In late October, about a week before the US presidential election, I set off on a road trip from Washington DC to the Midwestern battleground state of Ohio. I wanted to explore the mood and sentiment of what was traditionally a crucial swing state in US presidential elections in order to try to get a better feel for what to expect in the contentious 2020 polls. After all, it was Ohio, along with other Midwestern ‘Rust Belt’ states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, that proved pivotal in swinging the 2016 elections towards Donald Trump, and it was all but assured that the region would play a decisive role once again in 2020.
My destination in Ohio was not one of its bigger cities, but rather the small town of Cadiz, population 3,100. In the preceding few months, I had spent time in Columbus and Cleveland, as well as in other larger Midwestern cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh, in order to try to gauge the political atmosphere in these places. But one thing that stuck out to me most as I traveled to these Rust Belt cities was actually the drive in between them, through the small towns and rural areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Such drives often revealed a sea of signs, banners, and billboards in support of Trump, whereas Biden signs were few and far between.
It was these places – the rural areas and small towns of the Midwest – that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 and proved to have a significant role in his election, especially as his overall margin of victory was razor thin in those states. What, I wondered, was the mindset of people in these small towns now, four years later? Why does Trump appeal to them so much? And has this appeal endured through the difficulties of this year, including a deadly global pandemic and a major economic crash?
These were the burning questions I had in mind, and in order to try to get a better sense of them, I decided to spend a week in just such a small town on the eve of elections. I chose the town of Cadiz largely on a whim – I had never been there before and didn’t know anyone there – but I was intrigued by its foreign-sounding name, and most of all by its location. It was situated in eastern Ohio, just 30 minutes from the border of Pennsylvania, and an even shorter drive to the border of West Virginia. This, I thought, could give opportunities to explore small town America and the heart of Trump country in not just one state, but three. And so, I set off for Cadiz, hoping for a bit of clarity, and perhaps, if I was lucky, a sign of what to expect in elections.
Anatomy of a small town
Following my arrival in Cadiz, I took up lodging in a 1950s era house just a few minutes from the town center. From there, I would take daily walks to explore the town and daily drives around the surrounding countryside over the course of a week. The neighborhood I was staying in consisted of a few dozen modest houses, many of which had Trump signs in front of them, sprinkled with one or two supporting Biden. Some houses looked tidy and well kept, while others looked abandoned and in disrepair. It was rare that I encountered any people on the streets during my walks, but those I did – mostly elderly or middle-aged white folks tending to their yards – always smiled and said hello.
Like many small towns, Cadiz had two main roads – Main Street and Market Street – whose intersection made up the town center. At the crossroads of these streets was the Harrison County courthouse, an impressive and dignified-looking structure built at the end of the 19th century, with Cadiz serving as the county seat. Along Main Street were a row of century-old brick buildings that housed various local businesses, including a pharmacy, a grocery store, a bank, a restaurant, and a funeral parlor. Interspersed with these businesses were shops that appeared to have long been closed down, some of which were shuttered and boarded up with plywood.
This was a familiar sight in small town communities across America, many of which have been declining in population for decades as globalization has sent manufacturing plants overseas and urbanization has sent more and more people to cities in search of work and opportunities. Cadiz itself had lost more than 22 percent of its population from 1980 to 2019. This could perhaps explain why Trump’s pledge to ‘Make America Great Again’ and bring back manufacturing jobs to the US resonated particularly strongly with people in small towns like Cadiz.
Just like the neighborhood I was staying in, several Trump signs could be seen on the storefront windows of the businesses on Main Street that remained open. They also had campaign signs for state and local officials, nearly all of which were Republican. It’s estimated that 85-90 percent of the population of rural America is ‘White Anglo’, and Cadiz falls squarely within that category at 86 percent white. The largest population segment in the town is aged 60-69 and less than 2 percent of the population is foreign born, with such demographics explaining why Cadiz winds up leaning heavily Republican.
Another sign of the conservatism of Cadiz was the prevalence of churches of various denominations (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic), with around 10 houses of worship that I could count on or near Main Street alone. Churches tend to play a much larger role in such small town life than in America’s larger cities, owing to the more conservative belief system of its inhabitants, but also serving a practical purpose in terms of holding social functions and preserving a sense of community. As Robert Wuthnow observes in his book on rural America, The Left Behind, “Religion plays an important role in holding the community together, whether in preaching and potlucks or conducting weddings and funerals.” ‘Vote Pro-life’ signs were in abundance in Cadiz, as well as in many of the surrounding towns I visited, giving further indication for the roots of Republican support in this part of the country.
In addition to the prevalence of churches, Cadiz was awash in support for the police and military. The lamp posts along Main Street were adorned with banners of local military veterans, each of which had a different portrait of a veteran depicting their name, branch, and years of service. Some storefronts displayed the ‘thin blue line’ flag, depicting the American flag in black and blue colors in support of the police. One community church on the street had a sign that read ‘Pray For Our Troops.’ At the local grocery store, signs that read ‘We Support Our Police – Back the Blue’ were being sold for $9.99 each. Such signs made it clear that Cadiz was a community that put great emphasis on authority and law enforcement, with many residents viewing calls for police reform – much less defunding – with disdain.
Outside of Main Street and a few adjacent blocks that make up the town center, Cadiz quickly gives way to a more natural and agricultural setting. Just south of the town are the Harrison County fairgrounds, a wide open field with stables where livestock is auctioned in the summer months. Nearby is Sally Buffalo Park, an expansive park and campground that was dotted with a few modest trailers and RVs. In the middle of the park stood a small lake, near which someone had planted a sign that read ‘Drain the swamp: Trump 2020.’
On my daily strolls around the park, I would often encounter more deer prancing about than people, and some days I wouldn’t come across a single person. On one day, however, I got a chance to talk to a manager of the park grounds, a woman in her early 30s. She told me that both locals and people from all over the state come to the area for hunting and fishing, but that people were few and far between at this time as it was currently the offseason. According to her, this had nothing to do with Covid-19 (very few people I encountered in Cadiz and the surrounding towns wore masks, whether indoors or outdoors), and fears over the coronavirus were overblown. She told me that she was born and raised in the area, and while she did move away years ago to attend college in Columbus, it just wasn’t for her. She missed her family and friends, so she came back home after just a few months and felt lucky to get to work outdoors.
The connection with nature and the outdoors is a key aspect of rural life, which provides an economic lifeblood for farming and a source of other important activities like hunting and fishing. Closely related to this is the prevalence of guns in the countryside, which historically have served both a practical necessity and an important recreational activity. In more recent times, guns also represent a source of identity, a sort of symbol for the protection of a way of life and of its perceived encroachment by distant Washington, D.C. On my drives along country roads in the area, it was not unusual to come across signs and flags in front of houses with sayings like ‘Come and Take It’ and ‘Stand and Fight.’ In a way, this harkened back to the spirit of frontierism and fierce independence that went back to the founding days of the United States and still pervaded the culture of much of the countryside.
Tri-state Trump rally
Toward the end of my stay in Cadiz, I came across an event notification on Facebook for a Trump rally that was being held nearby called the ‘3 State Trump Train.’ The event was described as a “GIANT Trump Train” and would consist of three locations in three states – St. Clairsville, Ohio, Tridelphia, West Virginia, and Washington, Pennsylvania – each of which were around 30 minutes apart from each other. The description encouraged “Trump & Patriotic Costumes” and read “Over 5,000 Vehicles WANTED!”
Curious to check it out, I drove around 20 minutes south from Cadiz to the starting point of the event in St. Clairsville, with the rally taking place in the parking lot of an Oil & Gas Safety Supply store. There were around 100 or so cars in the parking lot, mostly large trucks, each with its own large Trump sign. A few dozen people gathered outside, holding various signs supporting Trump: ‘Honk for Trump’, ‘4 More Years,’ ‘Promises Made, Promises Kept.’ Cars drove by the adjacent street slowly and continuously, many of them with their own Trump signs, and honked in solidarity, as the rally-goers enthusiastically shouted “Trump 2020!”.
The rallies in Tridelphia and Washington, PA largely mirrored the one held in St. Clairsville (the only difference being that the Tridelphia rally was held outside of a Chevrolet dealership instead of an oil and gas supply store in the other two towns). Despite being in three different states, these towns and their respectives rallies closely resembled one another, both in their physical appearance and as hotbeds of support for Donald Trump. There was a sort of fluidity to this border area of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, whose residents appeared to have much more in common with each other than with those in nearby cities like Pittsburgh or Cleveland.
As I observed these rallies, I reflected on my time spent exploring Cadiz and countless other small towns throughout this tristate corridor. While each of these towns varied in size and certainly had their own nuances, they also seemed to share important things in common. At the heart of these small towns, it seemed to me, was a desire to preserve a traditional way of life. This was a way of life that values church and a belief in God, that has a historical and cultural connection with guns, and where personal liberty rooted in individualism (i.e. the choice to wear a mask or not) is sacrosanct. This was a way of life that felt threatened by urbanization (sapping people and tax revenues from small towns) and globalization (taking manufacturing plants out and bringing immigrants in). This was a way of life that honored the police and military, and viewed any challenge to these institutions as un-American and morally reprehensible.
In this context, Trump’s enduring appeal to people in small towns like Cadiz – despite the pandemic and the economic crash – made more sense to me. He tapped into a mistrust of the Washington establishment, of urban/liberal elites, and of the mainstream media, all of which have – rightly or wrongly – left many people in small town America feeling marginalized and disparaged. He played the role of a political outsider, even after four years in presidential office. His aversion to political correctness and use of plain language resembled the speech of many people I talked with in these areas. Trump’s championing of ‘America First’ and pledges to bring back jobs to the country resonated strongly, whether or not they actually succeeded. In short, it seemed to me that Trump’s connection to these people went beyond the specific details of his actions and policies, representing a sort of deeper psychological symbiosis and appeal. This appeal is certainly not exclusive to people in small towns and rural areas, but it did appear to hit home particularly strongly there.
Back in DC
A little over a week after I had returned to Washington DC from Cadiz, Joe Biden was officially projected as the winner of US presidential elections. Trump had held on to Ohio, but Biden was able to flip several of the other surrounding Midwestern battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, in order to achieve victory. The city of Philadelphia, in particular, proved crucial to Biden’s success, with mail-in votes in the heavily Democratic city overtaking Trump’s earlier lead in Pennsylvania and giving Biden the electoral college votes necessary to cross the 270-seat threshold when the state was officially called on Nov 8.
On that day, an unseasonably warm Saturday, the streets of DC resembled one large block party. Many of the streets around the White House were closed off to car traffic as thousands of people gathered to cheer Biden’s victory, while cars throughout the city honked their horns out of solidarity. Central DC was filled with a diverse crowd who strolled and danced on the streets, wielding Biden-Harris posters, Black Lives Matter signs, rainbow flags, and hand-made signs that read ‘You’re Fired.’”
As I made my way around the city, I couldn’t help but compare this experience to the time I had spent in Cadiz and its environs in rural Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia just days earlier. The contrast could not have been more stark, and that was certainly reflected in the vote count. Biden received over 92 percent of the vote in Washington DC, while Trump won Harrison County, of which Cadiz was the seat, with more than 75 percent of the vote.
Of course, such discrepancies between Washington DC and Cadiz are just two small examples, but they are part of a larger story. They represent two very different social and political cultures and visions for a country which is deeply divided – between city and countryside, between liberals and conservatives, and between those that are for and against Trump. Such divisions have only become more pronounced as political polarization has grown, exacerbated by social media and compounded further by the fears and uncertainties of the Covid 19 pandemic.
But in the end, part of the beauty of America – and a critical part of its success – lies in the diversity of its people and their views. When it comes to the differences between people in places like Cadiz and Washington DC, there is much to gain by understanding these differences and trying to learn from them. The most extreme views on any particular issue tend to be the loudest, but the values of both sides do not necessarily need to be mutually contradictory. For example: can we respect the police, while also holding them accountable for unlawful brutality against unarmed citizens? Does one really need to be exclusive from the other?
It’s important to engage those with whom we disagree without imposing one’s own will and ideology as a means to trying to find some – any – common ground. On the other hand, simply demonizing or attacking the opposing side will only continue to drive polarization, undermining the cohesion of the US and posing a threat to its very foundations. America is a large, diverse and enormously complex country, so it should be no surprise that we have divisions. How we as a country approach those divisions – whether constructively through education, dialogue, and compromise or destructively through fear and recrimination – will play a significant role in shaping the collective fate of the US, from Washington DC to Cadiz and well beyond.