In our collective reemergence from the last few years of unwelcome isolation, I decided I needed some windshield time; to air myself out and reconnect with humanity. I chose the Heartland of America. Nine states and 3,500 miles driving from my hideout in southwest Colorado all the way to the upper peninsula of Michigan and back. Eleven days with all my senses engaged; a blissful liberation.
Countryside very different from my own with people whom my local friends would find beguiling if not threatening to their own socio-political dispositions. But also familiar to me inasmuch as I spent a great deal of my youth in the Heartland as my parents were both reared there. I spent many summers putting up hay, tending to livestock, and coming of age on the back of a horse as the lazy summer sun slipped down beneath the western horizon just before the mosquitoes rose up to make a meal of me.
On this road trip, I spoke with everyone from a homeless veteran in northeast Colorado to a retired professor in southern Michigan. I frequented diners, hotels, bars, museums, a state capitol, parks, gardens, cemeteries, and visited a university. What I found was a paradox of prosperity and fear; both inspiring and heartbreaking. I also believe I found a way forward to heal the dissonance that emanates from that paradox to set things right for the future of America.
Heartlanders are lovely people. I can’t remember being treated as nicely and respectfully over eleven days of travel in a very long time—perhaps ever. MAGA hats and all, these are folks who love their country, families, and communities. Their ancestors came mostly from northern Europe arriving first on foot from the east, walking next to their covered wagons, probably carrying Captain Randolph B. Macy’s Prairie Traveler as a guide (published in 1859). Then later they arrived by river, train, and much later via Eisenhower’s interstate highway system. The old Lincoln Highway still bisects most of this terrain and their many rivers were bulging with spring runoff as I made my way over and through.
The first thing I noticed was how nice all the roads are today, whether interstate or state highways, or county or city roads. Lots of new cars, shiny new pickups, and new gargantuan tractors and farm implements cover the landscape. Tidy yards, ballparks, and freshly painted houses and barns all point to an America that is as prosperous as I ever witnessed in my lifetime. It all set the expectation of a people who must surely feel successful and confident about the future—who feel very good about themselves.
But under the surface—barely under the surface—I found folks who were proud but scared. Afraid of boogeymen—from communists to transsexuals—who had been plugged into their psyches by nefarious national actors including Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson whom they listen to incessantly and embrace fervently. They are the principal villains in perpetrating the toxic psychological dissonance that arises from that mix of prosperity and fear.
Heartlanders have bought into—hook, line, and sinker—the idea that they live in a state of imminent peril. That their position in the social and political order of America is being stolen from them much in the same way the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. And, moreover, that woke liberal communists from cities in both the east and west intend to corrupt their children resulting in their moral ruination. That the thing they cherish most—their families—will be destroyed. Finally, that their political Lord and Savior is Donald Trump and, if they can’t have him, they want Tucker Carlson. I know, yikes.
I should stop-down at this point to remind my purple and blue friends and readers that these are really nice people. They are not mean or angry, or even dangerous. What they are is brainwashed. It is true that they live in a culture that prefers faith to reason which, of course, is a critical element in their vulnerability. But they would do anything to help humankind, even while they have been convinced to see much of the world beyond their fence lines as profoundly dangerous.
They have suffered what is the biggest con in the modern era: Trumpism. I see it as our job as caring Americans not to ridicule them, but to liberate them.
What they need today is a Reagan-esque leader to step forward and summon their substantial and well-intentioned American patriotism. To bring back that shining city on a hill that Reagan loved to invoke. Not to reshape the country or world in their image, but rather to honor the example they set—with humility—for their fellow Americans. To be regarded with the respect they deserve as critical contributors to the strength of America. To be told that yes, their lives matter too. To be told that their values and, most especially, their faith in God are not misplaced; that those attributes are respected too.
What they need is a Republican candidate that matches their prosperity to their self-worth. Trump has beat them down with fear. Heartlanders have been abused and like so many who suffer abuse, they have become their abuser’s prisoners. However, also like all who suffer from dissonance, they crave consonance. They need to close the gap to regain their well-being. They need compassionate healing.
Unfortunately, none of the current Republican field of presidential candidates for 2024 (with the possible exception of Asa Hutchinson) have adopted a strategy that doesn’t mirror—in one way or another—the game plan of Donald Trump. None are aspirational Americans. None speak of a new “morning in America” as Reagan did in his 1984 campaign. None foster even a hint of optimism. They are all stuck in the Trumpy game of negative manipulation.
I don’t know if the Republicans can find a candidate in time to displace Trump, but I know the approach I have outlined above would resonate mightily with Heartlanders who have fallen under his spell. These are good people and good Americans. They are open-hearted, but under Trump have become close-minded. It would be a catastrophe for America if they close their hearts like their minds. It is up to the rest of us to make sure the opposite happens: that their minds open to match their hearts.
All they need is a hand up. And, a new ballcap.