I have lived through 10 presidential elections, five as an eligible voter, but this year is the first I sat before a TV on that night. Like a lot of people, I watched islands of blue floating in seas of red in Michigan and Wisconsin. I went to bed in resignation. I woke up to a battlefront I had not heard articulated so pointedly since I was a minor: the country versus the city. Rural America had voted for an aberrant candidate. That angle dominated the Wednesday morning news coverage and knocked my thoughts back to my home town. It is just one of millions of rural American voices, but its story has something to contribute to the thousands of explanations for the election of Donald Trump.
I grew up in Fredonia, Arizona, a small town abutting Utah’s southern border. When I left it for college, it had a population of just over 1,000. Its immediate neighbor on the Utah side, Kanab, numbered around 3,500. St. George, Utah, was the nearest city of any consequence, over 70 miles away.
Fredonia sits at the foothills of the Kaibab Plateau, a sprawling pancake of a mountain rising 5,000 feet out of the high desert floor. The Kaibab is rich in Ponderosa Pine. At one time, the town’s two chief institutions attested to that fact: the U.S. Forest Service, the government custodian of the forest, and Kaibab Industries, the sawmill that harvested the forest for timber. My dad had the rare privilege of working for both at different times and, by his account, the two institutions once worked in concert to ensure productive, responsible logging of the Kaibab National Forest.
The cracks in this relationship began to appear in the 1990s. They widened during the administration of Bill Clinton, when environmentalist campaigns for two birds would change the trajectory of my home town. These were the Northern Goshawk and the Mexican Spotted Owl. When I was in the throes of adolescence, they were on the tip of every tongue, because they threatened our only industry. In Fredonia, the battle lines were clear. Spoiled, ignorant city folk who had never touched a chainsaw or seen a Ponderosa wanted to tell our us the best way to manage a forest.
In 1995, the sawmill closed. I was in eighth grade, too young to understand the causal relationship between the mill’s closing and federal action. And as an adult looking back, the facts and timelines are not easily untangled. But I can tell you how it played at the time. Bill Clinton and his urban constituency were pulling the plug on Fredonia. From 1990 to 2000, the population declined by nearly 15%.
To add insult, Clinton established Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument a year later during his reelection campaign. A portion of the nearly 2 million acre monument had been targeted as a potential coal mining site and many Fredonians thought good jobs might be imminent. No one knew if that was true, but Clinton’s decree nixed any chance.
We were used to such federal land grabs. In the wake of Trump’s election, one Twitter user characterised rural voters as land owners, the nouveau aristocracy. Certainly large swathes of the country are privately held, but that was not our reality. The ample wilderness surrounding Fredonia is largely owned by the Bureau of Land Management. I went to school with Bundys and Finicums; one in my graduating class of 18. These surnames would reappear in headlines about the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. BLM-rancher disputes over land was the story’s core. The death of LaVoy Finicum at the hands of federal agents, just nine months before Trump would be elected, was the tragic coda.
In my steadily dimming memory, life in Fredonia was like that: an unflagging conflict between us and the federal government. The latter, our antagonist, was helmed by Bill Clinton, his Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Al Gore and, by association, Hillary Clinton. All were public officials who needed to get elected and stuff their autobiographies with sterling policy victories. If they happen to run roughshod over a thousand voters in the middle of nowhere, it was no great loss. Most of the country didn’t know we existed.
All that is a political biography of a mere speck in the rural sand pile that voted in 2016. Disparaged by the cities as “hicks,” used as political capital by Washington, the name of “Clinton” still acid on their tongues. I’m sure other specks have comparable biographies. Trump, a well-heeled New Yorker who had also never touched a chainsaw, somehow became their champion. At the very least, he became their anti-Clinton. Cast-aside, Donald Trump was the stink bomb they threw into the illustrious halls of the capitol city, a desperate cry for recognition.
At least that is how the argument is being framed. The rural voter is cast as the desperate, the ignored, the exploited. And Donald Trump is their Trojan Horse, their vulgar mouthpiece, foil to elites and dusty magistrates, scourge of the self-preserving, wing-tipped cronies in DC. But the problem is that Donald Trump is not a symbol or a word or a mere expression, he is a person. He is a person whose substantive statements don’t stack higher than a micron and what substance he has espoused is disturbing. And he will occupy one of the most important offices in the world.
I understand the frustration of people in the rural caste. But if they voted for Trump as their middle-finger, that is irresponsible, spiteful and nihilistic. None of those are virtues and all are poor ways to act as a citizen. If we imagine rural voters to be sympathetic lemmings, we take away their agency, their capacity for reason, foresight, long-term thinking, charity. And if we think of the rural voter like that, we are back to the inhumanity that begat the problem of our current president-elect. Moreover, if we make great exertions to explain away the free acts of rural voters, but not impoverished urban voters, to what troubling conclusions does that lead?
Our rural citizens, including most of my family, should not be thought of as hicks, but neither should their poor choices, as a majority, be excused, lest they be pawns. The core fault of Trump’s election is not the media’s or the DNC’s, it is the collective of individual human being voters in key states. They acted either out of the aforementioned nihilism or suspended disbelief in Trump’s manifold disqualifications. It should be called a poor choice, to their faces. That may be a contentious discussion, but at least it is a discussion, between two human beings, aware of each other.
Trump’s election will not, of itself, have a positive effect on Fredonia, AZ. Neither would Clinton’s, honestly, beyond the general benefit making the nation more secure and stable as a whole. Little at this point will specifically help other than someone in that town deciding to shrewdly grab a small percentage of the National Parks tourism market. There is unlikely to be a logging industry in that town ever again or any other industry I can imagine. Fredonia’s voice is neither more nor less important than any other in this nation, but the matter is moot. Voices can’t carry across that many miles of desert.