Yes, white rural voters in Virginia turned out and voted for Republicans out of white grievance identity politics, and they freely admit doing it and say they will do it again in 2022.
The rural share of the vote in America has been steadily shrinking, but remains sizable enough to be politically potent. National exit polling in 2020 estimated that one in five voters lived in rural or small-town America. The Democratic data firm TargetSmart, which categorized voters based on population density, labeled 30 percent of the electorate as rural.
But while some Democratic politicians now recognize the scope of their rural problem, the words of voters in Bath County expose the difficulty in finding solutions. In interviews with a dozen white, rural voters who backed Mr. Youngkin, policy was less important than grievance and their own identity politics. And the voters, fueled by a conservative media bubble that speaks in apocalyptic terms, were convinced that America had been brought to the brink by a litany of social movements that had gone too far.
A monument to Confederate soldiers stands next to the sheriff’s office in Hot Springs, a visual representation of the cultural gap between its residents and the Democratic base. The town is accessible only by a two-lane highway that winds through mountains near the West Virginia border. It’s best known for The Homestead, a luxury resort founded in the late 1800s that has hosted golf tournaments, conferences for the United Nations and presidents, including William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.
Ms. Neff, who owns a hardware store adorned with images of Mr. Trump as Rambo and the Terminator, was in Washington on Jan. 6 to support the former president — but refused to go into further detail. Citing false evidence, she called the coronavirus vaccine a “poison” and said she worried that Democrats were planning extermination camps of Mr. Trump’s supporters.
Karen Williams, a Bath County resident who manages vacation rentals, said she resented the current Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, a Democrat, for keeping schools shut down during the pandemic, embracing progressive policies focused on race and removing Confederate statues and monuments. She called this an example of critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework that has become shorthand for a contentious debate on how to teach race and racism in schools.
White children “are no longer allowed to be kids, we’re treating them like little monsters,” Ms. Williams said.
Mr. Hamilton, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said his vote for Mr. Youngkin was really a proxy vote for Mr. Trump. Of President Biden, he said, “the best thing that can happen is to get him and that woman out of there.”
John Wright, a 68-year-old retiree, said he listened only to pro-Trump programming.
“I don’t care if the media said the moon was full of cheese, and there was an astronaut who brought back some cheese,” Mr. Wright said. “If the media said it, I won’t believe it.”
Some of these voters are simply out of reach for Democrats, incompatible with the party’s embrace of Black Lives Matter, transgender rights and #MeToo.
But the politically urgent problem for Democrats is that rural America has moved faster and further from them in the last 20 years than urban America has moved away from Republicans. From 1999 to 2019, cities swung 14 percentage points toward the Democrats, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center report. At the same time, rural areas shifted by 19 percentage points toward the Republicans. The suburbs remained essentially tied.
Amanda Litman, the executive director of Run for Something, which looks for Democrats to run for local offices nationwide, said it could be challenging to recruit candidates in deep red small towns — and to lure money into what are most likely losing causes.
“We just have to try and lose by less,” she said. “And ‘investing to lose by less’ is not a fun sell to Democratic donors. But it is what it is.”
Those Democrats who do run in conservative territory often distance themselves from the national party brand. When Monica Tranel, a Democrat, kicked off her bid for Montana’s new congressional seat over the summer, she lamented how few of the people she grew up with still vote Democratic. “They feel like Democrats look down on rural America,” she said in her campaign launch video.
Ben Tribbett, a Democratic strategist in Virginia, has watched his party’s vote share in rural areas wither for three decades.
“I don’t know what our message is there,” Mr. Tribbett said. “Which is a problem, because I’m supposed to be creating content for political campaigns.”
The good news is that the Biden era is showing quite clearly that Democrats have finally realized that the best they can do in America's rural counties is triage. White voters in rural areas have been inundated with right-wing disinformation for decades, and fixing the problem will also take decades, decades that the country doesn't have judging by the near-coup by Trump in 2020. You can't sell your policies to people who think you are literally trying to round them up in camps to kill them. The time to get serious about fighting right-wing propaganda and disinformation was a quarter-century ago.
That ship has sailed, folks. All we can do now is to try to stop the hemorrhaging.
Fixing bridges and roads and schools and providing good jobs in the cities and suburbs doesn't matter in the quarter of the country's population that is rural. The hard reality is in states with 75% or more white votes, losing white voters by 2 to 1 means there's no way you can win. Some triage is necessary, but the GOP knows that if they can keep the electorate white and win white voters, it doesn't matter what Black folk like me in a red state want. We literally do not matter politically anymore, and they know it.
If Democrats are going to lose these areas by 50 points, the best they can do is try to only lose them by 40 and accept that. They're not going to listen. We're dealing with people lost to the Years of Trump and Rage, parading around their vaccine refusal, ripping people's masks off and spitting in people's faces to try to infect them, screaming bloody murder at restaurant servers and checkout cashiers, disrupting school board and city council meetings, and running over protesters with their vehicles.
We still need to provide folks out here with better infrastructure. Better roads, schools, bridges, broadband internet access, water, clean air. They're Americans too and we took a big step towards that over the weekend.
But we have to try to save the rest of us too. There are people who will never vote for the Democratic party, and at this point, it's time to try to turn out the people you have some chance with instead of chasing the zero percent rage junkies. We have to because if we don't, the alternative is near-permanent GOP authoritarian rule.
Democrats needs to continue to make policies to help everyone, but don't expect some of them to vote for you. There's nothing you can do at this point other than turning out people who will listen and to give them a reason to show up.
And those folks don't live in places like Bath County, Virginia.
Finally, the real lesson here is that Trumpism without Trump is now far more dangerous in 2021 than Trumpism with Trump in 2020. Dems need to counter with actions, with turnout, and with going after the right-wing noise machine that made all this possible.
Or it will be too late for us in only a few short years.