It’s a scorching day in July, and you’re driving down a road bordered by dry, fissured fields. All you’ve seen for miles are barns, corn, cattle, and horses. When you roll down the windows, you smell cut grass and manure, and hear the electric, pulsating crescendo of a chorus of cicadas and the rattle and hum of farm machinery.
You pass by some men standing around a tractor gesturing and talking, eyes squinting against the late-morning sun. Hired hands. Short, powerful-looking, and brown-skinned.
Soon, you approach a village. It’s just a four corners, really: a convenience store/gas station, bar, coffee shop, and hair salon (which you later find out are all owned by the same person). Ford and Chevy pick-ups are parked in front of every building, some of them with gun racks.
You stop at the store for a soda, and while you wait at the cash register you Google the place and find out the population is 450.
When you hand the cashier your debit card, she tells you there’s a $5 minimum for purchases. This seems odd to you, but what you really want is breakfast anyway, so you apologize, put the soda back, and walk across the street to the coffee shop.
You take a seat. It’s a small place, nothing more than a worn counter running along both sides of the room with space in the middle to take orders and a small kitchen in the back. There’s country music playing on the local radio station.
The woman behind the counter, skinny, with scraggly hair and shadows under her eyes, is taking someone else’s order, but glances over at you and says, “Be right there, hon.”
The other patrons, all men with work clothes on, talk to each other with an easy familiarity in an accent you’ve never heard. They glance at you briefly then go back to their conversations and newspapers.
You order eggs, toast, bacon, and coffee. You ask for whole grain bread, but they only have white. You’d rather have turkey bacon, but you know better than to ask. You scan the counter for a little silver pitcher of half-and-half, but all you see are pyramids of artificial creamer stacked in bowls.
Waiting for your breakfast, and feeling self-conscious, you look down at your phone. Going back to Google, you find out there’s only one school here, for students K-12, and there’s a 37% student poverty rate.
The woman sets your food on the counter in front of you with a friendly smile and says, “Let me know if you need anything else, hon.” You dig in, and continue researching. You discover, after following a convoluted trail of links, that the county in which the village is located has only voted Democrat twice in the Presidential election in the last one-hundred and twenty years: 1996 and 1964.
The waitress comes to refill your coffee and asks, “You just drivin’ through?” You smile and say you’re on your way to the lake.
Going back to Google Maps to get the lay of the land, you see a few other businesses scattered around the village: a Methodist church, bulk food store, post office, library, farm stand that serves ice cream, and a funeral home. That’s it — until the next town.
Finished eating, you get up to pay. This time you’re prepared, armed with cash instead of plastic. Every eye in the place closely follows you when you walk across the room to the end of the counter.
As you walk out and get into your car, you see a sign on the bar across the street that says “Closed Sundays.” You think to yourself, Who would close a bar on Sundays with sports on TV?
On the way out of town, you pass a trailer with a satellite dish affixed to it, a barking dog out front, and a pair of worn work boots sticking out from under a rusty sedan with a Confederate flag sticker on the bumper.
Where the hell are you?
Let me give you some context:
The other day on Twitter, when I was commenting on a tweet about Ted Cruz and health care, someone with “MAGA” in their profile tweeted at me, “What makes YOU think you know anything about rural Texas?”
This person, you see, singled me out for attack among dozens of other people participating in the conversation because I have “NY” in my Twitter handle, and everyone knows that people from New York are out-of-touch city folk.
Except that little farming community I described above? I grew up there.
In Northern New York. AKA the North Country.
But I could have been describing Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa, Ohio, Montana, Texas …
And I could have stepped right out of a Journey or John Cougar Mellancamp song.
I’m just a small-town girl, and no I cannot forget where it is that I come from:
My father was an Air Force veteran and blue-collar worker. He worked in factories for most of his life, night shifts and double shifts with a long commute, finally making it to management in his forties. He was an electrician, carpenter, plumber, and a machinist. He could make or fix anything, an engineering genius who never got the chance to go to college. I wish he’d lived past the travesty of George W. to see the promise of Obama’s hope and change, but he died three months before his inauguration.
My mother was a homemaker and is still the best Mom in the world. She taught me how to read before I even entered Kindergarten at four, took me to the library every week, was one of my Girl Scout leaders, picked me up at school after late-night basketball games and school dances in lake-effect snowstorms, hemmed my collection of leopard-spotted punk pants ordered out of the back of Rolling Stone, and taught me the value of knowing words.
I grew up in a rambling old farmhouse; lived among conservative farm families, though my parents were Democrats; had religious neighbors (mainly Methodist and Mennonite), though my ostensibly Irish Catholic parents never expected any of us to darken a church door except for weddings or funerals; and graduated in a class of forty-five students (a huge class because we had recently merged with a nearby school).
I’ve walked the line between two worlds my entire life: a Progressive in the Deep North, an atheist in God’s country, an academic teaching at a college located in a Republican city in a Republican county in a Blue State.
So, what do I know about rural Texas Trump voters? I know enough about poor rural folk to know they almost always vote against their own best interests.
I know that the Republican plans for health care will hurt rural families who oppose the Affordable Care Act simply because Obama’s black, and that it will force rural hospitals and care centers to close.
I know that Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy aren’t going to help the middle class, let alone people who live at or below the poverty line.
I know that Betsy DeVos’ plan to defund public schools and give federal money to charter schools will devastate already-struggling rural schools like the one I attended; and school choice doesn’t mean a damn thing if no one is going to build a charter school within sixty miles of your town.
I know that the same people who complain about government “handouts” would have their lives changed by free college tuition, a crackdown on predatory lending, and an increase in the minimum wage, things Bernie Sanders — whom they disparagingly call a communist, socialist, fascist, or rich Jew–would have tried to achieve.
I know that the farm kids I went to school with, many of them now farmers themselves, deny the existence of global warming even though the evidence becomes harder to ignore each year and will indisputably have a negative effect on their livelihood.
I know that rural schoolkids and small business owners need access to the Internet to stay informed and competitive in a rapidly-changing world, but further consolidation of telecommunications and threats to net neutrality will ensure that broadband never reaches them – or if it does, it won’t be affordable.
And I know that farmers whose lands are lying fallow could use those wasted acres for wind and solar power and biofuel, but not when we have a President who owes favors to American and Russian oil magnates, and who is lying about coal making a comeback.
I know as much about rural Texas as I do about the rural North, the rural South, and the rural Midwest – which is to say, enough to know that I want something better for all of them. All of us.
You know what makes America great? The fact that a cowboy country singer from Montana like Rob Quist can end up running for a seat in the Senate as a Progressive Democrat; an immigrant Hollywood-type like Schwarzenegger can end up a Republican governor who also cared about climate change; and a Jewish guy from Brooklyn can end up an Independent senator serving a state with a rural, sport-hunting population.
And there a million more examples of everyday people–women, immigrants, people of color, and workers–who embody these same sorts of contradictions.
Trump and his administration want to keep us polarized because “civil war” makes destroying the rule of law easier. Don’t let them do it. Yes, there’s a faithful core of Trump supporters, largely inhabitants of rural America, exhibiting cult-like behavior, who will never give up on him – whether he’s already sold America to Russia, shoots someone in Times Square, or is caught on tape having sex with minors. Stop trying to reason with them. That time is over. Write them off and move on.
But the rest of us are going to have to start grudgingly working together – even if we don’t particularly like or respect one another. Maybe that means doing away with our two-party system, building a new Party for the People, contributing our time and money to Independent candidates, or just not automatically voting along party lines without first thinking about what it is we’re voting for.
In the end, if we don’t start drawing on our shared experiences to find some common ground (supporting a candidate who will make good on promises to secure universal health care would be a start), we’re going to lose this grand experiment we’re so proud of, our hard-won democracy.