It’s been disappointing and frankly offensive to hear and read depictions of what life is supposedly like in the “Rust Belt” and what kind of people purportedly live and work here.
I live on the edge of it in northern Illinois (Ogle County, 60 percent for Trump to 33 percent for Clinton), a part of the country that stretches from eastern Iowa through central and northern Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and western and central Pennsylvania. This swath of the country made Donald J. Trump our forty-fifth president. It’s not surprising then that there’s a quest underway to find out what makes us tick.
As someone who speaks with politically minded people all over Illinois, southern Wisconsin, and eastern Iowa on the radio (12 counties in my listening area that went for Obama in 2012 went to Trump in 2016) every day for going on ten straight years, I think I’m dialed into the zeitgeist of towns like this a bit more than a 25-year-old beat reporter from the Washington Post three years out of Princeton who spent one Saturday at a diner. I’ve built a life, relationships, a successful small business, and a home here for more than a decade now. I’m dug in.
So here’s some messages I think small towns and rural communities that voted for Trump tried to send to everyone else on Election Day 2016:
1. We’re Not Here Because We’re Dumb Failures
Fareed Zakaria, trying to figure out why the Rust Belt voted for Trump, opened his first post-election show on CNN with a well-intentioned but rather tone-deaf analysis of this divide between “cities” and “rural” in America today:
Over the last three or four decades America has sorted itself into a highly efficient meritocracy where people from all walks of life can move up the ladder of achievement and income, usually ending up in cities. It’s a better way than using race or gender or bloodlines as a path to wealth and power, but it does create it’s own problems. As with any system, there will be people who don’t ascend to the top. And because it’s a meritocracy it’s easy to believe that this is justified. That they deserve it. A meritocracy can be blind to the fact that some people don’t make it, because they were unlucky, they were up against tough odds. More profoundly, it can be morally blind. Even those who score poorly on tests or have bad work habits are human beings, deserving of attention and respect.
Zakaria is more than a bit off. Do you know why many people live in small towns like mine? Because they love the feeling of community and belonging. They like the schools here, and the pride and sense of identity (think high school sports mascots) that come with living in a town that’s not merely a satellite of a giant city.
For many, their extended family lives nearby, which often makes raising children as well as finding baby sitters easier and more desirable than indifferent employees at daycare centers in cities. But I don’t know a single working adult in the ten years I’ve lived here who believes he or she is “stuck” here because he or she “scored poorly on tests” or “has bad work habits.” Like my wife and I, they choose to live here, and they love it.
Have some people fell on hard times in the past couple of decades due to the loss of manufacturing jobs and the stagnant economy in general? Absolutely. But to suggest that “successful” people live in cities and “failures” live in rural communities isn’t even any sort of over-simplification, it’s just flat out wrong (not to mention offensive).
We’re uneducated? Who do you think runs our schools and hospitals? Most of the teachers at our local public high school have master’s degrees (as do my wife and I, for whatever that’s worth). Who do you think runs our court systems and dental offices and what’s left of our manufacturing plants? Or do you think, to quote a dismissive “Saturday Night Live” joke, our city councils are comprised of a bunch of hissing possums?
2. We Don’t Care a Lot about ‘Income Inequality’
Look, everyone wants to make more money than they do right now. (Have you ever turned down a raise?) The best way to make money is through a decent and steady job, which, yes, for many of us has not been as steady and as secure of late.
But the whole concept of “income inequality” presupposes the concept of a fixed pie: some people (“the rich”) having bigger pieces at the expense of those with smaller pieces (the “not-rich”). We don’t believe in this. We’re about substantially increasing the diameter of the pie, i.e., growing the economy, so everyone has an opportunity to make more money.
We couldn’t care less if that means others make substantially more than we do. A dentist is going to (and should) make more than a pizza deliveryman. If my neighbor’s income goes from $100,000 to $200,000 in one year while mine goes from $50,000 to $100,000, the “income gap” between us has increased, but who cares? I’m happy for my neighbor, and I hope he’s happy for me.
What about corporate greed and the Wall Street bankers? Is there resentment towards them? Absolutely. But here’s what so many seem to miss: it’s not the corporate greed or the high salaries and wealth accumulation that bothers us, it’s corporate welfare and cronyism. We pay a great deal of attention to our tax money and where it goes.
So when people hear that money they work hard for and send large chunks of to Washington somehow gets transferred to people who are already doing quite well because they screwed something up, such as the 2008-2009 bailout, you bet that ticks us off. This reverse-Robin Hood taking from the working-middle class and giving it to those that don’t deserve and certainly didn’t earn it is what ignited the Tea Party movement in 2009, and that anger carried over to fuel support for Trump’s candidacy.
So please don’t mistake our revulsion for corporate welfare and cronyism with a mandate to “fix income inequality.” People are always going to make more than others, and we don’t begrudge those who do. For crying out loud, we just enthusiastically voted for a flashy billionaire from New York City for president.
3. Stop Talking to Us Nonstop About Climate Change
Look, not everyone around here thinks man-made climate change is a complete hoax. Yes, we understand and appreciate science, thank you very much. I have a white roof on my house as do many others in my town, my wife and I drive two fuel-efficient cars, we buy locally as much as possible, and I live less than a mile away from my office. My family’s “carbon footprint” is minuscule. Farmer’s markets are very popular here, just like in cities. And for better or worse, we’ve got those gargantuan white windmills out here a plenty.
But please, for the love of God, stop constantly hectoring us about global warming. Stop trying to tie literally every extreme weather occurrence to the “effects of climate change.” We know all about extreme weather. We get it, literally. My city of Rochelle was hit by an EF-4 tornado last year that wiped out many of my good friends’ homes, and numerous areas not far from us have also dealt with tornados and devastating floods over the years. But every time we hear some coastal progressive scream to us about how we’re not going to exist in a couple of decades due to “the effects of climate change,” we simply don’t buy it, especially after so many of the sky-is-falling predictions of the past turned out to be totally false.
What do you want us to do, exactly? We’re being energy efficient. We’re not polluting. We care about our environment and nature and wildlife. But stop with the alarmism all the time, everywhere. It’s just not resonating, and you have the global warming boys-who-cried-wolf of the past to thank for that.
4. Stop Lecturing at Us About Race and Identity Politics
We’ve heard more than a few race-obsessed pundits on TV decry these election results as a “whitelash” that heralds some kind of pivot back to a more racist America, based solely on the fact that middle- and working-class white voters in the Rust Belt played such a huge role in the outcome. We completely reject this characterization and are offended by it.
Let me give an entirely different interpretation of what this election meant in terms of race: a call for a pivot away from “race consciousness” altogether. I’m going to say some things some might find uncomfortable. For us to really have an honest discussion about race, we’re going to have face some ugly truths about ourselves. Are you ready?
The paragraph above is how just about every discussion on race, and more often than not “white privilege,” begins, under the guise that it actually is a point-counterpoint discussion. It never is. It’s always a lecture: “This is how YOU need to think about race, people. You need to be conscious of it. Also, if you’re not a person of color, you better damn well realize how privileged you are.”
People don’t like being lectured to, which is one of the reasons so many find political correctness so unappealing. So how about this for a message regarding race obsession, identity politics, and political correctness in general: Enough. Let’s try something different.
A woman named Natasha Howell posted on Facebook shortly after the Dallas shootings:
So this morning I went into a convenient store to get a protein bar. As I walked through the door, I noticed that there were two white police officers (one about my age the other several years older) talking to the clerk (an older white women) behind the counter about the shootings that have gone on in the past few days. They all looked at me and fell silent. I went about my business to get what I was looking for, as I turned back up the isle to go pay, the oldest officer was standing at the top of the isle watching me. As I got closer he asked me, ‘How I was doing?’ I replied, ‘Okay, and you?’ He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, ‘How are you really doing?’ I looked at him and said ‘I’m tired!’ His reply was, ‘me too.’ Then he said, ‘I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now is it.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not.’ Then he hugged me and I cried. I had never seen that man before in my life. I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me. What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning, that was absolutely beautiful. No judgments, No justifications, just two people sharing a moment.
We need more of this.
So can we have an honest discussion about race, identity politics, and “white privilege”? Maybe we should try the opposite of what we’re doing right now, which I think we can all agree is not working (unless you believe race relations have gotten better recently?). Maybe we at least attempt to move away from categorizing people based on their skin color and instead focus on, I don’t know… their actions? The content of their character? Their words, deeds, and accomplishments? Maybe we stop treating “colorblindness” as a dirty word?
Maybe Morgan Freeman was on to something when he told Mike Wallace in an interview on “60 Minutes” years ago, when asked how we’re going to get rid of racism: “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man. And I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman. You’re not going to say, ‘I know this white guy named Mike Wallace.’ Hear what I’m saying?”
Rather than “searching deep” for those “ugly truths about ourselves,” (that we all hold latent if not blatant racist thoughts) maybe we should search instead for good things within us. Are we able to even entertain the possibility that these “ugly truths” we are constantly being told we hold here were maybe never there to begin with?
5. Stop Assuming the Worst About Us
We’re not bigots. We’re not sexists. We don’t hate LGBT people. We’re not racists. We resent the implication that we are all of these things by default, and that it’s somehow incumbent upon us to proactively prove we’re not. How about you assume the best about us first? Let our actions and behaviors dictate how you think about us, as individuals, not what you think we think.
You know what most of us are thinking about 90 percent the time? Our families. Our jobs. Our friends and coworkers. When our next vacation is, and if we’re actually traveling anywhere for it. How much our sports teams stink (well, except the Cubs). When new episodes of our favorite shows start again. What specifically we’re doing this weekend (which gloriously might be just staying home with our families).
Does any of this sound familiar? The other 10 percent of our time maybe we’ll squeeze in some political concerns, and we probably do disagree with you about a lot of them, but there’s not a whole lot of room in our lives for hate or bigotry or whatever else it is you think we think about.
Bonus: Here’s What We Care About
So what political issues do we care about? Well, here’s where the polls and a lot of pundits are right:
- Securing our border (which is not about a “fear of brown people,” and stop telling us it is);
- Repealing Obamacare (which is not because Obama is black); and
- Bringing jobs back to the United States and growing our economy (which is not about hating the rich or wanting to fix “income inequality”).
We expect this new president to focus on these things first. He ran on these things, he won, and Republicans kept control of both houses of Congress. Yes, like 2008 and 2012, elections indeed have consequences, so while you can protest all you like, please don’t act shocked as these things start becoming policy next year.
So please, come on out and visit us here in flyover country. Sorry, Chicago doesn’t count. I’m talking about the small towns of America. You may be surprised about what you see and experience here.
We are diverse. We love the arts. We love visiting cities, even though we may have no desire to live in them. We are proud of where we live, are not “stuck” here, and care a great deal about our country and where it’s headed. We have optimism about the future, and that optimism isn’t rooted in hatred, fear, or bigotry but in a truly deep love of the United States and its Constitution, its history—warts and all—our families, our neighbors, and yes, for many of us, our love of God.
We promise to listen to you if you promise to listen to us. I mean really, truly listen. But the deal is, you have to assume the best about us first, not the worst. And we’ll do the same for you high falutin’ city folks. Deal?