“You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.”
— James Thurber
Out here in flyover country, you can’t hardly go by the feed store without running into a reporter doing one of those Wisdom of the Heartland stories. Seems like they could have saved themselves a bunch of trouble by listening to a Hank Williams Jr. album instead.
“I live back in the woods, you see /
My woman and the kids and the dogs, and me /
I got a shotgun, a rifle, and a 4-wheel drive /
And a country boy can survive … ”
Until a few months ago that was pretty much my life, although I’d have had a hard time without some real country boys’ help. You know, loading round bales into my truck, teaching me how to keep the transmission running. Making a skittish heifer stand still and teaching her newborn calf to suckle. Stuff like that.
On the terrible winter day my horse Rusty colicked and died, my neighbor showed up to bury him without being asked. Somebody down at the One Stop — gasoline, hay, livestock feed, bait, groceries and sandwiches — told him about it. A dead horse was news at the One Stop. He went straight home, put the backhoe on his tractor and came right over. I can’t tell you how grateful I was.
There wasn’t a man on our road that couldn’t do a dozen things I couldn’t. I used to say you could give my neighbor Micky a chainsaw, a hammer and a box of nails and he’d build you a house from scratch. The plumbing and electrical work might require a trip to town, but he’d do that, too.
Me, I’m good at catching runaway horses and herding cows back where they belong. I tried to keep an eye out.
So I knew damn well the Russian trolls who sent me threatening emails last summer hadn’t talked to anybody I knew. I’d have been warned before they got out of Perry County.
That said, except in a couple of cases, I have no idea who my friends voted for. In rural Arkansas, people just don’t talk about politics. Especially if they suspect it might cause bad feelings. Some were aware of my public identity; most were not. My wife went around with a Hillary bumper strip, but nobody said a thing about it. They already knew she’d grown up in Little Rock.
Perry County voted 70-24 percent for Trump; Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock, 56-39 for Clinton.
Because here’s the deal: the same urban/rural divide big city reporters are exploring exists within states and regions, too. Some Little Rock neighbors feared we’d be unsafe among the rednecks when we moved to our farm. Perry County neighbors expressed surprise we’d risk going back. What’s more, it’s as old as civilization: “What can I do in Rome?” wrote the poet Juvenal around 100 AD. “I never learned how to lie.”
So I am unmoved by Gary Abernathy’s hurt feelings. “The reality of life in rural flyover country is lost on those who mock us,” writes the small-town Ohio editor in The Washington Post. “These are the places where Donald Trump won the presidency, where people know they are ridiculed by East and West Coast elitists.”
Where have I heard that song before? Oh, yeah, Hank Jr.:
“I had a good friend in New York City / He never called me by my name, just hillbilly.”
Well, boo-hoo-hoo. An elitist, to Abernathy, seems to be anybody who objects that the president of the United States acts like a wholly owned subsidiary of the Kremlin.
Ultimately, such cultural paranoia — GOP-style identity politics, if you will — is self-defeating. I find myself more persuaded by New Yorker reporter Peter Hessler’s conclusions. Even after being penned up and screamed at during Trump pro-wrestling style rallies last summer, he ended up thinking that “people have reasons for the things that they believe, and the intensity of their experiences can’t be taken for granted. . . Almost everybody I met in Grand Junction seemed more complex, more interesting, and more decent than the man who inspires them.”
Amen. Yes, many Trump voters have undeniable fascist leanings, even if they don’t like you calling them that. Millions of others simply got conned into giving their vote to somebody they saw as crude but honest — a billionaire apostle of the working man.
But even here in Darkest Arkansas, buyer’s remorse is setting in. Last February, voters here gave Trump 60-35 positive over negative rating. By July’s Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College survey, he’d fallen to 50-47 positive, a sharp drop. A remarkable 40 percent of Arkansas voters “strongly disapprove” of the Trump presidency.
And that was last week, before the president’s bullying and berating his own (Southern-accented) attorney general, possibly presaging a constitutional crisis.
If Trump starts that fight, I believe he’ll lose it.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of ”The Hunting of the President.” You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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