There’s been a cute trend on social media recently. One shares a picture from some earlier time and one that’s more current. I’ve seen these contrasting young children with their adult selves, with couples at first meeting and now years into marriage, or pre-pandemic (remember then?) and today. The little game communicates both stability and change over time.
As the Trump campaign and their allies have attempted to litigate and re-litigate and re-re-litigate the 2020 election results, I kept hearing echoes of familiar themes. When the Texas lawsuit (outrageously endorsed by most of the Republican establishment and thankfully — but expectedly — stopped at the Supreme Court) complained of the votes in their four target swing states, it spoke of alleged problems in their large cities. Giuliani said, without evidence beyond questionable affidavits, that these cities had long been sources of fraud. In other words, these Democrat[ic] cities cannot be trusted with fair elections and that those who voted for Trump had been disenfranchised somehow.
How does such an argument make any sense? Because Real America is only those parts of the country that voted for Trump.
In October of 2008, VP candidate Sarah Palin spoke to supporters at a fundraiser in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her remarks, which were striking at the time but soon became part of her stump speech, suggested a narrow view of who Real Americans were.
“We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe” — here the audience interrupted Palin with applause and cheers — “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom (emphasis mine).”
I could point out that there are lots of factories in urban areas (or their suburbs), that there are teachers working hard and loving their students, and that military service is a common path for social mobility for urban minority populations. But that’s not the heart of her statement. Her claim was that rural America is where you find Real Americans and we can’t be sure about people who live in the urban areas, particularly those on the coasts.
I’m sure that Palin wasn’t the first to express such sentiments. They likely are echoes from early century populism. But I remember when I heard these comments and the resulting sense that I was being discounted from who counts as American.
I was reminded this week (thanks to a post from Rob Schenck) of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land –my 2016 review is here. She tells the story of residents of rural Louisiana who have come to feel that they have been left behind and that our political institutions don’t care about them. They don’t like being told how they’re supposed to feel about guns or religion or gays.
It is true that Democratic candidates haven’t helped those fears. Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” and Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comments fed into the perceived disrespect of the Real Americans (resulting in great sales of Deplorables t-shirts). Romney’s unfortunate comments about “47% of the electorates were takers” who wanted free stuff also fit their theory.
But the media has fallen over themselves trying to understand these rural and small town Republicans who were so central to Trump’s election races. There have been far too many “man in diner” stories where the interviewee repeats Fox News talking points and the journalist takes them at face value. Yet, the distrust of the media has only increased, part of the great conspiracy to deprive Real Americans from their due.
Trump distinguished himself among presidents in only caring about his base. He elevated these Real Americans to a position of prominence they believed they hadn’t gotten before and they loved it. It is no surprise that the geography of Trump Rallies are what they are. Even last week he didn’t go to the Atlanta area (where Republicans need to staunch the bleeding in their suburban support) but to Valdosta. Because Real Americans live in Valdosta and not in Atlanta.
He has centered urban areas like Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit in his speeches and tweets and suggests that they are broken hell-holes, good only for rats and crime. His administration has made no effort to address challenges in those urban areas, opting for photo ops and vague claims (enterprise zones!).
It is no surprise, then, that Trump caravans were popular in blue state areas. It doesn’t take a huge showing to make a video splash and disrupt traffic, giving a middle-finger to the blue-leaning cities in the process. It is no surprise that a teenager would travel from his small town in Illinois and drive to Kenosha to protect businesses from Antifa, murdering two people in the process.
Which brings us to Rudy and friends making accusations about fraud. Because they begin with a generalized distrust of a place like Detroit, it’s easy to suggest that ballots were discovered and dead people voted and ballots were backdated. [By the way, when I lived in Illinois 40 years ago, a Tribune opinion writer said “dead people vote in Chicago and cows vote downstate.”) For so many votes to have been cast for Biden in Wayne County something had to be fishy (it couldn’t be that the city has a large minority presence and Biden won those populations by over 80%). There must have been fraud.
This winds up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only Real American votes count and everybody else cannot be trusted, as The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer wrote a couple of days ago. As I write this, a “stop the steal” rally is underway in Washington. Because Real Americans voted for Trump and states certified Biden as the winner, obviously the election was stolen.
Palin’s comments, surprising in 2008 to the point that the campaign walked them back, has become the default position of the Republican Party. Texas GOP chair Allen West (who was outrageous as a Florida congressman) suggests secession is in order. People like Michael Flynn suggest we need to overturn the election to protect “the soul of America”.
This puts remarkable pressure on President-Elect Biden. He has made it clear through the campaign that he, too, wants to heal the soul of America. But he means ALL of America, not just a part.
Moving forward from where we are now will require a very different approach to our politics, our reporting, and our sociological analysis. If we are to bridge these divides, and that’s a big if, we will need to find common stories regardless of geography. We will need concrete solutions at local, state, and national levels to the issues that the Pandemic has made visible that we would prefer to ignore. And somehow, we will need to learn to trust our neighbors — rural and urban — again.
I’ve started reading The Upswing by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett. It traces the ways in which America was characterized by individualism and inequality in the first part of the 20th century, saw that shift to better social cohesion post WWII, and then return to its earlier character over the last 50 years. Their point is that we can change if we choose to. It will be a hard road, but the optimist in me says that there is still hope.