As a 21-year old college student, hating on Trump supporters from the soapbox of social media was always easy. Hating on them while they’re standing in front of you, offering you water and kind words, is a different, more human reality.
And that’s where I found myself this past summer. I, a liberally raised girl from Suburbia, Portland, interviewed the crowds at a Trump rally in Westfield, Indiana.
Of course I was scared of the people jeering that I was a “member of the crooked media.” But one woman told them to leave me alone and showed me some Midwestern hospitality. She donned an orange shirt proclaiming, “Hillary For Prison 2016,” that made me cringe, but she also had a toothy smile and a flattering shade of lipstick. I was about to compliment-thank her when she handed me a water bottle, imploring I must be thirsty.
That moment, among others I’ve had in flyover states, has gotten me thinking, especially after this election went so splendidly horribly.
“Duh,” Trump supporters are people too, one might argue with an eye roll. Well, it’s one thing to read about my experience but another to judge it after you’ve lived it. News outlets say don’t move to Canada, move to a swing state instead. And that’s what I did four years ago for college. It’s made me a better journalist and given me perspective.
Popping my lazy liberal bubble made me take a good hard look at the holistic picture of America, and I’ve learned to take judgements others make from behind the comfort of a computer screen with a grain of salt.
Yes, the area you grew up in indicates how much your parents makes, who you’re voting for — and how well you understand people who are voting differently than you. I wasn’t too surprised when Hillary lost. My friends had joked about Trump’s reaction when he lost, and I’d laughed with them, but then nervously remembered the glimmers of hope I saw in a couple of Hoosiers’ eyes, telling me they couldn’t wait to dump Mike Pence on the rest of the country and that Trump could bring about a great change. It seemed to me in this election, people were either pro-Trump or anti-Trump — Hillary was just in the foreground as an old woman trying to understand the Internet and a policy nut.
People were obsessed with Trump, but had I never left Oregon, I wouldn’t have gotten it. I attended a high school in Oregon where I felt stupid in a sea of high-achievers, learning to fret more about my SAT scores than world events. Anxious to make sure I attended a good university, I memorized statistics about rural citizens’ voting patterns in AP Government class. But I spent more time focusing on the numbers than I did on the people behind the numbers. I just assumed ‘rednecks’ were pro-life, anti-female and out to watch the world burn because everyone was pro-choice.
That changed when I decided to move to Missouri, where I got to be in a top journalism school for the price of attending a public, conservative school. When I found myself joking with some friends on my floor, I assumed they were also a rare breed of ‘liberal’ from Kansas City or St. Louis because we all liked the same memes and music. We were sitting in a dining hall gossiping when one girl made a joke about ‘her hometown of 5,000 people,’
And that’s how I found out the friends I was with had canvassed for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. And yep — they didn’t just hate gay people and try to convert everyone to the Southern Baptist church. I was shocked to discover my millennial Republican friends actually had socially progressive views. They weren’t the men I’d seen droning on Fox News my whole life. My initial stereotyping was kept quiet, but it embarrasses me how close-minded I initially was.
My delve into changing my relatively close-minded issues went further when I interned in the rural North Dakota community. I covered small towns for a daily newspaper, and I found myself talking to a man in McVille, N.D. who trusted his community enough to leave his keys in his car. I hung out with a little boy who rode his bike around me in Lake Bronson, Minn., for a day, excitedly telling me about fixing his own bike and going to school in a small white building in the middle of a grassy field. People explained their pride at the self-sufficient lifestyles they’d lived for decades, while offering me free coffee at the diners and spending a few hours going through family albums.
These places are colloquially referred to as ‘bedroom communities,’ where most citizens commute to work in larger cities, and the city council could have five people or the biggest employer could be the local gas station. As I found out many towns were about to lose their charters, I couldn’t help but wonder if these were the people the mainstream media was covering.
When your way of life is dying, you’ll vote for the unconventional GOP candidate that will save you. Trump represents a persona that will take down the establishment that’s disappointed them for decades, becoming a brand of superhero for these rural areas. And everyone, regardless of region, wants to be saved.
There’s a brand of Breitbart troll that wants to vote for Trump just because they hate everything. And then there’s the people that want America to value them. And honestly, they’re no different than the rest of us — they want to be noticed, the hero of some story. Even the tone of this think piece — among the others that have made geographical biases a hackneyed topic by now — probably condescends upon them, and I wish it wasn’t the case.
My peers and I have been conditioned to want New York, D.C., LA — but I have started to crave the lesser-known regions of America. They gave me a tool to resist geographical myopia, a kind that creates memes such as taking back the Louisiana purchase or painting a toxic picture of a ‘liberal elite’ that I find even at my own school. Hate all you want in Internet forums, but note the landscape outside your windows that differs.
As I watch the news cycle as a journalist about to enter the industry, I implore my future editors to remember not to pass up hiring on geographical and ideological diversity. Often big papers only parachute into a small town when national news breaks, then leave without ever having the proper context. If we could appoint journalists who represent similar regions to cover such issues, maybe citizens would feel less disillusioned. And while we have bureaus in big cities, we don’t have similar set ups for dispatches from Wyoming or West Virginia.
Journalists constantly debate solutions — could small-town governments somehow receive state funds for local papers to have their seasoned reporters in Washington, D.C., bridging gaps in legislation understanding? Could national outlets have bureaus in the most sparsely-populated states, or find a way to source local content, similar to NPR’s member stations? That’s fine and all, but at the very least, journalism schools can more heavily promote programs for students to spend short-term residencies at smaller papers. We should have mandatory education in reading travel writers, or studying rural sociology.
With coverage we should strive to tout regional equivalency rather than just political equivalency.
The culture shift isn’t going to come with the baby boomers who elected our presidential candidates. It starts with the millennials, many who have a goddamn stale brand of progressive that lets us fester in our comfort zones. If you have the privilege of traveling to an international country, those of us with more privilege should consider traveling to a swing state. Otherwise, our union will continue to be imperfect, and we’ll continue to pay for the mistakes of our ancestors.