Some nine months into the Trump presidency, the central questions of the 2016 election continue to weigh heavy. Why did the white rural electorate vote so heavily for Donald Trump? According to exit polls, he defeated Hillary Clinton by an almost two-to-one margin in rural and small-town America. Trump achieved his largest margins among white rural men (72 percent to 24 percent). But he still bested Hillary Clinton by 28 points among white rural women, an astounding achievement for a man who openly boasted of sexual misconduct and was running against the nation’s first female presidential frontrunner.
In assessments of Trump’s rural landslide, cultural forces have received far greater weight than economic interests. In June, the Washington Post concluded from polling data that “The political divide between rural and urban America is more cultural than it is economic, rooted in rural residents’ deep misgivings about the nation’s rapidly changing demographics, their sense that Christianity is under siege and their perception that the federal government caters most to the needs of people in big cities.” Rural economic decline, and in particular the struggles of the industrial sector, have been deemed of secondary importance. While the demise of rural manufacturing was a persistent theme in Trump’s campaign rhetoric, one he returned to in his inaugural address when he pointed to the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” many commentators have dismissed its impact on voting behavior.
Economic interpretations of Trumpism have failed to convince many, in large part, because so few are aware of rural America’s industrial history. In fact, the expansion of manufacturing has been a centerpiece of the economic agenda of politicians in the rural Midwest since the end of the Second World War. And changes in the pattern of presidential voting in that region closely parallels the ups and downs of the industrial economy there. Election returns since the 1950s paint a picture of a rural and small-town electorate acutely sensitive to economic trends.
A rural Arkansas newspaper proclaimed in 1954, “It is the dream and ambition of every small town to become an industrial center. Practically every chamber of commerce has an industrial committee . . . looking for new industry and new payrolls. Go into practically any town and ask the first man you see what his town needs most and chances are that he will say ‘more industry.’” Originating in the 1940s, this crusade for rural industrial development achieved its greatest successes in the 1960s and ‘70s. Although industrialization would slacken in the 1980s and ‘90s, manufacturing remained a pillar of the rural economy throughout the twentieth century. However, the precipitous decline in manufacturing employment since 2000 has roiled rural areas, producing the kinds of misery and instability that helped fuel the success of Donald Trump.
To understand this history, a fruitful place to look is southern Iowa. A predominantly white rural area, southern Iowa experienced some of the largest Republican gains in the nation in last year’s election. In 2016, the GOP vote margin was 25 percent higher in southern Iowa than it had been in 2012. As elsewhere in the rural Midwest, the farm population of southern Iowa decreased markedly in the middle of the twentieth century, causing a decades-long economic crisis that informed all political developments. The decline was shaped by patterns in employment: Many farmers invested in labor-saving machinery, commercial pesticides, and other advancements in an effort to maximize productivity. These actions not only decreased demand for farm labor, they also created a hypercompetitive environment that forced millions of small producers out of the agricultural sector. Most small farmers sold their holdings to large operators, leaving fewer, larger agribusinesses in the area.
Farm families that “sold out” generally left rural areas and went in search of work elsewhere. Between 1920 and 1960, the farm population in Appanoose County, along the border with Missouri, declined more than 60 percent from 12,252 to 4,815. With fewer people, rural institutions struggled to survive. Businesses and banks failed. Country churches shuttered their doors and boarded their windows without farm families to fill the collection plate. Residents expressed fears that their communities would become ghost towns.
Rural blight spurred calls for industrial development. Towns in southern Iowa sent business delegations to metropolitan areas in an attempt to pilfer urban manufacturers. They offered potential investors a myriad of subsidies, such as ready-made factory buildings, low-interests loans, and tax breaks. To attract mobile capital, towns resurfaced roads, updated water and sewage systems, enhanced electrical networks, beautified municipal buildings, and even built airports. Communities financed these improvements by selling municipal bonds or lobbying for government aid (both state and federal).
These efforts would prove rewarding, as southern Iowa benefited from a national expansion of rural manufacturing in the 1960s and ‘70s. Over those two decades, for example, Appanoose County acquired six major new industries, including a branch plant of Union Carbide, and added close to 1,900 new industrial jobs—when the total county population numbered only around 15,000.
A grassroots pro-business movement came to dominate politics in southern Iowa. Much like their counterparts in the Sunbelt (as Elizabeth Tandy Shermer has documented), boosters worked to improve southern Iowa’s “business climate,” supporting anti-union policies such as the state’s right-to-work law. Local business elites also attempted to engineer the tax code at every level of government, emphasizing property and sales taxes over business levies in an effort to shift the burden from corporations to consumers and homeowners.
At the same time, small-town business leaders favored generous government spending, so long as funds were put to “productive” uses. Local boosters applauded the state and federal government for underwriting better roads and utilities. To square robust spending with low business taxes, boosters emphasized the need for government “efficiency,” arguing that the elimination of waste in the public sector would save a tremendous amount of money. (This position was always more of an ideological fix than economic reality, as there was never enough fat to trim to make up for these contradictory policies.)
Since the end of the Second World War, presidential voting patterns in rural southern Iowa have tracked closely with the region’s industrial ups and downs. During the 1930s and ‘40s, rural southern Iowans were torn between their traditional loyalty to the Republican Party and the obvious economic benefits of New Deal liberalism. This contributed to Iowa’s schizophrenic voting behavior, producing Democratic presidential majorities in 1932, 1936, and 1948 and Republican victories in 1940 and 1944. As industrial development took hold in the postwar period, however, rural southern Iowans gravitated towards “middle-of-the-road” Republican candidates, whose business-friendly policy prescriptions seemed to promise industrial growth. The election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 initiated two decades of heavy Republican voting in the state, with the exception of the Johnson landslide in 1964.
But a rapid slowdown in rural industrial growth in the mid-1970s brought increasing partisan competition to the countryside. In 1976, Jimmy Carter nearly split the national rural vote with Gerald Ford (47 percent to 53 percent), while winning nearly every county in southern Iowa. Appanoose County, which had lost several major manufacturing plants during the Ford years, gave 52 percent of its vote to Carter. In large part, this political opening was facilitated by a rightward drift in the Democratic Party, as New Deal liberalism gave way to a centrist politics more closely aligned with business demands. Southern Iowans returned to the Republican fold during the Reagan era. But after a dismal showing by the rural industrial economy during the 1980s, with many firms closing as a result of the Reagan Recession and tight monetary policies, the region was once again in revolt. In 1988, most counties in southern Iowa voted for Michael Dukakis over George H. W. Bush, which helped the Democrat win the state by ten points.
Due in large part to his inability to fix the domestic economy, Bush lost the state again in 1992, this time to Bill Clinton. Raised nearby in Arkansas, Clinton handily won southern Iowa that year. Four years later, on the back of strong economic growth and an upsurge in rural manufacturing, he actually won a larger percentage of the vote in small-town America than did his opponent, Bob Dole, and crushed the Republican nominee in the southern part of Iowa.
Though rural industrial development grew increasingly volatile after the mid-1970s, manufacturing remained a vital part of the nonmetropolitan economy until 2000. But since the turn of the century, the countryside’s industrial economy has been in a downward spiral. The economic recession of 2001 marked the beginning of a tremendous decline in manufacturing employment. China’s admittance into the World Trade Organization in 2001 (guaranteeing it permanent normal trading relations with the United States) spurred a massive relocation of manufacturing abroad. Attempting to keep up in a competitive global economy, many U.S. manufacturers tried to cut costs and increase productivity by replacing workers with sophisticated computerized machinery. The manufacturing sector took another major hit when the American economy collapsed in 2008. During the 2000s, the United States shed a whopping 5.9 million manufacturing jobs, representing a decrease of 33.8 percent.
Rural and small-town areas were hard hit by these developments. Some of the industries most vulnerable to foreign competition, such as textiles and apparel, were concentrated in rural areas. Many rural industries that were tied to home construction, such as wood products, cement, glass, and ceramics, suffered as a result of the housing market crash in 2008. Between 2000 and 2010, nonmetropolitan areas slightly outpaced the nation as a whole in industrial job loss, witnessing a 35 percent decline in manufacturing employment.
In southern Iowa, a slew of plant closures plagued the local economy. In 2006, Rubbermaid decided to close down its branch plant in Centerville, resulting in the loss of more than 500 jobs. A twenty-one year mainstay of Centerville and Appanoose County, the firm chose to close up shop despite generous incentives offered by state officials The Rubbermaid closure was part of a larger restructuring bedeviling the region. In 2013, Gits Manufacturing announced that it would be closing its operations in the town of Creston, shifting production to plants in Mexico and China. The factory, which produced valves for diesel engines, had been a fixture of the local community since 1945. Although rural manufacturing employment in the state and nation has rebounded modestly in the last few years, the growth has been too slow to make up for the jobs that have been lost.
A decade ago, this downturn helped fuel a Democratic comeback in southern Iowa and in rural areas across the country. In the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats flipped Iowa’s second congressional district, which encompasses many southern counties. In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama received 45 percent of the national rural vote, while John McCain garnered 53 percent. While African-American voters in the Deep South no doubt contributed to this strong showing, Obama ran remarkably well in predominantly white rural Iowa, winning fifty-two of the state’s ninety-nine counties, many of which were nonmetropolitan. In southern Iowa, Obama won several counties, with McCain garnering slim majorities in most others.
Given the relative openness of rural voters to Barack Obama amid the economic turmoil of 2008, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the eventual triumph of Donald Trump in the American countryside reflects the failure of the political system to address, or even acknowledge, rural economic struggles.
Rural and small-town America never fully recovered from the Great Recession. In urban areas, overall employment achieved a complete rebound, far exceeding its pre-recession numbers by 2015. In rural areas, however, employment has languished, with 2015 totals well below what they had been in 2007. The cataclysmic decline in nonmetropolitan manufacturing is almost certainly to blame for this lag. By the end of the twentieth century, rural and small-town areas were much more dependent on manufacturing than are cities, where finance and service industries have created abundant new jobs.
In 2012, neither major political party made a serious attempt to address the plight of rural America. Mitt Romney had spent much of his business career in a private equity firm known for laying off workers after making millions through leveraged buyouts. Many of Barack Obama’s achievements, especially expanded health care coverage, no doubt alleviated suffering throughout the countryside. But neither Obama’s campaign rhetoric nor his economic policies specifically targeted the structural employment crisis that plagued the countryside. Low rural voter turnout in 2012 reflected widespread disenchantment with a political establishment either unwilling or unable to deal with the countryside’s economic ordeal. This sense of neglect made rural Americans more receptive to outsider candidates and unconventional political rhetoric. What happened in 2012 made white rural Americans open to the kind of messages that Trump would make to them four years later.
Trump’s consistent message about lost manufacturing jobs, “disastrous” trade policies, and “crippling” regulations clearly struck a chord with white people in the countryside who had been raised on a tradition of pro-business policies. Many of his positions had been articles of faith in rural and small-town America since Eisenhower had been president.
Trump’s promises to free up money for vast infrastructural improvements by eliminating bureaucratic waste and corruption mirrored small-town business leaders’ vision of “good government.” His guarantee that he would personally bargain with manufacturing companies who were considering relocation resonated with a chamber-of-commerce political culture that revolved around face-to-face negotiations.
While Trump’s ascent obviously gives cause for concern, there is hope yet for the left in the story of rural American industry. Since entering office, the Trump administration has so far failed to achieve most of its domestic priorities, save for the gutting of environmental regulations and a draconian crackdown on immigrants (which itself is meeting resistance in rural areas as well as urban). Neither has done much to keep the administration’s support from sliding. If the latest failure to repeal Obamacare is any indication, Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress will struggle to deliver on major campaign promises to rural America, including legislation to modernize the countryside’s infrastructure. Given Trump’s lofty campaign rhetoric and high voter expectations, failure to significantly improve the rural economy will almost certainly produce widespread disillusionment. If the recent oscillations of the rural electorate are any indication, many voters will abandon Trump if they do not see their material situation improved. Democrats have an opportunity to capitalize on this potential fallout, but they will need to offer a vision of rural economic revitalization. (In its grasping for a post-2016 identity, the party has so far made little progress on this front.) Regardless, history has shown that the white rural electorate cannot be taken for granted, and Trump’s continued success in the countryside is far from certain.
Keith Orejel is an Assistant Professor of History at Wilmington College. He received his PhD from Columbia University in 2015 and is currently working on a book manuscript on rural and small-town politics in the American heartland since the Second World War.