We Shouldn’t Believe The Elite’s Lies About The Rural Poor

I read a terrific article in The Guardian called “Passive, poor and white? What people keep getting wrong about Appalachia”. The author Elizabeth Catte rightly calls the talk about “Trump Country” an elitist fetish. The myth that Trump was the poor people’s candidate was debunked nicely here on Counterpunch. How do the elites explain that poor rural people went for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. Weren’t they as the old saying goes, choosing Love Over Hate? Of course Sanders over Clinton is merely choosing the Imperialist Pig over the Queen of Chaos but it’s better than anything the elites came up with.

It is true that some of these people blamed women, gay people or minorities for their lives that are supposedly such big failures. Maybe if we didn’t have a culture that hated poor people, or as they are called by the politically correct, trailer trash, we would not have so many people feeling like they needed to explain their life through a plot against them. Of course there is a plot against all of us and it is called capitalism. But this is not a conspiracy, it is a system that plays out as it is designed to. And who gave people the idea that they were lesser because they didn’t profit off of this system? It’s the loving elites who hate the poor.

I do find the hate for in this country for women, gay people and minorities to be a dangerous state of mind but it backs up the media narrative spewed 24/7. Turn on Fox and you have this thesis stated blatantly through selected stories of violent gangs or evil mothers. Turn on CNN and the world is better than it ever has been and a liberal multiculturalism is hailed along with it. Anyone who has a (materially) crappy life is being invited to associate their personal fall with the new liberal age.

Add on the fact that liberal politicians have chosen liberal rhetoric over substantive policy and you have a sense that liberalism is to blame for one’s failures. Many people blame themselves for these failures too. Suicide, mental illness and drug abuse have risen to a depressing amount in these rural communities. The United States is a country that runs on humiliation and isolation. Poorer countries than us have formed communities that help make lives more equitable, if not more just. Materialism, wealth, and individualism are celebrated here in the U.S. Poverty is seen as a sign of weakness. The liberals in this country have pushed this narrative just as much as the conservatives.

The truth is that the elite political class is so incestuous that it is never curious about anyone outside of their cicles (not that I am suggesting that Bill and Hillary ever had sex. I always thought the whole lying under oath thing could have been cleared up if Bill had just clarified which woman he never had sex with). The #MeToo movement exposed what so many women knew already—that the rich have sex with whoever doesn’t have enough power to deny them or be believed that they tried to. Literal incest aside, the incestuous nature of the elites is found in their ways of thinking and their political partnerships. The elites are packed with the same people from the same schools who tell themselves the same lies to justify rather than to change this absurd world that we live in.

What is so striking about this narrative about the poor, particularly the rural poor, is how totalizing it is. You live here so you must think this. You have this job so you must do that. The Guardian piece above is a rare work that really covers this aspect well. Snobbish publications like The New Yorker have an idea about a place they don’t understand and they take photographs that confirm their own narrative.

On the other hand there is a backlash to this hate of the poor and the rural that may not be all that productive either. But once again I think the elites don’t really get it. Last week the Democratic primary for Minnesota Governor was won by the neoliberal Democrat Tim Walz. I was able to make some sense of this dynamic through my own pretty informal run for office in District 19A. The appeal of Walz to the rural people I have talked to seems to be: he understands us rural white guys who have been left behind. The appeal is not so different from Trump’s in some ways. The same sentiment was expressed when I was knocking doors for Bernie Sanders in rural areas of the state.

So what exactly do Trump, Walz and Sanders have in common? Not much on policy. One is a hard right Republican with authoritarian sensibilities, one is a neoliberal opportunist who shuffles to the right the higher he rises and one wants to combine New Deal social policies with the same Old Empire. But all of them are able to speak a certain language of the forgotten man that seems to appeal to some rural voters, at least in my limited anecdotal experience. On a side note I am wondering how many articles I need to write associating Trump and Sanders to get hired by the scurrilous Joy Reid.

For lack of a less trendy phrase this appeal seems to be a form of identity politics. At its worst, identity politics is just individual success stories. The masses are still being left behind. Inequality is actually getting worse for the groups already marginalized. For these reasons I became weary of identity politics although I should expand on this. Affirmative action, reparations, and equal pay for equal work are all forms of identity politics that are needed. Who could disagree that after the #MeToo revelations that it is necessary to have equal relations between women and men in the workplace?

In this sense, voices for rural people are surely underrepresented in our power structures too. And to the extent that having someone who understands the dynamics of any marginalized group helps this group, identity politics will always be valuable. The fact that Democrats have failed to even attempt to connect with rural people shows how little they think they matter.

Still, it is unclear how exactly finding someone who talks the language one is looking for actually translates to policy.

There is always a crude attempt to explain every poor person’s actions by pointing to their inherent bitter and resentful nature. It is as if the only explanation for any of their actions is because they hate themselves and adore the rich. With the risk of playing into this narrative there is no doubt a certain yearning for the good ol’ days that Trump exposed.

This illusion, to the extent that it exists, is a miscalculation by anyone who makes it. As long as we stay stuck in nostalgia for the days where a few more of us prospered at the expense of the majority of the world’s people we will continue to reinforce a system that widens class inequality and destroys our planet. We cannot return to the very system that brought us here. Why long for the transient illusion of prosperity when harmony between ourselves and all people, critters, and elements of the earth is our only path to survival?

Naturally, those stuck in this narrative the most are the white men so admonished by the liberal elite. White men may be the last ones holding onto these myths because we were the only ones capitalism ever promised anything to—even if it so often never delivered to us either. There is surely truth to the narrative of bigotry too, if not outright, then by association for the good ol’ days that were not so good for anybody besides the American white man.

I saw this too in this Governor’s race, as Tim Walz outpaced his three more progressive women opponents quite strongly in the rural areas. This happened to Hillary Clinton also, although Barack Obama showed that some prejudice could be fought by actually visiting the places you plan to represent. Hillary’s lifetime of corruption and blunder culminating with stealing the Democratic primary didn’t help her cause either. But seeing that sexism cannot justify more military spending even the blaming of the poor has taken a back seat in recent days to the blaming of Russia.

I never bought Sigmund Freud’s penis envy theory (another example of the sexism of the elites).While Freud thought women envied penises, there may be something there in that a man came up with the theory. So maybe there is some penis envy of the patriarchal Hillary who wagged her phallic weapons around the world without consequence. Presidential candidate Tara Indiana did speculate that it was actually The Donald who had a micropenis and that he build tall buildings to make up for it. It was a good thing that Donald paid Stormy Daniels 130,000$ to keep quiet. Who knows how much he is paying Melania.

Yet all of this shaming of failed men only reinforces toxic masculinity structures. How sad it is that Donald gets called gay for actually getting along (sort of) with Vladimir Putin. Or that a man so insecure about his body gets called fat. Or is told he has a small penis. This is not about Donald. Fuck that guy. But what about the millions of people who are overweight or obese in this country—primarily because of economic reasons. The same thing goes for everyone making fun of his educational level. Obviously Donald is dumb. But what about all the people who can’t afford an education or are never told that they deserve one? Calling him a failed man because he isn’t a refined rich person is helping who exactly? Especially when there are so many good reasons to hate The Donald.

This is exactly how we deal with poor white men caught in cycles of shame and hate. It’s so often name calling and shaming. Trailer trash. Hillbillies. Hicks. Did we forget who invented the American myth that this country (and this world) should be ran by rich white men? And did we forget that poor white men have never been included in this? So are we really that surprised that some people have actually bought into this ideal of capitalist self-interest? And why do we assume that this is the only kind of person in rural communities?

Capitalists have been selling baloney to justify their rule forever. Now is not the time to buy it. This goes for the white dudes who buy the idea that they deserve better lives than other people. But it also goes for all of us who are so ready to buy the corporate media’s lies that anyone who believes this nonsense believes it because they are poor (and therefore stupid). It’s a fairy tale made by the elites who want to feel better about the way they treat the poor. What we have forgotten to look for amongst this mess is who benefits from us hating and shaming the poor. It’s not the marginalized who benefit. It’s the elites.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com