Who in modern America has the most power — the biggest store of latent heft — but the least ability to use it? The answer, of course, is city-dwellers and suburbanites. Like racing cars at the start of a Formula One showdown, they are in pole position. They have everything: the education, the wealth, the sense of self-entitlement. Big dick energy in spades. They are shiny machines with purring engines. And yet when the race begins, the F1 boys cannot pull away. They are politically impotent. The NASCAR drivers, in their beaten-up trucks, sporting confederate flags, are still in the rear-view mirror.
And there seems — to the casual observer — to be no end in sight to this situation. Donald Trump might not be able to place Kansas City on a map, but the America he has adopted — NASCAR America — looks capable of keeping up with the racing cars. Perhaps even catching them up. The President uses the language of the downtrodden. He shares their contempt for sociological inquiry, their love of guns. Their suspicion of folks who don’t come from these parts. He has used his presidency to play with the minds of the liberal elites. He looks likely to be re-elected and to have the right to double down on all of the above. A Trumpian wave is sweeping all before it.
But what if this is an illusion. What if the crisis facing modern America is not Donald Trump and the things he says and does, but the coming backlash against him? A backlash so colossal that it will destroy The Donald, his men, their towns, their social attitudes: the lot. And in doing so change America forever.
Take the Iowa caucus. Since the early 1970s, this state, with its small homogenous population, has had an outsized influence on the presidential race by dint of kicking the process off every four years. In my decade reporting on America for the BBC, I spent a considerable amount of time in Iowa. I remember nearly losing my toes to the cold during a forest trip with some locals who hunt deer with bows and arrows. Most Americans stay warm and away from longbows. But the Iowa caucus — and the New Hampshire primary that comes tomorrow — forces everyone to come and take a look at how life is lived in corners of the nation most people do not see.
Iowa and New Hampshire hold the racing cars back. And now? Well, Iowa is finished.
Admittedly the disasters this year were caused not by the locals but by the apps designed by sophisticates to enforce rules demanded by Bernie Sanders supporters — but these are details lost on most Americans. The New York Daily News headline captured the mood: “Corn clogged Iowans Botch 1st Dem Vote.”
A pile-on began. Soon it was pointed out that Iowans are mostly white; that the system of voting in a caucus (you have to turn up) reduces the rights of people who cannot make it; etc etc etc. Never mind that these white rubes chose Barack Hussein Obama as the Democratic candidate and backed him in the general elections of 2008 and 2012. The Democratic party modernisers have a plan for Iowa: stop going there.
Illinois Senator Dick Durban led the way: “I think the Democratic caucus in Iowa is a quirky, quaint tradition which should come to an end. As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face for voting.”
It won’t end with Iowa. It will gather pace now — either this year or, more likely, at the end of Trump in 2024 (or at his second and more successful impeachment), when Democrats could be elected to the presidency and both houses of Congress on a programme of sweeping change.
First: pack the supreme court with enough justices to turn the tide socially. Enshrine the social mores of San Francisco forever at the apex of American power. It would not be unconstitutional: the founders made no stipulation about numbers of justices on the court.
Second, get rid of the electoral college for presidential polls. No presidential candidate will ever again go to a small town. Because the election is split between states, candidates actually have to visit and spend money in those they think they can win. It’s good for business in the small ones. It gets them on the map every four years. Without the college, candidates could amass votes in New York and California and Florida and not bother about the rest of the country. LA hello, Boise cheerio. Job done.
Or half done. The biggest prize of all for the post-Trump-era zealots of the Left is the US Senate. Their argument will be simple. The Senate — with two members from each state, however small its population — is fundamentally undemocratic. By 2040, according to Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, 70% of Americans will live in 15 states. Those states will contain almost all the big cities. The other 30% of Americans — in small towns and in wilderness cabins — will elect 70 Senators. 70! Out of 100! The Senate controls everything, remember — from impeachment trials to Supreme Court nominations. Rubes still in charge.
The point — and it’s a fair one — is that American cities and suburbs drive enterprise but do not control it. More than three quarters of all the venture capital being deployed in America goes to just three states, according to researchers at think tank The Economic Innovation Group. More than a third of the jobs in America’s most innovative industries — technology, computer manufacturing, biotech — can be found in just 16 counties, according to the Brookings Institution. There are more than 3,000 counties in the US — 31 of them account for two-thirds of the nation’s GDP.
Until Trump came along, there was a rough and ready sense that the two Americas — the expansive one where tumbleweed blows, and the compact one where engines hum and people live — were willing to co-exist, however much they might bicker. But the severity of the reminder that they are not in charge has changed the minds of the city dwellers. It has hardened their hearts. They will not — post Trump — have any qualms about getting that situation remedied.
And it will be remembered, with some bitterness, when this reckoning comes, that the rubes went overwhelmingly for Trump. As David Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report puts it, “by my math, in 2016, Donald Trump carried 76 percent of counties with a Cracker Barrel but 22 percent of counties with a Whole Foods Market”. Anyone who has been to America will know that Whole Foods only inhabit smart cities and Cracker Barrel is the staple of road-trips through the deep south. Mr Wasserman’s metric of division is dismally accurate.
Who cares? Everyone should, who loves America. Because to love America is to believe that the bow and arrow hunters matter. The Norman Rockwell small towns matter. Also: the old men on rocking chairs outside cafes as those improbably long freight trains rumble through once-wealthy junctions. The gun-nuts. The zealots — black and white — who go to separate churches in southern summer heat but pray to the same God. The passport-less folk who wonder if you, as a passing Englishman, know the Queen.
Without this tapestry, what is America? Hollywood? Silicon Valley? Wall St? Washington DC? Untethered from the centre, what madness will these institutions unleash? Harvey Weinstein and Bernie Madoff will look like pussycats. President Kardashian will not even pretend to know where Kansas City is.
So yes, worry for America. Not for Trump’s America; but for what follows. Which could well be a lot worse.