I spent last week in Kansas and Missouri visiting family and enjoying a little vacation. I’m in Kansas 1-2 times a year. I went to college there; I’m familiar. I lived in Missouri (Kansas City) off-and-on for five years, though I’ve only ventured south, near Arkansas, one other time.
Southern Kansas and southern Missouri are not Kansas City, and they are definitely not Chicago. Obviously. The differences between those contexts–southern Kansas is also not southern Missouri, and Kansas City is not Chicago–are products of stark contrasts in history and culture, which I appreciate and which I have navigated since at least 1994. Yet something felt different on this trip. There are expressions of overt aggression on display in the parts of Kansas and Missouri I was in last week that surprised and disturbed me.
A “F*** Biden” flag flew from someone’s front porch and it emblazoned the front of a hat for sale right next to a “Follow Jesus” hat.
A T-shirt for sale read “LGBT” with symbols beneath each of the letters: Lady Liberty, a gun, a Bible, and Trump.
Another T-shirt showed a picture of a gun and a Bible with the message “Two things every American should know how to use.”
When people in Missouri learned we were from Chicago, they voiced disgust at the “ghetto” and “gangs.” One man called the city a “cesspool” he would never visit (and never has) because people there defecate on the sidewalks; he just sees no value in those peoples’ lives. This was small talk. With strangers.
After the 2016 election, urbanites distressed at the outcome were chastised in essays and blog posts for a shortage of familiarity with and empathy for rural America. This was always disingenuous; many residents of large cities moved there from small towns and know them at least as well as J.D. Vance. But even if it were a meaningful criticism, it has most definitely not been leveled in the other direction. Following Biden’s victory, rural America is not publicly searching its soul over its distance from the urban voters who elected a Democrat. Instead, the places I visited last week are seething in open rage against him, Democrats, and “Democrat cities” like Chicago. Specifically Chicago.
This rage is a media product, and it feels really consequential.