My two-day visit to Lebanon, Nebraska came to a close, and I head towards Lebanon, Kansas, a two-hour drive South East. It's November 8, the day of the U.S. presidential election. The night before, all media sources and pollsters had predicted an easy win for Clinton and I am in Trump country. My American friends in San Francisco and Boston and New York were already celebrating what would be the first Madame President. But nobody was going to celebrate in public here, and given how scarcely populated these rural towns I was passing through are, there weren't going to be any angry protests over Trump's loss either. I stop my RV in a town park and go to bed by sundown, relieved that at least I won't be woken up by the sounds of guns and AK-47s fired in the air by jubilant people on their balconies the way it always happens back home.
I wake up a few hours later to my Facebook notifications buzzing by the dozens about the shocking turn of events that Trump was edging ahead of Clinton, winning State after State that were a sure win for the Democrats. I lock all doors to the RV and let down the drapes. Trump's campaign had heavily relied on attacking immigrants and Muslims. I was frankly worried that I might be assaulted.
But this simplistic scare, that suddenly all non-Whites in America had to fear for their life didn't parallel the experience I had had so far on my journey. It's true that I had only been traveling through the country for a bit less than a month; my encounters with people could only be labeled anecdotal. But there was a resounding similarity to these small largely Republican towns I've passed through, one that is more about economic status than about the hatred of the 'Other.'
In Lebanon, South Dakota, septuagenarian Hazel McRoberts smilingly reminisces about the 1960s when they had banks, schools, and grocery stores. Now that they moved the highway a mile away from them, everything closed down and they have to drive 20km to the nearest store or gas station. By US standards this distance might not be much, but to put things in perspective, this is the equivalent of having to drive from Beirut to Jounieh to buy any necessities. In Lebanon, Nebraska, Virginia Grafton talks about the 1950s when farming machinery started to become more efficient and fewer farming hands were needed. Then the population started dwindling, the government closed down the school and the post office, and the asphalt on the road started to erode, leaving dirt roads behind that no one was willing to pay for re-paving. Yes, this is America, but the way of life of these folks is unabashedly third-world. These are the same people that gave Trump the presidency.
In 2008, the exit polls said that 45% of them voted for Obama, an African-American. In 2016, only 34% of them voted for Hillary Clinton. The working-class had always been the core constituency of the Democratic party. But the party had turned towards the rich and the elites in recent years
We've heard here and there that those voting for a man able to utter such xenophobic remarks, are xenophobic themselves.
There's no denying that some of Trump's supporters are xenophobic. In a bar in South Dakota, when a man asked me where I was from and I told him, he laughingly said that Barak Obama could be the Lebanese president since he was Muslim, a persistent rumor in some parts of the US. I didn't bother to explain our sectarian constitution where the president has to be Maronite Catholic. In another bar in Nebraska, an inebriated man angrily asked me what was I doing in 'his' town. Yes, these bigots do exist. But it wouldn't be fair to draw conclusions based on these experiences alone. In that same bar in Nebraska, the barmaid overheard the conversation, kicked the man out, told me my check was on the house, and the bar patrons apologized to me profusely for the drunk's behavior while pleading with me to not take a bad impression of their town because of him. In other bars, I was offered more beers than I myself bought. These were people who were excited talking to an outsider, an Arab to top. Their hospitality was a beautiful reminder of that of my Lebanon's villages. Yes, there are bad seeds, but it's not really fair to label half the population as racist simply because of who they voted for.
People were voting in retaliation based on their overlooked economic needs and way of life. Liberal elites on the East and West coast have long ridiculed the rural people as backwards, hillbillies, and bigots. In 2004, following John Kerry's loss to George W. Bush in the elections, cartoonist Ted Rall wrote in The Villager: "So our guy lost the election. Why shouldn't those of us on the coasts feel superior? We eat better, travel more, dress better, watch cooler movies, earn better salaries, meet more interesting people, listen to better music and know more about what's going on in the world. "
Perhaps in 2016, people living on the coasts could, without compromising their beliefs, check their condescension at the door and start reaching out to these rural folks. Their pain is real and perhaps more attention to it should be paid.