This morning, as the subway car rumbled past me on a rainy day in Harlem, N.Y., I overheard three separate comments from commuters waiting on the platform. Each of them was as sullen as the last: "I just can't believe it." "I just didn't expect it." "I just can't take this seriously."
Many people here in the city, and cities everywhere, are shocked today. We shouldn't be.
The 2016 election results are a gift and a wake-up call. If nothing else, they offer us a set of undeniable data to finally change the way we, here in the cities, view the vast rural areas of our great country, a chance to finally put an end to small little passing jokes about rural intelligence that clearly have their cost, an opportunity to reconnect this urban-rural relationship that has so clearly, and so sadly, gone untended for too long.
I want to make an admission, and I hope others will join me: it is common here in New York and other major cities to hear and say demeaning things about the intelligence, the value, and the worth of our nation's rural areas. It is nothing short of bigotry and urban ignorance. I was born and raised in the congested corridors between New York City and Philadelphia. I am proud of where I am from for so many reasons I can't name them all here. But after living all over the country there is one thing I am absolutely not proud of: the ignorant things people in the city say about the rural parts of our country, where I and so many others have spent formative parts of their lives under the gorgeous stars and the rusted-out industrial buildings. Many of us know there is more to those spaces, but after being stereotyped for so long, the residents of those places who are proud of where they live, rightfully so, are defending themselves against a tide of metrocentrism.
A great writer in the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa once said that great bigotry begins in the innocence of small jokes, which children repeat, and passing comments, which remain in people's hearts. Since moving to New York by way of New Mexico and western Pennsylvania, I can't count the number of times I have heard my city friends make jokes and warnings about the dangers and the strangeness and the bigotry and hatred that resides in the middle. Even the Hillary campaign failed to spend enough time in these spaces, not visiting a place like Wisconsin one time after winning the primaries.
I call it "the hills have eyes" syndrome, where urbanites and suburbanites literally become afraid, through prolonged distance, of this beautiful gorgeous land we interestingly refer to as "The Country." But this is a wake-up call and an opportunity to rectify and renew our ties, not simply an opportunity to dwell on urban-rural tensions, but an opportunity to mend them through dialogue, creative media, and a general shift in the way we speak about one another and make jokes about one another.
We can take the easy view, that this outcome reflects what we already think about rural voters: angry, bitter, bigoted, and ignorant. Or, instead, we can look beyond the surface and face the truth that these are terribly toxic stereotypes, which have become all too normalized in urban society, and they completely ignore the incredible nuance that actually lies behind rural communities and rural voters.
Our large cities and small towns are too beautiful in their own unique ways to go on divided like this, we share too many of the same interests. The numbers tell us rural voters do not think and hold values the way we in the city commonly stereotype them to. Trump won this election through the same voters that Obama won his.
Understanding how a rural or semirural county in Ohio, Michigan or Wisconsin goes for Obama in '08 and '12, then goes overwhelmingly for Bernie in primaries, and then goes solidly for Trump in the general election, means understanding that this "left-right political spectrum" we often refer to is really a circle. In that circle, people on opposite ends connect on certain, very key issues, like trade. These key issues transcend our current models of Blue and Red, left and right, and that is why we are surprised by this swing, but really shouldn't be. The greatest of these issues in this election is "Wall Street."
Wall Street is a brand, it is an image, and an amorphous institution that stands for so much pain and separation between the city and the country. It stands for the alienation many Americans far away from the large cities feel, and so when a candidate takes a strong stand against that image and are willing to stand up and let out these feelings along with them, rightfully so, people will connect with that Red, Blue or Purple.
Trump is a New Yorker himself, but he doesn't get up there and appeal to rural voters by speaking about how he loves life out in the country and by putting on a cowboy hat or hiding his thick New York accent. He doesn't even try to distance himself from his own Trump Building, which is literally on Wall Street. But unlike Hillary, he was able to brand himself and broadcast the image of himself as a candidate who did not stand for Wall Street cronyism and backroom politics that produced trade deals and wealth inequality, which has undeniably hurt rural America.
It is not simply about being from a rural area that connects with people there, it is about standing with them against what they rightfully see as a source of great pain, distance, divide, alienation, and lack of wealth distribution. It's about showing unity between a wealthy New York business man and a rural working class voter. It is the feeling of shared sentiment that rural and semirural voters are responding to.
Whichever way you choose to look at it, Wall Street undeniably stands for the great problem of money staying in the cities and piling up into skyscrapers, rarely flowing back out to the areas that we so normally and lightly refer to as "Rust," the same way it rarely moves into impoverished minority communities in those very same cities.
Last night, as we watched the numbers roll in, we kept hearing about the Rust Belt states, the battleground states, those rural and semirural counties that stretch from the suburban sprawl into the "exurbs." Now, when I say "we," I of course mean "we" here in New York City. That's where I am writing this. That is where both Clinton's and Trump's headquarters were this election. That's where the victory speech was delivered and where the concession speech was delivered. That is where the Clintons live and conduct much of their business. That is where Trump lives and conducts much of his business.
I say this all because understanding the rural vote means understanding ourselves here in the city, and coming to terms with the obvious fact that this relationship has festered, and it is our job here in the city to make an adjustment in the way we think, speak, and act in regards to rural America. Our great nation has spoken clearly, and it is time to mend broken ties through adjustments as simple and accessible as the language we use and the jokes we make at the expense of others.
Cover photo: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com