Bart Schaneman is a reporter based in Denver. The views and opinions expressed in this article are hers and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Matador Network.
I’m a journalist and I understand why Trump won. But that doesn’t mean I agree with him or his policies, and I’m not just going to shut up and listen to him or his administration.
Some context: Until November of 2016, I worked as a newspaper editor in small town Nebraska. I wrote editorials critical of Trump during the campaign, took the phone calls in response and published letters to the editor that said in as many words that I should either get with the Republican program or leave.
I witnessed firsthand what Fox News and talk radio can do to a community. I heard Rush Limbaugh’s talking points at the poker table. I saw the huge turnout for Kris “Hero of the Benghazi Attack” Paronto at the local civic center, and fielded complaints that the newspaper didn’t write enough stories about it. Climate change deniers, one my high school guidance counselor, brought books to the newspaper office for me to read. I overheard talk about how President Obama was planning on declaring martial law, that Hillary Clinton was certain to take away our guns. A friend of a friend knew a guy who was visited by the FBI at his home and had his guns confiscated by the feds when Air Force One had to make an emergency landing somewhere in the Great Plains, or so the story went.
I listened to all of this and I understood what it meant. A former colleague of mine framed the narrative as people in these parts of the country feel abandoned by lawmakers so they voted for someone who wasn’t a career politician. There’s a lot of truth there, and it’s a storyline that Trump seized on early.
But that’s only one part of the story.
As a white man born and raised in rural America, I’m qualified to say that white, rural men felt threatened by President Obama’s race and couldn’t abide that the first family, the family living in the White House, was black.
In 2012, I was sitting at a card table playing poker with my dad’s friends, guys with decades on me, and hearing “Trump’s making a lot of sense on the birth certificate. Where did Obama come from? We don’t know anything about him. Has anyone ever met anyone who knew him growing up?”
One of the loudest at the table was a man in the legal profession, so I attempted to appeal to his professional judgment.
“It’s true that Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review,” I said.
“How do you know that?”
“Because he was. I mean, that’s not really in dispute.”
“Bullshit,” the man said.
So the conversation went. These men, men I had known my entire life, with kids my age that I knew growing up, men I would trust most anywhere except in a voting booth, continued to go out and check their fields with Limbaugh on the pickup stereo and eat dinner with Bill O’Reilly on the TV.
Afraid they were losing their culture, they listened to men like Trump and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and started repeating theories about how everyone who had gotten close to the Clintons over the years had secretly ended up dead. No facts to back any of it up, no proof, only Fox and friends to lead them down a blind alley, an orangutan holding a crowbar waiting for them.
In March of 2016 I was waiting in the lobby of the Dick Cheney Federal Building in Casper, Wyoming. My wife was getting her fingerprints taken to become a permanent resident of the United States. It was the day after Hillary Clinton had said, in a televised town hall meeting, “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” A terrible gaffe, and no explaining away the context of her remarks was going to help.
We walked the wind-blown streets of downtown Casper. Months after the film had been released, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” was still on the marquis at the Fox III Theater. Stores proudly displayed Trump’s face on t-shirts in their windows. Hillary Lied and Four Americans Died — an overly simplistic bumper sticker — no doubt sold well in coal country. It was clear that at least out there she was doomed.
Before the election, rural Americans turned on the news and heard reports of a stable economy, of job growth, of Obama successfully pulling the country away from the cliff, but when they went outside they didn’t see it. To them, small-town America hadn’t recovered from the Great Recession and likely never would. They saw the houses where a family they knew used to live — the kids gone to college to never come back. They saw a town that swirled around one central drain — Wal-Mart. The places they love were boarded up, never to be reopened or replaced.
Against Clinton and the other GOP candidates, Trump didn’t have to sell them on anything but an alternative to the politicians who they felt left them behind. Many people who stay in small towns believe their way of life to be noble, superior to the cities, and want it preserved. Yes, make America great again meant keep America white always, but it also meant return us to the 1950s and ’60s when the country was simple, when our small towns were safe from the problems of the outside world.
Here it must be said that this isn’t the true thinking of every person in rural America. #notallcountryfolk. I have family and friends in my hometown who were thoroughly horrified and disgusted by the prospect of a Trump presidency. In a part of the country that voted as strongly for Trump as anywhere in the U.S., they didn’t speak of it too loudly, or too often, but they knew that the Orange Man could never really know what their lives were like.
Those rare country folk don’t need a New York real estate mogul, a reality TV star, a Manhattan (maybe) billionaire, born on third base, never did an honest day’s work in his life, to come save their lives from the government. They want humanity and dignity in their leader, inspiration even, someone who seems kind and tough in equal measure. They want someone worthy of the office of President of the United States. They didn’t see that in Trump, unfortunately many of them didn’t see those qualities in Hillary either.
So, yeah, Steve Bannon, I get what happened here. And no, I won’t shut up and sit on my hands and listen to Trump and his gang of racists, of white supremacists and climate change deniers and civil rights suppressors. I’m not going to just give him a chance. “But he hasn’t even done anything yet,” is a lie. He did plenty to dislike before the election. For one, he tricked a lot of good people into following him.
Now he’s showing us exactly how large of a mistake America made. We’ve seen it every single day since the inauguration. Outright lies in public speeches. Belittling journalists as they do their jobs. Silencing of scientists charged with protecting our public lands. The list of egregious offenses to our democracy grows longer by the hour, and puts us, for the first time, in the company of second-rate democracies.
If we’re honest with ourselves most of us knew Trump was a bad person as soon as he opened his mouth. Now he’s putting our fears into action. We did this to ourselves, America, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to stop it. Before he blows up the world.