Why Donald Trump’s Crude Messaging Lands With Rural Voters—Despite Notorious Christian Values
Alright, well: prepare your stomach for this one.
Several friends from my hometown in Northeast Pennsylvania have forwarded me these images from the ground, and I’m forwarding them to you here in an effort to showcase what’s really happening in some places in rural America.
This particular gem hails from Scranton, PA—ironically the hometown of Joe Biden—and it’s moving around the neighboring counties. This photo was taken in Hallstead, PA.
I will say: this is just one guy with a truck (and a grave misunderstanding of how to use quotation marks), so this isn’t representative of the area as a whole. However, its presence is disturbing for the way it is normalizing this type of rhetoric. This is what’s parked smack dab in the center of town. This is what voters are driving by and seeing daily.
This kind of propaganda is problematic for so many reasons, but I wanted to take some time to try and do my best to translate what I believe this rhetoric actually means on a deeper level—and why the messaging may be landing with rural voters, despite its non-Christian approach. (To be, ahem, charitable.)
“Under This Flag, Americans Fought and Died for America.”
What is Likely Meant: We sent our sons and daughters—young, innocent kids we loved very much—to fight and die for America. We all know someone who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the American flag represents THEIR MEMORY. They were our hearts! Our pride! I am scared that by kneeling, you are disrespecting their sacrifice. And in turn, you are disrespecting me and my family. How dare you? You must be the radical left! Anyone who disrespects our flag like that is an enemy of the people, and I have every right to be mad about it.
What is Likely Not Understood: The American flag symbolizes different things to different people based on their own reality of life in America. When NFL football players are kneeling in front of the American flag, it’s not to disrespect troops: they’re not targeting fallen soldiers and the hardships their families have suffered—that’s not the message. It’s about making a statement about their own hardships: namely, dying right here in America, without even having to be deployed. (Unfortunately, their enemy doesn’t have a different flag—and that’s precisely why it’s such an important problem.) The enemy isn’t America: it’s the systems in America, employed by the powerful of America, that have kept urban AND rural Americans down for all of these years. It’s just not as obvious in rural America because no one's dying from it as quickly, and on-camera; rather, rural Americans are just suffering slowly at the hands of an economic system that does not benefit them, instead. Kneeling is not about patriotic versus unpatriotic: it’s about Americans versus the system that runs America. We’re all on the same side—it just hasn’t been presented to rural Americans that way.
“Keep Mexican Dope in Mexico.”
What is Likely Meant: We’ve got some of the highest opioid deaths in the nation. The crisis has taken over here and killed even more of the people we love. I am scared that it’s beyond our control and we feel ****** helpless. We see more people die from these horrifying drugs than automobile accidents and firearm accidents together—drugs that never used to exist here. So when Donald Trump told Americans on January 8th, in his prime-time address to the nation, that “our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs including meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl,” we had no choice but to believe him. He’s the president, wouldn’t he know? These drugs didn’t exist before, so that must mean that Mexico is our enemy. And because we’re a 98.54% white county, we don’t really know any Mexicans. So it’s easy to vilify them when we don’t have any personal experience to round out our perspectives.
What is Likely Not Understood: Opioids came into rural Pennsylvania via fracking…from places like West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. White, male out-of-towners came along with the gas industry, from places where opioids were already becoming a problem. The reason for that? White rural America was explicitly targeted, on purpose, by Purdue Pharma to market OxyContin because they wanted to market it as a “safe” drug for chronic pain. But in order to do that, they had to stay away from anyone at risk for drug addiction—i.e. the prevailing image of the African-American inner-city drug addict. So they went to rural white America and told them that it was safe because it was released within the body over a 12-hour period. However, recreational drug users quickly realized they could get high by crushing/dissolving the pills. And that was appealing to communities with problems of poverty & despair. Later, Purdue made the pills harder to crush and inhale, and federal agencies came down on the availability of such drugs—which helped. Except users were already hooked…so they turned to heroin. It was easier to obtain and produced a similar high. (Both are opiates.) Between 2010 and 2016, deaths from heroin overdoses increased almost fivefold in the United States. Then heroin dealers decided to get greedy: in order to increase their profit margins, they started mixing their products with fentanyl. Because it’s more potent, it’s also more deadly. Between 2013 and 2016, overdoses from fentanyl increased by 88% per year. And now, in the year 2020…it just keeps getting worse. But Mexicans aren't to blame—unless they work as an executive in Big Pharma, happily receiving their tax breaks from Donald Trump.
“Build the Wall / Close the Borders”
What is Likely Meant (Beyond the Fear of Drugs): We’re from here, we've worked hard here doing good, honest work our whole lives, and we don’t want anybody coming in here and taking what’s ours. But more importantly, we don’t want anyone changing who we are. I am scared that they’re going to infiltrate my town and bring crime and make me feel like an outsider in my own home. Our identity is at stake, and so is our safety. Everything I know and that makes me feel like I belong could be gone tomorrow. Those people are intimidating to me in a way I may not be fully conscious of, but maybe it's because they speak in a language I don’t understand and their skin is darker than mine and frankly, that reminds me of ISIS. You know, the enemy that we valiantly sent our sons to fight in Iraq??? Sons that gave their lives to keep us safe from foreign invasion? FOREIGN = DANGER.
What is Likely Not Understood: Crimes are not a function of race, but criminals—period. And criminals come in all colors, including white. In fact, reports show that 22% of American prisoners convicted of sexual assault are black, 19% are Hispanic, and 44% are—ready for it?—white. Worse, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict. So maybe the whole stones, glass house thing?
“All Lives Matter”
What is Likely Meant: I’ve been waiting patiently in line my entire life for someone to give a damn about me and my plight—and guess what? Nobody ever does! We’re ignored up here. I’ve been on my own my whole life but you don’t see me complaining. I’ve worked hard and I’ve figured it out every day of my life. So I’d say the same thing to Blacks who want to try and skip the line and get some kind of special treatment just because they’re Black: take a number, buddy. Work hard the way the rest of us have. My life matters just as much as yours does, and so does the life of the police officer who is now my son / daughter / spouse / friend. I am scared you are attacking them. They’re good people and you’re the problem.
What is Likely Not Understood: A campaign to raise awareness for one thing does not automatically invalidate the other thing. By saying “black lives matter,” that does not automatically mean “and therefore yours does not.” The same line of thinking can be applied when we consider campaigns for breast cancer: when you sign up to walk a marathon to raise awareness for breast cancer, no one shows up with signs saying “all cancers matter!!!!!” That doesn’t follow logic, because the intention of breast cancer awareness month is clearly not to invalidate other types of cancers: it’s to give that particular type of cancer the spotlight right now, because it’s important for the health of our society that we do. And so is true for Black Lives Matter: it needs the spotlight because it is also important for the health of our society. That said, the stark difference between what constitutes “society” in rural America and urban America is a part of the struggle, because people in rural America simply don’t see the problems that urban America faces…and when you can’t SEE a problem, it’s harder to believe it’s real. (Then again…God.)
“Make America Great Again”
What is Likely Meant: I remember a time when the old diner on Route 11 wasn’t a shuttered up abandoned building—and neither was the town supermarket, or the old Summit restaurant, or what used to be the video store. Kids went outside and rode their bikes and played flag football and went to eat a ham sandwich down at the community swimming pool, and I didn’t have to worry about them getting mixed up in the wrong crowds. Everything was so much more innocent and wholesome then. I trusted my neighbors and I trusted our schools. Our kids sold Gertrude Hawk chocolates door-to-door as fundraisers to go to Washington D.C.; we all had the first day of hunting season off of school so we could go hunting as a family; in the summertime, we’d go pick blueberries together up at the blueberry farm. It was a simple life, but I was proud of it. I was proud of who we were. Now I'm scared of who we’re becoming. Meth. Murders. Drug dealers. No jobs. No opportunity. We've been on the decline for so long now, and no one coming to save us. Except, as it seems, Donald Trump.
What is Likely Not Understood: Rural America is struggling because of modern technology and mass production. Technology has made manual labor largely irrelevant, so a community whose economy is based on manual labor is, naturally, going to decline. This is the Information Age, which means that knowledge is now the driver of the economy—and that’s a problem if you grew up not feeling like you were “smart enough” to pursue a line of work that relied on your brain more than your brawn. This is also a function of not knowing what’s possible because you can’t see it. No one’s shown it to you, so you accept life as it is and get a job at the local factory. And then when the factory shuts down, you get angry because you have no control over your livelihood. And then it becomes “us” versus “them” when some guy comes along and says, “you are the good guys, it’s the Democrats who are the bad guys—they’re responsible for these problems.”
What is Likely Meant: You’re the enemy. Everything I’ve seen on Facebook and on the local news has made me draw this conclusion, and everyone around me agrees. Hearing Trump call you names makes me feel stronger and braver—even though the real problem is that I feel desperately helpless. I’m scared you are eroding life as we know it, and our good Christian values.
What is Likely Not Understood: Actual Christian values. (Never thought I’d be the one fighting for them, but alas, here we are.) Character. And everything else I’ve left out of this article because otherwise I fear I’ll go down the rabbit hole and may never shower again.
I’ll end on this note: to my fellow Americans, it can be difficult to speak out against Donald Trump when you worry you may offend people you love. But please understand that his supporters do not share your fears because they’re surrounded by Donald Trump propaganda and it’s become completely normalized. Therefore they are far more vocal about it—and this tractor-trailer is just but one example. Therefore, the quieter you are, the more you contribute to normalizing this kind of message. The more silent you are, the more you accidentally amplify this, because there isn’t any counterbalance.
This is the kind of gall that’s out there. So you must have gall as well.
Say the most thoughtful and true thing you can muster today—and provide that much-needed counterbalance.
The world needs your voice.
The world needs you to be brave.
The world can be changed with words.
Please contribute yours.