With the Democrats in control of the U. S. House, President Donald Trump seems to be reviving his base with fiery rhetoric. We all know who members of that base are — Woebegone innocents of earlier days, a time when, if corn prices flourished, so did the nation. As a kid, my father smoked cigarettes behind a barn in rural Indiana. My stepmother picked blackberries along the dusty roads of Wisconsin. When I wrote about those times in my novel, Heart Land, my expertise came from my upbringing.
Naturally, the landscape looks different today. To some, the country seems bifurcated between the small towns in Middle America and the cosmopolitan cities on the east and west coast. That split is surprising, because many coastal residents are descendants of the dust bowl immigrants — men and women who fled from places like Kansas and Oklahoma, hoping to find work, particularly in the booming factories on the west coast. On holidays, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, or perhaps a funeral, many of these immigrants and their offspring fly home to where the corn stands tall.
A surface reading of Heart Land suggests homogeneity thrives in small, Midwest communities, a fact which makes the people more conservative than in the cities. That would be a false conclusion. Diversity blooms wherever people congregate. Eccentrics appear in my novel, even though they cast a soft shadow. The owner of the Marabar diner gives his restaurant a foreign name. Is it to reflect he is the only Jew in town? Uncle Henry, Ray McCartney, Mr. & Mrs. Katafias, Angel McBride and the cantankerous alley cat, Bodacious Scurvy, all struggle to find their place among their neighbors. Some succeed. Some don’t.
The people of Middle America, those who refused to ride the Dust Bowl winds to other geographic points, may indeed feel left behind, disgruntled by a shifting economy. When Donald Trump talks to them about making American great again, he aims at their hearts and their memories. Sadly, he gives them false hope.
Two writers suspect there’s more to their support for Trump than economics and nostalgia. In their article for The Nation , Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel declare “Economic Anxiety Didn’t Make People Vote Donald Trump, Racism Did.” They lay out a cogent argument and fellow writer James Wolcott, agrees. Wolcott goes further. What small town America hates most is liberals. (Twilight at the Diner,” by James Wolcott, Vanity Fair, October 2018, pgs. 104-106) The media, he suggests, would do well to stop listening to these Woebegoners. Their message is as stale as the past they long for. We’d do better, he avows, to “drop a cloth over the parrot cage.” (Ibid, pg.106)
In a small sense, I agree. All these media speculations about why people support Donald Trump have run their course like a high fever. The population has listened and yet we are no wiser. Racism isn’t confined to Kansas or Ohio or Alabama, and we well know it. Nor are liberal ideas entirely unwelcome in the heartland. Once they got the hang of the liberal notion of universal health care, those folks took to it along with the rest of the nation.
To believe Trump supporters are different from the rest of us doesn’t bear scrutiny. Nor does dropping a cloth over the parrot cage do anything except build walls. We have enough of those, already. Like Robert Frost*, before I built a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in and walling out. Distrust, rancor, a fear of the “other,” these are human emotions and more common than we may care to admit. Observe the snarling faces at a rally. Can you tell by the expressions, alone, if they belonged to conservative or liberal thinkers?