If people living in Trump country seem like they live in a different world from that inhabited by Silicon Valley executives and the editors of The New York Times, there is a reason for that: They do.
Before the election, I talked to Democratic partisans who were expecting a blue wave that would see Joe Biden winning not only swing states such as Florida but also Republican-leaning states such as Texas, and I talked to Republican partisans who expected Donald Trump to sweep blue states from Virginia to California. Neither of those things happened, of course. The run-up to the election — and, now, the disconnect between town and country over the president’s election-fraud complaints — has contributed to the sense that there are two Americas inhabiting two very different realities.
Some of the snoots living in Blue America sneer that the inhabitants of Red America are ignorant, living in a fantasyland. But in many ways, Red America understands Blue America better than Blue America understands Red America. It doesn’t have much choice: The news media, the entertainment business, technology and social media, and the commanding heights of big business live in Blue America and largely share Blue America’s biases, assumptions and points of view. Some of them are at least a little aware of their ignorance — Dean Baquet, the editor of The New York Times, confessed in 2016: “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.” He might have added guns, farming, and much else to the list of things his staff doesn’t get.
But Blue America sees Red America only in dribs and drabs: When J. D. Vance’s excellent “Hillbilly Elegy” was first published in 2016, the reaction to that book in progressive intellectual circles put me in mind of the death of Tejano singer Selena in 1995: Selena had 100 percent name recognition in 10 percent of the country and 0.00 percent name recognition among the other 90 percent, where people were perplexed by the intense outpouring of grief at her murder. They were seeing the tip of a cultural iceberg.
Urban progressives who were surprised by the Trump phenomenon and shocked by QAnon are the same ones who are made anxious and repulsed by things that are commonplace in the rest of the country, from the customs of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches to gun culture in the South and Southwest.
I have spent much of the past decade trying to tell some of the stories of what we now think of as Trump Country. And it’s complicated, because Trump Country is full of both amazing things — from the startling innovation of the energy industry to high-tech farming — and horrifying things: poverty, addiction, dysfunction, despair. I’ve reported from the poorest corners of the country, from homeless camps, from drug-treatment facilities, pornographers’ conventions, eviction court, gun court, casinos, campaign rallies, and everywhere else I could think of. And I’ve encountered things I wouldn’t quite believe if I hadn’t seen them myself: welfare dependents who use cases of soda as an improved currency, the logistical ballet of Amazon fulfillment centers, enormous fracking rigs that walk from place to place on gigantic robot legs. It’s pretty far from Midtown Manhattan — you can’t see it from there, which is one of the reasons I work from Texas.
Blue America is feeling triumphant at the moment. But vanquishing Donald Trump is not quite the achievement they think it is, because Trump has always been much more a symptom of our Great Divide than a cause of it. That may not be obvious to an intellectual class that knows more about the Uyghurs than it does about Southwestern Oklahoma, but those who are interested in understanding the other America rather than merely sneering at it have a lot of homework to do.