by Serena Patterson
I have always been a romantic about Iowa. I blame this on a number of things, including my father’s profession. Rural pastors in that part of the world are so revered that it is commonplace for their children to mistake them for God. In my pre-adolescent years I breathed in the benevolence of my dad’s congregation like sweet, clover-scented air, and I played under the attentive gaze of adoring old women who dispensed lemonade,
peppermints, reprimands and local history lessons from front porches.
I also blame the understated beauty of the place. I looked out my school window one day in 1970 and felt that my heart would break at the thought of leaving the line of trees that marked the edges of my playground, the corn fields beyond, the little store on the other side of the road, and of course my father’s church.
There was, in 1970, very little diversity in the population—most of the people who lived in Iowa were born there. We called ourselves Middle Class, Middle West, Middle America and Heartland people–the only truly ordinary ordinary people in the entire world. We were, in our way, the center of the universe. Andy Griffith and Norman Rockwell were our kind of folks.
Maybe it’s the halo of childhood that protects my view of Iowa. It was the last place I spent an entire summer barefooted, hid my dolls in a tree house, decorated my bicycle for the town festival, sang pop tunes at the top of my voice outdoors, or really believed that the Monkeys could be, as they sang at the end of every show, coming to my town. We moved when I was 13, and consequently Humeston, Iowa was the last place where I felt that belonging mattered more than my awkward ways. There was a sureness to the step of my dusty feet, and true sincerity in singing my School Song.
Last November, that curtain of romance came crashing down. Iowa, my Iowa, went solidly Republican. A detailed breakdown of the vote showed that rural, White, Christian Americans—my neighbors, put Donald Trump in the Whitehouse.
How can I explain this? And how can I predict what will come of it?
I am not entirely dependent on childhood memories for answers. I am, through Facebook, witness to the things that Midwestern White people tell themselves about themselves these days. I drive between Chicago and South Dakota every summer, visiting my brother in the Rust Belt city of Rockford, Illinois, and my mother in her Vermillion, South Dakota nursing home. In between I drop in on friends and relatives. I catch a bit of talk radio
On the other hand, I am used to seeing the United States from the standpoint of other countries, especially Canada and Europe. I read voraciously and of course I live here on Canada’s West Coast.
Finally, and not insignificantly, I am married to a German. After a childhood of playing war games of Americans against “Krauts” and “Japs” (nearly every child I knew was the offspring of a WW II veteran), I have witnessed the unremarkable decency of a people who once committed an efficient and brutal project of mass murder and genocide. The Trump machine is so like that of Hitler that I sometimes suspect his advisors of using Hitler’s rise as a road map of “how to do it,” with “it” being the ultimate corruption of a modern, pluralistic society into one governed by Racism, Fascist Totalitarianism, and Misogyny.
Yes, I am frightened. I fear that the country I have loved all of my life, the way one unconditionally loves one’s own crazy and colourful family, is truly in for a nightmare. Maybe even a bloodbath.
Most of the people whom I suspect of voting Republican do not self-identify as White Supremacists, Fascists, or Misogynists. But some do. I would be shocked by this if I had not heard those snippets of talk radio on my annual summer road trips. To my horror and dismay, this is real.
Something very bad has simmered under the surface of the United States since the very beginning, when people established a “New World” upon the spoils of colonization and slavery. It is a country built upon beautiful dreams but with a deep and painful shadow. It likes to believe itself to be better than human nature, and that is a dangerous belief. Once in a while, the shadow makes itself known.
The American Civil War, the terrorism of the KKK, the Indian Wars, Trails of Tears and various massacres that enabled European Western settlement, the often secretive but bloody battles over collective bargaining and worker’s rights in mines and factories, the beatings, jailings and murder of 1960’s Civil Rights activists, and a racialized backlash against the Obamas all echo an original sin of taking land and labour that was not one’s own. It happened a long time ago, we can’t seem to fix it and we don’t like to think about it. But it trips us up repeatedly, like the curse an unhappy ancestor.
And here it is again, turning neighbour against neighbour in the heartland. Making us afraid of one another, and even more afraid of the “other”—the Muslim, the Immigrant, the Gay, the Mexican, the young Black man, the Feminist. Words like C**t and C**ksucker that should never be uttered outside of a grungy biker bar are rapidly becoming mainstreamed. Racial Slurs that I thought were gone out of public conversation for good are back. Labels that I wear with pride, like “Social Justice Warrior,” “Feminist” and “Liberal” have gained a tone of sneering irony, even threat.
The epicenter of the crisis is Rural America, where good people are numbing themselves to the reality of it. In a part of the country where the social safety net consists mostly of neighbours helping one another, ignoring the growing storm as long as possible makes sense. Politics and religion are considered impolite conversation because they divide people,. Where bad weather or unexpected illness can still sink a family, you want good neighbours to stay good neighbours. .
Meanwhile, the urban political Left is, to my thinking, making two mistakes. First, they are trying to “understand” and sympathize with a new, victimized underdog—the White Rural American Male. The object of this sympathy was anxious but not particularly oppressed before being courted by talk radio, the “Alt Right” Breitbach News, and Trump himself, who masterfully turned anxiety into a sense of affronted entitlement and then fanned that entitlement into a dangerous rage. It’s not a very Leftist thing to say, but too much sympathy can be toxic in certain situations.
I’m not saying there is not a problem with economics or social displacement—the conversion of family farms to factory farms has had brutal effects on communities. But being framed as victims isn’t helping Midwestern or Southern white people to find their better selves. Doing that requires many things, beginning with restored education (Iowans once built one the best set of colleges and universities in the nation) and continuing to innovation, community investment and restored pride of place.
The second mistake is to continue soul searching about how we lost the election. Hillary didn’t lose the election. Even with her unfortunate “deplorables” moment, she ran a good, tight, organized and inspired campaign. Trump won the election. Sometimes that happens—the other side wins. Have we already forgotten how to take this with stubborn grace? The Left is too good at turning upon itself when embattled from the outside.
Democrats were beaten in an unfair fight with people who played by newly destructive rules. When a fight with “gentlemen’s rules” (or “gentle people’s rules,” if you prefer) becomes a free-for-all, one has two choices. Either sink to the lowest common denominator, or restore order. The latter requires rule enforcement, clear sanctions against rule-breakers, and periodic, judicious revision of rules to fit new contexts (such as the inventions of nuclear weapons, automatic rifles, and the Internet). It’s hard work; much harder than being sympathetic to the enemy’s complaints or looking to cast blame among one’s own.
I personally admire Barach Obama very much, but he left too much of the “War on Terror” machinery in place. He didn’t arrest war criminals. He failed to win electoral reform. He used high levels of unchecked presidential power, which was useful for a benevolent president who was hampered by an obstructionist Republican Congress. I wish he had been able instead to dismantle that unchecked power. Now, we will see where a more Machiavellian regime with an openly hateful philosophy of White Supremacy can take us by presidential decree.
Although I tend to agree more often with the urban Left, the rural Right is generally not hard for me to understand or to respect. Old-school Republicans are usually willing to live by the rules they apply to others. They truly believe in self-reliance, do their part to keep their family and their community above water, rely upon a predictable social order, and teach strict definitions of right and wrong.. They don’t make babies and then abandon them. They pay their bills and keep their commitments. They shop locally to keep business healthy. They contribute to their church and to charities. They are my uncles, aunts, cousins, and old neighbours. We don’t always agree but we are family and they are decent folks.
These people must be deeply divided within themselves. How can a church-going Christian vote for a philandering, boasting, obscene playboy? How can a hardware store owner vote for someone who has repeatedly used bankruptcy laws to stiff workers and contractors? These are the sorts of sins that tar a family for generations in a town like Humeston, Iowa.
And yet, they were told for 40 years that Hillary Clinton was the very embodiment of cold, uncaring, ambitious women who disdain the warmth of mothers. They were told that abortion is the murder of babies, equivalent to the massacre of the Jews in 1940’s Europe, and their own fathers fought on foreign soil to stop that. They are inclined to accept same sex marriage, in spite of being told it was evil, because, as my uncle put it, , “politics is politics; family is family. It’s time to bring that gal home to meet us.”
Islam is hard for them. They were taught that only Christians receive the grace of God, and that anything outside of Christianity is dangerous, evil, and cultish. They were told from the pulpit to vote for a Republican, any Republican, rather than see another “liberal” judge appointed to the Supreme Court. And I’ve already said how they feel about the man in the pulpit.
In the beginning, these were the people at whom I was most angry. They betrayed me, and every LGBTQ, female, brown-skinned, non-Christian, or liberally educated American. They put us in danger rather than bend on abortion or admit that Muslims may also have God’s grace. They thought their worries about higher health care premiums and more ESL kids in their district were more important that their neighbour’s heart condition or some family sitting in Turkey trying desperately to flee ISIS. In Biblical language, I wanted to send them their 30 pieces of silver and tell them to put it where the sun doesn’t shine.
But it may be these decent old-school Conservatives who, in the end, pull us back from the brink. Trump (or Steve Bannon, his Alt-Right Chief Advisor) would not be in office were it not for a large group of Conservatives who were willing vote for someone whom they cannot respect as a man, and whose beliefs are more extreme that their own. That kind of “support” is fragile.
If the hatred that undergirds the Trump administration shows its ugly fist fast enough, it may bring backlash from Republicans like Senator John McCain, who are not as a group hateful people. Trump can rule without liberal (Democrat) support, but he may not be able to rule if he has misjudged the level of blood-lust that people like my old neighbours will actually be willing to tolerate toward people like me. On the other hand, if the transformation goes slowly (and the obvious analogy here is climate change), or if some triggering event (a terrorist attack, real or staged, or a failed coup) occurs first, a two hundred and fifty year old Republic (and arguably, Democracy) is poised to fail.
Look at Turkey. As I write, democratically elected President Tayyip Erdogan, is transforming that country into a dictatorship. The country’s largest newspaper was closed, their equipment destroyed, their people arrested. People are disappearing in Turkey for doing what we are doing right now—writing, seeking out news, reading, speaking. D. Trump expresses admiration for this man.
It is still tempting to think that it won’t happen. American exceptionalism and denial run deep—that was Germany. That was Chile. That was Nicaragua. That is Turkey. Those things don’t happen nowadays in First World countries. Americans don’t do that.
But these things are happening. All over Europe, liberal democracies are threatened by the spread of the Alt-Right world view and the call for White Supremacist, Nationalist, Totalitarian movements. America has a shadow that is being fed a diet of fear, religious intolerance and racial superiority that has led to violence many times before. It is rising again.
Buckle up. We’re in historical times now, and if history tells us anything it is that ordinary people get taken for a rough ride indeed.
Serena Patterson, Feb. 26, 2017