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Doom and Gloom Won’t Win Votes in the Heartland

Americans don't want handouts and they don't want to be told the world is going to hell. Hope sells.

Democratic presidential hopefuls US senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders (L) and US Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Just before the holidays, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney explained that Trump’s 2020 reelection message will focus on the economy, immigration, and Democratic Party “socialism.” What the election will really turn on is whether voters think it’s Morning in America Again or Kristallnacht.

Some 76 percent of Americans rate economic conditions positively, up from 48 percent in 2016. Stocks just had their best year since 1997. Wage growth continues, unemployment is at a half-century low, holiday spending was up 3.4 percent with an 18.8 percent rise in online sales, and the media-driven fears of recession and trade war apocalypse have yielded to reality. History whispers that the guy in the White House on Election Day gets the credit.

The Democrats’ rebuttal has been a blurry focus on economic inequality. The drunks at Midwestern holiday parties actually agree in large part, but as sober voters they are unsure who Bernie Warren is lecturing to about that, as they’ve been aware of inequality for a long time. They’ve been through the weaker and weaker union contracts (when they still had unions) and plant downsizings (when they still had plants). In fact, financial equality in America peaked as far back as 1973. Middle America’s decline should not be inevitable, mind you, but many Democrats, citing changing demographics, are near gleeful in their treatment of it.

Joe Biden added to the festivities on New Year’s Eve by proclaiming that “anybody who can go down 3,000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well.” Yet free college isn’t much of a draw because there aren’t a lot of better jobs begging. The places that have had training programs gifted like Scooby treats from presidential campaigns past have already learned the hard lesson that education, while a good thing, doesn’t create jobs. Jobs create the need for education. Otherwise it’s empty calories, changing underemployed, uneducated people into underemployed, educated people.

Actually, if “in a craphole of debt” is an important demographic for Democrats, the people in these pink houses would welcome some attention to limits on the 24 percent interest rate they pay on credit cards, or the 391 percent interest rate on payday loans for those who can’t get credit anymore.

There are even more exhausted and drug-wracked towns down-county. Those places don’t care about Medicare for All; they already have Medicaid for All. Now if a Democrat came up with a viable infrastructure plan, he’d have these folks’ ears, and if it were funded more intelligently than “we’ll get rich people whose companies don’t pay taxes now to pay,” he’d likely have their votes, too. They know the same people promising them things are promising others slavery reparations, student loan forgiveness, and maybe free ponies. Some even remember that the War on Poverty, which started Medicare and Medicaid, was aimed in part at the Midwest. This is not an audience quick to trust new and expensive government programs to fix everything.

Sure, there are paradoxical notes on meritocracy, whereby people accept food stamps but decry others who do the same as lazy. But what makes sense and what is are not always the same. In 2020, the hint of new taxes to pay for things that aren’t likely to get them better jobs is enough to stick with what little the last four years handed over. A job, or a better paying job, is what everyone wanted under the Christmas tree. Trump has not delivered as fully as he promised, but things do feel better.

More immigration is about as popular as less football. Out here, they are not surprised to learn that 77 percent of Americans nationwide see illegal immigration as a “critical/important” threat. They are wondering why fellow Midwesterner Pete Buttigieg wants to deport fewer illegal immigrants and other candidates stress the need for benefits to illegals and sanctuary cities. They wonder what happened to the 2016 Bernie, who claimed open borders were a right-wing plot to flood the U.S. with cheap labor to depress wages.

Never mind the sepia documentaries: they know they’re the descendants of immigrants who weren’t warmly welcomed, who were called “Hunkies” or “Polacks” before being exploited as cheap labor by the “whyte piople” of the day. Nobody this New Year’s said, “Dang, our lives would be better if we had more immigrants moving in.” But nobody said, “I hate refugees,” either. Understanding the difference between the two statements could help decide the election.

That brings us to Trump’s third campaign point, “Democratic Socialism.” What the Democrats are offering seems as popular as the burnt crescent rolls even the drunks leave alone on the table on New Year’s Eve. An “…and in other news” story about how the Bernie Sanders campaign is worried that spending too much of their money on office supplies from Amazon is unethical raises the question: “and these people represent who around here?”

The great campaigners—Reagan, 2008 Obama, first-gen Bill Clinton—had a vision of Morning in America, of Hope, and of, well, also Hope. Their voices were trumpets that spoke to the old, best dreams. People vote their pocketbook, but they also vote on that vision of who they are and who they think they want to be. Aspiration is an economic driver same as wages, and in America, it may be even more powerful. Trump is good enough at this. He tells people he’s rich, he’s powerful, he can do anything he wants, and what he chooses to do is work for them for free. Look at the faces at a Trump rally—same in 2008 with Obama and Reagan in 1984—and it becomes a conversation that ends almost organically with a vote.

Meanwhile, the story Democrats are telling is of a place dying under the wet weight of racism and homophobia. It’s not Morning in America in 2020; it’s Kristallnacht. Not people of hope and aspiration, we’re bitter and hateful, despised not just for holding political opinions, but for being the kinds who hold such opinions. These people are not even worthy of their vote—Dems say the popular vote, as expressed by the good states like New York and California, will allow a more righteous country to emerge over bodies of the rednecks.

In a New Year’s speech, Elizabeth Warren said, “In a few hours, the dawn of a new year will break over America…now, it is normally a moment for optimism, but let’s face it. There is the chill of fear in the air. People are afraid. Afraid for their families and their neighbors. Afraid for the children locked in detention centers, and the children on lock down in our schools. Afraid for women, LGBTQ people, especially trans people.”

Really? No.

The ground truth is not hard to tease out. The pundits from Brooklyn who write garbage about the heartland wouldn’t even need passports to visit. They might realize they spend too much time reporting off social media without knowing they’re just talking to themselves. But they wouldn’t be comfortable at the cousins’ homes. When they ask where the coffee is sourced from and is it sustainable, the answer would be: “Um, Kroger, and yeah, we got a whole pot on.”

They might learn that the majority of voters in purple states, the ones who likely will decide the election, don’t see America as a fearful place consumed by racism, homophobia, and white supremacy, and they don’t see themselves as racists, homophobes, and white supremacists. A lot of these people voted for Obama when he won Ohio in 2008 and 2012. They know Facebook is where you post pictures of the kids, not receive marching orders from the Kremlin, and the implication that they’re too stupid to know even if Moscow is treating them like dupes hurts. Their America hasn’t been taken away from them by minorities or whoevers because nobody really wants it.

“Not Trump” will be enough for the Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s base, but not for places across Ohio and elsewhere down the food chain. It’s messy out there, but these people understand they have made it three years without a new war taking their sons and daughters (so far), without an economic collapse taking the jobs they do have. They know that someone has started doing something about immigration, that the impeachment that’s been Democrats’ near-sole focus for three years matters not a whit, and, hell, even that the Saturday Night Live everybody all watched was sort of funny again.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.

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