I watched Donald Trump’s speech the other night to a sweaty crowd in West Bend, Wisconsin with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. The candidate made repeated references to being in Milwaukee and attempted to make the case that Democrats had betrayed “inner city African-Americans.” It was a curious choice of topics, given that West Bend is a small—very white—city in an exurban area about 45 minutes from downtown Milwaukee. Trump literally spoke in the main hall of the county fairgrounds.
I happen to know so much about it because one of my former churches is in the same county. They called it a town, but it wasn’t even a wide spot in the road: there was the church, a bar, a school, and a few houses. That was it. It was five empty miles to the nearest built-up area, another ten to West Bend.
The Trump campaign probably selected the venue to assure a friendly audience. The WOW counties surrounding Milwaukee—Washington, Ozaukee, and Waukesha—were his toughest area in the Wisconsin primary. But West Bend, which sits in northern Washington County, is just on the cusp of the rural, northern areas of the state where he did best, neither really in or outside the metro area (many residents commute to the Milwaukee suburbs, if not downtown). It’s extremely conservative terrain: a few years ago, a coalition of local citizens sued the county library for the right to burn its books on witchcraft. The loathsome Glenn Grothman, who is about the most simpatico US House member Trump has, used to represent the area in the Wisconsin State Senate before he moved north to push a moderate Republican out of the 6th Congressional district. Trump’s people got what they wanted in West Bend: no interruptions and polite applause.
The whole thing was weird. Beyond his evident confusion about where exactly he was speaking, Trump was on the Teleprompter again, which always makes his speeches disjointed and confusing. And he kept coming back to the problems of the inner city in an area with a full-time polka radio station.
To put it mildly, neither Washington County nor West Bend are known for their progressive attitudes about race. To put it less mildly, they don’t give a shit about inner-city African Americans.
It would be easy to leave it there and shake our heads at speaking about urban riots to a rural, pasty-white crowd. But it’s worth trying to understand the kind of people Trump was addressing. Not out of liberalism or white guilt, but for their own sake, and that of the people they fear and separate themselves from.
Few of them are outright bigots. They know black people, they know Hispanics, even if they’re not friends. At the same time, the kind of people I knew could be careless with the n-word, or make racist jokes.
And the real bigots are there. One member of the parish who grew up a few blocks from the unrest in Milwaukee talked about “the darks.” You can’t trust the darks, he said, look at what they’ve done to Milwaukee.
People like that are tolerated in a rural community because it’s a small population who are more or less locked in with one another. You put up with your neighbors because you’re going to be living with them for a really long time. So you tolerate their perspectives on race, or evolution, or school prayer, whether or not you agree with them. It doesn’t always cut in a conservative direction. One guy in the neighborhood was a well-known Communist, even in 1950’s and 60’s.
Country folks tend not to move around a lot. Within a few generations, everybody’s related to everybody, by blood or marriage or friendship. Grandpa might be a crazy racist, but he’s also the guy who always has some candy for the kids at church. You put up with him and roll your eyes behind his back. In this way, whether people know it or not, the attitudes of the true bigots sink into their own. It’s a slow poison. It becomes the way “we” think.
It’s hard for educated urban dwellers to appreciate how small the rural world can be. At times, it’s as stifling and conformist as a Thomas Hardy novel. Critical thinking is discouraged because it upsets the long-term relationships by challenging the community ideology. For some people, even mainstream sources of information become suspect. One woman in our church decided that she didn’t trust doctors. She preferred to see Amish healers instead, and drank apple cider vinegar in hopes that it would cure her melanoma.
The result is that many country people have no frame of reference for something like the unrest in Milwaukee. They can’t see the systemic issues, the effects of long-term poverty, isolation, and hostile policing, because they’ve never experienced them, or met anyone who has. Meanwhile, they have the bigots yammering in their ears about the lack of responsibility shown by “the darks.”
As well, there are people who have explicitly chosen not to live in The City. Expats from the city, some wealthy, some less so, settle in the country. Most of these folks carry that “responsibility” frame of reference, which they link to the downsides of living in a city: noise, crime, asshole neighbors. There are also many people who grew up in the country and have decided to remain, or return after a few years away. Between the two groups, the self-understanding of the community becomes defined over and against urban life, for good reasons (wanting a small, caring community) and bad (wanting not to live next to black people).
All of this can be dealt with, but change comes slow in rural areas. Think generations, rather than years, much less the lightning pace expected by the wired world.
My denomination has put out a resource on addressing white privilege, which is honestly not where I’d start with country people. They can’t even see how they might be privileged. They work hard and don’t always get a lot in return. Like the urban working-class people I ministered to in Pennsylvania, there are many residents of small towns and rural areas who feel left behind, alienated from and screwed over by the financialized economy that sees them only as assets and liabilities. They are afraid of what will come next for themselves and their communities, constrained by memories of what used to be, and frustrated by their lack of options. In environments like this, a thousand conspiracy theories bloom, dark suspicions about the president’s origins and intentions. Would you want to confront racism head-on in a community like this? I wouldn’t on a bet or a dare.
The trick is to chip away at the attitudes piece by piece, pointing out how their perspective might be different from those of other races. There aren’t many other options. In a rural area, the pastor might be the only example of what Alan Jacobs calls Christian intellectuals, watchmen who interpret the world in light of a gospel not bounded by race or class. She might be the only one who can mediate, bridge cultural gaps, perhaps even, inshallah, reconcile them.
It’s a long-term project, and necessarily a small-scale one. Jacobs wonders what happened to titans like C.S. Lewis or Reinhold Niebuhr, but stars like them probably never had much impact in Washington County. The church mice remember their pastors’ preaching, though, 30, 40, 50 years later. Sometimes the only effective change agent is the one who works individually, or with a small group who are ready to listen.
It’s a small, slow, and contingent project. Things didn’t work out with me and the church. My ministry with them ended in large part because the crazy racist grandpa who talked about “the darks” threw an extended temper tantrum over a substantial gift we gave to earthquake relief in Haiti. He couldn’t believe the money wouldn’t be immediately stolen and squandered.
So it goes. After a few years away, I’m back in a rural parish. Thanks be to God, this one doesn’t have the same kind of racial issues.
Even if things were as fraught as the old place, I’d try again. Hell, I’d even try with my antagonist again. He once showed me a sepia-toned picture of himself as a Boy Scout in the 1930’s, in some church basement in what is surely now a deeply impoverished, deeply segregated neighborhood. But there he was, with his all-white troop. Decades later, he still smiled, eyes shining with pride at the badges he’d earned. I tried to hang on to that image as he and I struggled, to see in him the boy he had once been. Nothing good ever came from despising your enemy. People like him are worth understanding, worth explaining to you. They are worth trying to redeem from the fires of Trumpism. It is the only way to reconcile them to the cities in whose shadow they live, uncomfortably.