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OPINION

What rural Christians hear when Dems debate

By ANGELA DENKER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 2, 2019

I spent last weekend hundreds of miles from an urban area, in the pristine Northwoods of Wisconsin.

This is such deep-red Republican territory that Max Tomasoski, 16, told me that when Democratic candidates try to introduce themselves to rural Wisconsinites: “It’s like when the Jehovah’s Witnesses are knocking on your door. … Get off my porch!”

But Tomasoski calls himself an independent, like many in rural middle America.

Across the Midwest, many of these citizens voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 but still have misgivings. They liked his social and economic positions but are uncomfortable with his tweets and questions about his finances.

I got to know many of these voters in 2018, when I spent a year traveling to red states and counties for my book, “Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who Elected Donald Trump.”

Many are curious about Democratic candidates not named Hillary Clinton, whom they almost uniformly despised. When the Democrats debated this week, they were listening.

But the fact that the debates aired on CNN, rather than network television, was a bad start. Once at a Dallas megachurch in 2018, an interview subject told me: “I figured it was OK to talk to you only because you weren’t wearing a CNN badge.”

So the candidates already had to clear a hurdle of suspicion before the debate even started.

These voters were also likely turned off by the moderators’ repeated goading of candidates to insult one another. It’s true, that same insult culture was part of what galvanized Trump’s support. But Trump has a certain charisma, especially in rural America, that allows him to get away with things others cannot.

For instance, in the first debate this week, I saw a lot of Trump’s meanness and cockiness in former Congressman John Delaney, of Maryland. Moderators kept going back to Delaney’s well of derision and contempt for his fellow Democrats’ positions. But Delaney lacks the well-placed humor and smile that Trump uses to offset his angry and belittling language. Trump’s nicknames for his opponents, while mean-spirited, also carry a certain light humor. When other candidates try to mimic him, they just sound mean.

In speaking with young voters across rural America, the one Democratic candidate whose name I heard repeatedly was long-shot businessman Andrew Yang. Like Trump, Yang benefits from his outsider status and his willingness to speak plainly about what ails middle America.

In comparison to Rep. Tim Ryan, of Ohio, whose talk about manufacturing workers and “bills around the kitchen table” seemed overused to the point of pandering, Yang comes across as competent and refreshing when he talks about the truth that automation — not immigration — takes away American manufacturing jobs. This was a talking point I heard from voters in the Rust Belt, and they knew Yang was the source.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has received ample praise for his insertion of faith during the Democratic debates, even causing some writers to say he is hastening a resurgence of religion in the Democratic Party. As a pastor and a religion writer, I appreciate Buttigieg’s willingness to say that the Republican Party doesn’t have a monopoly on policies that are biblically sound and appealing to Christians.

But I suspect many of the voters I interviewed in rural America were turned off by the way Buttigieg talked about faith on Tuesday night. Buttigieg has a tendency to suggest that he is more Christian than others, especially Republicans. Buttigieg’s seeming elitism and his penchant for formal language will likely be more of a barrier than his sexuality for these voters.

A reminder: 2016 Trump voters are diverse. Across the South and in the Bible Belt, many rural evangelical Trump voters likely will have a hard time voting for a female or gay candidate. But the rural evangelical voters in states that will likely decide 2020, like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, talk less about social issues and more about the economy. What they appreciate is a sense that Trump speaks directly to them.

That is an ineffable quality that Democrats need to pay attention to as the election moves forward: a sense by rural and Midwestern Americans that the Democratic candidate understands them and is speaking their language.

One surprising candidate who can do that: spiritual guru Marianne Williamson, who on Tuesday night chided Democrats for failing to tell real truths about their complicity in upholding wealthy America at the cost of middle America. Flint’s water crisis, she reminded them, wouldn’t have happened in wealthy Grosse Pointe, Mich. If Democrats didn’t start telling the truth about American socioeconomic divides, she said, why would Americans trust that Democrats were there to fight for them any more than Republicans and Trump?

Afterward, she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that her remarks were inspired by the policies of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the left’s current answers to the anti-establishment fervor that elected Trump, as well as Obama in 2008.

But it was Williamson’s words that got the loudest cheers of the night.

Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and journalist who lives in Minneapolis.

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