The Democrats Need To Show The Flag In Trump Country

Daniel Block committed some excellent journalism, in that he went to Trump country, the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, and decided to talk to Democrats who voted for Clinton. While there’s a lot to chew on in the piece, it is striking how much social approbation, not to mention the threat of violence, is directed at Democrats (boldface mine):

Increasing Democratic activism is essential in districts like the Sixth, where many of the liberals I spoke with shared stories of being pressured to stay out of politics. Nolen is public and indomitable, but he said that many of his anti-Trump friends would disclose their political leanings only in confidence. “They would tell me and wouldn’t tell their preacher,” he said, citing the stigma of supporting pro-choice candidates in a heavily religious area. “Some of them think that their preacher can sentence them to hell. But I can’t.” As more activists come out of the woodwork, the Democratic Party gains more people like Frank Nolen: human faces who can make the party more accessible to residents with hidden liberal inclinations. This is critical for the party’s fortunes. Building a viable electoral infrastructure depends on making it socially acceptable to be a Democrat

But in Virginia’s Sixth Congressional District, there’s another element that I hadn’t considered until I visited: intense social pressure. In places where Trumpism is so widespread, identifying as a liberal carries risks—social, financial, and perhaps even physical. For Democrats, this means that half the battle is simply normalizing their party.

“I wear these shirts to the gym that say ‘Pro-America, Anti-Trump,’ ” said Morrison. “Women, particularly, would come up to me and whisper, ‘I’m a Democrat.’ But they really were embarrassed to say it. That’s how strong it is.”

Morrison is the chair of her county’s Democratic committee. She told me that in her experience, most liberal residents keep quiet about their political affiliations. The pressure to stay silent and vote Republican is especially strong for people who work for conservative employers, are part of Shenandoah’s prominent, multigeneration (and generally conservative) families, or run small businesses that depend on a local clientele.

Morrison mentioned her hairdresser as an example. When Morrison gets her hair cut, the two will often quietly discuss politics and their shared outrage at Trump. “But she won’t do anything public, because her business depends on Republicans,” Morrison said. I asked Morrison if she could introduce me to her hairdresser or other closeted Democrats. She said she would check, but cautioned that interviews were unlikely. I never heard back about it…

Many [open Democrats] commute to jobs in Harrisonburg, home to James Madison University, and one of the Sixth District’s few left-leaning spaces. A few are transplant retirees. Nolen is semiretired and operates his own farm. Goebel owns a vacation business located in Page County, but it relies mostly on tourists. Indeed, out of all the “open” Democrats I interviewed on record, not one person’s income is largely dependent on other locals. The single, elusive swing voter I found spoke on the condition that I wouldn’t list his workplace.

Another factor is the role that women are supposed to play in conservative white communities:

Donna Bible, an eleventh-generation Rockingham County resident, said that conservative pressure was particularly intense for women. “I know that a lot of women, if they didn’t feel oppressed by their husbands, if they didn’t feel like they needed to tow the family line, they would speak out,” she said. The product of a Republican family, she speaks from experience. “I think I became a Democrat because of that issue more than any other. It is infuriating to be a woman in a patriarchal society.”

And unlike the Midwest, where there were Obama-Trump supporters, some of whom are reverting back, the Trumpists are diehards, aren’t switching:

Who are these newly activated Democrats? For starters, they are not people who voted for Trump in 2016. None of the Democrats I met during my time in the Sixth District were able to relay anything more than whispers about Trump voters who had regrets. The Republicans who they did introduce me to—the region’s relative moderates—stood by the president.

I’ve never had an experience where there was a strong Trump supporter who said, ‘I’ve seen the error of my ways,’ ” said Thea Litchfield Campbell, the co-chair of the Rockingham County Democratic Committee. “There was no confessional moment.”

Studies suggest that there may be few confessions anywhere. In March, a FiveThirtyEight-commissioned survey found that even 58 percent of “reluctant” Trump voters, a fifth of his 2016 coalition, have no regrets, and that this group’s impression of the president had gradually improved over the past ten months. An August 2018 study by Pew indicates that Trump voters feel almost exactly the same way about the president as they did in November 2016—that is, generally positive. This is especially true in areas such as Virginia’s Sixth. Unlike the many Rust Belt converts who opted for Trump out of a sense of economic malaise, Shenandoah Valley’s evangelicals appear to have voted for the president in hopes of advancing a socially conservative agenda—particularly with regards to abortion. By appointing conservative judges, Trump has delivered.

What’s also interesting is that most of the local Democrats, who have strong roots in the area (i.e., not recent transplants), don’t understand their neighbors–this doesn’t seem to be a phenomenon exclusive (supposedly) to those of us isolated in liberal enclaves:

Indeed, it was telling that most of the rural Democrats I interviewed seemed just as baffled by Trump supporters as urban progressives are. “I don’t understand them, and I’m mad at them,” said Derek Goebel, a fifty-three-year-old native of Page County, where more than 70 percent of people voted for Trump. “They’re not pro-life, because people are dying every day. We’re destroying people’s lives, ripping children from their parents’ arms, and we’re destroying the environment.”

While it’s unlikely Democrats can win locally in a conservative enclave, a better performance would help at the statewide level. In 2008, Democrats did pick up some unexpected seats due to the economic crisis. To use a sportsball metaphor, you always pound it out to first, no matter how unlikely, because flukes do happen. It would also make Democrats more ‘socially acceptable’: when we have to use a phrase like ‘open Democrat’, there is work to be done in making the party acceptable everywhere. If nothing else, rank-and-file Democrats in conservative areas deserve that for being loyal.

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