Trump must win the Midwest. But out here his breezy reelection gambit falls flat | Art Cullen

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  • August 29, 2020
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Trump must win the Midwest. But out here his breezy reelection gambit falls flat

We’re more concerned about drought, economic uncertainty and Covid than rightwing talking points about crime and socialism

A recent derecho cut a swath of destruction through Iowa and the Midwest.




A recent derecho cut a swath of destruction through Iowa and the Midwest.
Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP

It’s dry. So dry that my neighbor Steve Drey, the tractor parts man who hears it first, figures that the combines might start rolling through the brown corn in just a week or two. Some farmers are cutting corn for livestock silage, and it’s punky.

One hundred fifty bushels per acre should be the ballpark crop yield around Storm Lake, Iowa, which is in severe drought along with much of the Corn Belt. That’s a 25% yield chop off expectations. It makes farmers itch to start harvesting before the paper-dry corn falls to a freak wind. A hurricane-like derecho wind flattened 14 million acres in the Tall Corn State just a couple weeks ago. This, as corn prices are at their lowest point in a decade.

The cicadas of late August called children back to school where vulnerable teachers and staff awaited them. Most come from meatpacking households – Latino, Asian and African – whose breadwinners were ordered into close working quarters in April by a President who demanded slower virus testing. We were among the hottest spots in the land.

The infection rate shot up in the college towns as the students returned. Governor Kim Reynolds ordered the bars shut down in six of the state’s 99 counties. She sailed to election in 2018 but has since watched her numbers slide as her mind melded to Trump’s. Our virus rate refuses to recede. Fourteen teacher aides in Storm Lake quit just before classes resumed for fear of infection. The governor ordered everyone back to class but didn’t tell schools how to do it. Our superintendent begged patience. She regrets saying “I just don’t know” so often when asked how to pull this off safely.

Nobody does know. The state last week acknowledged that it was disseminating faulty data about Covid infection as recently as July. The meatpacking industry is doing its own testing of employees on a selective basis. Deaths and hospitalizations have ebbed here. Children have their temperatures checked at the school door. We have no idea what the infection rate really is, or how long we can conduct classes. Masks are not required, but everyone was wearing them in class this week. The kids here seem to get it. Grandma, who takes care of them after school, is nervous.

It’s shouting distance of Labor Day, when people normally start fixing on the elections. Labor is restless. John Deere laid off Davenport and Waterloo workers last fall and this spring. Deere reported strong profits last week as a result, despite slumping sales from the Trump Trade Wars. There’s the disconnect between the stock market and Main Street – the Dow rises while enhanced unemployment benefits expire.

Atop all this – a pandemic, a climate crisis inspiring a mega-drought and derecho, rotten farm prices and incompetent government – another unarmed black man was shot, this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Not so far from Minneapolis, where George Floyd became a household name. Now it’s Jacob Blake, whose mother Julia Jackson pleaded for prayer and healing on national TV, for her son, for the police, for this nation. The Bucks and Brewers refused to play.

Trump simply must win Iowa and Wisconsin. So he cast a convention against this backdrop of anxiety and fear – godless looters are coming for yours – and roped in our governor, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa to play in the tragedy. Few were inclined to listen. When the corn calls, you are too busy removing fallen trees from your machine shed. Trump dropped into the Cedar Rapids airport for an hour shortly before the convention to promise assistance after the derecho pulverized our Second City. After he left, he approved homeowner and business relief for just one of the 27 counties the governor had requested.

For that, Governor Reynolds told the TV convention that Trump “had our back.” Senator Ernst, trailing Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield in fundraising and polling, landed a prime-time cameo to praise her fearless leader. The one who knocked down soybean prices. The one who helped the corn-fueled ethanol industry implode. The one who ordered children in cages to be separated from their mothers.

Farmers are anxious. Latinos are afraid. Unemployed machinists are frustrated. That prized demographic, suburban women in Urbandale next to Des Moines, are encouraging the school board to sue the governor over her in-person school orders.

A few Latino organizers gathered in the park on the sweltering evening when Trump would commandeer the Rose Garden for his reality show.

“Our people came here to be free of the corruption and violence,” said Storm Lake City Councilman José Ibarra. “Now it has come back to find us. Where can we go? What can we do but vote?”

They said their older folks who never saw a reason before have finally found one.

Even some of those farmers are wondering about Trump as they dig into a harvest so meager that wraps up as they vote. An ill wind blows for incumbents.

  • Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing on agriculture. He is a Guardian US columnist and author of the book, Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland


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