Everyone is talking about the wall that Trump has threatened to build between the US and Mexico.  Looking at the election map, it’s obvious that another wall is quietly rising inside the US: between small town Middle America and the cosmopolitan coasts. Why are walls – the physical barrier and the metaphor – so powerful in 2016? Why are Americans voting for more division?

I’m a geographer and applied ethnographer. I travel the world to study how wider social trends influence people and communities, and vice versa. Compared to research stints I’ve had in more exotic locations like Kenya and Thailand, the summer I spent studying how the average American family watches the news did not seem exciting at the time. We selected the outer suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina, for our research because it is supposedly representative of the USA as a whole. Within North Carolina, we selected households aged 40-60, situated in the middle of the political spectrum: neither too Democratic nor Republican. That’s how I got to spend three days with Paul, an accountant at a local government agency and father of two girls in high school.

Paul grew up in a West Virginia coal mining family and married his high school sweetheart before moving to North Carolina. He thinks MSNBC is too left and Fox is too right. He loves football and hates soccer. We watched a lot of CNN together. We walked his dog. We dropped the kids off at soccer practice. Paul was kind, respectful, and welcomed me into his family. He was also constantly afraid I’d be bored: “What do you want to know about me? I’m so boring!” he would ask, seemingly self-aware of his averageness.

Fast-forward two years and several hundred thousand average North Carolinian swing voters defied all the pollsters’ forecasts and voted for Trump, tipping the election in favor of a man best known for his reality TV show appearances. Now, every liberal I know is either angry at Paul, or wants to understand him. Is Paul racist? Why does he feel disenfranchised?

Many journalists argue that it’s not helpful to shame Paul or conclude that all ‘Pauls’ are racist. Instead, we need to understand their worldview and social context so we can explain why the election transpired as it did and why America is behaving how it is.

There is a deep cultural divide between rural and urban America. This divide has long been documented and is well known to colour American election lines. So why was 2016 considered so peculiarly painful and divisive? Why did so many ‘average Americans’ swing right? To understand the outrage in America, we need to look at the global context.

Wall, near Brownsville, Texas, 2013. (© Richard Misrach. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, Pace / MacGill Gallery, and Marc Selwyn Fine Art)
Wall, near Brownsville, Texas, 2013. (© Richard Misrach. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, Pace / MacGill Gallery, and Marc Selwyn Fine Art)

Trump’s victory came two months after Brexit shook the world. In France, as in Germany, far-right populist movements once seen as political jokes now have a chance of success in upcoming elections. These are not isolated events fueled by demographic idiosyncrasies and identity-specific narratives. We are witnessing an international epidemic as fear and anxiety spreads across small-town, middle-class whites, many of whom grew up in working class communities and have high levels of attachment to their locality. Around the world, right-wing populist narratives focus on two core messages: first, against job-stealing immigrants (including refugees), and second, against jet-setting cosmopolitan elites.

To many living in Middle America like – those like Paul – these two types of moving populations (elites and immigrants, rich and poor, high- and low-skilled) are placing pressures on their communities. Yes, people have been crossing borders since the beginning of time, but not with the speed and intensity we see today. ‘Coastal elites’ travel because many have jobs in tech, finance and business that transcend borders. The ‘elite’ vacation abroad. Even when they don’t travel, the cosmopolitan cultures centred around San Francisco and New York have more in common with London and Shanghai than anywhere in the rust belt of the US.

Economic migrants travel to seek opportunities for better livelihoods. Refugees are violently displaced from their home and forced to seek asylum. All this movement causes fragmentation in the social fabric of countries and communities. Many Middle American communities, where industrial jobs have long declined, are deeply affected by these changes both economically and culturally. But many people either do not have the skills needed to move elsewhere, or they have no desire to leave home. Their lack of mobility makes those who have it – elites and immigrants – a threat. They fear that immigrants will come in and steal jobs. They are resentful of coastal yuppies for leaving them behind to collude with the global rich to rig the economy. They feel pressure from upwards and downwards, pressure that has been building up for some time: since the 2000s, scholars such as John Urry have argued that migration and mobility are the most important lenses through which we need to understand society today. But compared to Obama’s first election in 2008, two major trends have emerged highlighting the divide, leading to a tipping point.

On the one hand, the 2008 financial crisis and the growth of the Silicon Valley app bubble have revealed to Middle America that elites hide behind complicated systems to operate on their own economic interest at the expense of the public, without paying consequences. Though it is common knowledge today that mortgage fraud and high-risk investing led to the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in the loss of millions of middle-class jobs and homes, the financial sector survived unscathed. Today, many of these same bankers are investing mutual and pension funds into high-valued Silicon Valley startups, many of which don’t actually produce any products or revenue. An example is Uber — which is valued at $62.5 billion despite loosing more than $1billion in the first half of 2016. To anyone outside this world, this game is absurd and risky.

On the other hand, the 2016 global refugee crisis has brought anxiety over the remaining low-skilled jobs to the forefront of public debate. Given that the job market in many post-industrial areas are bleak, with social services operating over-capacity and under-funded, TV images of refugee boats swimming to escape persecution have struck up more fear than compassion.

These forces reached tipping point in 2016, culminating in heightened anxiety and anger.  But politicians have offered Middle America no creative solutions to transform their hometowns. That’s why Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, despite its lack of specificity or direction, became a beacon of hope and change, an opportunity to defend the community against threat. The 2016 populist revolt is a backlash from those with rooted lives against those who seemingly freely move across national boundaries. When borders are melting and imagination is lacking, walls offer the promise of security against change.

So, where do we go from here? At the end of the day, what Paul and I wanted to see on the evening news had more similarities than differences. We both wanted more happiness and less violence. We both wanted to see growth and harmony.  Unless America is committed to going the way of North Korea, Trump, the Republican Party, and even a very long wall are likely to not stop people of all incomes and backgrounds – domestic or international – from wanting to move around. In order to create an undivided and un-walled society, it is crucial that we take steps in addressing the root cause of these conflicts: better enabling global movements, and helping ensure that movement translates into prosperity and opportunity for everyone. For those seeking to build a better world, more accepting of humanitarian values, in the new context of a Trump presidency, I leave you with two questions:

  1. How can we revitalise local cultures and social systems that are resilient to change, welcome newcomers and enable them to become agents of prosperity?
  1. If manufacturing jobs are not coming back, how can we transform small towns by connecting them to global flows of information, ideas and employment?


Zung Nguyen is a PhD student in LSE Geography, where she focuses on urban planning and social movements in the Global South.  Prior to joining the LSE, Zung worked for 4 years managing ethnographic research and consulting projects for ReD Associates, a New York consulting firm that uses qualitative insights to deliver strategy. In her capacity, Zung advised Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, and international organisations on their innovation strategy and organisational capabilities. She also conducted ethnographic fieldwork in various cities in East Asia, Southern Africa, and North America. 

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