Are we filling up or hollowing out?
“Our country is full,” President Trump said at two events last week, sparking a spirited reaction from demographers who have been warning that aging, shrinking populations are causing much of the country to fall into decline.
Across much of rural America and in Midwestern cities stricken by plant closures, that trend seems to be accelerating. A study released earlier this year by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire reported that 24 percent of the nation’s counties are suffering “protracted and significant population loss.” In Georgia, 30 of the state’s 159 counties lost population between 2000 and 2010. That number rose to 82 counties in the period between 2010 and 2013.
The Economic Innovation Group, a tech money-financed think tank, has even proposed a “Heartland Visa” program to give economically challenged areas a jolt of what has helped to revitalize the parts of the country that are growing — which is to say, immigrants.
It’s unlikely that proposal is going to get a very warm reception in those parts of the country it’s intended to help. Those places in America where this hollowing-out is hitting hardest are also where we’d expect to find the most heartfelt approval for Trump’s sentiment. It isn’t only in the United States where there are contradictory perceptions about what constitutes full or empty. The 10 countries experiencing the most rapid population loss are all in Eastern Europe, a region where anti-immigration sentiments are particularly strong.
That may be because these places losing population fastest are where the cultural membrane that connects people to each other has been stretched thinnest. In “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse,” the conservative writer Timothy P. Carney argues that closing churches are a stronger indicator of the alienation that fired Trump’s earliest supporters than closing factories.
Although Trump did well among conservative churchgoers, Carney found that his strongest support came from those who don’t go to church as much as they used to. Those who see an entire way of life slipping away from them and are losing touch with the cultural institutions that have sustained them are unlikely to see economic promise in an unfamiliar face.
This alienation has been in progress long before the latest batch of economic trends, by the way. One of the striking things about the 1950-51 Mother’s Best Flour shows Hank Williams did on WSM Radio in Nashville is the interconnectedness of the rural South, which these recordings reveal today. And this was in a time when there was less money for gas and no interstates to drive on.
With an ease that suggests his audience will understand him perfectly well, Williams chats between songs about the best places to hunt birds in Alabama and catch fish in Louisiana. Young white people from the country had already begun moving into cities like Nashville and Montgomery in droves, echoing somewhat the migration of blacks to the North a generation or so before.
But they could still understand a rural map of cultural touch points that is largely lost to us today. The sentiment most commonly shared by Trump white working-class voters, Carney found, was the feeling they had become strangers in their own land.
Trump called what he said last week “a new statement,” and indeed it does mark a final break with the old doctrine that illegal immigration, not the legal means by which many immigrants have become Americans, is what should be remedied. That has seemed dubious for some time, and Trump’s comments should make the true doctrine plain.
“Our country is full, our area is full, the sector is full,” Trump said. “We can’t take any more. Sorry. Can’t have it. So turn around. That’s the way it is.”
Tom Baxter is a veteran Georgia journalist who writes for The Saporta Report.