All Hail the Heartland
I love election season in America, because being from Wisconsin finally carries some clout. I’m no longer from the flyover country—that mass of land that separates the two coasts—I am from the coveted Heartland, whose voters may again determine the fate of the election. During election season, I go from living in the most irrelevant place in the U.S. to the most exceptional.
For three years, I’ve endured the typical digs about the Midwest— the camo, the cornfields, the John Deere caps, and Fargo accents. To the liberal arts college coastie, I’m one bonnet away from Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie or one gun shy of being a charter member of the NRA.
But, once Iowa primary nears, suddenly, everyone starts sentences with “folks,” casseroles become politicized, and every candidate wants to lay claim to their cornfield roots. Each candidate professes their Heartland bona fides. There was “Heartland Amy,” “Hoosier Pete,” and “Middle-Class Joe.” A State Fair photo-op and dinner at a diner was almost a rite of passage in Iowa. Candidates chowed down on corn dogs, kissed babies’ heads, and pledged themselves to the “Heartland.”
Mayor Pete declared that what we needed was a president who could walk from “his house to the nearest cornfield,” a claim almost as absurd as Sarah Palin’s foreign policy pitch that she could “see Russia from [her] house.” And Amy unveiled her ill-defined “Heartland Economics,” which she described as “bread-and-butter, common sense economics,” a reference lost on the gluten-free, lactose-intolerant hipsters. Much like Klobuchar’s signature hot dish—a hodgepodge of meat, veggies, noodles, condensed soup, and Tater Tots—her Heartland Economics meant adding a bit of everything until people wondered what the heck it was made of.
If I had a dollar for every time the word “Heartland” was mentioned, I’d have my own super PAC by now. Sarah Palin referred to us as “the real America.” In the political imagination, the Midwest is where doors are never locked, politeness is practically a commandment, and virtue runs as clear as the rivers. To hear politicians tell it, Main Street America is still thriving, and Thomas Jefferson’s “most virtuous of citizens” are working to feed the world.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind a little political pandering. In fact, I’ve been waiting for it. But, the media’s Midwest, the bucolic hills and hamlets, is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. It focuses on a nostalgic fantasy of the Heartland as rural and white. It’s the same trope that New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman appealed to when he tweeted, “Saying Rashida Tlaib (D–Detroit) and Ilhan Omar (D–Minneapolis) are from the Midwest is like saying Lloyd Doggett (D–Austin) is from Texas or John Lewis (D–Atlanta) is from the Deep South,” insinuating that Tlaib and Omar don’t count as Midwesterners. But, the Midwest is more than a Grant Wood painting, more than Friday night football games, and more than “amber waves of grain.” It’s Minneapolis and Ferguson, Flint and Standing Rock, Detroit and Chicago.
This rural, small-town romanticism also functions as thinly veiled racism. Trump knows this. What do his followers picture when he pledges “To Make America Great Again?” They imagine the Heartland: white, rural, and working class.
The closest our Fifth Avenue fiasco gets to a rural landscape is the golf course. Yet, he sings the praises of the “beautiful countryside,” while referring to cities as “disgusting,” “corrupt,” “crime-ridden,” “rat- and rodent- infested,” and “violent.” In a recent op-ed, Roger Cohen quoted Michael Steinberg, a professor of history at Brown University and the former president of the American Academy in Berlin, who compared Trump’s attack on Portland to the Third Reich, writing that “[t]he basic comparison involves racism as a political strategy: a racist, imaginary of a pure homeland, with cities demonized as places of decadence.”
It’s the same brand of white nationalism as the “Blood and Soil” slogan. Embraced by the Nazi Party, this doctrine called for a revival of “rural values” and championed the racial purity of the peasantry, who were regarded as real Germans, made up of the same rural, white voters as “real America.” And, just as “real America” is synonymous with “white America,” cities have become code for minorities.
Trump’s attack on Portland and other Democrat-run cities is a blatant attempt to drive a wedge between rural and urban America. His next target is Chicago. But, President Trump better think twice before sending law enforcement to the Midwest, because when Chicago bleeds, the Heartland bleeds, too.