Election morning was cold in west central Indiana. You could see the breath of those waiting to cast their ballot at the Lyford Volunteer Fire Department in Precinct 2 of Florida Township in rural Parke County. The line was surprisingly long for such a small town. It wound down the driveway, along the street and around the corner. The waiting voters were appropriately social distancing even if some did not believe in the pandemic.
It was not a chatty crowd. No one was complaining about the cold or the wait. Most were accustomed to working outside or sitting on a deer stand in subfreezing weather. No one asked or expected to be ushered to the head of the line. Having recently retired from fifteen years as a college president, it was natural for me to strike up conversations with people I was just meeting. The responses to my attempts were polite but reserved. This was not a group inclined to talk about politics or the voting they were about to do. They had a task to do, they simply wanted to get it done and get back to work.
I was only four years and a few hundred miles away from arguing to stunned students and colleagues that many of the voters who had then just elected Donald Trump were good people. I explained that they had been my scout leaders, 4-H organizers, baseball coaches and Sunday school teachers. They had taught me to fish and encouraged me to work hard baling hay. They had led the pledge of allegiance and explained civic duty and patriotism. They followed the rules and expected those around them to do the same. They knew how to get things done. Their existence, from afar for fifty years, has been a foundation of my faith in America. This year, for the first time since the Nixon – McGovern contest, I was among them on a presidential election day.
As I considered those in line, and the four-wheel drive pickups parked across the street, I whispered to my wife that Trump’s base was turning out. Judi probably agreed, but her response was to scold me for using stereotypes. True, I didn’t know how each person was planning to vote. But I had spent the last few months listening to and getting reacquainted with neighbors. Quietly, and matter-of-factly, away from the polling place, most had made it clear that they were confident that Donald Trump would be re elected and that they planned to be a part of his majority. Nothing confrontational, just revealing vignettes.
- At a produce auction I overheard two farmers in a light-hearted discussion of the upcoming election. One had just come back from a trip through rural Wisconsin. “They call it a swing state,” he said, “but based on the yard signs I saw, Trump will win in a landslide and Biden will finish a distant third behind ‘sweet-corn-for-sale.’”
- In a local machine shop I heard two friends explaining why they did not believe the pandemic numbers. “Hospitals exaggerate since there is a $2000 bonus if they list CoVid 19 as the source of death.” Some might call this a conspiracy theory. But skepticism toward the medical community is understandable from those who have been uninsured or underinsured for significant periods and have been charged an inflated rack rate for a short hospital visit.
- I listened and considered the irony of a longstanding neighbor describing the profoundly positive impact upon his childhood of John L. Lewis. forty-year President of the United Mineworkers, even as he nodded along with a pro-Trump, radio talk show.
A lot has changed here at home while I was on my 50-year adventure in some of America’s finest liberal arts colleges. As a teenager, I knew that many of my friends’ parents got up before the sun each day to drive south to the factories and businesses of Terre Haute. A few decades earlier, their grandfathers had worked in the underground coal mines along and under the Wabash River. Like the mining culture, most of the factory jobs are a fading memory. If you are new to the community, you need to talk with an old-timer or check the internet if you want to know where the J.I. Case factory was located. Gone is the smell of the solvent manufacturing plant. Coal is no longer baked to make coke in ovens at the heart of town. Introductory offers of ten long-play albums for a penny are no longer processed at a sprawling Columbia Records complex.
The parents of classmates, who seemed so old when I knew them, were in their mid-forties when their “employers-for-life” disappeared. These were the jobs that gave identity and provided a sense of stability. Family security was tied to a work ethic, a culture of following the rules, and the payment of union dues. In the end, for so many, this all came apart. When it was time to send kids to college, pay off the mortgage, and reflect on a retirement of relaxed fishing, modest travel, and watching grandchildren play basketball, the basis for that future went away. And, the bounce back has been decades in the waiting. Nevertheless, so many in the area continue to embrace and find meaning in hard work.
Throughout my academic career, I took great joy in regularly visiting this farming community to renew my love of the rural culture and to remain centered within the values of the heartland. During those visits I reflected on ways my Parke County neighbors differed from my academic colleagues. Both groups were special in my life. Those on campus valued conversation, reflection and debate. We did and believed in experiments and the evidence they provided. We also spent a great deal of time talking and planning and then analyzing and explaining. My rural friends were and still are more focused on taking action, doing the work, and getting things done. The slogan “git-r-dun” is easily ridiculed, but it is an approach to life that has considerable merit.
As I looked up and down the line of those waiting to vote, I knew that it was a no-nonsense, roll-up your sleeves, and do the work crowd. I was comforted to know that I would be surrounded by these folks in my retirement years. If a tractor rolls on top of me, or a tree I am cutting falls the wrong way and lands on me, or if my barn catches fire, these will be the first responders. And, I will be ever so glad to have them there. It is, I think, not at all surprising that so many of these neighbors were and are receptive to the “Make American Great Again” slogan. To an action-oriented people, it sounds like a call to action.
In the academy we argued about whether America was ever as great as Trump’s slogan implied. We understood that the President’s vision left many of the least privileged behind. And, all of that is valid grist for conversation and action. But, for many in rural America, MAGA draws upon their work ethic; it implies that there is something for them to do. For many of my neighbors, the promise by politicians to make American great for them lacks credibility. Tough tasks aren’t done for rural Americans, they are done by rural Americans. Trump empowered a cohort that gets up early every morning looking for opportunities to make life better for their families. For them, his slogan sounded like a call to act rather than a promise of relief. It fell on receptive ears.
Now Joe Biden has been inaugurated. Wise commentators predict that the tasks he looks forward to will be hard. Over 70 million Americans voted against him and many of those still don’t believe the election was legitimate. Many of my academic friends and colleagues are distraught by the fact that so many supported Donald Trump’s message and joined him in urging that the announced election results be reversed. While I understand the concern, I am heartened by a more expansive view of those voters.
I am convinced that a healthy majority of Donald Trump’s rural supporters will respond as President Biden reaches out with a call to action. They will respond if he provides for them a roll in making America greater. I am confident that many of my friends and neighbors will respond well if recognized as part of the solution rather than the problem.
Mauri Ditzler is former president of Albion College in Michigan.