A friend who’s been grappling with some personal depression for several years chuckled ruefully the other day telling a story about his therapist.
It seems the counselor couldn’t be convinced that it was merely something as simple as a professional setback and the advance of elderhood that had triggered an emotional slump for “Joe.” His adviser suspected that today’s troubled political environment must be part of the problem.
By which he meant, of course, Donald Trump.
“I told him, ‘No, I think it’s that I lost a job and my life felt pointless,’ ” Joe said. But the psycho-political analyst persisted — even recommending that Joe seek companionship at a “resistance” rally with fellow sufferers of post-Trump stress disorder, or something.
Joe got a much-needed laugh out of this self-revealing advice, anyway. Evidently, the thought never occurred to examine a patient’s politics before prescribing an anti-Trump primal scream cure.
Joe endures the exhaustion and bewildered uneasiness about the president that vast numbers of sensible Americans share. But he simply isn’t the kind of advanced thinker who has come completely unglued where Trump is concerned. And that makes him a kind of American too few urban professional liberals seem ever to have met.
I thought of Joe’s experience when I read Dan Balz’s sprawling, fascinating travelogue through Trump country, published this month as a special report in the Washington Post. Chief political correspondent for the Post, Balz is an establishment aristocrat who has condescended to hear what the peasants have to say, touring what he’s identified as the heartland of Trump’s electoral revolution for 16 months following the insurgent’s inauguration.
And one common sentiment Balz reports is expressed by a Midwesterner, significantly disillusioned with the president, who nonetheless “said he thought that news outlets, particularly cable television, had ‘lost their minds about Trump.’ ”
Maybe those big-headed folks are the ones who need their heads shrunk, in more ways than one.
Of particular interest in Balz’s reporting, for those of us in these parts, is that it’s precisely in these parts — anyway, the Upper Midwest — where the Post’s research locates a kind of ground zero for Trump’s remarkable electoral upset in 2016.
In four states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, particularly in the bluff-to-prairie lands rising on either side from the Upper Mississippi valley — Balz reports finding roughly half of some 100 counties in America that had voted Democratic in presidential contests for decades, even for generations, but jumped to the renegade Republican in 2016. (Regular readers may recall that I sometimes trouble them with stories of my frequent visits to an old farmhouse in Minnesota’s Fillmore County — so this is a heartland dear to my heart.)
Similar rebellions in key regions of Pennsylvania and Michigan may actually have been more decisive in putting Trump over the top in the Electoral College. But “Trump’s Midwest” is crowded with the type of rural, small-town voter who became what Balz calls “Trump Triers.”
One might also think of them as Trump Democrats, latter-day descendents of the “Reagan Democrats” who in the 1980s began a transformation of American politics that in a sense continues to this day.
Balz focuses on southern Minnesota’s Mower County, which hadn’t voted for a Republican since 1960 until it went for Trump — and on northern Minnesota’s Itasca County, which last had given its majority to the GOP under Herbert Hoover in 1928.
Even “Minnesota Nice” gets invoked to explain an aspect of the dizzying and, yes, traumatizing political turmoil these rare political transformations have produced.
“It doesn’t really mean Minnesotans are nice,” says Balz’s source. “It just means they may think you’re full of s---, [but] they’re just not going to tell you that.”
It’s not only for the local interest that Balz’s somewhat anthropological study — and the many real rural voices he lets one hear — ought not be missed.
Balz, to be sure, doesn’t reveal any truly new explanations for the Trump upheaval. One hears a good deal from his interviewees about deindustralization and economic decline, and the sense that Democrats have abandoned the working class on trade and immigration issues. One hears about rural Americans’ often less-discussed alienation from the elite urban agenda on cultural issues like guns and abortion. One hears about a willingness to overlook Trump’s many flaws because he seemed the kind of outsider and disrupter to established elites on both the left and the right who could give both a much-needed shaking up. One hears about slowly growing worries and weariness with Trump’s undeniable vulgarity, viciousness and vacuousness.
But above all, Balz’s reporting confirms that the Trump revolution is in no small part a powerful form of identity politics — much the central focus in progressive circles so long as the identities involved are racial, religious or sexual minorities. But across the heartland it seems another distinctive cultural community has had its pride severely wounded and, if you will, its feelings hurt.
“I despise Barack Obama,” one source tells Balz, “ … primarily because I don’t think he thinks very much of people like me.” He quotes “a conclusion shared by many Democrats in the Midwest, ‘The 60-year-old white male has been forgotten.’ ”
“Another common feeling in this part of the country,” Balz writes, is that “life in the Midwest was not appreciated by those on the coasts. … ‘We like our big vehicles and our large parking spots. … We’re constantly being preached to …’ ”
But, “the common man has come back ... wants to be listened to,” one of Balz’s sources declares. “I don’t think the people will ever go back...”
Time will tell. But Balz’s vivid portrait of Trump’s Midwest suggests this weird presidency itself, and even the psychic maladies it’s causing, may ultimately be less hazardous to social cohesion than the fact that those same elites, on both the left and the right, and for that matter beyond America’s borders, have managed to convey such deep contempt and disrespect to large numbers of common people.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.