The left (broadly defined, which includes people like myself), have been trying to understand how the United States could elect someone like Donald Trump. We though that his clear lack of qualifications, his deplorable views, and his lack of a Presidential temperament, were so obvious that the country would elect Hillary Clinton in a landslide. We were wrong. Ink has been spilled, articles have been written, people have argued in person and online over the past two months. This is my attempt to join in the fray.
This past election cycle, and the cultural trends that underlie it, was an expression of powerlessness. Powerlessness is defined as “lack of ability, influence, or power”, and when one feels powerlessness, one often acts seemingly irrationally.
I grew up for most of my life in Central Illinois. The small (by American standards), rust belt community of Peoria and its surrounding environs were where I came of age, where I drove a car for the first time, where I had my first crush, where I lived my life. I grew up with the Tremont Turkey Festival, Gills Supper Club in Hanna City, Avanti’s Italian restaurant, and watching the Bradley Braves dominate in Basketball. I grew up constantly aware of the precarious position of my city’s economy, for as the headquarters of Caterpillar, I knew family after family whose livelihood was dependent upon the well-being of that company.
I also grew up hating Chicago.
Growing up in Central Illinois in a politically active family, the specter of “Chicago” was always in front of me. Did we go and visit? Yep. Did we enjoy the city when we were visiting? Of course. But did we hate the city and all that it stood for in Illinois? Absolutely. To me, Chicago drained the economy of Illinois. I perceived that all the tax money went to support the city and not the downstate and I always felt that no one cared about my community…because “Chicago” was the economic engine of the State. The Democrats didn’t need to court voters in Peoria or Mt. Vernon, because they had Chicago…so why even bother. For example, when Democratic Governors from Chicagoland didn’t want to move to Springfield, we took that as a slap in the face.” Who cares about those hicks in the boonies”, we thought Chicagoans were telling us, “real people live only in Chicago”.
You may ask how this has to deal with the idea of powerlessness. How the ramblings of a guy who grew up in Central Illinois might explain the rise of Trump.
I still hate Chicago.
Irrational, I know. Do I not know that without Chicago, there would be no Illinois? Yes, I do. Do I know that without Chicago’s tax money, downstate Illinois would not be able to pave our roads or provide social services to our citizens? Of course. But this knowledge doesn’t deal with the resentment. It doesn’t deal with the fact that downstate Illinois has never felt ‘listened too’. The money that Chicago throws to the rest of Illinois isn’t enough to get past the sneers of derision and superiority that people from the downstate feel – rightly or wrongly – that Chicagoans give us.
Illinois is America. In fact, most States have similar dynamics. Tennessee? West TN is not as “sophisticated” as Central TN. Minnesota? The Twin Cities are the reason why the State does so well, who gives a shit about Greater MN. New York? Lol at the idea that the Upstate matters, NYC is where it is at.
Those who are not in the cities, the coasts, or the cultural capitals of America do not feel listened too. They feel powerless. Their way of life is disappearing, and instead of listening, we mock them. Are there very negative manifestations of how rural America has dealt with this feeling of powerlessness? Absolutely. Many have resorted to racism, homophobia, misogyny, or anti-Semitism as a way to express their anger and their feelings of resentment. But these are symptoms of this deeper problem of powerlessness.
Those of us on the left have tried to use facts. We have tried to point to the fact that the urban centers of this country provide the ability for rural America to live the way they do. We have tried to point out that immigrants, LGBT people, and people of color all make contributions to our society that should be celebrated. We point out that rural Americans are “takers” from the productive urban areas, we emphasize that rural areas have more power than they should in our federal structure. All to no avail. Why? But of the one thing we haven’t done - actually address this feeling of powerlessness.
And until we do, until we meet rural Americans where they are at, rather than where we want them to be, people like Trump will win.