Donald Trump’s election came as a shock to many, including a significant number of Cornell students. His victory is surprising for many reasons: Trump will be the first president with no formal political or military experience before entering the White House; he began his campaign with a promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and have Mexico pay for it; throughout his campaign, Trump has made racist, sexist, Islamophobic and otherwise hateful comments.
Yet it should be less of a surprise that rural voters overwhelmingly supported Trump, especially since the Democratic establishment and progressive elites have dismissed them throughout the campaign and for the past several years. This should not surprise Cornell students and faculty, who live in deep blue Ithaca but are surrounded by a sea of red. Every county adjoining Tompkins County — which Hillary won with more than 60 percent of votes — supported Trump.
In our Cornell bubble — one that is overwhelmingly liberal — we sometimes forget about the importance of engaging with those who are politically different from us. In this election cycle in particular, many of us neglected rural voters and did not hear their growing frustration with government. Even post-election, many Trump protesters are writing off those who voted for him, without making the effort to understand why Trump’s message resonated with specific groups. Trump’s election is a rude awakening that the Cornell bubble often insulates us from the fact that the ideas and innovations generated at universities like Cornell are not always connecting with people outside the bubble. Liberals will not simply get their way by continuing to support policies and candidates that do not consider rural Americans. Republican Congressman Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), for example, resoundingly defeated Democratic challenger John Plumb, even though 70.8 percent of Tompkins County residents cast their ballot for Plumb.
However, acknowledging the frustration of rural voters and understanding their motivations for voting for Trump is not equivalent to normalizing our president-elect’s policies and actions. Let’s not mince words: Trump represents an appalling brand of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia that rightly frightens many people on our campus, and some of the areas that Trump won are sites of deep-seated and dangerous vitriol. Even if not every Trump supporter is racist, all of them decided to support him either in spite of or because of his hateful speech.
Yet to move forward, these are some of the very people that we — members of a private university privileged with access to some of this nation’s best educational opportunities — can no longer afford to ignore. We must bridge this country’s widening political fissures, the most prominent of which is the rural-urban divide. Of course, not all rural voters are conservative or support Trump, just as not all urban voters are liberal or Democrats. But rural voters are feeling increasingly ignored by their government representatives and expressed this disconnect with a vote for Trump, and it is in our mutual interest to understand those outside our Cornell bubble.