On November 9, 2016 my commute from New Jersey to New York was full of people openly weeping. There was public despair of the kind I’d only ever seen on 9/11, and a feeling that the impossibly horrible had happened. That day, as students and colleagues at the school where I teach were processing the unfolding tragedy, a very powerful narrative about “bubbles” was already forming. Many New Yorkers could not understand why their fellow Americans in other parts of the country could vote for Trump with such enthusiasm. There was much talk that day of trying to make an effort to understand those responsible for Trump’s rise, as if they were aliens from outer space.
I was a lot less shocked than others, and skeptical that such understandings could be reached, because I am what I like to call a “bubble jumper.” I live in a very progressive suburb in northern New Jersey, and work for a very progressive school in Manhattan, but I grew up in a very conservative town in rural Nebraska. (77% voted for Clinton in Essex County, New Jersey, while 68% voted for Trump in Adams County, Nebraska.) About a week before the election I realized that my Republican friends and family members, who to this point showed little enthusiasm for Trump, were going to vote for him. I figured they might just stay home, but once I found out that they were going to support a man whose lifestyle and values are totally antithetical to their Midwestern thrift, modesty, and religiosity, I suddenly knew that he was very likely going to win.
This is knowledge that most of the people around me did not have. New Yorkers are famously parochial, a trait that they try to pass off as sophistication. In reality, it is a kind of classist, socially-acceptable ignorance. I still remember a conversation with a former colleague about an upcoming business trip, and she had momentarily confused Detroit with Milwaukee. “Detroit, Milwaukee, it’s all just the Midwest.” My reply that that would be like confusing Baltimore and Boston was met with stony silence.
While the bourgeois circles of New York have a parochialism disguised as sophistication, rural Nebraskans hold on to their parochialism as a badge of moral superiority. They are, in their minds, “real Americans.” They are as ignorant of the coasts as the coasts are ignorant of them, and proud of it. During my trips back home I have had multiple random strangers mock or criticize me once they learned I lived in New Jersey. One woman told me that “you can have New York” with a “Midwestern nice” smile on her face. When I suggested to a family member that we could put up her daughter and show her around New York City, she reacted with disgust, as if I was asking to have her child sold into prostitution.
Bubble jumpers like myself are some of the few people around with the knowledge and the experience to translate the culture of these places between the bubbles, and to understand the nuances that outsiders miss. When many folks in New York were justifiably rending their garments over the actions taken by “Red America,” I was getting dispatches from “flyover country” that told a story of struggle, not conformity. A family member teacher in a heavily-immigrant rural town told me of trying to protect her brown-skinned students from the open bigotry expressed after Trump’s victory. Friends in Nacogdoches, Texas, (where I once lived) joined a protest only to have a pick-up truck drench them in black smoke by “rolling coal,” and the local authorities “accidentally” spraying a fire hydrant on them. While the media kept pushing the narrative of red and blue America as monolithic windowless monads, I’d seen some pro-Trump students at my very progressive school gleefully gloating after the election, just as I knew that there were Women’s March events in places like Amarillo, Texas, and Loup City, Nebraska, population 1,029.
There is very little real sense of any of this in the media, which needs to have more bubble jumpers in their midst. Instead, the elite media has treated us to a litany stories where a journalist parachutes into a diner in Trumplandia to report that the people there still like Trump. Of course, reporters are not going into San Francisco or Brooklyn to tell us that people there still hate and fear him.
Gripped by the narrative that “the coasts” did not “understand the Heartland” they keep seeking blindly, in their arrogance, to describe something as foreign to them as a green bean casserole is to foie gras. The most recent egregious case was a Washington Post article justifiably ripped apart on Twitter with this title: “In a pro-Trump town, they never stopped saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”
There is a lot horribly wrong with this—including the idea that people elsewhere stopped saying “Merry Christmas”—but also in that it gives no real sense of the place or the people living there at all. How has it changed? What do immigrants living there think? Has the nature of conservatism changed? What is the impact of conservative media? Since the reporter doesn’t actually KNOW this place they are using merely for symbolic purposes, they can’t really answer those questions.
I for one could tell you a lot more about the political situation in the “bubble” I came from than any outside reporter could. Take for example a recent CNN piece about Nebraskans still supporting Trump. They basically talked to a small number of people in one of the more rural and isolated parts of the state. One of them referred to himself as a “deplorable,” and these were people who were obviously big supporters of Trump in the election. It is hardly news that true believers like them would still be on his side.
Anyone who actually knows Nebraska, however, knows that the two biggest cities, Lincoln and Omaha, have been growing massively in the last twenty years as the rural areas have emptied out. The congressional district that includes Omaha even went for Obama in 2008. (Nebraska allows splits of its electoral votes.) Both cities saw large mobilizations against the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Reporting that Trump voters in David City still support him is like reporting that water is wet.
The people to watch are those in the growing cities, who have shown a much greater tendency to “swing.” In fact, Douglas and Lancaster Counties, where Omaha and Lincoln are located, both went for Clinton in 2016. The 2nd district, which includes Omaha, almost put a Democrat in the House. That story, of course, does not appeal to the apparently insatiable hunger for stories about stereotypical hayseeds in MAGA hats. And so folks on the coasts will get more of the stereotypes, and less understanding of the complex realities in “red” America. Those same people, often educated liberals, will clutch their copies of Hillbilly Elegy in the grossly mistaken belief that that book actually tells them the truth about that world.
I was back home in Nebraska this summer, and what struck me was the relative lack of enthusiasm for Trump. The Omaha World-Herald’s reliable conservative political cartoonist even drew a cartoon depicting Trump as a bratty child. While the criticism was of his lack of decorum and not his politics, I was struck by such criticism of him coming from that place. The political mood reminded me of the later Bush years, when a lot of people who voted for him back home just kind of pretended like that never happened. While the vast majority these same people will probably still vote for Trump in the general election in 2020 because they’d rather cut off their left hand than vote for a Democrat (I call this the Brownback Effect), I suspect that they would very willingly vote for a primary challenger, if the rumors of such things prove to be true. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that some of these folks won’t show up to vote in the general election.
As a bubble jumper, the narrative that grates on me the most is the notion that people like me should somehow magically convince our family members to become progressives, or that we should move back to the areas where we came from in order to “switch” them. The people who say this show their ignorance of the dynamics of the places we are from when they say these things. Those who still identify as conservatives once they’ve hit age thirty in a place where progressives are the minority are not going to change their minds, except for rare outliers.
Any money spent on trying to change the minds of conservatives in deep red areas might as well be set on fire. Most of us have spent our whole lives arguing with friends and relatives about this stuff. We know who can be reached and who can’t.
The people to talk to are not conservatives, but those in the middle, many of whom tend to be apolitical. In a place like Nebraska these folks often vote Republican out of inertia, just as many in the Northeast who are not particularly progressive vote for Democrats. I have witnessed formerly disengaged family members now become very committed liberals in recent years due to the extremity of the Republican and Trumpist agenda. The key to making political traction in a place like Nebraska is reaching those who have yet to form hard political loyalties or who just don’t vote, and there actually are a lot of those people around. Contrary to the stereotype, there are also plenty of progressives who are currently highly motivated.
Instead of expecting people like me to move back or to somehow change the minds of people who have the TV tuned to Fox News for eight hours a day, folks on the coasts need to actually support what progressives are doing in red states like Nebraska. They are fighting hard there against long odds and need money and support. Instead of condescending to “flyover country” and pushing secessionist fantasies, coastal progressives need to actually engage their brethren in conservative areas and fight with them.
They need to donate money, read the blogs of red state activists, and most all, stop the charade of passing off ignorance and disdain as moral and cultural superiority. We bubble jumpers should not move “home,” we need to force the people in our adopted homes to see what they have been blind to and cannot see without our assistance.
In 1972 the great New York film critic Pauline Kael famously said, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” After almost five decades of reactionary politics, isn’t it finally time that those of us who do understand the world west of the Hudson River are sought out and listened to?
Jason Tebbe earned his PhD in history from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He has successfully escaped academia and is now a private school teacher in New York City. Jason lives in New Jersey with his family.