By ROBERT LEONARD JAN. 5, 2017, New York Times
Image from article, with caption: Trump supporters in Iowa last January
Knoxville, Iowa — One recent morning, I sat near two young men at a coffee shop
here whom I’ve known since they were little boys. Now about 18, they pushed away
from the table, and one said: “Let’s go to work. Let the liberals sleep in.” The other
They’re hard workers. As a kid, one washed dishes, took orders and swept the
floor at a restaurant. Every summer, the other picked sweet corn by hand at dawn for
a farm stand and for grocery stores, and then went to work all day on his parents’
farm. Now one is a welder, and the other is in his first year at a state university on an
academic scholarship. They are conservative, believe in hard work, family, the
military and cops, and they know that abortion and socialism are evil, that Jesus
Christ is our savior, and that Donald J. Trump will be good for America.
They are part of a growing movement in rural America that immerses many
young people in a culture — not just conservative news outlets but also home and
church environments — that emphasizes contemporary conservative values. It views
liberals as loathsome, misinformed and weak, even dangerous.
Who are these rural, red-county people who brought Mr. Trump into power?
I’m a native Iowan and reporter in rural Marion County, Iowa. I consider myself
fairly liberal. My family has mostly voted Democratic since long before I was born.
To be honest, for years, even I have struggled to understand how these conservative
friends and neighbors I respect — and at times admire — can think so differently
from me, not to mention how over 60 percent of voters in my county could have
chosen Mr. Trump.
Political analysts have talked about how ignorance, racism, sexism, nationalism,
Islamophobia, economic disenfranchisement and the decline of the middle class
contributed to the popularity of Mr. Trump in rural America. But this misses the
deeper cultural factors that shape the thinking of the conservatives who live here.
For me, it took a 2015 pre-caucus stop in Pella by J. C. Watts, a Baptist minister
raised in the small town of Eufaula, Okla., who was a Republican congressman from
1995 to 2003, to begin to understand my neighbors — and most likely other rural
Americans as well.
“The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe
people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,”
said Mr. Watts, who was in the area to campaign for Senator Rand Paul. “We are
born bad,” he said and added that children did not need to be taught to behave badly
— they are born knowing how to do that.
“We teach them how to be good,” he said. “We become good by being reborn —
He continued: “Democrats believe that we are born good, that we create God,
not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to
look at something else to blame when things go wrong — not us.”
Mr. Watts talked about the 2015 movie theater shooting in Lafayette, La., in
which two people were killed. Mr. Watts said that Republicans knew that the
gunman was a bad man, doing a bad thing. Democrats, he added, “would look for
other causes — that the man was basically good, but that it was the guns, society or
some other place where the blame lies and then they will want to control the guns, or
something else — not the man.” Republicans, he said, don’t need to look anywhere
else for the blame.
Hearing Mr. Watts was an epiphany for me. For the first time I had a glimpse of
where many of my conservative friends and neighbors were coming from. I thought,
no wonder Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on things like gun control,
regulations or the value of social programs. We live in different philosophical worlds,
with different foundational principles.
Overlay this philosophical perspective on the American rural-urban divides [JB emphasis] of
history, economy and geography, and the conservative individual responsibility
narrative becomes even more powerful. In my experience, the urban-rural divide
isn’t really so much a red state versus blue state issue, it’s red county versus blue
county. Rural Iowans have more in common with the rural residents of Washington
State and New Mexico — places I’ve also lived — than with the residents of Des
Moines, Seattle and Albuquerque.
Look at a national map of which counties went for Democrats and which for
Republicans: Overwhelmingly the blue counties are along waterways, where early
river transportation encouraged the formation of cities, and surround state capitals.
This is also where most investment in infrastructure and services is made. Rural
Americans recognize that this is how it must be, as the cities are where most of the
people are, yet it’s a sore spot.
In state capitols across America, lawmakers spend billions of dollars to take a
few seconds off a city dweller’s commute to his office, while rural counties’ farm-to-market
roads fall into disrepair. Some of the paved roads in my region are no longer
maintained and are reverting to gravel. For a couple of generations now, services
that were once scattered across rural areas have increasingly been consolidated in
urban areas, and rural towns die. It’s all done in the name of efficiency.
In cities, firefighters and E.M.T.s are professionals whose departments are
funded by local, state and federal tax dollars. Rural America relies on volunteers. If I
have a serious heart attack at home, I’ll be cold to the touch by the time the
volunteer ambulance crew from a town 22 miles away gets here.
Urban police officers have the latest in computer equipment and vehicles, while
small-town cops go begging.
In this view, blue counties are where most of our tax dollars are spent, and
that’s where all of our laws are written and passed. To rural Americans, sometimes it
seems our taxes mostly go to making city residents live better. We recognize that the
truth is more complex, particularly when it comes to social programs, but it’s the
perception that matters — certainly to the way most people vote.
To make matters worse, jobs are continuing to move to metropolitan areas.
Small-town chamber of commerce directors and mayors still have big dreams, and
use their perkiest grins and tax abatements to try to lure new businesses, only to see
their hopes dashed, time and again. Many towns with a rich history and strong
community pride are already dead; their citizens just don’t know it yet.
Many moderate rural Republicans became supporters of Mr. Trump when he
released his list of potential Supreme Court nominees who would allow the
possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade. They also think the liberal worldview creates
unnecessary rules and regulations that cripple the economy and take away good jobs
that may belong to them or their neighbor. Public school systems and colleges are
liberal tools of indoctrination that go after what we love and value most — our
Some of what liberals worry about they see as pure nonsense. When you are the
son or daughter of a carpenter or mechanic and a housewife or secretary who lives
paycheck to paycheck, who can’t afford to send kids to college, as many rural
residents are, white privilege is meaningless and abstract.
It’s not just older people. The two young men at breakfast exemplify a younger
generation with this view. When Ted Cruz campaigned in a neighboring town in
2015, I watched as a couple of dozen grade-school pupils sat at his feet, as if they
were at a children’s service at church. His campaign speech was nearly a sermon,
and the children listened wide-eyed when he told them the world is a scary place,
and it’s godly men like him who are going to save them from the evils of President
Obama, Hillary Clinton and their fellow Democrats.
While many blame poor decisions by Mrs. Clinton for her loss, in an
environment like this, the Democratic candidate probably didn’t matter. And the
Democratic Party may not for generations to come. The Republican brand is strong
in rural America — perhaps even strong enough to withstand a disastrous Trump
Rural conservatives feel that their world is under siege, and that Democrats are
an enemy to be feared and loathed. Given the philosophical premises Mr. Watts
presented as the difference between Democrats and Republicans, reconciliation
seems a long way off.
Robert Leonard is the news director for the radio stations KNIA/KRLS.