A Guide to Understanding the Country that Chose Trump

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This post was guest-written by Eleanor Lopatto ’17

“How stupid are the people of Iowa?” – Donald Trump, Feb. 1, 2016

I took driver’s ed during the summer before high school along with about a hundred other Iowa teenagers. Once a week I had driving practice, during which a teacher put me in control of a powerful machine containing a classmate who had no choice but to trust me with their life. All of us were able to get our learning permits at 14 – a remnant of a time when most children in Iowa would have been proficient drivers by that age anyway, having needed to operate heavy machinery on their families’ farms. One day the instructor guided me through driving on the interstate for the first time. We took an exit ramp onto an empty rural highway, and I found myself driving the only vehicle on a completely straight, flat, and deserted stretch of road. “Okay,” he said. “Want to try something fun? Pick up speed.” I cautiously pressed on the accelerator as he edged me on, and soon we were breaking 70 mph. Then, with no warning, he pulled the emergency brake.

I felt a similar whiplash when I first saw that Donald Trump was the projected winner of the presidential election. For the past four years, I felt like our society had been moving in leaps and bounds in the right direction. After waking up on Wednesday morning and confirming the election results, I sobbed for hours. I haven’t been home since June, and I had been longing for the comfort of my friends and family in Iowa. That morning, I was no longer sure that I would be welcomed there. I was presented with data that proved how prejudiced and hateful my fellow Midwesterners can be. As someone who is female-identifying, queer, and disabled, as someone whose experiences of sexual harassment are still seared into my mind – I no longer felt safe in the place where I was born.

Paradoxically, my next emotion was relief. My community at home is suffering and has been for a long time. If anything positive can come of this election, it is the recognition of rural plight. I have met so many Kenyon students who feel comfortable delegitimizing my home, as if it would be impossible for anyone to have a meaningful existence in a rural area. I grew up without a movie theater, pizza delivery, McDonald’s, clubs, or the option of more than one bar. Our downtown, comprised of about four square blocks, has seen its locally owned businesses slowly disappear. People buy almost everything at Walmart, including guns. I have endured so many condescending comments about the prevalence of camouflage. Classmates have made fun of the way I speak to the point where I no longer want to. During freshman orientation, I told a classmate about how my high school principal had gathered the entire senior class in our auditorium and told us, moved to tears, that our graduation rate was 95% – the highest it had ever been. Her reaction was to laugh in my face and asked why it wasn’t better.

I have heard too many unsolicited, uninformed comments about how my community is failing me. No one has ever asked me what I believe needs to change. Here’s a list:

According to the 2010 census, the per capita income for a resident of my county is $18,629. Kids in elementary school on free and reduced lunches are sent home with a special backpack full of meals, because the public school district is their only reliable source of food.

My friend’s dad was gored by a bull in sixth grade, and died because the ambulance took too long to reach their farm from the nearest hospital. Anyone who has been to Knox County Hospital should have a clue at the state of rural healthcare. My nearest women’s health provider is 40 minutes away by car. My sex ed was abstinence-only. In the graduating class above me, approximately 20% of the female population became a mother while in high school. (Think About It qualifies as abstinence-only sex ed, by the way, in case you ever wondered what it looks like in the wild.)

I was one of a few dozen students in my year to attend a liberal arts college, and one of only a handful to study out of state. My school district is severely underfunded and has had to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from its budget multiple times in recent memory. I never learned about evolution in school because my science teachers were tired of fighting parents’ complaints. There are over 50 churches serving a town of less than 10,000 people, but not one place of worship specifically dedicated to a non-Christian faith. Growing up, my classmates were regularly baffled that I did not have faith in a Christian God. Means of long-distance communication, such as telephone and internet service, are sub-standard, and will continue to be that way so long as they are held under a monopoly by one or two providers.

There are absolutely no mental health services available in the county, neither for college students nor for permanent residents. I am completely reliant on Kenyon College for mental healthcare, because my general practitioner back home doesn’t believe my diagnosis and I don’t have other options. Rates of suicide in rural areas are nearly double of that in urban populations. I have friends who have had to cope with a parent killing themselves.

Rural Americans only make up about 15% of our country’s population. Our representatives in government do not have an abundance of wealth or connections. We are used to asking for help and being ignored, and have learned to stop asking. But we are currently approaching a crisis, and in this moment of desperation, rural whites elected Donald Trump – the only candidate who legitimized their suffering. While some people undoubtably agree with his bigotry, others are caught in a gray area of desperation and hopelessness. Sometimes we can only see the suffering of the underserved and forgotten when they lash out in anger, like an injured animal caught in a trap. Imagine that no matter how loudly you yell, no matter how much you act out, you are ignored, that you can wait. You are told that you had your chance, that you are obsolete, that you are part of the past, and that the rest of us have moved on.

So that’s my story. And while I am relieved that it seems as if the issues plaguing rural Americans will finally receive attention, in no way do I believe that Donald Trump is part of the solution. I believe that he is unaware of or simply doesn’t care about the immense pain his actions have caused. I am extremely disappointed that my community is now complicit with his rhetoric of hate, and in electing him has legitimized his views. He is in no way qualified to bridge the chasm in American culture. So we are left on our own, and guess what: in order to create inclusive solutions, we need to start talking to each other. I was born and raised in a state in which 52% of its citizens supported Trump, and out of necessity I need to have productive conversations with them. If you are willing to attempt this yourself, I have four key pieces of advice.

First: Recognize that if you pass as white or are otherwise not a visible minority, people in general are more likely to listen to and validate your thoughts. This is not correct or fair, but it is reality. The responsibility of educating our fellow Americans falls to those who resemble them most.

Second: Inflammatory language, straw man arguments, and outrage in general are all defense mechanisms used by people who are scared of appearing stupid. Rural whites are frustrated and confused by a country that increasingly does not make sense to them. They are afraid of asking questions or admitting ignorance because it reinforces the stereotype that poor, rural whites are fundamentally less intelligent, less capable, and ultimately worth less to society than educated city dwellers. Think about the language and behaviors that we use that reinforce this perception: “fly-over states,” “hick,” “townie,” camouflage and hunting jokes, mocking rural dialects, etc. All of these signal a lack of compassion and disinterest in understanding people who are different than us. At Kenyon, I have learned not to talk about my upbringing unless it is completely necessary.  I can understand the common conception that urban, educated Americans are part of the “liberal elite” – people who are more willing to tell you that you’re doing something wrong, than they are likely to be aware of the issues that degrade your quality of life. Rural whites have been trained to believe that people from other parts of the country don’t want to understand us, don’t want to relate to us, and certainly don’t care about us. We are frustrated and deeply scared for the future of our communities. People express this emotion in different ways: some are boastful, some get angry, some may insult groups that they view as the perpetrators. Try to be reasonably understanding, and to differentiate between people in pain and people who are just hateful to their core. Recognize humanity where you can find it.

Third: Realize that you are in the role of a translator. Certain words have become associated more with division and politics than with the actual concepts they are supposed to signify. Examples include feminism, patriarchy, privilege, and trigger warnings. The concepts are real and important to understand, but they also evoke legitimate and unhelpfully negative connotations in many communities. Some words, for no fault of their own, seem to have the power to end conversations. The solution is to be creative with your language. Speaking with people from other cultures or generations is an exercise in code-switching. Using different words or new approaches does not have to degrade the integrity of your ideas – it’s an indicator of good communication skills. Accept that over the course of these conversations, as you acquire new information, you may have to modify some of your own preconceptions. Humility is necessary for successful discourse.

Finally, I think it’s important to stop saying that this process should be simple. Accept that it will be hard for everyone. It will be hard for you to talk to someone whose values seem completely incompatible with yours, or to try and relate to people who disappoint you. It is painful and disorienting to question the structures that have provided us with a sense of security and safety, or to disagree with people whom we love. The first step to any constructive solution is to recognize the pain on both sides as legitimate, and to persevere in our goal to treat every single human being with love and respect. Anger is easy. Compassion is hard, and it requires practice. Let others know that you care about their wellbeing. Approach others with the assumption that they can be reasonable. Meet people halfway. We can no longer shape the policies for an entire country based on a winner-loser mentality. There is so much more that unites us than separates us. We seem to have given up on incremental change, learning, understanding, and most importantly, acceptance of things that we cannot understand. Whatever steps we take in the future, they will need to be inclusive, and they will need to be kind.

All of us came to Kenyon in full knowledge that we would live in a tiny village in rural Ohio. And despite my lingering fears, I am still going home to Iowa for Thanksgiving. For whatever reason, we see value in rural America. Let this bond to the Midwest, no matter how temporary or fragile it may seem, create the potential in each of us to spread understanding and compassion. I look forward to working for a better future with each and every one of you.

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