The intolerance of the left: Trump’s win as seen from Walt Disney’s hometown
Ivy League graduates micromanaging the country – that’s how some in Marceline, Missouri, saw the status quo. In his native midwest, Thomas Frank investigates how the president won support despite local misgivings
By Thomas Frank
Jan 27 2017
Liberal Americans like to think we know the answer to a lot of things – including why those who live outside liberal bubbles chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Small-town people, we liberals think, are Republican people. At their best, they are pious, respectful, and conservative; at their worst they are smug and self-righteous, small-minded and yet capable of broad prejudice. People in the hinterlands, we think, are just different: all the adults are church-going puritans with a neatness obsession, and all the kids long to escape and finally be themselves.
But there’s another way of looking at it, and it is just this: small towns are dying.
Donald Trump doesn’t really reflect the moral values of middle America. He is a consummate city slicker, a soft-handed, foul-mouthed toff who lives in a 58-story building and has been identified with New York City excess his entire life. But people in rural areas are desperate these days. Many of them chose Trump, despite his vulgarity and his big-city ways, because he promised to make them “great again”.
Watching movies won’t help you to understand this. You need to see the thing itself. And what you will discover, should you choose to undertake this mission in the part of the midwest where I come from, is this: ruination, unless the town you choose to visit has a college or a hospital or a prison in it.
With a few exceptions, the shops on Main Street will be empty or in mothballs. There will be deindustrialization and despair. Places where stuff used to be made will be closed down. Population growth will be negative. There will be no local newspaper, or else just a sliver of one. There will be problems with meth. There will be hundred-year-old homes that would be millionaire’s palaces were they situated in popular urban areas.
And there will be Trump signs.
One of the specific places I have in mind is the state of Missouri. It went for Trump in an overwhelming way: the fancy New York billionaire won every county except for the ones that contain the state’s big cities and its college town. Certain rural counties gave him more than 80% of the vote.
It was not always thus. Ten or 20 years ago, Missouri was a battleground state, liable to swing either way in a national election – in 2008, it was split almost evenly between Republican and Democratic. Barack Obama ran credibly in rural areas here. Go back even farther and you will find that Missouri was a reliably Democratic state which produced politicians such as Dick Gephardt, Stuart Symington and Harry Truman.
Even the state’s famous nickname – “the show-me state” – was partisan in its origins; it supposedly comes from a long-ago speech by a member of Congress who soliloquized as follows: “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
These are the basic facts, and yet if you think about it, they only deepen our mystery: there was a time when hard times and despair drove people to the left.
So why didn’t that happen this time around?
Let us start with a look at one of the most quintessential and representative small towns of them all: Marceline, Missouri, population 2,350, the home town of Walt Disney. The Disney family arrived in Marceline from Chicago in 1906 and departed for Kansas City in 1910. Walt’s father, a farmer and construction worker, was a socialist – a political leaning that, once upon a time, was not all that unusual in the midwest.