The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
The rural America I grew up in is different now.
Most of my generation began life in established communities. We were like eggs incubated here, safe and secure, but with little real understanding of how our society developed or why. It was enough for us simply to be tucked under a wing, snug and warm.
And we learned it here first. Sooner or later most of us fly away.
Like the over-watered potted tomato plant patiently waiting for spring on my windowsill, rural communities everywhere are struggling with something akin to root rot. That’s because whatever it was that worked for generations before us no longer works for any of us today.
Pouring on more of the same is not the answer to what ails us.
I am old enough to remember every sitting president of my generation from Truman (who held office when the population of Atchison County, Missouri, was twice what it is now), who reminded me of my plain spoken grandfather, to Eisenhower with his comb over and heart troubles–the Kennedy/Nixon debates–and all the rest.
But the one who surprised me the most was Ronald Reagan.
Reagan really had no qualifications for the presidency. He was a pro union actor/Democrat turned hawkish Republican who jauntily delivered lines in his speeches not much better than those in the corny B movies where he starred. But he seemed a natural for the part, just the same. It was interesting to think how after the likes of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Carter, that Ronnie might be elected. Surely voters would never support a Death Valley Days wannabe cowboy actor with no service record for the highest office.
Then we held an election and everything changed. For the first time, an actor became POTUS.
If you think about it, that’s the way Democrat turned Republican Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations started. He was a showman and still is. His first run for president failed (in 2000 when he formed an exploratory committee to run on the Reform Party ticket). Now, like Reagan, he’s in his second try and poised to win the Republican nomination.
Right or wrong, I think rural America could help him to the White House.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding rural initiatives and a few million dollars thrown at the problem, Democrats are struggling to find new ways of watering our withered non-urban societies. A hospital here, a new water purification plant there. Bridges and roads…Medicaid. The Internet!
In spite of all that, rural communities continue to wither and fall. It takes more than watering to build strong roots. It also takes cultivation.
The only time we’re cultivated is in an election year. We’re given the same promises, over and over, each and every cycle. Save the factory, save the family farm, find new industry. Do it with subsidies, a tax credit, free trade. But familiar words won’t do the trick. It takes imagination most politicians don’t have. All they offer is dredged up, worn out promises forgotten from the last election.
That’s why Trump could resonate with rural America. His irreverence for politics and political parties matches our own frustration with elections and promises of help and change. Donald Trump exemplifies the way rural America views these travesties. If fickle rural America is going to be a post-election beltway joke, why not treat it that way right now? After all, don’t we listen to the same worn solutions that never work and then vote for the candidate who is probably least likely to fulfill them?
Then we wonder what went wrong.
I watched him in movies, I saw him on TV. Reagan gave Americans a good show, and Trump has done the same. His performances in public debates and unscripted bombastic speeches remind me not so much of Reagan but of the Roller Derby, or professional wrestling. Mad Dog Vachon vowing not just to beat his opponent but rip him limb from limb.
Bush, Rubio, Cruz, Kasich tag teams all climbed onto the ropes to give the Donald a drop kick to the kidneys. The establishment cheers. Then suddenly rejuvenated, Trump struggles up from the mat and delivers a killing blow.
What a show! They weren’t so tough after all.
We love this stuff in rural America. It’s cheap entertainment and makes light of a system we all know is rigged. Kentucky coal miners lose their jobs but Missouri power plants consume more coal than ever as railroad magnates get rich. Beef prices go higher in stores and then Congress repeals the rights of American cattlemen to label their beef. Imports flood the market. Minimum-wage laborers drive from their homes in one town to $10 an hour jobs 25 miles away. The car breaks down, utility costs go up, there’s a trip to the doctor costing a month’s pay. They can’t even afford to buy stringy imported beef. And another job evaporates.
More trade deals are the answer?
Though much of what he promised never quite went the way farmers and rural citizens hoped, rural America became part of the Reagan Coalition in 1980, giving him 54% of their vote.
Trump could do the same.
Think about Reagan against Carter, when rehearsed one liners won those debates. Carter was presidential but Reagan annihilated him in the election with digs and unsubstantiated innuendo. “There you go again.”
Now think about Trump versus Clinton. Donnie has a full clip of less than eloquent Trumpisms, like this one:
“She’s playing the woman card up, that’s all she has. Honestly, outside of the woman card, she’s got nothing going [for her], believe me.”
He’s no Reagan, but remember this isn’t presidential wrangling as much as it’s professional wrestling.
Mad Dog with sound bites.
I watched President Obama promote the corn farmers dream, ethanol. I saw him travel to rural Missouri, bringing along Secretary Vilsack and a USDA grant to the local hospital, and visiting an ethanol co-op in Moberly Missouri. Everyone there, Republican and Democrat alike, thanked him for his support, then most went home to vote for Romney in the next election even though Mitt stated his formerly supportive position on ethanol was “evolving“.
That’s the problem with rural America. Politicians who support us at first find themselves evolving. It’s not just them. As Missouri voters proved with ethanol, rural memories can evolve and be as short as any.
It’s been a year for antiestablishment candidates. Senator Bernie Sanders gave Clinton a run for her money. Trump made pundits look foolish for saying he had no chance. One of two things can happen from here. Either Republicans will be successful at alienating much of their support by replacing Trump with a narrow candidate who cannot win, or Hillary faces Trump in the general election. Again, pundits will say Trump can’t come out on top. But he’ll represent the disaffected majority who feel that elections are scripted and political promises too easily forgotten.
I hear it said a lot here. The whole thing is fixed. Sadly, some of the same people steadfastly maintain that professional wrestling is on the up and up. Regardless of that, disillusioned antiestablishment Sanders supporters could end up voting for Trump. No matter how it turns out, insiders, Congress, and lobbyists have a lot to say. You never know what a politician will do.
With rural America heading for the exits, the question isn’t who’s best.
The question is, could Trump be any worse?