I complain a lot about how the coastal-based mainstream media doesn’t really see a lot of Americans whose demographic characteristics fall outside their narrow left-liberal confines. Here’s a surprisingly good piece by Elizabeth Dias in The New York Times, writing about white Evangelicals in rural and small-town Iowa who are still standing with Donald Trump. What I liked about the piece is that she mostly gets out of the way and let these people speak for themselves. She starts with a January 2016 speech that GOP primary candidate Trump gave at Dordt College there:
Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”
If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.
“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
Why did Evangelicals go for Trump in the end? More:
Theories, and rationalizations, abound:
That evangelical support was purely transactional.
That they saw him as their best chance in decades to end legalized abortion.
That the opportunity to nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court was paramount.
That they hated Hillary Clinton, or felt torn to pick the lesser of two evils.
That they held their noses and voted, hoping he would advance their policy priorities and accomplish their goals.
But beneath all this, there is another explanation. One that is more raw and fundamental.
Evangelicals did not support Mr. Trump in spite of who he is. They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Mr. Trump offered to restore them to power, as though they have not been in power all along.
Well, that last clause is pure editorializing. If you are a religious conservative living in rural Iowa, it has been a very long time since you felt that you were in power in this culture, and that your values were dominant. Maybe it looks like that to a progressive young reporter at The New York Times, but culturally (as distinct from politically), conservative Christians haven’t been dominant for decades.
More to the point, the kind of communally cohesive conservative Christianity that these people in Iowa are living is a relic of a bygone era. There’s a fantastic 1995 book called The Lost City, by the journalist Alan Ehrenhalt, who writes about Chicago in the 1950s. He writes about the virtues of strong communities back then, and how those communities came apart for various reasons, but most of all because Americans began to want more individual freedom. This is not a conservative or a liberal book, but rather a book about the big changes in American society in the 1960s and 1970s, and the price we paid for them. Ehrenhalt writes that we want community back, but edited: all the good things of the 1950s, with none of the bad things.
But that’s impossible. “There is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved,” writes Ehrenhalt. “Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a dream in the end.” More:
There is no point in pretending that the 1950s were a happy time for everyone in America. For many, the price of the limited life was impossibly high. To have been an independent-minded alderman in the Daley machine, a professional baseball player treated unfairly by his team, a suburban housewife who yearned for a professional career, a black high school student dreaming of possibilities that were closed to him, a gay man or woman forced to conduct a charade in public — to have been any of these things in the 1950s was to live a life that was difficult at best, and tragic at worst. That is why so many of us still respond to the memory of those indignities by saying that nothing in the world could justify them.
It is a powerful indictment, but it is also a selective one … Our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don’t tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they could have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.
I’m going to use an admittedly extreme example to highlight what these Iowa conservatives fear. This is a link to the official video for “WAP,” a song by Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion. Since it was released on Friday, that video has had over 62 million views, and hit No. 1 on Spotify and Apple Music. It’s being widely played on radio. Cardi B., a Grammy winner, and Megan Thee Stallion are two of the most successful hip-hop artists today. I warn you about the video, though: it is absolutely filthy. “WAP” means “Wet A*s Pu**y.” Here is the chorus:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, you fu*kin’ with some wet-a*s pu*sy
Bring a bucket and a mop for this wet-a*s pu*sy
Give me everything you got for this wet-a*s pu*sy
The chorus is pretty tame compared to the rest of it. Here’s a link to all the lyrics. We are a long, long way from the 1950s. This is what mainstream pop culture is in 2020. An essayist on NBC News’s website calls it, “Deliciously filthy.” The big controversy about the video is a lot of people complaining that a cameo by Kylie Jenner is an example of white privilege.
This filth is the most popular song in America right now. This would be inconceivable in a world in which conservative Evangelicals were dominant, or even remotely close to dominant. I bring “WAP” up here to point out that this kind of thing is a big part of what has grieved and frightened those Iowa Evangelicals. Journalists can’t seem to conceive of this cultural conflict in any terms other than “Right-Wing White Bible Thumpers Are Mad That They Can’t Push Everybody Else Around Anymore.” Maybe Diaz sees it that way — I’m not sure. Her editorial comment suggests that she probably does. But the rest of her story from Iowa indicates something more complex. Excerpts:
Church is still what really holds the community together. A day earlier, on Sunday, the Driesens had gone to services in the morning and at night. They unplugged the router and turned off their cellphones. They read the Bible. Sioux Center was quiet on Sundays, when it is easier to name what is open — the Pizza Hut, the Culver’s, the Walmart — than what is not.
Mr. Driesen spoke of the policies that were important to him, all the usual conservative issues. Small government. Ending abortion. Judges who share his political views. “Traditional families,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there’s just more divorce than there used to be,” he said. “There’s more cohabitating. I think it is detrimental to the family. I just think kids do better in a two-parent home, with a mom and a dad.”
I grew up in the rural South in the 1970s, and church was not at all at the center of our community’s life. These rural Iowa Evangelicals are living in a time capsule. I’m not criticizing them at all! I can see why this way of life means something to them, and why they feel threatened by what’s going on outside the boundaries of their community. More:
She remembered how when her mother was a child about 20 miles north, the public school still started the day with prayer. But when she was growing up, it stopped. Her church, Netherlands Reformed, started a private Christian school in Rock Valley, and so she went there instead.
They send their children to that same school, which still has some of the same teachers.
“We don’t know any different,” Mr. Driesen said. “For a lot of people around here, that’s just what you do. You have the same classmates all the way through. And it holds the community together.” His siblings left the area for a while, but then they came back.
They want the Christian education for their children “so we don’t have to have them indoctrinated with all these different things,” he said. “We are free to teach them our values.”
“So far,” Ms. Driesen clarified. “That’s where we see Trump as a key figure to keep that freedom.”
Ultimately Mr. Trump recognized something, said Lisa Burg, a longtime resident of nearby Orange City. It is a reason she thinks people will still support him in November.
“The one group of people that people felt like they could dis and mock and put down had become the Christian. Just the middle-class, middle-American Christians,” Ms. Burg said. “That was the one group left that you could just totally put down and call deplorable. And he recognized that, You know what? Yeah, it’s OK that we have our set of values, too. I think people finally said, ‘Yes, we finally have somebody that’s willing to say we’re not bad, we need to have a voice too.’”
Explained Jason Mulder, who runs a small design company in Sioux Center: “I feel like on the coasts, in some of the cities and stuff, they look down on us in rural America. You know, we are a bunch of hicks, and don’t know anything. They don’t understand us the same way we don’t understand them. So we don’t want them telling us how to live our lives.”
He added: “You joke that we don’t get it, well, you don’t get it either. We are not speaking the same language.”
They want America to be a Christian nation for their children. “We started out as a Christian nation,” she said.
“You can’t make people do these things,” he said. “But you can try to protect what you’ve got, you might say.”
He thought about November, and felt confident Mr. Trump would win. He sees Trump flags all over as he drives. Something has shifted in the country, he said, and he is looking ahead to who might even come after Mr. Trump.
“I feel like we are safe for four more years,” he said. “You know. So that’s a good feeling.”
I see all this as profoundly tragic.
From the Diaz story, it seems clear to me that these Iowa Evangelicals seek power not for the sake of pushing others around, but rather to hold on to what they have. Can you blame them?
Think of it like this. I lived in Washington DC for part of Mayor Marion Barry’s tenure. He was spectacularly corrupt, and very popular with black voters. I couldn’t understand that at the time. Didn’t they see that he was taking advantage of them? That he wasn’t doing them a bit of good, and only playing them for fools? I was young and idealistic then, and thought that ideas were what made the political world go around. What I see now is that black people in DC were the majority, but felt powerless, because they were largely powerless. They identified with Barry because the people who hated him also hated them (in their mind). There was something about Marion Barry that made them feel that he had their back, that if he was mayor, then they weren’t as powerless as they thought. The truth is, Barry did them no good at all, but was quite good at performing the role of populist antagonist to the white people in Congress who controlled the District’s fate without being accountable to its voters, and to the white business establishment.
Think of the relationship between Trump and these besieged white Evangelicals as like the one between Marion Barry and besieged black DC voters. It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.
Another analogy. In Syria, almost all the Christians support the Assad regime. Is it because they approve of Bashar al-Assad? No (though maybe some do). It’s because they know that Assad is the biggest, baddest bully on the block, and that he has their back. If he goes, the Islamists will cut the Christians’ throats.
Christians in Iowa are not in the same position as Christians in Syria. Donald Trump is not Bashar al-Assad. But you see the analogy.
What I find so tragic about these Iowa Evangelicals is that they really are extremely decent and good Midwestern people. But they do not understand the nature of the threat to their way of life, and maybe they misunderstand it in a way similar to how the Times reporter does. That is, it seems to me that they all believe that politics — the use of the state’s power — is the key factor. It is significant — Supreme Court rulings, for example, can be quite meaningful — but the man who sits in the White House has no effect on whether or not Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion’s degenerate song goes to No. 1. The people in Washington have little to no effect on all kinds of things moving through the broader culture.
For example, Obergefell was a Supreme Court ruling of major historical and social importance, but that ruling, which made same-sex marriage constitutionally mandated, would not have happened had there not been a massive shift in fundamental values within the culture — first among the elites, and then among the masses. Had Obergefell gone the other way at the Supreme Court, gay marriage would have remained under control of the states. I believe that today, nearly all states would have gay marriage, and those few holdouts that didn’t would not be far behind.
I wonder how many of the teenagers in Sioux Center have mobile phones, and unrestricted use of them. Those devices matter incomparably more to the future of the community’s values than who lives in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A reader of this blog the other day identified himself as a public school teacher in Louisiana. I could tell by his e-mail address the parish in which he teaches. Trump won 70 percent of the vote there in 2016. He mentioned that in the past few years, he has seen a big jump in the number of students identifying as sexually fluid, and gender fluid. Interracial lesbian dating is a thing in his school. [UPDATE: At least two readers take this as we disapproving of interracial romance. Not at all — I see nothing at all wrong with that. I find it interesting, though, that in very conservative, deep-south, rural Louisiana, all these taboos are falling at the same time. That’s why I mentioned it — RD] Last year, a friend in my own hometown (pop. 1,800) sent me a party pic of a lesbian couple attending the middle school dance together. The idea that voting for Trump is going to keep a family “safe for four more years” from these changes is insupportable.
My sense here is that the narrative — that you can keep yourself safe from harmful social change by voting for a particular presidential candidate — is important for these folks to believe, because if it’s not true, then they are on much shakier ground than they know. Conversely, it’s important for a lot of people who don’t live in rural and small-town Iowa to believe that these people are simple right-wing white nostalgists who are trying to stop beneficial progress (sorry, “Progress”). Don’t look at the scummy culture that upchucks something like Cardi B. and “WAP,” and wonder what kind of world your daughter is growing up in when a song like that is the No. 1 single; instead, stay focused on these awful corn-fed Christian Trump voters, and their doomed quest to hold on to political influence.
Everybody is lying to themselves.
The other day, Rolling Stone published a massively self-righteous and stupid essay by the scientist Wade Davis, on how the Covid-19 crisis signals “the unravelling of America.” He’s a Canadian, and jammed it full of unbearable Canadian pieties about how Canadian life is so much better than American life, because — well, read it for yourself. But also read this fantastic takedown of the piece by Deanna Kreisel, a left-wing American academic who taught college for 13 years in Vancouver, where Davis lives. She tears into Davis’s “spiteful, toxic anti-Americanism” from the anti-Trump left, and whales the tar out of him.
That said, I believe Davis is correct here:
More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family. It was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose.
The sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. That’s a great insight. Perhaps he’s blinded by his prejudices, but what Davis can’t see is that the atom-splitting spread throughout the industrialized nations. Nobody escaped it, certainly not after 1968. This is what the bestselling French novelist Michel Houllebecq’s work is about. Kreisel calls him out on Canada’s own problems on this front. Left-wing people tend to see the costs of individualism solely as a matter of economics and social policy; right-wing people tend to see it solely as a matter of familial and communal atomization. They are both right. This is what Alan Ehrenhalt speaks to in his 1995 book: what was gained, but what was lost, with postwar individualism.
Sorry, I’ve gotten far afield from rural Iowa. Let’s circle back. I think Dias is wrong, or at least I don’t think the quotes in her report support her thesis that they voted for Trump because he promised to restore them to power. I think rather he offered to protect them for a while longer from the changes in the broader culture. Maybe that’s a distinction without much difference, but I think it’s meaningful. Read the quotes in Dias’s story, and you don’t hear people who want to push around others. You hear people who love what they have, and are afraid it’s going to be taken from them.
They’re right. It is going to be taken from them. And they’re going to give away a lot of it without knowing what they’re doing. And Trump can’t stop this, or even slow it down very much.
But if you think that the passage of power from the ideals embodied by small-town Iowa Evangelicals to whatever we have now is to be welcomed without regret, you’re also wrong. A culture that marginalizes and snuffs out what those Iowans represent is without the means to prevent Cardi B. and the corporations and media who champion her from colonizing it and destroying what is best in our people. The cornfields of Iowa aren’t my idea of paradise either, but America would be a much better place for all of us if those farm families were still the American mainstream. In Weimar America, those prairie Calvinists are the freaks, and Cardi B. is the mainstream. God help us.
I wonder: How many young people in this Iowa island of conservative Christianity are listening to Cardi B. and enjoying her degenerate work? That is going to reveal more about the future of that community and its traditions than who wins the presidency his fall.
I also wonder: What if Trump and Cardi B. are on the same side, deep down, and neither one knows it?