The other set of theories about Trump’s rise stress the basic continuity of American politics. They point to deep-seated racism and xenophobia; to persistent isolationism; to the periodic emergence of demagogic politicians. These are the theories that led me to pull Fischer’s Albion’s Seed off the shelf in a search for answers.
Fischer identified four distinct folkways that shaped American life, tracing them to four great migrations from different regions of England: the exodus of the Puritans, from the east of England to Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century; the arrival of the cavaliers, and their indentured servants, who came from the south of England to Virginia in the next few decades; the flight of the Quakers who left the North Midlands and Wales for the Delaware Valley; and then last, the arrival of the English-speaking peoples of the borderlands of Britain—Scotland, northern Ireland, and upper counties of England—who came in the middle of the eighteenth century.
It’s the last of these groups which has taken center stage in the battle for the Republican nomination. Fischer argued that the traditions of the borderlands still dominate an area he termed the Southern Highlands, including Appalachian states, the old southwestern states that included Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and parts of Texas, Tennessee, and Kentucky; and the Ozark Plateau, stretching from Missouri and Arkansas into the edges of Oklahoma and Kansas. This is the heartland of Trump’s support. Map the primary results by county, and it’s a sea of dark-red votes. They are states where he not only performed well in Republican primaries, but where he seems poised to prevail in November, even if that election yields a Democratic landslide. So why are these voters drawn to Trump?
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For Fischer—who was a mentor of mine in graduate school—and other similarly inclined scholars, the argument doesn’t rest on DNA, or lineal descent. It’s a claim that certain cultural approaches arrived with early waves of immigration, and were absorbed by subsequent generations of diverse backgrounds—along with a taste for grits—as part of the dominant regional culture. And like all cultures, the Borderers’ folkways offer as much to applaud as to critique. It’s a culture which has enriched America’s heritage, and bestowed upon it leaders in war and in peace. But the political styles its adherents find attractive are distinctive, and may not hold similar appeal to voters in other parts of the country.
Trump himself, of course, was born in Queens—not Appalachia. His mother may have come from Scotland, but his accent is pure New York. His style on the stump, though, whatever its origins, fits squarely within the Appalachian tradition, and that’s where he’s proven most appealing.
Part of what made his early success in the primaries so impressive, in fact, was that he dominated many of the southern states that Cruz had hoped to win. But subsequent contests have helped delineate the limits of his appeal. Trump took the Appalachian counties in southern Ohio, but Kasich claimed the rest of the state. Mormons find his style alienating. In states with large blocs of voters of Nordic descent, like Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin, Trump’s brash approach has likewise fallen flat. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, and college-educated voters have recoiled from Trump. And the harder Trump works to appeal to his core voters, the more difficult he finds it to expand beyond them.