Can We Stop Rural America from Devouring Itself. . . and Democracy? (OP-ED)

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Timothy M. Gay

It takes 90 minutes to drive from I-80’s Exit 111 to my hometown in northwestern Pennsylvania. I’ve made the trip so many times over the years that I recognize every twist and turn and a lot of local businesses.  

The mom-and-pop convenience store in the Moshannon Valley could use a fresh coat of paint, I noticed on a recent trek home – but it’s still going strong. So is the frozen custard stand atop Boot Jack Mountain that’s been there forever. Even the Super 322 Drive-In, a totally cool relic from the 1950s, has beaten the odds and survived.

But it’s impossible for a traveler to appreciate Pennsylvania’s commercial enterprise when its roadsides have become so cluttered with symbols of ignorance and hate. In one village after another, Pennsylvanians compete to see who can display the most defiant tribute to Trumpism, that toxic stew of Big Lies, bullyism, conspiracy theories, race-baiting, and threats of violence if the bullies don’t get their way. 

Banners braying “Don’t Tread on Me” fly alongside flags that shout “Stop the Steal!” and “Trump 2024!” More than a few front porches include homages to QAnon, the cult whose members believe that cannibalistic pedophiles colluded with Democrats and Satan worshipers to deny Trump a second term. Huh?

QAnon’s incendiary paranoia has now permeated the Republican leadership in Washington. Last week, a half-dozen Republican Senators demeaned Judge Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings by invoking QAnon language and symbols. Huh?

Just as galling back home in Pennsylvania is the omnipotent presence of the Stars and Bars, the Confederate emblem that salutes an armed rebellion that cost more than 600,000 American lives and permanently scarred our culture. The irony is that almost every Pennsylvania town commemorates the Civil War’s other side with a monument to the Grand Army of the Republic.

The memorial not far from the Super 322 depicts a Union soldier standing erect, his gaze locked southward, his hands propping a musket finally at rest. If the statue had been oriented a few degrees east, it would be facing Gettysburg, the Pennsylvania crossroads that is the “final resting place,” in Abraham Lincoln’s beloved words, for those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to save America’s noble experiment with democracy. 

How could a place with such a proud Union heritage have so many Rebel flags soiling its front yards? A recent study notes that Pennsylvania now ranks 45th in per capita spending on public education, down there with the Old Confederacy states. With their budgets slashed, many Pennsylvania high schools no longer teach civics, which might explain, in part, why so many busloads of Pennsylvanians participated in Trump’s violent coup at the U.S. Capitol a year ago. A woman who lives less than 30 miles from my hometown was arrested after being caught on video vowing to kill Nancy Pelosi. 

The frustrations of the U.S. constitutional system, coupled with today’s sad-sack politics – the inequity of the electoral college; a skewed Senate that gives small states and small-minded Senators way too much power; parliamentary rules that make it easy to obstruct reform and virtually impossible to enact it; a 24/7 right-wing echo chamber – all strengthen the Trumpies’ stranglehold on rural America and, with it, our future.

The question is what – if anything – can we do about it?

Appeals to local Republican leaders aren’t likely to get anywhere. Most are either in cahoots with extremists or cowed by them. Regional op-eds and letters-to-the-editor will fall on deaf ears.

A series of ads? Broadcast appearances? Town hall meetings? Nah, that’s the kind of “Kumbaya” stuff they hold in contempt. 

So, what’s left in the near term? Maybe tapping third parties they trust, like Nashville stars or celebrity sportsmen, and putting them in commercials and online platforms? Or enlisting conservative community leaders they respect – business heads, ministers, former elected officials – and pray that somehow, someway, they can begin chipping away at the lies and demagoguery?

Over the long haul, what if volunteers stepped into the vacuum and began teaching civics and individual responsibility in rural high schools? I’m not naïve enough to think that if that woman who threatened Speaker Pelosi had learned as a teenager about how to-make-her-voice-heard that she would have renounced violent radicalism. Still, a proper education in civics has the potential to cool passions.

We owe it to rural America to try something. Remember what Lincoln vowed in that small Pennsylvania town: “It is for us the living” to dedicate ourselves to the “unfinished work” of American democracy. 

Frozen custard stands and drive-ins might survive rural America’s descent into dystopia. But Lincoln’s Republic won’t.


Tim GayAbout the Author: Timothy M. Gay, a writer and historian, is the Pulitzer-nominated author of four books.