I’ve always had an affection for the American heartland — the countryside, the small towns, the open roads. And the people. They are famously friendly and helpful. Not like the closed-faced New Yorkers I was born among, or the folks in LA, where I grew up, who don’t know the meaning of the word “neighbor” and seem most at home in their cars.
In all my road trips through heartland America, I always knew the people were miles away from me politically, they hero-worshipped politicians I couldn’t stand, they were into guns and American flags, many were evangelical Christians and believed abortion was murder. But except for the out-and-out racists, their politics didn’t get in the way of my basic good will toward them.
Not only did I tend to like the Middle Americans I came across, I liked liking them. I am an urban/suburban, college-educated, liberal journalist, and the last thing on earth I want to be accused of is being an effete snob, an elitist. Also, I do not believe in judging people by their political views, so if the folks in rural Pennsylvania were Republicans, if they loved Reagan, if they’d supported the Iraq War and even the Vietnam War, I put that aside and tried to open my heart and mind to the warm, easy-going people I met/
But Trump has changed all that. And not just in terms of my own feelings about Middle Americans — who, of course, are not the only people who voted for Trump, but who live away from the Democrat-dominated coasts and metropolises, in the vast interior of America that used to be called Reagan Country, then Bush Country and now must be called Trump Country. My sense is that many if not most Democrats feel like I do: alienated from them. Bewildered by them, scared of them.
The thing I keep hearing from my friends and family in America is: Great, Trump lost, but his 74 million voters are still here. What can we do about them?
I don’t know.
Seventy-four million Americans, 47 percent of the electorate! And that’s after four years of this freak show, after he treated the coronavirus pandemic like “fake news.” Eleven million more people voted for him this time than the first time. And since the November election, they’ve gotten worse politically, they’ve gotten crazier: According to the polls, anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of Republicans think the election was rigged and that by rights, Trump won it.
And how many of them believe this QAnon lunacy about the Democrats being a Satanic cult of pedophiles? In Trump Country, this is not a fringe doctrine.
The notion that Middle America has, for the most part, gone nuts is not something you’ll read or hear much in the mass media. There’s a taboo against making negative generalizations about people (positive ones are encouraged, though), and it’s bad for business — at least some Trump voters watch CNN, after all, and for Anderson Cooper to cast aspersions on 47 percent of the American electorate — it’s unthinkable.
And the left-wing media won’t say it, either, because we’re talking mainly about the working-class, the common man, the salt of the earth, The People, so the left isn’t about to blame anything on them. No, for public consumption, the problem is limited to Trump, to Trump and the Republicans, to Trump and Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the cabal, and the folks who voted for him are off-limits to criticism.
But nobody forced these people to vote for him. These people are adults. And huge masses of American adults didn’t just vote for Trump, they idolize him, they cult-worship him. And the lower he goes, the more they love him. (I’m not going to give examples; everybody knows the examples, by now either you agree that this has been a horror show or you don’t, there’s no point arguing about it anymore.)
I know several people who voted for Trump, and I like them very much — but as far as I know they supported him for “sane” reasons: because they wanted lower taxes, or they liked what he did for Israel, or they couldn’t stand liberalism, the Clintons or Obama. None of those reasons are crazy or evil. I’m not aware that any of the people I’m talking about think the election was rigged and that Trump rightfully won. (Frankly, I’m afraid to ask them, precisely because I like them so much).
But the Bizarro World phenomenon of Trump and Trumpism hasn’t run on sanity and non-evil; just the opposite. There are 330 million people in America; Trump got 47 percent of the vote. As many as 80 percent of Republicans think the election was rigged. So how many Americans are not just Trump supporters but Trump cultists? Tens of millions, certainly. A hundred million? Maybe, maybe even more.
I don’t understand these people. At all. And while as individuals they may very well be great neighbors, great friends, great mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, they are miserable excuses for American citizens. They are a blight on the American body politic. As a political force, they’re dangerous and scary.
I want to go back to heartland America because it’s so beautiful and interesting. But I wonder how I’m going to feel sitting in a restaurant or going into a store and listening to all the people around me. If I’ve had a positive prejudice toward them in the past, I wonder what sort of prejudice I’ll have in the future. And as Biden prepares to take over and try to “heal” America, I am not the only one of his 81 million voters who’s having these kinds of thoughts.