Inside the Conservative Mind of America
In 2016 the traditional political ‘rulebook’ was eviscerated as Donald Trump, a man whose actions, were they to belong to anyone else, would never have seen him receive a nomination let alone become the President of the United States. My 6-week UROP project was to look at why he was such a successful candidate in three very different counties in America. Part of uncovering this was by finding residents of the county who voted for Trump in 2016, and then conducting interviews with them to find out their opinions, views and whether they will be voting for him again in 2020. As the project is still ongoing, a conclusion from my research was not reached, therefore, I would like to share some of my findings to demonstrate the progression of the project thus far.
The first county I looked at was Dickinson County, Kansas. This county was the smallest I researched with a population of around 19,000. Nestled in the heart of Tornado Valley, with pride in their Republican roots and their homegrown ‘superstar’ President Eisenhower, there has only been a handful of times throughout its history that this county didn’t vote Red. A typical prairie county, agriculture is the strongest industry, and over 31% of the county’s entire workforce belong to it. Second to this, manufacturing is another booming industry in Dickinson, with the largest US maker of boxed chocolates housing a manufacturing plant in the heart of the county. Both of these industries were noted throughout Trump’s 2016 campaign as being pivotal in ‘Making America Great Again’, so hearing from residents working in them was of great interest to the project. Another avenue to be explored was religious congregations. I contacted many Pastors to explain the research project to them to see if they would be interested in participating in the study in the long term. Resulting contact with one Pastor highlighted the importance of local issues to residents of Dickinson County, such as water conservation due to recent flooding in the area, as well as more national and federal matters such as abortion rights.
Berks County, our namesake, was the second county I looked into. With Reading as their County Seat, it was interesting to draw parallels between ourselves and them. With a population of over 417,000, Berks is a large county in the heart of the swing state Pennsylvania. The county itself is politically divided as it lacks a cohesive identity. Once identified by the Reading Railroad, after its demise in the 1970s, it is now split along the lines of urban and suburban interests. It has become much more of an ‘us vs. them’ environment between the city and the county. This is demonstrated by Reading being heavily Democratic whilst the rural areas being strongly Republican. Further telling of the division felt in the county is the makeup of the population. The 2060 population projection for the United States estimates that the population will develop to be 29% Hispanic or Latino, Berks County as a whole, however, has already met that. Reading has superseded that, and its population is now 64.7% Hispanic or Latino. Initially, such a strong Hispanic and Latino population suggested a reason for the county’s support of Trump, considering his policy on such ethnicities. Further research, however, seemed to suggest that Trump’s 2016 promises to revive post-industrial towns proved to be the voter catnip for Berks County.
Reading, previously the ‘poorest city of the US’, remains characteristically dominated by poverty. The County poverty rate is half of the national average, with Berks County township and boroughs having pockets of poor residents, however, the concentration is nowhere near as high as Reading’s. Whilst both the percentage and the number of residents living in poverty have declined since 2011, the 2017 census still showed that Reading’s poverty rate was at 36.6%, a huge difference to the 13.6% for the county as a whole. However, recent unemployment rates under Trump’s presidency demonstrate that the unemployment rate in Berks County has decreased to 3.7% from 2016 to April 2019; a 2.7% reduction. Not only that, but the number of jobs in Berks County has increased 1.9% since Trump’s election, figures that all seem to suggest the reasoning behind possible future votes for Trump from the county.
Throughout the scouting and interviewing process, I was able to get into contact with a member of a prominent school board in the county to ask what issues mattered to residents of Berks County. Again, the response was a combination of local and national issues. The local issue that reportedly impacted this county’s voters the most was property taxes, whilst on the national and federal level, it was health care and insurance; deficits and debt; and the Right to bear arms. Such national and federal issues are the ‘bread and butter’ for voters in all counties and will be the reason a voter chooses a candidate, ergo, it is clear why Berks County predominantly voted Republican, as these are issues that are Red through and through.
Finally, the last county I researched was Tarrant County, Texas. It emerged as America’s most conservative large urban county, consisting of almost entirely flatlands. With a population of 2.08 million, Tarrant County is Texas’ third most populated county and the 15th most populous in the US. Among the state’s five biggest counties, Tarrant is the only one that hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate in the past decade. Part of what has helped the County become the state’s lone Republican County is that its minority populations haven’t caught up to the state’s. Many Tarrant County voters have a storied history of preferring practical governance to partisanship. Betsy Price, the Mayor, said that for decades, Fort Worth voters have cared more about electing moderate, effective, business-minded officials rather than candidates from a particular party. This could be seen by support for Beta O’Rouke, the Democratic candidate in the 2018 Midterms who almost dethroned Ted Cruz as the County’s senator.
Similar to Berks County, Tarrant County has hit the 2060 projection for levels of Hispanic or Latino members of the population already. At 28.9% of the population of Tarrant County, Hispanic or Latino residents are the second largest ethnic group. The difference between Tarrant County and Berks County in the case of immigration, however, is that only 89% of Tarrant County residents are U.S. citizens, compared to 4.4% in Berks County, and 28.3% of the population speak a non-English language. This seemingly creates a narrative in the mind of those living in Tarrant County that ‘all Hispanic and Latino residents are illegal’, spurring on support for Trump and his fight against immigration.
Cattle and agriculture, aerospace companies and defence contractors play a major role in the economic foundation of the County. Growth in the manufacturing industry has also seen a rise in the economy of the County. Similar to Dickinson County, these industries were highlighted by Trump as needing protection and promotion to ‘Make America Great Again’.
Tarrant County was home to the most interaction I had from a respondent in the form of a resident who had lived there throughout their entire life. They held views you would expect from a stereotypical Texas-person in the form of anti-immigration, pro-Republican, Conservative views. They felt that all of Trump’s policies were what was best for the country and had voted Republican down the ticket. Another respondent divulged that rising property taxes, alongside illegal immigration, were the most pressing issues to residents of Tarrant County. Adding that they are not a ‘die-hard Trump follower’ but believe in his ‘love for America’; I think that surmises a lot of the voters the future of this project will try to communicate with.
Parallels that can be drawn from all the respondents I engaged with was their distrust in the media and their somewhat sycophantic excuse-making for Trump and his actions. One participant felt he ‘lacked decorum’ however believed ‘he loves America’ and ‘isn’t afraid to put [our] country first’. This alongside their self-professed requirement to find their own news rather than looking to traditional sources suggest an atmosphere surrounding Trump and his premiership that invites supporters to be unendingly distrustful of anyone that is not him. With such a ‘cult of personality’ formed around him, I have no doubt the future of this project will find throughout the next fourteen months that there is not a foot he could put wrong in the eyes of these voters. Especially in the case of Berks County, Trump’s Presidency has strengthened and improved the community; why would they not continue to support him to show gratitude?