The Midwest is full of Good People. However unrealistic it may be, scenes of a quaint and wholesome society, removed from the hectic, harsh truth of coastline cities, characterize the region’s public image. Residents of states like Kansas, Ohio, and Nebraska are considered—if considered at all—mostly benign, maybe a little out of touch, and ultimately inconsequential to the rest of the country.
Still, there exists a belief in the Midwest as the last preserve of a simpler, friendlier, perhaps greater time in America that probably never really existed. Midwesterners take pride in this. They have to. Without bustling cities or scenic beaches, Iowans and Oklahomans and South Dakotans take solace in the moral decency of their hometowns. And while the Midwest frequently falls victim to the ridicule of New Yorkers and Californians, some of them hold this sentiment too—especially conservatives.
Before 2016, Republican candidates championed wholesome “family values,” a two-word catch-all for an agenda backing traditional marriage, pro-life causes, and Bible-based beliefs. Conservatives boasted an understanding of hard work as a tenet of dignified life, especially in areas with high employment in physically demanding industries such as farming or manufacturing. The adage “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” roots itself in Midwestern values and comes straight out of the Republican playbook.
These conservative principles find their utopia in the Midwest. The region holds the largest share of white Catholics and evangelical Protestants in the country, the most stringent laws on abortion, and some of the most anxiety over gay marriage’s legalization. The last family-run farms exist primarily in the Great Plains, exemplifying a now-ancient but still-revered American ideal of self-sufficiency and unglamorous but honorable work. These people don’t necessarily vote for candidates in whom they see themselves, but who see and respect them—politicians who claim to understand a good work ethic and commend Midwesterners for having one.
Trump’s campaign seized the reins of this ethic and rode it to the presidency. Though it’s typical for Republican presidential candidates to focus on the Midwest, Trump especially spoke to and about Rust Belt states—he complimented their people, cities, and culture; promised economic rebuilding; and vowed to return Washington’s faith in the region. Even though Trump possesses no Midwestern heritage, lacks the humility this demographic typically favors, and didn’t climb to the top of the business world through hard work, he made the region feel as though he did. At the very least, he made them feel like he respected those that did. It unsurprisingly appealed to disgruntled middle-class conservatives in these states, but it reached further than that too.
Political writers and pundits realized the reaching power of Trump’s words, and one June 2016 article published in The New Yorker commented on the effectiveness of Trump’s Midwest-centric strategy. The “long tradition of seeing the Midwest as decent and innocent,” it said, gave Americans a moral obligation to save the region from real or perceived economic turmoil. The region sports an image of both childlike purity and hardworking nobility, making its rescue compulsory. What can Americans stand for if not the most virtuous of us?
But Trump extrapolated this falsified tale of Midwestern woe until it became threatening to the rest of the country. The narrative wasn’t just about saving the last innocent piece of America from a corrupting coming-of-age: It was about making sure it couldn’t happen anywhere else. Trump’s underlying message, though perhaps unintentional, was that crisis and hardship can affect even the most wholesome region of the United States. Invoking fear and exaggerating immediacy, he made voters in and outside of the Midwest more vulnerable to his ideology.
For decades the Midwest represented the dawn of the American dream; now, it represents the American nightmare. Immigrants settled in barely domesticated hamlets in the plains and eventually created successful societies where even the poorest felt the promise of unlimited potential and prosperity. Today, this pillar of American ideology stands damaged and crumbling. The region now serves as the epicenter of feelings of cultural ostracization—grounded in anxiety and misperception—that enabled the current political atmosphere. But some pieces of the Midwestern illusion remain, and Trump’s allure is felt the strongest by those who are both the most convinced of this image and the most fearful of its demise.
Kelsey R. Thomas ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.