Matt Lewis: Why Donald Trump Is Popular in the South

Posted January 19, 2016 at 4:00am

“If there is a consistent refrain among former Democrats (and there are lots in the South),” writes National Review’s David French, “it echoes Ronald Reagan: They didn’t leave the Democratic party; the Democratic party left them.”

“That means many things,” French continues, “but it does not mean that they’re small government, constitutional conservatives.” No truer words have been spoken. 

This isn’t merely an anecdotal observation. There are reasons a populist liberal Republican such as Donald Trump has put together a coalition that is “concentrated in the South, Appalachia and the industrial North” — but one that, as The New York Times observes, “fades as one heads west. Nearly all of his weakest states — 16 of his worst 19 — lie west of the Mississippi.”

This isn’t a coincidence. The roots run deep. Different environments produce different political cultures. And these cultures stick with us long after their original purpose makes any sense. 

For example, regions where herding became prominent still tend to be more individualistic than agricultural regions like the Deep South.

The theory is that the plantation model requires unquestioning cooperation, and thus, a rigid, authoritarian hierarchy, which destroys individualism.

While this is observable to anyone paying attention, there is also empirical evidence to buttress this case. 

A 1999 study by Joseph A. Vandello and Dov Cohen of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, titled “Patterns of Individualism and Collectivism Across the United States,” seems to confirm the theory.

The authors used an eight-item ranking system that examined factors ranging from “percentage of people living alone” to “percentage of self-employed workers.” They discovered that “collectivist tendencies were strongest in the Deep South, and individualist tendencies were strongest in the Mountain West and Great Plains.”

The rise of Trump has served to unmask the sense that regional differences had subsided in our national media age. In fact, the term “conservative” means different things to different people. 

We tend to wrongly associate right-wing cultural attitudes, populist (not free-market) economics, tradition, family values and a penchant for patriotism — what Trump proudly calls “militaristic” — with what French calls small government, constitutional conservatism.

We shouldn’t. 

Trump tends to perform better in the less individualistic regions. And this should not surprise us.

The trend of populist pols supporting big government policies, illustrates this point. In 1968, writing in National Review, then-Ohio Rep. John Ashbrook said, “American conservatives should make no mistake about it. The only thing [George] Wallace has against Washington is its racial policy. In all of his other attitudes he is one of the biggest centralizers of them all.”

Indeed, as his New York Times obituary pointed out, Wallace was an “ardent New Deal Democrat.” 

This is not to compare Donald Trump to George Wallace, though others have done that. But it is probably a truism that any political coalition big enough to garner more than 50 percent of the vote (in a country as big and diverse as America) will inevitably confront some internal contradictions. 

Maintaining a coherent conservative philosophy was one of the many things the GOP lost when it won the South. 

But this also helps explain why, despite his liberal apostasy; Donald Trump is doing so well among “conservatives” in certain parts of the nation. 

There is a real sense that the GOP is coming apart. As French hypothesizes, “America may end up with three distinct ideological movements: the progressive Left, the constitutional Right, and populist core that will now say of both political parties, ‘I didn’t leave you; you left me.’”

If that happens, Donald Trump will deserve much of the thanks or blame for ending the current two-party paradigm, which has served us fairly well. But the truth is, he’s not really the cause of this; he’s merely exposing cleavages that have been mostly laying dormant for decades.

Matt Lewis is the author of “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots).” Follow him on Twitter at @MattKLewis