The media is blinded by its obsession with rural white Trump voters
One of the signature pretenses of Very Serious mainstream journalism is the notion that it has no ideology. Reporters at The New York Times, for example, are not supposed to "express partisan opinions," or "promote political views" on social media. This is a way of camouflaging those political views, of course. All journalism without exception has some ideological tint, and none more than political reporting.
One of the best ways to examine that tint is through the choice of subject. Let's examine an extremely common journalistic trope from the first year of Donald Trump's presidency: the lavish profile of poor rural Trump die-hards. It's a revealing look into the ideology and priorities of upper-class liberalism.
We got yet another of these Trump Country profiles this week from The Associated Press, interviewing several working-class people in Sandy Hook, Kentucky (for some reason, they always open in a diner), who are all Trump supporters who still support Trump. The AP has a whole section tag devoted to their "Trump Country" coverage, but they aren't the only ones. From The New Yorker, we learn how Trump won over West Virginia, how rural Coloradans are picking up his vicious mannerisms; from The New York Times, we learn that Trump voters were mad, that unemployed coal miners had high hopes for Trump, that some in Oklahoma didn't like his budget cuts but still supported him; from The Washington Post, we learn that in a tiny Trump-supporting Tennessee town, they never stopped saying "Merry Christmas."
Now, there is a substantial amount of worthy reporting in most of these articles. But the obsessive focus on rural Trump die-hards is highly misleading.
Yes, it is true that Trump won a huge majority of white people without a college degree, improving on Mitt Romney's margins on this group by 14 points, and did worse than Romney among people making $50,000-$200,000. To the extent that the "Trump Country" signifies difference from ordinary Republican performance, he did have unusual support among working-class white communities. And given the fact that his approval rating is a historically abysmal 38 percent, that does justify some focus on Trump's remaining base.
But on the other hand, Trump still won a slight plurality of all groups making over $50,000. There are vanishingly few profiles of the white-collar or upper-class Trump die-hards (the only one I could find is from the Times), and certainly nothing like the endless lavish rural Trumpist coverage. Trump does — or did — have unusual levels of blue collar support, but the actual bulk of Trump support is the same old professional, petty bourgeois, and ultra-wealthy capitalists who have been voting Republican for generations.
So where are the lavish profiles of Trump die-hards among Wall Street swindlers? The only coverage Trump's most powerful supporters by far get is short, straightforward stuff like this from The Financial Times.
And where are the lavish profiles of people (broke, white, or otherwise) who have soured on Trump? After all, his approval rating has fallen dramatically since taking office. A Morning Consult poll from October found double-digit drops in every state without exception. Trump undoubtedly retains the majority of his support that propelled him to a 30-point victory in Kentucky. But his approval rating in that state has fallen by 20 points. In the critical swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — the heart of "Trump Country" — it has fallen by 17.9, 22.6, and 15.6 points respectively. Given the polling, there must be millions of people who have soured on Trump. These people swung the election — and may swing the next one. Surely they deserve at least equal billing with the die-hards.
I can't say for sure what is going on among editors assigning these pieces and journalists writing them. However, I can make an educated guess. Elite journalists are mostly cosmopolitan, professional class liberals who live in cities, and generally strongly supported former President Obama and Hillary Clinton. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just a basic tendency in that sort of profession. (That's one reason why journalists should be open about their politics instead of hiding them.)
But it also means most journalists were totally blindsided by Trump's electoral success. They had guffawed when the idea he might win the primary was suggested, and like most liberals they were absolutely devastated when he won the general election. This vile, racist lunatic, who was manifestly totally unqualified, who was caught on tape boasting about sexual assault, was now the most powerful person on Earth. It turned out that huge swathes of the country did not regard these grave violations of professional class norms as disqualifying. It was shattering.
So reporters broke out their biggest gun — the long, textured, deeply reported, indulgent profile — and trained it on the people they supposed were responsible for Trump: the white working class. On one level, they were correct to do so. These people, for all their many sins, really have been ignored and ground under the tank treads of global capitalism for decades.
But in the process, they missed the people right next to them: the professional class Republicans who mostly went for Trump too, and the Wall Street goons who make up most of his Cabinet and have written all of his policy. Since the election, journalists have obscured the significant erosion in his support. And for the whole time, they have largely ignored the black and brown working class who never fell for Trump's nonsense.
There is nothing wrong with traipsing into West Virginia to see what the people are thinking. But let us not be blinded to the broader reality.