Rural America

I find myself still trying to sort out how to process this election.  Yesterday I felt this sense of crushing despair throughout the entire day.  When I went to sleep Tuesday night, it was all but over… and Trump was sitting at 244 electoral votes.  However after several rounds of “we should be able to determine a winner in the next thirty minutes”, I finally went to bed around 11:30.  Waking up on Wednesday morning it felt like I was waking up into a different country than the one I thought I was living in.  The thing is… part of the reason why I was so frightened by this election is that I could see it happening.  I wrote as much on this blog Tuesday, because folks I have known and loved and respected my entire life… suddenly became die-hard Trump supporters.

There is an article entitled “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind” on Cracked, that I think everyone should take a moment and read.  I will tell you right now that regardless of which side of the divide you live on…  it is going to piss you off more than likely.  There are a lot of moments I cringed or got frustrated by… because in truth I knew they were essentially true about any of the small towns in America that have been dying over the last few decades.  

The “downtown” is just the corpses of mom and pop stores left shattered in Walmart’s blast crater, the “suburbs” are trailer parks. There are parts of these towns that look post-apocalyptic.

That piece alone hits home more than probably anything else, because it could have been written about the town I grew up in.  I remember as a small kid, our town used to have a thriving main street and even had a “Pioneer Days” festival that we looked forward to every year.  You could get funnel cakes, and there were vendors that sold crappy knock offs of things like nun-chucks and throwing stars…  of which we saved all damned year to buy.  Then in early elementary school we got a Walmart, a glistening beacon of modern commerce and I was so insanely happy.  Slowly bit by bit this destroyed our main street, and put two of the three grocery stories out of business as well.  I didn’t think anything of it at the time, nor was I really capable of understanding why the town felt emptier, but it was noticeable as what used to be a clothing store turned into a flea market.

During the late 80’s we lost a couple of our major employers, and during the early 90’s… the Walmart declared that it was closing.  Corporate went on a tear of closing small town stores and instead opening Supercenters in “nearby” towns to serve multiple locations at the same time.  The store for us was thirty minutes away in a town of 40,000.  From there during my high school years… there was a string of businesses that tried to make inhabiting the old Walmart work.  However without any anchor industry the town continued to atrophy, and I knew that upon graduation I had to get the hell out of there.  I could have easily gotten trapped just like so many of my classmates managed to.

The big problem is… there is this intangible sense of loss that the inhabitants feel.  They know the town went downhill but I am not sure if most of them really understand why, or the broader changes in our economy as a whole.  They simply know that things are different, and are desperate to find either someone to blame… or someone to bring that back.  I’ve tried my best to dispel myths in my own parents when they arise, and to some extent to my family when I think they might actually listen.  However there are so many things in rural america that are just accepted as “widely known fact”.  For example “Obamacare is Evil” is one of those popular rants that I have heard spun up so damned many times it makes my head spin.  The truth is… I personally think this fear has absolutely nothing to do with the actual law and anything it does and more a general sense of fear in change.

One of the things you have to understand about a small town… is they have a woefully inadequate medical infrastructure in the first place.  The small hospital in my town was built in the 50’s… and has not received much attention since.  The rooms all look like they came from that era, with a few retrofits here and there to add in the ability to have a basic heart rate/blood pressure monitor…  of which they only have one and they wheel it from room to room manually to check people.  Everyone in town refers to it as the “band aid station” because they can do stitches, or maybe set a basic break…  but if it is something more than that you are taking a ride in the volunteer ambulance service to the town Walmart moved to.  Essentially if something happens to you that requires significant intervention in a time period shorter than the next thirty minutes… you are literally going to die.

There are no doctors in my home town.  There are some at the “Indian Clinic” that commute in a few time a week from a nearby larger town, that you could make an appointment to see…  if you have your CDIB card.  There is also a doctor that works out of the senior citizens center once a month, that you can get on a very long list to see.  Past that you better hope you have a way to get to the next town over for appointments.  Any change or potential change in the already tentative safety net of services they have access to…  scares the shit out of people stranded in rural america.  All it takes is one anecdotal story about someone’s doctor not being covered by a new “Obamacare” insurance plan, and that spreads like wildfire in a small town and suddenly everyone “knows” with an almost religious fervor that it is evil and dead set against them.

The thing is… I tell you this tale about my specific home town, but you could swap around some of the details and change the order a bit and it would apply to dozens of towns I know of in my area.  There is this distinct feeling that someone took a wrecking ball to their happy town that they used to feel pride in… but now can’t even raise the funds to patch the roads.  Hell there are still significant parts of my hometown that still have brick roads, and concrete bridges that were erected during the WPA era of the 30s.  I could be said that more than likely every single bigot in our country voted for Trump, but there are a lot of people who did that can’t necessarily be lumped in that category either.  These abandoned people… in dying towns… represent probably the core of those who voted him in.  He promised them something that they have desperately wanted for decades as they watched this town they loved crumbling around them… and they believed him.

The thing that always shocks me about traveling back “home” to visit family is the sheer amount of contorted disinformation they seem to operate on.  Like I said, above most of the information that exists is told through anecdote and story while sitting at the cafe eating breakfast or drinking coffee, and then reverberated each week after church.  The truth is this is a land that the internet has largely missed.  Up until a few years ago my parents still had dial up, and when they upgraded from that.. It was to already painfully outdated DSL that cannot even manage to maintain a stable netflix stream.  There is no such thing as cable internet, and probably the absolute best option is one of the various satellite providers but those are extremely limited in their coverage area.  Of note… all of this is 45 minutes drive time north of where I live now and have 400 Mbps internet.

So imagine if your only source of information relied upon the regurgitated and spun version that appears on the sort of television channels you can pick up with rabbit ears?  Rumors spread and become fact, because there is a drought of real information.  My dad thankfully is a rabid listener of NPR, but is very much in the minority here where the few radio stations available mostly feature either religious or conservative talk shows.  All of this is not to excuse voting for someone that I still cannot wrap my head around being our president, but instead to explain how it happens.  Rural America is a completely different world than the one I now live in.  It is a world I ran like hell to get away from, and feel like I cannot even breathe when I have to return to.  It is however a world I will be constantly still attached to because there are people who I love that live there.  I was afraid of this election, because I knew this could happen.

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2 thoughts on “Rural America

  1. Maeve (@Maevriel) says:

    Very insightful. Both your post and the Cracked post could very well be written about my small hometown in Illinois. While I was growing up, it was thriving. We had coal mines with union jobs and small farmers were still able to thrive. The schools were good, we had a movie theater, some restaurants, and even a Wal Mart that had not managed to shut down all of the stores downtown.

    First the small farms quit being viable for the most part. Most of the farmland has been sold off for homes now or sit vacant. Then the coal mines all shut down. The well maintained stores on the picturesque Midwest square shut down one by one. The once nice homes in town slowly went to disrepair. The schools started to suffer. Most of the young people left, Very few of my high school classmates, including myself, returned there after college.

    I know that most of the people I know and love there helped make my county one of the red ones in a state that is called Blue almost as soon as the polls closed. Are these people the racist, “deplorable” hicks everyone thinks composes rural America? No. The majority of them are hardworking, family centered people that know all their neighbors names and would do anything they could to help them in a time of need. The majority are good people who are most likely tired of being told of their white privilege and that they are the root of all the problems in the US when they are having a hard time scraping by themselves.

    One of the comments on the Cracked article basically said that all these people need to “get over it”. The coal mines, the farms are not coming back. That they need to get retrained and take new jobs in green energy. Okay. But what jobs? What green energy plant? There are no new plants, no new industry, green or otherwise, that have popped up there since the coal mines shut down.

    I suppose the answer then is to leave the town, go to all these urban areas. Compare the cost of living in Chicago or St Louis to rural southern Illinois. It is frightening to many. And how about the land? You are asking some people to just give up their heritage. My family’s farm has been in our family for 4 generations now.

    Not everyone wants to conform, either. I won’t lie. I am the complete opposite of you. I miss living there. Miss it terribly. I miss the wide open spaces. I miss knowing all my neighbors so well that I could ask them for help at any time. I’d move back and live on the farm in a heartbeat. If it was remotely viable. But the town is dead. And they still don’t have any access to internet other than cellular with limited data usage. That would end me!

    I think for most of these people, it was less about voting FOR Donald Trump and more about voting AGAINST Hillary Clinton and a continuation of another 8 years of policies that have done little to help drag them out of a continuous downward spiral.

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  2. Andrew says:

    I kills me to see twitter blow up on all Trump supporters as being racist and sexist. For all to many in the middle class affordable Healthcare was anything but that. Because my parents own a small business, they have to have their own insurance. This wasn’t bad 8 years ago. But since then it has risen to over $20k a year for the both of them, and they haven’t needed it in 20 years. There’s no way in he’ll they want that to continue. I know many people who voted for Trump, and not one of them was yelling to keep a woman out of the white house, or keep foreigners out.

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