MEMBERS ONLY: The Programmed Allure of Red State America

by Justin Rosario

For Thanksgiving, my family and I packed up our 2003 Toyota Prius and set off for the middle of nowhere known as Tarboro, North Carolina to visit two of my aunts. The Rosario clan is large, and growing up with over a dozen siblings in New York City made them more than willing to scatter in order to get the hell away from each other. Several are spread across Florida, a few in Arizona, the two already mentioned in North Carolina, and one even made it as far as Alaska. Uncle Joe clearly really wanted to get away from everyone else. I love my family but, honestly, I can’t blame him. 

But not living with them is not the same as never seeing them. Since we made the move to Virginia a few years ago, we’ve been meaning to get down to Tarboro to visit so we took this opportunity to make the 4 hour drive. Once we got away from the Beltway traffic, we made excellent time on what is normally one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Having only been to Tarboro once before for a funeral ten years ago, I remembered exactly nothing about the area, particularly since I flew in from New York instead of driving. Now that I was traveling through at my own pace without a loss hanging over my head, I was free to pay attention to my surroundings and get a feel for the place.

“Sparsely populated” would be a generous description of where my aunts live. Tarboro is about 11.2 square miles with a population of roughly 11,000 people, most of whom are concentrated in the “city” part of the town, leaving the rest of it mostly empty. By way of comparison, Alexandria, Virginia, where we live, is slightly larger at 15.5 square miles but with a population of over 155,000. We have a lot of green space in Alexandria but Tarboro is mostly just open land and a lot of it is given over to cotton from what I saw. There were a few hay and corn fields with some livestock (horse and cows) thrown in for good measure but mostly cotton.

All in all, it was pretty much exactly what you picture when you think “countryside”. My aunt’s house sits on a two acre lot and since she doesn’t use the back acre for anything, she lets her cotton farmer neighbor use it. The lots on both sides and across the road are his as well, meaning her house is literally in the middle of a giant cotton field. 

Oh, and beyond the second acre is a large patch of woods filled with deer and hunters that like to shoot them for fun. There’s literally a hunting blind at the edge of her property. Her house was so remote that when we got within half a mile of it, the GPS literally stopped giving directions, “On the way to your destination, there will be roads with incomplete data. Turn by turn guidance will not be provided for these areas.” Translation? “I give up. Good luck. You’re on your own.”

So, yeah, “countryside.”

We spent 3 full days there and had a lovely time but while we were driving (and driving and driving some more) around, part of my brain slipped into a state of envy.

This was the real America. Wide open country. Gorgeous sunsets over hills and woods. Farming. Lots and lots of farming. Clean air. Guns and hunting. Long empty roads and a whole lot of peace and quiet. I was looking at the houses that dotted the landscape here and there and that part of my brain wondered how much they cost. 

The rest of my brain, on the other hand, regarded that, ahem, “rebel” part as delusional. How would Debbie get to work? She doesn’t drive and there’s zero public transportation. Would she even be able to find a job down here that could pay enough? Would Jordan be able to get any of the autism services he needs? Did I really want Anastasia growing up in the middle of Trump territory during her most formative years? Who would she play with if the nearest neighbor with a kid her age was 30 minutes away? But that little part of brain kept marveling at how “real” it all was.  

Where the bloody hell was this coming from? I’m Brooklyn born and raised. “Farming” is growing some vegetables in the backyard. When I visited my abuela’s actual farm in Puerto Rico as a child, it was like an alien planet and that was aside from the language barrier (I only know how to curse in Spanish). One time, I went camping with the Cub Scouts at Floyd Bennett Field which is literally a 7 minute drive away from King’s Plaza, the largest mall in Brooklyn (it was the first and so far only time I’ve gotten a tick). My idea of “the woods” was Central Park.

This is not to say I never spent any time away from the city. I did, but not enough to consider anything but concrete, stop lights, apartment buildings, and row houses as the default setting for how people live. Suddenly craving a home in the next best thing to the wilderness was very out of character.

I dislike when my mind goes rogue and I don’t know why so I spent some time tracing the origins of this bizarre impulse. Curiously, I found myself treading some familiar mental pathways: They were the same ones that try to tell me black people are lesser than just because they’re black and that I’m better just because I’m white. Yeah, I’ve been here before. 

And just like tilting your head just the right way to see the hidden picture, I understood what was going on.

This was a programmed response from decades of media consumption but instead of kneejerk racism, this was kneejerk Americana. This was years of Little House on the Prairie and westerns and rolling fields of wheat representing the “heartland” of America. This was Clark Kent and Dorothy Gale coming from Kansas. This was Captain Kirk coming from Iowa and Bones coming from Georgia. This was the Duke boys never meanin’ no harm and good guy cowboys fightin’ savage injuns.

It occurred to me that if the programmed allure of rural America could be that strong to a lifelong city dweller like me, it must be nigh impossible to resist for actual rural Americans. It would also explain the unrelenting paranoia that their way of life in under attack. If you’ve been sold the lie that your way, and only your way, of life is the “real” America and you see the country passing you by, you’d feel threatened, too. In fact, you might just feel threatened enough to try burning everything to the ground before allowing the majority of the country to live their lives in ways you disagree with.

The problem is that rural life is not the only way to live any more than living in a crowded city is and resenting urban dwellers for living their own lives is bullshit. Sure, “Rednecks” have a perfectly valid complaint when “city slickers” treat them as bumpkins. On the other hand, there’s nothing about living a simple life in the middle of the countryside that demands you be an asshole to homosexuals or black people, either. 

I can sympathize with the illusion of the countryside being the American ideal. It really has been drilled into our heads from birth and Fox News pushes the lie 24/7 despite the fact none of its hosts would be caught dead living on a farm in Idaho without access to a Starbucks and a personal masseuse. It’s seductive to believe that you’re the pinnacle of American culture.

What I won’t sympathize with is using that illusion as an excuse to tear it all down because the reality doesn’t match the fantasy. Anyone and everyone should feel free to buy a few acres of land, plop a double wide mobile home in the middle of it and grow cotton, corn or cows to their heart’s content. But they should do so with the understanding that they don’t have a greater claim to America’s moral values than anyone else, a fact that much of Trump country seems to not understand. 

Mouthing the words of piety and morality doesn’t mean a damned thing if you vote to take healthcare and food away from children, support a child molester because he hates homosexuals, and lustily cheer for a man that brags about sexual assault because he promised to hurt brown people. If those are the moral values of the “heartland”, I’ll stick with the ticks in Floyd Bennett Field. At least those parasites are honest about who and what they are.

In the end, it’s a damn shame that red state America is so ugly. They really do live in some of the most beautiful real estate in the country. It’s easy to see why we used to believe rural America was the soul of the nation. Too bad it’s been twisted by hate and fear and rage. Maybe someday the sickness will pass and we’ll rediscover the true heart of America’s heartland.