I snaked through the Delaware Water Gap and headed westward on Interstate 80, the lush green foliage spreading out before me. My object was to visit some friends and linger for a few days in the Midwestern states that tipped the outcome of the 2016 election. What’s the mood, I wondered?
After a few stops and conversations, the answer became clear. Nearly everyone I spoke with expressed frustration, anxiety, disquiet, despair. And anger, especially anger.
People are angry about the lockdowns. Religious folks are angry about the church closures. Some are angry about Black Lives Matter protests and toppled monuments. Still others are angry about the conservative movement, which they see as increasingly ineffective. Everybody is angry at the mainstream media, which they consider hopelessly biased.
One friend observed that he took the lockdown seriously, accepting the dictates of medical experts. It came at a great cost. His brother, ill with cancer, died in early May. He could not visit him or attend his funeral. A month later, the same public health experts endorsed BLM marches that numbered in the tens of thousands. My friend is infuriated by the duplicity.
In Western Pennsylvania, another friend expressed outrage at lockdowns and the suspension of civil liberties. He noted that the chief public health official in Pennsylvania is a transgender person, appointed by Governor Tom Wolfe. “It’s the worst-case scenario of identity politics,” he observed. “We have a mentally ill person controlling the lives of 13.5 million people so that the governor can feel good about being a paragon of inclusion.”
Some were equally pointed in their harsh assessments of the church closures, which they regarded as too draconian. One person called it “a clerical abuse of the laity” that he deemed more destructive than the sexual abuse scandals. Others were not so hostile, but nearly all agreed that the churches are increasingly irrelevant to our political-cultural struggles, even as they remain spiritually essential.
A friend in Minneapolis told me about his father, a working-class man who “isn’t political,” as he put it. My friend was therefore shocked when his dad showed him a copy of a letter he had written to Governor Tim Walz. In it, he expressed outrage that public authorities had not intervened to prevent the destruction of a statue of Christopher Columbus. “That’s so unlike my dad,” my friend observed. “He’s not the kind of person who gets wrapped up in political controversies.”
Others were less ardent. They expressed more despair than anger over Bostock and what they see as the ongoing erosion of a stable moral consensus in American society. “Where do we go from here?” they asked.
When I asked about the election mood in their communities, they reported that political realities are increasingly hidden from view. One said, “Right now journalists seem ignorant of what most people are thinking, perhaps willfully so.” When I pressed him about why that’s the case, he replied, “In all fairness, most people won’t say what they’re thinking. It’s too dangerous.”
A few told stories that suggest the Obama-to-Trump voters in Ohio and other Midwestern states are more supportive of the president, not less so. One spoke of a working-class neighbor with tattoo sleeves and four kids who struggles to stay ahead of his bills. He voted for Obama two times, but switched to Trump in 2016. His vote was reluctant. He regarded Trump as a mean-spirited man, which he does not like. But BLM has enraged him. He interprets the rhetoric of the past two months as accusing him of being a racist. My friend reports that this neighbor is now an enthusiastic Trump supporter.
I don’t believe anecdotes predict elections. In any event, an election forecast was not the object of my travels. I wanted to get a sense of our national mood. I anticipated encountering heightened emotions. Most commentators have observed that our country is increasingly polarized. But I was taken aback by the intensity.
My sample of opinion was from the right side of the spectrum of American politics and culture. But people on the left side are clearly angry as well. Some are in the streets, angry about what they regard as systemic oppression of minorities. Columnists for the New York Times vituperate and condemn with regularity, a sure sign of heightened emotions among the liberal establishment, not just the radical left. And pretty much everyone I know on the left is enraged that Trump is in the White House.
The Chicago Board of Trade developed an index to measure volatility, the VIX. A high VIX indicates that investors perceive market conditions that make them uncertain, anxious, and fearful. After traveling through the middle of America for nearly two weeks, my strong impression is that our political-cultural VIX is very high.
This means it is foolish to imagine we can foretell what will transpire in the next three months. But it does allow us to draw larger conclusions. The “market conditions” for our political arrangements over the last generation (and perhaps longer) no longer obtain. The volatility indicates the heightened possibility of significant realignments and changes. I won’t predict who will win in November, but I can predict that what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat will be quite different in a few years. It already is.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.