A view of North Main Street on a gray Midwestern day in the small town of Hubbard, Ohio.
“Well I was born in a small town, And I can breathe in a small town”
— John Mellencamp
“There is only one good thing about small town, You know that you want to get out”
— Lou Reed
America is a vast landscape, both in its geographic expanse and its demographic diversity. But if there’s one place in which, culturally speaking, the signifying torch of “America” still burns brightest, it’s in the small town. Not a single small town, of course, but the thousands upon thousands of Mayberrys that dot the American landscape — from the oldest New England settlements, to the Midwestern corn baskets, to the Southern white-picket fence farmsteads, to the West-Coast logging villages.
If you grew up in a heathen-infested big city like New York, Boston, or (gasp!) San Francisco, then you likely can’t appreciate the potent brew of aw-shucks Americanness that supposedly streams in the blood of every red-white-and-blue hayseed. Being from a small town is like being born with microscopic Lee Greenwood midichlorians in your circulatory system; it’s an instant indicator of authentic Americana. In much of the popular imagination, a small-town provenance means you’re from — in the infamous words of a former red-state governor and notorious airhead — the “Real America.”
Or so goes the popular myth. But if small-town America is the “Real America,” then Real America is in serious decline. The American small town ain’t what it used to be, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
A pickup truck rolls through the town square in Kinsman, Ohio.
Trumbull County, Ohio is one of those quaint little patches in the American quilt. Located in the Mahoning Valley, on the far northeastern edge of the Buckeye state, Trumbull borders Pennsylvania and serves as a microcosm of Ohio itself, with a mixture of Rust Belt decline, Appalachian culture, small cities, rural hamlets, and lots of corn fields. The county’s combination of redneck charm and economic anxiety have made it a go-to stop for vote-craving politicos, who barnstorm Trumbull’s many barns every election season promising an imminent return to a mystic Mayberrian past of small-town fuzziness and industrial might embodied by the now-defunct Republic Steel blast furnace in the county seat of Warren.
With a rich history of organized labor, Trumbull (along with neighboring Mahoning County, home to the former “Steel City” of Youngstown) has long been a stronghold for the Democratic Party. In fact, the last time Trumbull voted Republican was for Richard Nixon in 1972. That is, until the county balked tradition and supported Donald Trump for president in 2016. Trumbull County is now Trump country thanks to a fear of death — a death brought on by economic stagnation, declining public health, the opiate epidemic, and the impression that America has been lying comatose in an open grave for too long.
Jane Roberts, the self-proclaimed “spirit medium” who channeled the teachings of Seth and gave Trumpites a way to view the world.
Quick, off the top of your head, who’s the intellectual founder of modern conservatism? Maybe you think it was Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish statesman who critiqued the French Revolution and served as an intellectual foil for leftist radical Thomas Paine. Or perhaps you think that modern conservatism stems from the 20th-century British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who ruminated on the “conservative disposition” that was supposedly “cool and critical in respect of change and innovation.” Then again, maybe you think modern conservatism goes back to Sarah Palin, who once saw Russia from her house.
If you picked any of these figures, you’re wrong. Modern conservatism doesn’t stem from a well-known political philosopher or a politician. The foundations of modern conservatism lay in the teachings of a disembodied spirit-entity known as “Seth,” as channeled through the writings of a mid-20th century occultist named Jane Roberts.
St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. Temples like this serve as empty refuges from the crucified American Dream.
Battle Creek, Michigan used to have factories. It doesn’t have many of them anymore. As The Guardian’s Chris Arnade writes in his profile of Battle Creek’s disenchanted voters, “with the economic backbone broken, with hope in the future dimming, faith has become more central as a source of community, solace and hope.”
American society has reached a very real tipping point. Capitalism’s creative destruction has left millions of people with nothing more than amorphous notions of “faith” to lead them through the penury-stricken Land of the Free. Those just retiring are hoping to scrounge together what little benefits they have left, while those just starting out are facing the bleak reality of a future without any retirement at all. If you were a betting person, however, you’d know that rolling the dice on faith usually means giving away your chips to the House.
A map depicting the pollution stretch index of each of the Great Lakes. Via Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic.
A long time ago, Jesus and Ronald Reagan took some time off from cracking the skulls of petulant Berkeley protestors to write the Christian Bible. After receiving divine inspiration from the prophets in the oil, gas, and coal industries, Reagan wrote the now famous verse in Genesis 1:26: “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.”
Ever since that sacred meeting between The Gipper and Hey-Zeus, the unofficial Republican platform has loosely revolved around the Dominion Mandate, which supposedly gives man (and maybe woman, if she asks politely and still has supper ready) the right to exercise dominion over the earth and plunder its natural resources at will for the glory of God and Exxon Mobile. Of course, not all Christians subscribe to this hollow interpretation of Scripture, and not everyone who wants to defile the natural world is a Christian. Consider President (“I got 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton”) Trump.
President Donald Trump poses with one of his many cabinet picks who doesn’t believe in the validity of the government agency they’re about to lead.
Conservatives harbor an aversion to all-things “public.” They tend to see the world through a deeply individualistic lens in which there’s no public interest, only private gain. Their world is one in which capitalism is not a system created by human beings that’s subject to human flaws and shortcomings, but a sanctified doctrine received from atop Mount Sinai for the purpose of separating the worthy from the unworthy via an unassailable “market” that capriciously decides who shall rot in shantytowns and who shall lord from golden penthouses.
Of all the ideas that come together to “make” conservatism, chief among them is that the pursuit of material wealth and social power through capitalism constitutes the ultimate human purpose on this earth. In other words: it’s the money, stupid. For the Right, wealth is both the means and the ends to measuring human worth. This is why, during the long buildup to the 2016 presidential election, protests from warbling scribblers like Charles Krauthammer, Cal Thomas, and Peter Wehner that Donald J. Trump was “not a conservative,” did little to damage Trump’s appeal to legions of Republican voters.
The Big Orange Tyrant now sits in the Oval Office as the leader of a conservative party that dominates American government at the federal, state, and local levels. Either Donald Trump isn’t a conservative, or he hoodwinked millions of conservatives into supporting his lurch towards the presidency. I’m willing to give conservative voters more credit than are conservative pundits. Voters know that Trump is conservative. His wealth is all the proof they need.
Left: the non-native wild hog that inhabits Florida’s remaining brush. Right: a Trump-Pence campaign sign in Pasco County, Florida. Trump is also a species of fauna that is non-native to the Sunshine State.
The hogs seemed terrified that night. A few days after Christmas 2016, I decided to take an evening walk in the balmy December air that, for a few weeks a year, makes the state of Florida a bearable place to inhabit. The problem is that Wesley Chapel, the Pasco County census-designated place (CDP) where my in-laws live, isn’t especially hospitable to the notion of pedestrian traffic. There are some sidewalks, but not enough of them, and most of the time you’d be hard-pressed to see them populated by anything but the odd Acura RL piloted by one of the state’s billions of confused retirees.
Nevertheless, there’s a long stretch of sidewalk snaking alongside Wesley Chapel Blvd., the multi-lane thoroughfare that connects the town’s residents with their sacred auto dealerships, buffet chains, and a Wal-Mart Supercenter the size of Estonia. I decided to make use of this sidewalk for a bit of evening exercise. With my iPod blaring the synthwave sound of 80s retro-future act Gunship, I ambled along as the gas-guzzlers blew past until I arrived at a bridge that separated the marshy natural bushland from the seemingly endless sea of new pavement and big boxes. Suddenly, along the roadside where cement gave way to scrub grass and treeline, two wild hogs — a common wildlife sight in Florida and throughout the South — scurried from the roadside brush and disappeared back into the trees.
Those hogs were as lost, scared, and confused as America was in 2016.
The 1984 holiday horror-comedy Gremlins envisioned a wholesome, small-town America besieged by nefarious outside forces.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, unless you’re a loser. That’s right, the end of 2016 is upon us, and aside from remorselessly swiping David Bowie, Prince, and Natalie Cole from the world of the living, 2016 also installed a boorish orange Philistine into the highest office in the land. There have been numerous watershed elections in U.S. history, but the race that hacked the astringent Trump loogie out of the dankest corner of America’s collective nasal passage and spat him into the Oval Office will surely rank as one of the rankest examples of American democratic excess.
Donald J. Trump — he of the speed-bumped squirrel bouffant and Tang-tinged rice-paper skin — rode a tidal wave of white resentment that allowed him to give high-school swirlys to the aloof establishment nabobs in both political parties. But anyone who cared to pay attention to the festering cloud of amorphous fear mixed with shoulder-chipped resentment that has floated across the Heartland for decades should have noticed that Trump wasn’t some new development in American politics; rather, he’s the culmination of a long-building new American identity: that of the hopelessly besieged.
One seemingly silly movie from the 1980s perfectly envisioned the idea of a besieged America that would push voters into Trump’s charlatan claws some three decades later. I’m talking about the 1984 Steven Spielberg-produced, Joe Dante-directed holiday horror/comedy Gremlins.
Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) embodied right-leaning “New Democrats” that Donald Trump ended up eating for lunch.
Note: The following is long-form guest piece by Alex Hamilton.
We are now over three weeks into debating why and how the most powerful nation in human history elected as president a fascist orange man with a childish intellect — previously best known for a reality show — who ran a publicity stunt that went horribly wrong. One seriously wonders if Donald Trump actually wanted to be president.
This marks a seminal and possibly apocalyptic culmination in American politics. The presidency was the last thing the Democrats had left: the GOP will soon control the Presidency, House, Senate, fill a vacant Supreme Court seat, and dominate 33 of 50 statehouses. They are one statehouse away from being able to pass constitutional amendments. The Republicans are at their zenith, while the Democrats are at their absolute historical nadir. Not since since the height of the New Deal Coalition, when the Republicans were in exile, has a party been so weak.
You’re fired, America!
President Donald Trump. Let that sink in for a minute. If you haven’t yet leaped in front of a bus or fled to Canada, New Zealand, or some other former British colony that uses “ou” in words like “labour,” then you’re probably aware that Donald J. Trump is now President-Elect of the Unites States of America. After writing about the great orange dictator for over a year now, I never once went out and predicted that he would actually pull off the biggest political upset in American history. But I never ruled it out either.
I’ve called Trump a blowhard, a demagogue, an exclusivist tool, a middle-class radical, an authoritarian, a historical revisionist, a Know Nothing, an ethnic nationalist, a sham Evangelical, a rural populist, a faux American Exceptionalist, the Second Coming of Ross Perot, a world-class asshole, and the near inevitable end-result of Movement Conservatism. Now I have to call him president. So let’s try and unpack how America ended up crawling down the deepest, dankest hole since South Carolina decided to form its own republic in the name of preserving Dixie’s former coerced labor force.