, not just with Trump’s name on them, but of him standing on a moving tank whilst screaming eagles fly alongside him, and no, those flags are not being flown ironically, they really mean it. There are occasional Biden signs, mostly of modest size, but anecdotally they are outnumbered by Trump signs by at least twenty to one. The 2020 Darke County Trump tank is deep and perhaps a bit frantic. If Trump is hoping for “shy voters” to suddenly spring up to take him to victory, he’s not going to get them here. Darke County Trump supporters may be many things, but shy does not appear to be one of them.
Whether the ostentatiousness of Trump’s supporters here will translate to the same number of votes as he got in 2016, or if it’s just whistling in the dark(e) by people who can read the news as well as anyone else and can see the looming electoral massacre, I can’t say. I can say it would not surprise me at all for Trump to once again get 79% of the Darke County vote, give or take a few percentage points. I will be surprised if he gets less than 75% of the vote. If he somehow slides below 70%, I’ll be in shock, and Biden will almost certainly have had a landslide victory, which will include taking Ohio as a whole.
And you may ask, well, how can this possibly be? Did Darke County not experience the same previous four years as all the rest of the country? Does its citizens not see how historically awful Trump is? What are they thinking? How can this be explained away?
Well, and in no particular order, here are some of the reasons why I think Trump is still going to take Darke County, Ohio (note well: My explanations will mostly not be the reasons offered by actual Trump voters):
1. In fact, Darke County didn’t experience the same four years as some other places. Darke is, again, a small rural county in Ohio. It’s 98.5% white, and conservative in a Republican state. Trump’s awfulness is mitigated here by the county’s whiteness, Trump’s general lack of antagonism for Ohio as a whole, and by the fact that although agriculture has been disrupted by his administration’s dimwitted policies, Trump and the GOP are perfectly fine with welfare for farmers and the agricultural sector. The pandemic has not bitten down as hard here as it has in other places, both in the state and in the US in general. Don’t get me wrong, Darke County has not escaped the general rain of shit from the last four years. But it’s fair to say it’s been a lighter steady patter of raindrops at the periphery of a much larger storm.
2. Trump is offering up conservative policies and judges. He’s doing a whole bunch of other really shitty things, because he’s a corrupt and bigoted grifter, but also, you can’t deny that he’s danced with them whut brung him, and given doctrinaire social and economic conservatives pretty much everything they’ve wanted over the last four years. And guess what? If he wins the election, they get another four years of that! There are a whole lot of people for whom that’s enough — or at least, there are enough who want what they can only get with a Trump win (Biden’s not gonna stuff any more poorly vetted, stridently doctrinaire conservative judges on the bench) that they’re willing to put up with graft and corruption that they don’t think is going to affect them, anyway.
3. A whole bunch of the voters are being fed shit from social media and questionable news sources and either they don’t know it or they don’t care. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the epistemic capture in the US of (not only, but in particular) poor and working class whites by conservatives, billionaires and propagandists is one of the great social engineering success stories of the last half century. This includes an informational ecosystem that’s easy to get into and hard to get out of because it simultaneously stimulates fear and anger responses, degrades one’s own ability to reason, and breeds mistrust in outside sources and political points of view. In other words: cult conditioning.
Now, it would unfair nonsense to suggest the people of a county that hasn’t gone for a Democrat since LBJ would not be reliably voting for whomever the GOP candidate was every four years. But it’s not unfair nonsense to say that convincing a historically large percentage of these folks to vote for someone who four years ago was clearly not competent to be president, and in 2020 has a nearly four-year record of venal graft and malice, is the fruit of a decades-long effort to get into their heads and make them resistant to actual facts that are right in front of them. It’s not coincidence that QAnon is metastasizing through conservative and GOP circles at breathtaking speed; having a millions-strong corps of voters willing to lap up even that level of rank bullshit is in fact the goal.
(“But her emails!” Well, yes, and that’s to my point exactly — the decades-long demonization of Hillary Clinton far out of proportion to any actual misdeed or misstep she might have ever made is a perfect case study of how this epistemic capture has worked, and helped to make her a weak enough candidate that a walking loaf of unearned privilege like Trump could edge her out of the presidency.)
Related and slightly more charitably:
4. Not everyone actually follows or cares about politics. These are low-information voters but it doesn’t mean they’re stupid; it just means on a day-to-day basis they’re worried about what life is dishing out directly in front of them. The US is really good at filling up all your hours with work and family and errands and Dancing With the Stars and/or The Bachelor, especially if you are poor or working class and you’re on an economic precipice anyway. Politics is a luxury item in the United States, and again, we work really hard to make it so. So when it comes down to voting, often it’s just easier to pick a team to root for, and probably the one that all your friends and family are rooting for and the one you see and hear talked about on radio, TV and social media.
I understand that most of the people who are reading this aren’t that sort of person and possibly cannot fathom how someone could be this sort of person. But if you’ll allow me a moment of cynicism here, let me suggest that these sorts of voters are some of a political party’s favorite. Nothing like someone unthinkingly punching in a party line vote, no matter if you are Republican or Democrat. The parties rely on that sort of “this is my team” thinking. And here in Darke County, that team is the Republicans.
5. Some of the people voting for Trump are just shitty bigots. As I (and others) have said before, not everyone who votes for Trump is a shitty bigot, but all the shitty bigots are voting for Trump. I’m not going to pretend my home county doesn’t have its fair share of shitty bigots. They’re everywhere! Darke County is not different.
6. Rather more of the people voting for Trump are not shitty bigots in their daily lives, but don’t have to deal with the fallout of shitty bigotry, so, meh. Hey, you know what’s really hard to make white straight cis people understand? The dynamics of systemic bigotry! It will not be news for many of you reading this that the US is really good at convincing people that so long as they aren’t actively a shitty bigot every waking moment of their lives, that they don’t have to be concerned with, or engaged on, issues of systemic bigotry — and indeed (see point 3 above) there’s a whole apparatus designed to make them feel like when other people want them to engage on those systemic issues, it’s them who are being attacked when they’re good people, okay?
And they are perfectly good lovely people on a day to day basis, who also aren’t wrapping their heads around what a vote for Trump means to so many other people and in a larger context… or they are, and have decided it’s not really all that bad.
I’m not here to excuse voting for a shitty bigot. What I said four years ago about it still stands, and here in 2020, you can’t say you don’t know who Trump is as a president, even if you are a low-information voter. My friends, no one who has the mental capacity to fill out a ballot is that low-information at this point. Voting for Trump in 2020 is an explicitly racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic act, among the many other terrible things that it is.
Also, it’s something that at least 70% of my neighbors, and possibly as many as 80% of them, are planning to do in a couple of weeks, if they have not already done so.
I’ve had a lot of folks ask me (and some others judge me) about that and ask me what it’s like. The answer I have for that is, well, I don’t know, what’s it like for you? Very few of us, I suspect, and especially the straight white cis folks, are completely without a Trump voter somewhere in our social orbit, just as very few Trump voters are completely without a Biden voter in their midst — I mean, for at least some of those Trump voters, that person is me. 63 million Americans voted for Trump in 2016; it’s not unreasonable to predict he’ll pull close to that number in this election as well (I’m hoping for much less, mind you). And some of those voters might be, and statistically speaking are likely to be, your family members, or friends, or neighbors or co-workers or classmates.
For me: the ones that are active, shitty bigots I am happy to leave by the side of the road, and have, when it’s come to that. As for the rest, well, you know, look: I am not innocent in my life of having benefited from and even having leveraged to my advantage the biases of the system. I’m still working to be a better person on that score. I recognize that I’ll be working on myself, and to make the world and my country fairer and more just for everyone, until I die, and that I will leave the work undone when I go. We are all in process.
Including, potentially, people who voted for Trump. There are some people who voted for Trump in 2016 who are actively casting a vote against him in 2020 because they realize now the danger he represents. There are going to be some people who will need to have him lose (knock on wood) this year and have all his presidential protections stripped away before they recognize all the graft and corruption and malign incompetence he brought into the White House, and how it damaged the country. Part of me is gonna want to yell at them because Jesus Christ it was all right there how could you not see it, but another part of me is going to take a breath and remember we are all on the metaphorical road to Damascus, and some people take longer to have the scales fall from their eyes. When they do, work can begin.
Biblical allusions aside, I’m not, shall we say, expecting miracles. I’m also not expecting Darke County to go blue in 2024. But I think it’s okay to hope for some change, and to work for it as well. We’ll see how it goes.
In the meantime, please vote, folks. It matters.