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A Buckeye’s Lament: What Has Happened to Ohio and the Midwest?

Away from the large urban centers, the Midwest has transformed into a stronghold of derivative Southernism: country music and mores, religious fundamentalism, the cult of the good old boy, reactionary conservatism of a primitive type.

(Photo: @Noapinion/Twitpic)

By now, you’ve almost certainly seen the photo taken at a Trump political rally in central Ohio, my native state. It has sparked a lot of comment, the substance of which suggests that even for journalists and pundits, it is no longer easy to sustain the firewall between judgments about Donald Trump and judgments about his supporters.

For too long, the national media have fed us a tale of economic anxiety in the Great Heartland being responsible for Trump’s election. It is not that the tale is wholly, or even mostly, false, but it is told in the wrong context, and without important qualifiers attached. Of course, opposing explanations have been advanced: “status anxiety” (a euphemism for fear of minorities) and “racial resentment” (although how this term is functionally different from garden-variety racism is not clarified). But economic anxiety as a rationale is still widely circulated.

It is easy to see why Eastern journalists, on their expeditions to the Heartland, filed stories about salt-of-the-earth, friendly folks just trying to get by and who were intrigued by the economic promises of a successful businessman. One can hardly escape noticing an undertone in those pieces, both of trying not to sound condescending, and of suppressed guilt.

"This is quite a comedown for a state destined by the Northwest Ordinance to be a free state, whose colleges from early on harbored abolitionist sentiment, and which greatly benefitted from the land grant universities..."

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the prestige media, with their presumed sophistication, feel a kind of cultural insecurity when talking about “ordinary Americans.” Ever since Spiro Agnew condemned them as an effete corps of impudent snobs, they have been nagged by the feeling that they, the press, are not quite authentic Americans. This accounts for the media’s periodic elegies to the white working class. But what we saw on display at the Ohio rally cannot be explained by the theory of goodhearted folks grasping in desperation for an economic lifeline.

To be sure, Ohio is not what it once was economically. Fifty years ago it was an economic powerhouse with a diversified manufacturing sector. Today, it is among the bottom quarter of states in median household income. It ranks in the bottom third of states in the percentage of people above the poverty line. The one category it scores high in, alas, is the number of opioid deaths, trailing only West Virginia, an impoverished state by any measure.

But a vulgar Marxist economic determinism only brings us so far. One of the big stories of the last 50 years that the national press has missed, but is impressed upon me every time I return to the Midwest, is what I call the NASCAR-ization of the region, whereby it has become, in many respects, a cultural colony of the South. Away from the large urban centers, the Midwest has transformed into a stronghold of derivative Southernism: country music and mores, religious fundamentalism, the cult of the good old boy, reactionary conservatism of a primitive type.

This is quite a comedown for a state destined by the Northwest Ordinance to be a free state, whose colleges from early on harbored abolitionist sentiment, and which greatly benefitted from the land grant universities provided by the Morrill Act. A state that was until recently progressive, not in some ideological sense, but meaning simply forward-looking. And so it was with the rest of the Midwest, once widely considered the “most typical” American region, until it became a cultural outpost of Dixie.

That’s perhaps why a Bob Taft or an Everett Dirksen or a Bob Dole, however conservative they were, did not give off the same cultural vibe as a John Ashcroft, a Todd Aiken, a Sam Brownback, or a Mike Pence, holy-rolling politicos straight out of a Robert Penn Warren novel. It is this cultural vibe, and its source in NASCAR-ization, rather than some crude mechanical linkage between economic conditions and voting behavior, that explains the attraction to Trump.

Ohio was hit exceptionally hard by the 2008 financial crash. Having many auto plants and a huge auto parts supplier base, the state was vulnerable when the Big Three auto companies nearly collapsed as the car loan market evaporated. Ohio was still suffering when in 2010 it elected as governor the former managing director of Lehman Brothers’ Columbus office, the same man who a few years before helped talk the state’s pension fund managers into losing $480 million of public money by buying worthless Leman securities. Why does economic distress cause people in Ohio and similar states to rally to the side of those responsible, directly or indirectly, for that same distress, and place their own well-being into their hands? (That the governor, John Kasich, now condemns Trump may set our irony meters jumping, but it does not change the underlying facts).

Likewise, why do people in and around Lima, Ohio, continue to vote for Jim Jordan, an extraordinarily nasty human being, and one my Hill sources tell me is absolutely faithless in negotiations: who agrees to a deal, reneges, and then loudly claims that he was the victim. Presumably, they vote for him because they agree with him, because they want “a real conservative” who will stand up to the liberals, who’s for God, guns, and guts. Never mind the rumblings about a sexual abuse coverup. In other words, they vote for him for the same reason nearly three quarters of white male Alabamians voted for Roy Moore. Evidence of character defects simply bounce off their consciousness.

So when I see a picture of a couple of my fellow Ohioans wearing shirts proclaiming they’d rather be Russians than Democrats, it may be shocking, but, somehow, I’m not entirely surprised.

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