“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 Trump yard sign in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the county seat of western Crawford County.
There’s a country called America. It’s a place where amber waves of grain dance along the horizon like so many sprouting capitalist entrepreneurs. It’s a country that built an impressive interstate highway system to provide weary travellers with easy access to Cracker Barrel restaurants. It’s a place that might elect as its next president a filthy-rich, xenophobic, muskrat-domed can of sentient Spray Tan.
Not every corner of America is Donald Trump country, of course. But if you wanna know what pockets of this great nation embrace the Great Orange Demigod, then look no further than the small towns and boroughs of William Penn’s old stomping ground. Referred to derisively or proudly as “Pennsyltucky,” the swath of ‘Murica that sits between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia like a super-sized Norman Rockwell diorama loves itself some Trump. In particular, there’s a region in western Crawford County (straddling the border of Ohio’s Ashtabula County) where you can watch ducks and geese traverse the wet backs of thousands of Wonder Bread-chomping carp. Here, amidst all the fish and fowl, Trump signs abound.
Police detain a ticked-off white dude suspected of firing on military personnel near Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
It’s a wide-open secret that the American South has long been a haven for right-wing political nut-baggery. There are a multitude of reasons for this, many of which I discussed in a piece for Salon. But over the last few decades, a particular style of extreme, far-right, anti-government, gun-humping circle-jerkitude has found fertile ground in the good ole’ U.S. of A’s scattered rural hamlets. In America’s amber-waves-of-grain littered Heartland — much of which is still in the South — far-right populist movements have multiplied like deranged Donald Trump statements. They don’t share much by way of organization, coherent goals, or even basic levels of sanity, but they’re all united in their core belief that the federal government is the root of all evil in the modern world and is hell-bent on snuffing out every backwoods, freedom-firing, bible-believing Bubba from Mayberry to Hooterville.
Inside a meatpacking plant in Nebraska. These chambers of slaughter often rely on the illegal immigrants that Americans love to loathe.
In Chapter 4 of The Jungle — Upton Sinclair’s searing 1906 exposé of the American meatpacking industry — Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus arrives at the steaming blood chambers of Chicago’s slaughterhouses and follows his boss to the “killing beds.” He’s given a large broom to “follow down the line the man who drew out the smoking entrails from the carcass of the steer” and sweep the innards into a trap “so that no one might slip into it.” As the screams of animals whose hides were being peeled from their still-living bodies echoes off of the gut-splattered walls, Rudkus wades through pools of coagulating blood and tries to avoid losing a limb to the same gnashing blades that turned cattle into steak. This is a job primarily reserved for immigrants, and Rudkus is glad to have it: at least it promises a future — it promises the American Dream.