Trump and the Borderers

The Republican front-runner’s appeal seems rooted in a distinctive political culture—born in the British borderlands, and still flourishing in America’s southern highlands.

David Moir / Reuters

Imagine a successful presidential candidate whose political style was “characterized by intensely personal leadership, charismatic appeals to his followers, demands for extreme personal loyalty, and a violent antipathy against those who disagreed with him.” In many parts of the country, voters might recoil from such an approach. But as Donald Trump has discovered, it exercises a powerful appeal in a region stretching from Appalachia down into the old southwest.

But that’s not a description of Trump’s style on the stump. It’s how the historian David Hackett Fischer described the appeal of Andrew Jackson and other Appalachian politicians, who set the pattern for his success centuries ago.

Fischer argued that a group he termed “Borderers”—who hailed from northern Ireland, Scotland, and northern England—brought with them a distinctive culture. The constant conflict, insecurity, and poverty of the borderlands led their inhabitants to stress sharply differentiated gender roles, to prize aggressiveness, and to disdain weakness. Strong familial loyalty was matched with a clannish suspicion of outsiders. The settlers took these attitudes with them to Appalachia, he argued, where they were reinforced, and in some measure altered, by harsh conditions along the frontier.

Jackson was the great exemplar of this political style. The historian Thomas Abernethy summed up Jackson’s career in terms that echo critiques of Trump’s narcissistic populism. “Not only was Jackson not a consistent politician, he was not even a real leader of democracy,” he wrote:

He always believed in making the public serve the ends of the politician … Jackson never really championed the cause of the people; he only invited them to champion his.

But Jackson was hardly alone. Time and again, the inhabitants of Appalachia gravitated toward leaders who promised to champion their interests, often making bald appeals to racism or xenophobia. That series of populist revolts began, perhaps, with Nathaniel Bacon, whose followers vented their violent rage against both Native Americans and Virginian elites.

“Just as their yeoman ancestors had followed Bacon,” wrote the historian Betram Wyatt-Brown in Southern Honor, “nineeenth- and twentieth-century small farmers and laborers were to be galvanized by other demagogues.”

Gene Talmadge, Cole Blease, and Theodore Bilbo, like Nathaniel Bacon, knew how to make commoners proud of their color and their social values. Bacon offered no real reforms. Nor did the latter-day political leaders. Their “program” was chiefly inspirational—the sense that one could partake in the magic of brave fellowship for the redress of grievances.

Borders adhered to a distinctive conception of natural liberty, which put the individual’s right to pursue his private interests at its core. “This idea of natural liberty was not a reciprocal idea,” Fischer wrote. “It did not recognize the right of dissent or disagreement. Deviance from cultural norms was rarely tolerated; opposition as suppressed by force.”

Politicians won support from Borderers by promising to make their nation great again—and to make it theirs. They stood within a distinctive cultural tradition—one that shaped their appeal within one region of the country, even as it limited its reach. And any of these descriptions of their style could be applied, with no changes whatsoever, to the current Republican frontrunner. Donald Trump is their direct heir.

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Many theories of Trump’s rise stress some critical moment of rupture. Perhaps it was the rise of social media; the disenfranchisement of working-class Americans; a turn toward authoritarianism; Trump’s mastery of reality television; or the loss of blue-collar jobs to trade deals. As Trump himself is fond of putting it, “There’s something going on—and it’s not good.”

But even if it were clear exactly what is going on, that would hardly explain why certain voters turned to Trump for answers. Many of the factors said to be driving his support don’t point toward any particular set of solutions. In much of Ohio, voters embraced John Kasich’s sunny optimism and his emphasis on family and community. Church-going evangelicals, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, have found Ted Cruz’s culture-war politics appealing. Some Republicans, and GOP-inclined independents, have turned to Bernie Sanders. That many other Republican primary voters have instead gravitated toward Trump’s bombast may say less about the things they’ve recently endured, than how they’ve chosen to respond to them.

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.

There’s more to this than culture and style, of course. As I’ve previously written, Trump’s policies match the preferences of his core supporters better than those of either political party. He styles himself their defender, championing social-insurance programs while attacking social-welfare spending. He promises enormous investments in infrastructure, protectionist policies to revive industry, and tight immigration controls to reduce competition for jobs.

There are voters in every region of the country who gravitate to this constellation of priorities. They tend to identify their ethnicity simply as “American.” And wherever they reside, they’ve been disproportionately drawn to Trump. But these preferences enjoy a distinctly regional popularity. The southern highlands remain distinct from other regions by most measures—from education, to health, to civic vitality—and in their politics.

And over all this hangs the specter of race. For generations, unscrupulous politicians have fanned racial resentments, promising to protect not just the economic interests, but the privileged status, of their supporters. Appalachia has no particular monopoly on racism. But this particular style of political racism has a distinctly regional valence—something that 2016 has again confirmed.

As the Republican Party has turned older, whiter, and more southern, the white, working-class voters of the southern highlands have become an increasingly large and vital component of its coalition. A candidate who appeals most directly to just one of the varied regional cultures of America can still capture a plurality of GOP primary voters—even if he might struggle to translate that appeal to the national stage in November. This is the bind in which the Republican Party now finds itself.

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Since its publication in 1989, Fischer’s book has enjoyed tremendous popularity among politicians, political scientists, and the press. It reportedly served as an inspiration for Clinton’s staff during his 1992 campaign, and was still sitting on his table eight years later, as he prepared to leave office. It’s pulled out and cited every four years, as pundits seek to explain striking regional variations in political support.

Oddly enough, though, it’s never won similar plaudits from professional historians. When it was released, one reviewer decried the “unhistorical nature” of analysis that promiscuously mixed its examples across centuries; another accused Fischer of “cultural reductionism.” There were specific critiques of his use of evidence and of some of his arguments—including the charge that he had all but ignored the role of race in shaping American culture.

But the broader challenge was epistemological. The book’s argument was breathtakingly audacious—it told a historical profession that exalts the study of change over time that it had misunderstood American history by ignoring the stubborn persistence of culture. Historians, Fischer suggested, had spent so much effort trying to interpret change that they had skipped over the continuity that better explains American history.

It’s a version of the debate that pundits are now recapitulating: change, or continuity. And the stakes are very real. If Trump’s success is the product of a unique confluence of circumstances, then it’s unlikely to be replicated; he’ll become the exception that proves the rule. But Fischer’s work suggests a very different conclusion—that Trump has tapped into deep-seated and durable beliefs within a large chunk of the electorate. It points back to other politicians who have projected dominance, flaunted intolerance, promised pugilism, and fanned racial and ethnic resentments. And it suggests that if Trump is not the first such politician, then neither will he be the last.

“History,” Fischer was fond of telling his students around the seminar table, “doesn’t repeat itself—but it often rhymes.”