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North Bend, my hometown, is a five-minute drive from a nearly endless stretch of cornfields on one side, and, on the other, is just down the road from Cincinnati’s urban center.
Along with the other few hundred thousand people living near-but-not-in Cincinnati, I have a hometown that is not unusual for the state of Ohio. With two other medium-sized cities, numerous rural counties, and manufacturing in the north, Ohio serves as a suitable microcosm for the country as a whole. Maybe, then, it should not be surprising that Columbus, Ohio has become corporations’ go-to market for testing products. Maybe, then, it should not be surprising that political analysts use Ohio and its neighboring states as litmus tests for national candidates.
In this vein, pundits and journalists have gone beyond swing states to study Midwestern voters and understand how Donald Trump managed to upend traditionally Democratic strongholds in the Rustbelt. As I sat through events at the Institute of Politics last semester, I time and again heard my home state brought up. At the IOP and elsewhere, writers and politicians have reflected on the 2016 election by noting that Donald Trump is able to connect with manufacturing workers, that he uses the language of rural farmers, and that he simply understands the voters in those Midwestern states that first come to speakers’ minds: Michigan… Nebraska… Ohio…
We must move beyond this analysis.
After a shocking political jolt like 2016, it can be easy to snap up the first answer that comes to mind. Trump did win rural voters, and he did use simpler language than other candidates. Hillary Clinton did fail to connect with everyday Americans. But the common man, as portrayed by nearly every political analyst, is more myth than fact. The places that delivered Trump his victory, like North Bend itself, are too complex to simplify down to a uniform mold under the title of the common man.
As evidence of this, Ohio has not elected a myriad of local Trumps to fill its offices, but it instead maintains relatively moderate politics, sending one Republican and one Democrat each to the U.S. Senate. Moreover, its Republican governor, John Kasich, has routinely opposed Trump, just as when he offered a more policy-minded presidential campaign in 2016. Though the Rustbelt as a whole has generally imitated this centrism, it has nonetheless been pointed to as an insurgent region, with The Atlantic going so far as to refer to it as a second America.
The flaws of this analysis reach far beyond the 2016 election, as they risk using Trump’s vulgar rhetoric as a guide rather than a cautionary tale. Journalists and politicians at Harvard and elsewhere have focused on the common man approach because of the assumption that it is necessary to securing must-win states in future elections, despite the narrow margins that separated the presidential candidates in the Rustbelt. As one of the analyses itself points out, in The New York Times, however, Trump’s “ultimate triumph was driven less by region than by race and class.”
With this in mind, it is not shocking that the false narrative driving the common man argument has been used by right-wing bloggers and pundits to normalize racist feelings and statements. After Trump’s disparaging remarks about Haiti and parts of Africa, for instance, Tucker Carlson defended the comments, saying, “President Trump said something that almost every single person in America actually agrees with.” Despite the simple falsehood of the statement, Carlson’s argument represents a larger trend: the normalization of Trump’s racism by assuming his widespread support from the common man.
To reverse this trend, political pundits and Democratic leaders have to address a certain level of arrogance that underlies their analyses. Speakers must not hold the underlying assumption that connecting with Rustbelt voters and moving away from elitism requires reflexively imitating Trump’s actions and language. If this remains a foregone conclusion, we will not only ignore the president’s low approval ratings, but more politicians will almost certainly follow Trump’s lead and further normalize bigoted language in hopes of securing Midwestern votes.
The politics of Ohio as a whole, or most other Rustbelt states, can offer a clearer depiction of our country’s political landscape than the myth of the common man. Delivering a near balance between Republicans and Democrats, Midwestern voters are far from being irredeemably bound to the current Republican party or to Trump’s rhetoric. Rather—as a state filled with a variety of demographics—Ohio points towards a possible opening where a presidential candidate could appeal to any number of voters with concrete policies. But before this can happen, intellectuals from the halls of the IOP to the Democratic Party have to end the idea that these voters make their electoral decisions in a fundamentally different process than others. Otherwise, the focus will remain on rhetoric over policy, upholding Trump as an example rather than a cautionary tale and prolonging the false belief that America is divided.
Ian M. Lutz ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Holworthy Hall.
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