The Angry Kulak

Why shouldn’t white hinterlanders be enraged?

The central paradox of power in modern America is that those who have it are obsessed with pretending that they don’t. Today’s elite is captivated by a kind of Sheryl Sandberg-style radical chic — the revolutionary ethic of the post-1960s order, repurposed via watery corporate Human Resources liberalism. Left-wing experts, academics, and intellectuals have a habit of delivering the most breathtakingly conventional opinions with an air of performative bravery, layered beneath a host of familiar clichés: Have uncomfortable conversations. Speak truth to power. We are the resistance. Nasty women vote!

This particular genre of feigned bravado was evident in the publication of White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy. The new book from political scientist Tom Schaller and journalist Paul Waldman, which hit the shelves in February, opts to deliver yet another beating to one of the deadest horses in modern American politics: The caricature of the racist, resentful, ignorant rural white Trump voter. “An Honest Assessment of Rural White Resentment is Long Overdue,” declared a New Republic headline from the two authors. “Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman have the guts to ask a crucial question: Why do so many rural white Americans fall for the authoritarian demagoguery now being peddled by the GOP?” Mother Jones’s David Corn enthused. The guts! The soldiers rushing into machine gunfire on D-Day had nothing on Schaller and Waldman.

In reality, White Rural Rage is an almost comically unoriginal recitation of self-flattering elite shibboleths: Rural whites are bigoted, xenophobic, and backward — and stupid, too. What’s more, they’re prone to any number of dangerous conspiracy theories, and harbor anti-democratic, illiberal political views that pose a threat to the survival of American democracy. This is a particularly potent danger, argue Schaller and Waldman, because white rural voters exercise a disproportionate power over the U.S. political system, given their geographic concentration within the Senate and Electoral College maps. “No group was ever dealt a better electoral hand than rural White Americans,” they write. Thus, “the inflated power of rural White voters confers upon them an unusual ability to force state and national governments to cater to their preferences and grievances.”

The practical political function of this argument is clear: From the very first pages of the book, the authors set out to prove that rural whites “are not disempowered,” as they put it. “In fact, in critical ways, they have more power than any other large demographic group in America.” That “disproportionate power wielded by rural Whites…is often justified on the right by the insistence that these are the worthiest Americans, the ones most possessed of virtue and ‘values,’ and that, therefore, it is only proper that their votes count for more.” (An argument for our electoral system that no one, other than the authors of White Rural Rage, has ever actually made).

Schaller and Waldman go on to argue that the ostensibly dangerous power of rural whites in American elections came to a head in the 2016 election of Donald Trump — and could manifest once again in Trump’s re-election in 2024. They write:

The fact that their votes do count for more is why Donald Trump became president in the first place, and if he should regain the White House, it will be rural Whites who return him there. Yet even as the threat to American democracy Trump represents has become the subject of enormous concern and debate, few have connected that threat to its essential source: rural White America.

Of course, that isn’t true. Disdain, resentment and contempt for rural white America is so commonplace on the left that it has become something of a cliché. But Schaller and Waldman’s gripe is not just with the looming possibility of their partisan team losing the White House. That is only a symptom of a deeper pathology, a lurking evil, in the heart of the white hinterlands: “Name a force or impulse that threatens the stability of the American political system — distrust in the fairness of elections, conspiracy theorizing, the embrace of authoritarianism — and it is almost always more prevalent among rural Whites than among those living elsewhere.”

Schaller and Waldman make obligatory noises about their concern for the plight of rural whites, and empathy for their degraded condition — but only in the most patronizing manner imaginable. They wax poetic about the tragedy of “rural White conservatives voting against their material interests,” opting for the familiar What’s the Matter With Kansas? redux. (There is a “cottage industry of ‘we-have-to-empathize-with-Trump-voters’ explainers,” as I wrote last year, that “are less an effort to understand Trump voters on their own terms than an attempt to absolve them of moral responsibility for the ongoing populist rebellion that Trump embodies”). The book cycles through all the well-worn examples: Rural whites voting against Obamacare, various government programs and subsidies, tax-the-rich schemes, and so on. The implication is always the same: Things would be better for you if you just let us run the country our way.

Whose Rage?

White Rural Rage is riddled with caricatures and straw men, and premises its core claims on cherry-picked, misapplied, or outright wrong data. Qualified writers — including a number of the scholars whose work was cited in the book — have already made a point of debunking or refuting these errors at length. Two of the political scientists whose research was abused by the book penned an op-ed accusing Schaller and Waldman of “repeatedly commit[ting] academic malpractice.” In The Atlantic, Tyler Austin Harper published an essay based on interviews with “more than 20 scholars in the tight-knit rural-studies community, most of them cited in White Rural Rage or thanked in the acknowledgments,” finding that “not a single person” in that cohort said the authors “sought out their expertise in a serious way, circulated drafts of the book, or simply ran its controversial argument by them in detail.” The scholars, Harper wrote, “left me convinced that the book is poorly researched and intellectually dishonest.”

But even outside of the book’s serial misuse of existing research, its core thesis is, ironically, parochial in the extreme. The implication that “rage” is a political problem that primarily belongs to rural whites requires a willful ignorance of the past decade of American politics. Rage has been the ethos of progressive politics since the 1960s. (The famous left-wing punk-rock band “Rage Against the Machine” wasn’t exactly being subtle with their name choice). But it has taken on an almost hysterical tenor on the left in the Trump era.

The past eight years have given birth to a long line of essays and think-pieces touting the power and virtue of “women’s rage”; Rebecca Traister’s 2018 Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger was a New York Times bestseller. One of the Left’s unofficial bumper-sticker slogans during the Trump presidency was: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. James Baldwin’s remark that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the timecontinues to circulate approvingly through mainstream progressive outlets. “I’m Finally an Angry Black Man,” read the headline of one 2020 New York Times op-ed. “I suppressed my rage about racism for decades. No more.” Righteous anger is a kind of political currency in left-wing circles. Just last month, an AP-NORC poll found that Democrats were substantially more likely to report feeling scared or angry about Trump than Republicans were for Biden.

The same is true of the “distrust in the fairness of elections” and “conspiracy theorizing” allegations that Schaller and Waldman lay at the feet of rural whites. “The excess coronavirus deaths in rural counties should be classified as suicides by scientific skepticism,” the authors write, reasoning that “conspiracy-addled rural Americans” had “reject[ed] proven vaccines.” In general, “Rural Whites exhibit the highest support for election denialism, antiscience Covid-19 and vaccine resistance, Obama birtherism conspiracies, and unhinged QAnon claims.”

Most conservative readers will likely be familiar with the recent history of elite progressive “election denialism”: Hillary Clinton’s insistence that Trump was an “illegitimate president” who “stole” the election from her; Jimmy Carter’s remark that Trump was “put into office because the Russians interfered” and “didn’t actually win the election”; Karine Jean-Pierre’s description of 2016 as a “stolen election.” (And that’s not even to mention Stacey Abrams and her sycophants). These views are not confined to party elites. A 2018 Gallup poll found that 78 percent of Democratic voters believed that Russian meddling “changed the outcome of the election” to deliver Trump the victory; as late as 2022, a Rasmussen poll found that 72 percent of Democrats still thought as much.

As for anti-democratic authoritarianism and challenging election outcomes: As Derek T. Muller noted in the New York Times, “starting with George W. Bush’s victory in the 2000 presidential election, Democrats contested election results after every Republican win” — not just with strong words, but with material (albeit quixotic) efforts to overturn the result. In the wake of the 2016 election, Democratic electors “signed onto an attempt to block Donald Trump from winning an Electoral College majority, an effort designed not only to deny Trump the presidency but also to undermine the legitimacy of the institution,” as Politico reported at the time. During the joint session to certify the election on January 6 of 2017, a cadre of House Democrats led an effort to object to the certification of electoral votes from a number of different states.

It would be overly charitable to merely describe all this as a “glaring omission” on the part of Schaller and Waldman. That would imply that their book was a flawed attempt at actual scholarship, rather than simple self-serving partisanship, laundered through the veneer of a legitimate intellectual expedition. Most of us on the right are well-acquainted with the ludicrous hypocrisy of the rote progressive talking points repeated in White Rural Rage — a monomaniacal concern with the conspiracism and anger in rural Pennsylvania, paired with a studied ignorance of the conspiracism and anger in the Harvard faculty lounge. But the book’s most fundamental crime is not hypocrisy. It is that it is substantively wrong to describe “white rural rage” as a problem at all.

A Dream Deferred

Schaller and Waldman are correct on at least one count: The white lumpenproletariat is angry. In fact, the most remarkable thing is that they aren’t more enraged. Our ancestors fought a revolution over taxes. The fees on tea and stamps levied by the colonial-era British Parliament pale in comparison to the indignities that white Middle Americans are regularly made to endure today.

Rural and exurban whites are the alienated Americans. In economic, cultural, geographic and demographic terms, they occupy positions with the least proximity to the centers of power. They are not always poor, per se, but if they are economically well-off, their resources come from the blue-collar trades, or from owning and operating local or regional firms, rather than Wall Street or Silicon Valley or the government dole. Distant from the places where decisions are made, viewed as an afterthought (if not with active contempt), they nonetheless sustain the system that parasitizes them: They raise cows for our beef, farm land for our crops, create cement for our skyscrapers, and send their sons to die in our wars, all while their productivity is metabolized as a tax base for the high-low coalition of managerial elites and their patrons in the welfare-dependent urban underclass.

But rural whites are merely the easiest, and most vulnerable target in a much more all-encompassing, systemic assault on the white American majority. Despite comprising more than half of the population, whites are handicapped in elite university admissions — all the more so if they happen to not be well-connected legacy applicants whose parents grease the wheels with generous donations. They are explicitly discriminated against in government policy, from housing to the disbursement of government funds and loans. They are discriminated against in hiring, particularly (though by no means exclusively) in the most powerful Fortune 500 businesses, and excluded from countless special programs, set-asides and investments in the corporate sector. They are pushed to the back of the line for life-saving medical treatments, displaced by mass immigration, and subjected to explicit and targeted racial hatred in their schools, their workplaces, their media and mass culture, and even their places of worship — up to and including calls for their race’s genocide. If they lodge a complaint, they are the ones who are tarred and feathered as racists. (Jeremy Carl’s new book on this topic, The Unprotected Class, is a must-read).

White Americans aren’t ignorant to all this; a majority believe their race is discriminated against in this country. But unlike every other demographic, they are severely discouraged from organizing and defending themselves along the lines of their shared identity, even as they are under sustained attack on the basis of that identity. There is no NAACP for whites, as there is for blacks; no Human Rights Council, as there is for gays; no UnidosUS, as there is for Latinos. Their political leaders are loath to even describe the problem: Despite the fact that white voters comprise the vast majority of their political base, conservative elites tend to respond to the ongoing attacks against them by resorting to abstraction — hand-waving about “violating the principle of colorblind equality” rather than calling out the specific character and target of the hostility. (And that’s when they’re not eagerly participating in the hostility themselves).

It is impossible to imagine the left responding to, say, the killing of George Floyd in this fashion — going to great lengths to avoid even having to mention “anti-black racism,” opting instead for navel-gazing sermons about judging individuals by the content of their character. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project went so far as to “reframe the country’s history by placing…black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”). But conservatives will construct sophisticated ideological theories and perform Olympic-level mental gymnastics routines to evade the obvious. At times, this verges on absurd: In a recent interview with Steve Bannon, for example, Newsweek editor Batya Ungar-Sargon angrily lambasted White Rural Rage as an attack on the “multi-racial working class” — a notion disabused by the very first word of the book’s title — before launching into a monologue about how Trump’s base was “multi-racial” and “the majority of Hispanics” were “also part of the MAGA movement.” (Spoiler alert: They are not). Her outrage was not that the left was anti-white; her outrage was that the left was accusing her side of being white.

Abandoned by their political leaders, attacked by their institutions, displaced in their own communities, disenfranchised and ghettoized by the country their ancestors built, America’s white kulaks have a more legitimate claim to rage than just about any other demographic in the country. The truth, however, is that they are still less angry than Schaller and Waldman’s fear-mongering suggests. Many of them are too busy dying — from opiates, or suicide, or various other deaths of despair; from obesity and abysmally unhealthy lifestyles; or simply from failing to marry and reproduce. Their small towns and rural communities are disappearing, and with them, their way of life is, too. Their hopes, dreams, resentments and fears, their memories, their family stories and traditions — an entire world, receding into the darkness, dying so many small deaths at the bottom of a pill bottle or a Big Slurp soda cup.

Those who are left are often confined to lives of quiet desperation, awaiting their fate in a country that is no longer their own — strangers in their own homes. However angry rural whites may be, it isn’t angry enough.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Nate Hochman

Nate Hochman is a senior adviser at America 2100 and a columnist for the American Spectator. His writing has appeared in print and online in The American Conservative, City Journal, The Claremont Review of Books, National Affairs, National Review, The New York Times, and numerous other outlets.

5 thoughts on “The Angry Kulak

  1. Talk about the use of cliches, that seems to be Hochman’s primary tool in trying to characterize non-conservatives. While doing that, Hochman misses the obvious. The obvious is that white rural Americans have a Constitutional tool that gives them considerable political power to wield: the electoral college. Don’t get me wrong, I support the electoral college. But the electoral college allows for the minority to determine the winner of the Presidency. Gerrymandering has contributed to doing the same thing in the House of Representatives.

    Whites are the race that is marginalized through discrimination in the U.S.? Consider the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the land, race-based slavery, the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795, and both Jim Crow in the South and harsh discrimination and bigotry in the North. Then there is redlining as well as the current existence of systemic racism as seen in law enforcement, the judicial system, the current battle over voting rights, employment, and social perception. And whites don’t have the equivalent organization to the NAACP? But they have and still do; it iss called the KKK. The 2 organizations are comparable in that both tried to advance the interests of the race they represented. But while the former relied, and still does, on the rule of law, the latter relied on the rule of force and terror.

    Rural whites and urban minorities do not have the faintest idea of the challenges the other group faces. And what would be helpful to erase that ignorance is to have a domestic exchange program that is somewhat parallel to foreign exchange programs. Only here, rural adults would spend a little time in urban areas and talk with the people there and urban adults would do the same in rural areas. At some point, both groups must realize that we all belong to the same nation and that nation belongs to all of us. What we hear on some conservative media outlets is that rural whites, or conservatives, are real Americans while the rest are not. Such is an example of using flattery and fury on rural whites or conservatives to foster both arrogance and resentment.

    1. Who is victimizing the “urban” minorities, Curt? Who is in control of the blue cities?

      Who is responsible for the “systemic racism,” Curt? Who is in control of ESG finance, the largest woke corporations, the federal bureaucracy?

      Who relies on the “rule of force and terror,” Curt? Who is staging the mostly peaceful protests in the cities?

      Who is doing the ethnic cleansing, Curt? Who is allowing 10 million third worlders in over an open border? Who is stealing (taxing) the wealth of the productive citizens of a supposedly racist country to pay for free gibs and bennies for ungrateful lawbreakers?

      1. Washington,
        Isn’t that rather simplistic thinking? Aren’t there multiple variables involved in the victimizing of urban minorities? Again, law enforcement and the judicial are involved in victimizing urban minorities. And what about employer race-based discrimination? And how is school funding determined? Isn’t it by taxes and who works the hardest to pay the least in taxes including those whose payroll is partially subsidized by government assistance programs? I could go on, but perhaps you need to talk to urban minorities to see the different experiences and situations.

  2. Washington,
    Was Jan 6, 2021 a peaceful protest? What about what occurred in Charlottesville, VA before that?

    Were you aware that at least 93% of the BLM protests were free of violence against property and people? That some of the violence that was in other protests were started by white supremacists and provocateurs? And some of the violence was also caused by anarchists–they are on the left–and so a very small percentage of the violence was by BLM members.

    Also, I don’t know if you have ever been in a sizable protest, but usually violence, even if it is severe, takes place in a very small area of the protest. That has been my experience at least and I have been in multiple size protests from those with hundreds of thousands of protesters to less than a hundred. In one of the smaller protests, it was conservative who were trying to provoke us to violence by blocking our protest route. When we didn’t respond, the police told them to move.

    But again, you are judging the rule of force by how many ways it could occur? Now we could both vy for the role of the Pharisee from the parable of the two men praying by ignoring the sins of our own groups and pointing to the sins of the opposing groups. But that parable tells us that doing so only leads us to an undesirable situation. I detest protests that have violence. I remember that I have left a protest because of what was being chanted about the police and didn’t participate in a march because of the violence that occurred at the staging area. In the latter case, I saw violence practiced by Antifa before the group became nationally known. I talked with some of them before that violence occurred. And I strongly disagreed with the ones I spoke with who feel that violence against fascists is necessary. Unfortunately, at least when I spoke with them which is over 10 years ago, the ones I spoke with saw themselves in the same position that the. Communists in Germany were in were in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Hopefully they have changed since then.

    I have been involved in protests since 2005 and I’ve only seen one in which there was violence–that was the one I refused to participate in because of the violence I saw in the staging area. So not only do the statistics challenge your perception of who is perpetrating violence, so around 15 years of my experiences involved in protests. BTW, I have been involved in only one protest since Covid struck.

    Finally, it isn’t who is doing the ethnic cleansing, it is who did the ethnic cleansing in the U.S. That was done by whites who either came here from Europe or those who were born here. There is no ethnic cleansing south of the border. There is tremendous violence but that isn’t from one ethnic group attacking another ethnic group. I won’t get into your other misinformed statements on immigrants.

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