When Thomas Frank wrote “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” in 2004, his theory was that the Republicans had successfully captured the rural vote by convincing the people of Kansas to vote against their own self-interest by frightening them with abstract fears of distant dangers.
According to the book, the political discourse of recent decades has dramatically shifted from social and economic equality to the use of “explosive” cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, which are used to redirect anger toward “liberal elites.”
Against this backdrop, Frank describes the rise of political conservatism in the social and political landscape of Kansas, which he says espouses economic policies that do not benefit the majority of people in the state.
Trump and his minions have been exploiting this issue, riding to his election based on the fact-free claims that illegal immigration was destroying America, and that Others were out to destroy our way of life, including the suburbs. The dog-whistle gave way to the bullhorn, and that is how they are hoping to keep their grip on power, using the demands for racial justice and police reform as precursors to the apocalyptic future of married lesbians lining up for free abortions and brown people voting.
But if it worked in 2016, it might not be working now, according to Nancy LeTourneau in Washington Monthly.
In the 2016 presidential election, Trump’s margin against Clinton in Iowa (9.4) was slightly larger than it was in Texas (8.9). But according to the polling average at FiveThirtyEight, the 2020 Iowa presidential race is basically a toss-up, with Trump’s lead only 1.4 percent. Similarly, incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who won her seat in 2014 by over eight points, is tied against her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield.
Iowa is one of those quintessentially “heartland” states that is predominantly rural. In other words, it is home to the people who make up Trump’s strongest base of support. So what has happened there over the last four years? According to Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa, “An ill wind blows for incumbents” in his home state.
That’s not simply because Iowa is a COVID-19 hot spot or that the president’s trade wars triggered layoffs at John Deere plants in Davenport and Waterloo. It’s also owing to the climate crisis which Trump calls “a hoax”. The state had been hit by drought and a hurricane-like derecho wind, which flattened 14 million acres in August. Corn prices are at their lowest point in a decade.
As Cullen points out, Trump’s convention speech was tone-deaf to voters in Iowa.
Trump simply must win Iowa and Wisconsin. So he cast a convention against this backdrop of anxiety and fear – godless looters are coming for yours – and roped in our governor [Kim Reynolds], former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa to play in the tragedy. Few were inclined to listen. When the corn calls, you are too busy removing fallen trees from your machine shed.
So what’s the mood in Iowa?
Farmers are anxious. Latinos are afraid. Unemployed machinists are frustrated. That prized demographic, suburban women in Urbandale next to Des Moines, are encouraging the school board to sue the governor over her in-person school orders…
Even some of those farmers are wondering about Trump as they dig into a harvest so meager that wraps up as they vote.
What has changed in Iowa is that Trump’s narcissism and incompetence are landing hard on its citizens. If Cullen is right, they don’t need this president’s trumped-up fears about “those people.” They’ve got enough real-life worries.
This does not mean that the people of Iowa or Kansas will turn on Trump. But when reality overwhelms the abstract, nothing should be taken for granted.
(And yes, the picture is a shameless plug for my new play that is about this issue.)