The Midwest is turning against Trump

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Drake Custer is a union man who, along with 30 of his buddies, had an Old English “K” tattooed on their chests about 15 years ago. It stands for “Keokuk,” a deflated Mississippi River manufacturing town of 10,000 tucked into the southeast corner of Iowa that Washington and Des Moines forgot.

“We know who we are,” said Custer.

They make syrup from corn starch, steel wheels and rubber seals at an average wage of $18 per hour. People keep leaving in search of something better — in 1960, the town was 60% bigger. It’s the story of the Midwest, decline and depopulation, frustration and anxiety.

“A lot of voters wanted to believe Trump — that out there in Washington it’s all BS, and that a savvy businessman could straighten it out,” Custer said.

It’s hard for many to admit that it didn’t work out. A tragic comedy of lawlessness mixed with buffoonery nears its epilogue.

About 10 of those 30 branded Keokuk men voted for Donald Trump. This year, Custer figures maybe five of them will.

“The vibe is: A lot of people figured out that the boss isn’t worried about them. My veteran friends, they don’t like what’s going on. They’re looking for leadership in government and the workplace. Really, everybody is.”

Folks from Milwaukee to Muskegon were having their misgivings before the pandemic shut us down in March. Trade wars with China, Mexico, Canada and Europe knocked the wind out of steel wheels and soybean prices. Workers at John Deere, the huge tractor builder, were getting pink slips in Davenport. Ethanol plants were idled. Farmers in Northwest Iowa’s Sioux County, where Trump took 90% of the vote, said last fall they will not vote for him again. The Iowa Corn Growers proclaimed they were “fed up” after Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency allowed 31 petroleum refineries to shun ethanol blending requirements. Ethanol comes from corn. Corn is a religious totem in these parts.

Trump’s approval ratings sunk underwater in key Midwestern swing states he won: Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Any number of polls showed Trump and Joe Biden in a dead heat in about a dozen purple states, or with Biden in a comfortable lead. Bluster and blunder were coming home to roost.

Then the pandemic that Trump ignored hit and the bottom dropped out.

Corn prices dove 19% since January. Meatpacking plants are exploding with the coronavirus — 60% of the pork plant workers in Perry are infected. The sheriff for Waterloo said he wanted to stomp a boot on Tyson’s plant. The mayor of Sioux Falls argued with the South Dakota governor to shut down a Smithfield pork facility overrun with the virus. Some 65% of people polled think folks should stay home and not dine in at the restaurant buffet. Although the Iowa governor allowed churches to reopen, they aren’t taking her up on the offer with Sunday services. They would just as soon wait until we can get some tests done around here. Republican leaders are not in tune with voters.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat on Biden’s VP short list, held forth ably against armed men in the capital lobby, and remains far more popular than Trump. In Wisconsin, Democrats were outraged when Republicans forced a primary election involving a key state supreme court race. Voters stood up for democracy, in line for hours braving COVID-19 infection to cast their vote. The Democratic-backed court candidate won. Wisconsin unseated Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2018 and elected a gay woman to the US Senate, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, before that. It is the land of La Follette, after all.

Trump hopes to flip Minnesota in November. He can forget about the land of Hubert H. Humphrey if he can’t swing Wisconsin. Iowa is on the pink side of purple but clearly is in play if the Democrats don’t just fly over again as Clinton did. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has an approval rating near 37% for joining at the cranium with Trump while he routed ag markets. The Democrats doubtless could screw this up, but …

A reckoning is due for incompetence and neglect. Farmers are disconsolate. Every dairyman suicide resonates. Hogs are backed up when one of the huge, consolidated slaughterhouses goes down for lack of healthy help. Producers are left to shoot them and bury them. People in nice SUVs line up for free food. It makes everyone nauseous. Everyday people can’t understand why NBA players can get tested but packinghouse workers ordered to keep the pork loins rolling can’t. Rural communities prone to vote Republican live under a cloud of fear that virus from immigrant workers will spread to them — that the health of your neighbor is in fact your health. Immigrants become human, and their treatment is realized as shameful. We’re waking up, all right. When 30 million people can’t get through to the unemployment system, and half of them lose their health insurance by fall, incumbents should cover their flanks.

Polls show that in the Upper Midwest, blue urban voters are more motivated to vote than rural red voters by fair margins. Armed people of color escorted an African American legislator into the Michigan capitol last week in response to the white armed men. Talk about stuff getting real. Do you think every African-American in Flint is not motivated?

“The iron is hot,” Custer said. “This is the time to make permanent change.”

Even while sitting in his basement unheard, Biden is winning the Midwest for all Trump’s blather. The genius may think we are suckers, but in Iowa we don’t ruin good corn liquor with Clorox. The gig is up.

This column also was published by The Guardian (theguardian.com).

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