PORT OF TACOMA – On the road for 2,500 miles through the American Heartland from near the Motor City that shaped the nation’s 20th century to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, it becomes clear there are today two Americas split by much more than just politics.
“England and America,” the late Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw observed almost 80 years ago, “are two countries separated by the same language.”
Today, America is one country separated by two distinct lifestyles.
There is an urban American, and there is a rural America, and each has trouble recognizing the other.
One sees the fruit of the American experiment as an apple and the other as an orange or maybe better yet a grapefruit, something best cut in half and sprinkled with sugar to temper the tang.
Former President Barack Obama saw the difference plain enough when on the campaign trail in 2008 he observed how in these times rural residents “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
The latter observation has been widely interpreted as a comment on race, though the black farmer and the white farmer chatting it up in a roadside hotel in central Nebraska would likely explain the people “who aren’t like’ them are determined more by fundamental beliefs than skin color.
This might help explain post-election polling showing that in the last election about a third of black men in the Midwest voted for former President Donald Trump, a pathological liar born into wealth and comfort and never far from either.
That Trump would become the darling of America’s red states is nothing more than a testament to how bad red-state voters thought the other choice.
Now, because the Make America Great Again (MAGA) theme is tied so tightly to Trump, there has been a bad tendency on the part of national media to link these voters to the idea that they embrace everything that is wrong in the country’s past.
But not everything was wrong in the country’s past, and the people here see it differently than those in New York and Los Angeles.
These voters might be described as fans of the America that won the Cold War, rose to the position of the globe’s only true superpower and looked to be on the verge of spreading the American concept of democracy to every corner of the planet before that idea blew up for the simple reason democracy is a difficult system to create let alone sustain.
Trump’s call to Make America Great Again resonated with them not because they are a bunch of racist boobs, but because they understand the loss of the American manufacturing might that won the Second World War before it won the Cold War.
Then, too, they understand the economic and social values of good, well-paying, blue-collar jobs.
These views, not to mention the land on which the people live, shapes a vision of the American experiment significantly different from that of modern urban elites prone to looking down on almost anything other than the tech industry as a relic of another era.
This urban elitism is what drove Obama’s reference to Americans clinging to objects and ideas out of step with the more refined views and values of urban Americans.
Collectively, of course, the majority of those in rural America – at least judging from the results of the last election – would likely challenge Obama’s assumption that bitterness led them to embrace guns, God and beer, as some have paraphrased the former president’s words.
Most seem to simply like their guns, their beer and their God, and it is understandable that they would.
Guns are handy for dispatching vermin around the farm, even sometimes putting food on the table; beer tastes mighty good after a hard, sweaty day in the fields; and God is a comforting belief when you inhabit a world where death remains a norm.
That heifer contentedly chewing its cud out on the South 40 today will shortly be bound for the slaughterhouse. Amid this regular flow of life and death, it likely feels good to know that there is an order to it, that God has a plan, and that he is watching over everything.
“And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
I am not a religious man. To be wholly honest, I am prone to the view of one of the Mexican musicians in a short story titled “The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio” written by the late Ernest Hemingway long ago.
“Religion,” the musician observed, “is the opium of the poor.”
Opium has a 5,000-year history as a painkiller, and as someone who has on occasion experienced serious pain, I can empathize with the human need for painkillers. Thus it is hard for me to fault anyone for clinging to their religion no matter what that religion might be.
One can share the late Sen. Barry Goldwater’s view that “the religious right scares the hell out of me” without jumping to the conclusion everyone who goes to church and voted for Donald Trump is a Christian fanatic. They are no more so or less so than the Muslims who attended mosque and voted for Obama were jihadists.
Or, for that matter, that every modern-day “progressive” is a Prohibitionist though the roots of that party run deep into America’s greatest social mistake, and the old progressive desire for an ideal society burns bright again in these times.
That ideal society is a lot easier to believe in if you live in the city. In the urban environment, a lot of one’s basic needs are taken care of by others.
Out in the country, where you have to do more to take care of yourself, you quickly learn that an ideal anything is a dream, not a reality.
Put in the simplest terms, you learn the world ain’t fair.
One hopes always for the best, but often the world delivers something else. The weather, on which so much depends in the business of agriculture, about says it all.
Rural people live with it because there is no choice. Over time, the idea of living with a certain amount of uncertainty and imperfection becomes a norm that shapes how they view the world.
Against this backdrop, the never-ending national debate over gun control says a lot about the difference between rural and urban Americas.
A lot of urban Americans, quite possibly a majority, want to get guns out of the hands of almost everyone in the belief this will make the country safer. They see firearms as weapons of mass destruction.
Rural residents see them as tools. There are lifestyle differences here, but also differences of political philosophy and viewpoint that shape how people look at the issue.
Gun crime is to rural people an urban problem, and about this they are largely right.
The latest report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shows an average overall murder rate of 9.6 per 100,000 for cities of 250,000 people or more. That drops to 5.9 per 100,000 for cities of 249,999 to 100,000 people and keeps falling to 3 per 100,000 for cities under 10,000 and “suburban area.”
It is as easy, and reasonable, for rural Americans to look at gun control and conclude it is more red-tape added to their lives for no good reason. Just as it is easy, and reasonable, for urban Americans to look at gun control and conclude it is the best way to make life safer.
And urban Americans are much more about safety than rural Americans, who still live in a world where death is much more a part of life.
That they have trouble understanding the fears of urbanites is even more understandable. Among the people in the United States today most worried about guns are white women who have the lowest chance of anyone in the country of becoming a victim of a firearm homicide.
The rate for white females falls even farther to 1.03 per 100,000 – less than half the 2.85 per 100,000 rate for black females, according to the study. The former is below the general homicide rate for England, Sweden, France and near the 0.90 per 100,000 rate of Iceland.
Furthermore, the Violence Policy report notes only 8 percent of female homicide victims were killed by strangers, putting the random stranger homicide rate down at about 0.1 per 100,000 – near the lowest homicide rates in the world, according to the World Atlas.
Of the women killed by men they knew, about 56 percent were killed with firearms, according to the report. So banning guns would drop the overall rate for women to about 0.7 per 100,000 if the male perpetrators of homicides didn’t just choose to use another weapon, but it’s quite possible they would choose to use another weapon.
Rural Americans, being practical people, look at data like this and conclude the best thing for a woman in a dangerous situation is to buy a firearm to protect herself. It is a reasonable conclusion the Washington, D.C., based Violence center accepts before going on to advise against it.
The group cites a variety of studies concluding that women who buy guns for self-protection are more likely to become victims of homicide. The argument appears to be that women aren’t capable of protecting themselves with a firearm.
Rural Americans would scoff at that idea for the simple reason they are more accustomed to taking care of themselves than expecting others to do so. It’s part of life in rural America, and it shapes how one views the world.
To observe that the country’s largely urban-based mainstream media fail to grasp the fundamental differences between rural and urban America would be an understatement.
Thus big-city journalists struggle to link the Heartland’s acceptance of Trump as the best presidential alternative to a white supremacist movement or QAnon or simple “misinformation,” because surely middle Americans would only vote for Trump because they were misled or stupid.
“As (Sarah) Longwell explained it to me, Trump supporters already believed that a ‘deep state’ – an alleged secret network of nonelected government officials, a kind of hidden government within the legitimately elected government – has been working against Trump since before he was elected,” writes Peter Wehner in a story in The Atlantic headlined “The GOP Is a Grave Threat to American Democracy.”
Longwell is a Republican product of the Beltway who found Trump as repulsive as did many other Republicans, most notably among them the late columnist Charles Krauthammer, who fingered Trump as a man living “in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value – indeed exists – only insofar as it sustains and inflates him.”
But Krauthammer well understood the nation’s problems went deeper than Trump. Krauthammer in 2012 accused Obama of doing exactly what Trump was later accused of doing – “pandering to one group after another, particularly those that elected Obama in 2008 – blacks, Hispanics, women, young people – and for whom the thrill is now gone.
“What to do? Try fear. Create division, stir resentment, by whatever means necessary – bogus court challenges, dead-end Senate bills and a forest of straw men.”
That such tactics work for both Democrat and Republican pols stems from the fact the voting electorate is now hugely exploitable across the rural-urban divide.
You can scare urban voters with rural thinking as easily as you can scare rural voters with urban thinking. The “deep state” is not some myth to rural Americans.
The deep state is the large, entrenched, nameless, faceless army of urban-based federal bureaucrats who exert control over rural as well as urban America.
To someone in the so-called “fly-over country” around Podunk, Neb., or Nowhere, Wyo., those ‘crats can look a lot like the British overlords against whom the residents of the American colony revolted almost 250 years ago.
These rural residents are the people, lest anyone forget, who embraced Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of the nation’s capital.
“Trump said the (swamp) proposals…would restore faith in what he repeatedly called a rigged system that rewards the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the common man,” USA Today reported at the time.
To believe that the denizens of the swamp would do everything in their power to stop the swamp from being drained is only logical, and the red-state belief that “non-elected government officials,” as Wehner calls the bureaucrats, sabotaged Trump is rooted in that logic.
Much more springs as well from this line of reasoning:
If an election were to be fixed, as some still believe, who better to do it than those inside the system? If you bought the idea that the Russians could swing an election with some propaganda on Facebook, how could you not buy the idea that some bureaucrats could sway the election by tampering with voting machines?
For the record, I don’t believe the Russians won the election for Trump or that nameless, faceless U.S. bureaucrats stole the election for President Joe Biden.
In the first case, Americans don’t swallow propaganda unless they are already hungry to believe it. In the second case, if you’re going to steal an election, you don’t leave the vote as close as in 2020. Instead, you stage a Reaganesque landslide.
But it’s not hard to see how good people living far from the seats of power might think otherwise, to see how rural Americans might come to believe they are being dictated to by urban Americans, to understand their view that they have become secondhand citizens in their own country.
How one bridges this divide to fix the problem, I have no idea.