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Why Rural Iowa Embraces Trump

Emmetsburg, Iowa (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A friend put me in touch with an Iowa native, who sent me the following response to my long post about why rural Evangelical Iowans see Donald Trump as a defender of their interests. This Iowan writes:
“You hear people who love what they have, and are afraid it’s going to be taken from them.”  Correct.  It has been taken from them for decades, starting in the 60’s and accelerating in the 70s and 80’s:  Big Ag replacing smaller family farms.  The rural towns were slowly gutted, along with every meaningful institution.  What is left is still good in many ways, but it is a hollow shell of the rural Iowa of the 1950s and most of the 60s.  Bowling alleys, bakeries, men’s clothing stores, dress shops, tailors, cobblers, grocery stores, movie theaters, roller rinks, cafes, churches, implement dealerships, auto dealers….  these were commonplace in small rural towns (even with populations under 2,000).  What is commonplace today:  main streets with mostly empty storefronts.  I am typing this from one of those towns in conservative northwest Iowa.
Many of the towns in the Cornbelt (upper midwest) were established as a result of the railroad lines in the late 1800’s.  The railroad provided access to larger markets for the grain and livestock raised in these remote areas.  These towns became the commercial and retail hubs of the surrounding countryside.  On Saturday evenings, the stores would stay open.  Farm folks from the surrounding area would drive into town for shopping and socializing. This sounds like I’m describing a corny Hallmark special.  Not so.  This is how the rural economy and society functioned up through the 1950’s and ’60’s.
What changed?  Maybe an over-simplistic answer is the rise of Big Ag.  Back in the day, a farmer could support a family with 80 acres.  At some point in the second half of the 20th century, that ceased to be the case, no matter how hard a farmer worked.  As a result, farms began to grow in size, out of necessity.  Obviously, this means fewer farmers and fewer farm families.  Fewer farm families meant fewer kids in school districts.  So the school districts began to consolidate, and that continues today.  A declining population meant fewer customers for the stores in town.  So stores and businesses closed.  Churches lost numbers.  Basic community and social institutions were originally established because there was a population to sustain them.  With a declining population, it’s pretty difficult for these institutions to thrive.
Interestingly, the population of Iowa has grown modestly.  A long term trend continues:  rural areas of the state struggle to maintain population, and the larger cities grow.  The migration inside of the state continues, at the expense of many small communities.
How does this relate to the support of Donald Trump in northwest Iowa?  A majority of folks in this part of the world want to protect their heritage.  Not necessarily ethnic heritage, but the heritage of neighbor helping neighbor, physical labor, and personal responsibility.  The heritage of family ties and connection to the land and community.  A lot of this is nostalgia, but what’s wrong with that?  When Trump speaks against BLM protests, and against the resulting rioting and anarchy of urban areas, he is literally speaking their language.  Make America Great Again — this is the language of God and Country in northwest Iowa, and that reflexively resonates here.
I hear that. What’s frustrating — and I say this not against these Iowans, but out of sympathy with them — is that Trump sounds sympathetic, but what does he do? And, what can he, or any politician, do about cultural factors? I believe that Republican politicians can pass laws and appoint judges, both as a means of protecting local institutions (e.g., schools) from government-mandated woke indoctrination. But it’s hard to see much beyond that. Hey, I’ll take that, with gratitude, over what the Democrats propose! But it’s not remotely sufficient.
UPDATE: From a reader:

As a resident of Sioux Center, and more broadly northwest Iowa, I’ve found the amount of attention this area has garnered from national news sources over the past few years very fascinating. I’m sure that much of the attention was spawned from Trump’s infamous moment at Dordt University. The perspectives on our way of life and also the narratives some journalists have crafted based on who they interview (and for what predetermined agendas) has been…interesting.

In this area we have always taken pride in being a safe and relatively unknown corner of the country and now we’ve oddly stepped into scrutiny from afar. Some of the writing has been enlightening, but as I already stated, agendas can skew the actual narrative.

For example, this far corner of the state is a melting pot of Calvinist denominations, and NYT journalist Dias chose to interview Christians from denominations who fall on the farthest-right-ultra-traditional end of that Calvinist spectrum. In doing this Dias paints a particular picture of white-conservative-Christians in our area in spite of the fact that these types of churches are in the minority.

More prevalent Church denominations in this area have made substantial efforts in bridging the gaps in our changing communities and in identifying and responding to the dramatic shifts in culture more broadly. Most know we have a long ways to go and, on average, we are not as ignorant on the difficult of turning back the tide as the interviewees make it appear. Unsurprisingly you won’t hear about those positives in the NYT article. You also won’t read in the article how local voters recently ousted U.S. representative Steve King partially due to inflammatory racial comments he’s made and the growing compassion that exists for immigrant workers in our communities. That doesn’t fit their narrative; their motive is to paint a polarizing picture in every political situation.

One thing that did resonate with me from the article was where it was said by one interviewee that “we are not speaking the same language”. There’s a lot to unpack in that comment but I think at the core of it is just the growing disconnect between rural and urban America in the same way there is a growing disconnect between Christian and secular America. The disconnect is magnified from the perspective of an area like northwest Iowa that is both rural and largely Christian; especially under the scrutiny of the national news outlets that come from urban areas that are much more secular. You’ve touched on this in articles in the past and I’ve found it more true as time goes on.

Certainly Trump will be heavily favored once again in this area come election time but I feel quite strongly that most will sit in the ballot box and look at our options with disgust and disbelief. Most conservative people I talked to felt that way in 2016 and I don’t know how they can feel much different this time around. Unfortunately, all we’ll have is a choice between the lesser of two evils and that’s pretty sad.

Lastly, you may find this article interesting: https://religionunplugged.com/news/2020/8/12/christians-want-power-sioux-center-iowan-pushes-back-on-nyt-story?fbclid=IwAR0b46icpz78h1vrZ6QjsSiBP_35gjPsQwlwHmvo-cfAyqI_dM2AvcwpZOs
It’s written by a journalism professor at Dordt University who is a transplant into the community and its responds to the NYT article

It really is an interesting piece. The author is Lee Pitts. He writes, in part:

After reading this article on my adopted town I think the piece will satisfy East Coast readers who have a handful of stereotypes that pop into their minds on those rare times they think about flyover country. They likely nodded their heads in satisfaction that this article confirmed these preconceived notions, and then they turned the page.

I’ve done more than parachute into Sioux Center. I call it my home. And you can find a broad diversity here. So much so that any slice you choose does not feel like the whole. So here are a few additional facts about this community that did not fit into the recent Times piece:

Our church small group is more diverse than my small groups in Washington, D.C. We enjoy the company of three people from Mexico, a gentleman from Paraguay, a woman from Japan, an engineering professor from Ghana, and a couple originally from that exotic place called South Carolina (that’s me). In fact, out of our 12-member small group only two originally hail from Northwest Iowa. Meanwhile my D.C. small groups featured all upper middle-class white people mostly sporting advanced degrees and flashy jobs inside the Beltway. But the stereotype would reverse that. My Sioux Center small group should be all white and my D.C. one would surely be full of diversity, right? Wrong. A small university brings variety to even a small town. Dordt University here houses faculty from places like Germany, Australia, China, Korea and Canada.

One more thing: I see a lot of integration here between the majority with Dutch roots and the ongoing influx of Hispanics, another counternarrative to the suspected storyline of deep separation. In fact, my family attended a birthday party this past weekend for a Hispanic girl turning four. It featured not one but two pinatas, an inflatable waterslide and a nice mix of whites and Hispanics. The food and fellowship put my own birthday (held on the same day) to shame. I see a lot of that mixing of backgrounds here in Sioux Center. Could there be more? Sure. But the effort is being made. There are ethnic bridgebuilders on both sides trying to help this community integrate.

More:

I’m not trying to say Sioux Center is perfect. Far from it. I wish there were more restaurants and less sub-zero days. But after settling here for far longer than a couple of reporting visits I can say that community service and engagement trumps the pursuit of power. And it is not even close. Simply put, there is not a type of Sioux Center resident who any reporter can carbon copy as representative of the entire city. I suspect that is the case for every town in this country despite the broad brushstrokes usually painted by the media.

When I first announced that my family planned to move here many of my D.C. friends exclaimed, “You are moving where?!?”

I invited everyone to come for a visit. That’s the best way for East Coast dwellers to understand how folks in the Midwest are the way they are. A few of those friends have joined me here for bike rides in the cornfields. And all of them have left— returning to the stress and traffic and expense (and admittedly the better restaurants) of city life— basically saying the same thing, “I can see why you moved here.”

Read it all. 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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