"Never met a wilderness she did like."
Art by Mike Tofanelli
As Dr. Ben Carson is about to step into his campaign bus, I begin posing a few questions. A bespectacled man with a mustache starts to say the candidate won’t answer, but Carson nods yes.
“Do you have any thoughts on why, for the first time in American history, polls are showing that roughly half of Republicans want a minority for their nominee?” I ask.
Carson smiles, shakes his head no, and demurs, “I just think it’s a natural tendency . . . there are a lot of minority people, you know, who don’t sort of go with the herd mentality and sort of think out of the box.”
“Has Obama broken the glass ceiling?” I ask the man who rose to national prominence as Fox News’s go-to critic on all things Obama.
“Let’s hope so,” he says with a hearty laugh as he turns to get on his bus.
President Barack Obama shocked the political world when he won re-election with just 39 percent of the white vote in 2012. The Republicans have been trying to figure out what to do ever since.
The conventional wisdom among Republicans today seems divided into two camps. The first camp believes that if they nominate a minority who is critical of his own community, it’s a genius twofer: They have the perfect vessel to point out the truths that would be considered racist by a white candidate; in addition, many minorities will wake up, see the error of their ways, and vote Republican.
The second camp figures the party is better off nominating another white guy who can use racist rhetoric to drum up enough white votes to overwhelm the minority vote. This view was best articulated by RealClearPolitics conservative writer Sean Trende, who argued that Republicans should be focused on white voters who are increasingly moving into the Republican column. Trende says he doesn’t see “any compelling reason why these trends can’t continue, and why a Republican couldn’t begin to approach Ronald Reagan’s thirty-point win with whites from 1984 in a more neutral environment than Reagan enjoyed.”
For a while this past fall, it seemed as though the first camp was winning the day. In both Iowa and national polls, well over half of Republicans were supporting candidates who weren’t white, with African American Carson leading the way and Hispanics Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio not far behind.
But that was pre-Paris and pre-San Bernardino, before Donald Trump picked up steam with his nostalgic invocations of World War II Japanese internment camps. The reality TV star earned his street cred in Republican circles by pushing the claim that President Obama was really born in Kenya, which would, according to redneck lore, disqualify and remove Obama from the presidency. Problem solved!
Trump has also appeared on Alex Jones’s fringe but popular radio program that has claimed Obama is part of an “Islamic sleeper cell” that is secretly running “jihad operations.”
To sort it out for myself, I went back to my home state of Iowa to see what was really happening on the ground as the campaign for the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus was entering its home stretch.
Iowa is a state with a rich, progressive history, electing progressive-movement heroes like Albert Cummins and Henry Wallace—only to turn around and send Red Scare standard bearer Bourke Hickenlooper to the U.S. Senate and all-around cuckoo bird Steve King to the House.
Historically a national leader in civil rights, and the state that put the country’s first African American President on the path to victory, Iowa is also the third-worst state in the nation when it comes to incarcerating African American males. Like the nation at large, Iowa swings back and forth between hopeful optimism and downright scary.
My first stop is at a Senator Ted Cruz meet-and-greet at Cecil’s Café in Marshalltown.
Here, under the benevolent gaze of Cecil’s iconic rooster in top hat and tails, is Ted Cruz—but not the Ted Cruz you’ve seen on TV. Gone is the strident, sour-faced Joe McCarthy clone. This is Happy Warrior Cruz, a guy who says things like: “An old farmer asked me once what the difference was between locusts and regulators and I told him, ‘Well, you can’t use pesticides on regulators,’ and he says to me, ‘Wanna bet?’ ” Crossed arms and frowns melt into laughter and clapping hands.
I told him, ‘Well, you can’t use pesticides on regulators,’ and he says to me, ‘Wanna bet?
Cruz’s biggest applause lines, though, come when he gets into talking about “illegals” and the Democrats who are “openly inviting illegal aliens to their cities.” He is clearly connecting with this crowd.
Illegal immigration is Topic A in Marshalltown, a small city in the center of the state that used to be the corporate headquarters of Lennox and Fisher Controls. Most of the manufacturing jobs have been moved to Mexico and other overseas locations, while the white collar jobs have moved to new corporate headquarters in Texas.
The largest local employer is the meat-packing plant Swift & Co., a subsidiary of the world’s largest meat producer, the Brazilian-based JBS S.A., with nearly three thousand workers. These are back-breaking, low-wage jobs, filled mostly by first generation Latino immigrants.
In 2006, Swift was the target of the largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement sting of a private company in U.S. history. According to the Immigration Policy Center, nearly 100 workers from the Marshalltown plant were deemed to be undocumented, arrested, and deported.
Shortly after the raid, a group of former Swift employees sued the company, alleging it had intentionally hired undocumented workers as a way to drive down wages. One of the defendants, then a co-owner of Swift, was a Texas investment firm called HM Capital Partners, founded by billionaire Tom Hicks.
If Tom Hicks’s name rings a bell, it’s because he’s the owner of the Texas Rangers. He’s also one of Ted Cruz’s biggest financial backers, and recently held a fundraiser for Cruz at his Dallas mansion. (Hicks sold Swift to JBS S.A. shortly after suit was filed.)
Cruz’s connection to Hicks does not come up at his Marshalltown event. But I wonder how the crowd will view his Latino heritage. During the last twenty years, the city’s Latino community has grown from almost zero to about a quarter of the population. The loss of manufacturing jobs to Mexico and allegations that Swift is bringing in illegal immigrants from Mexico to drive down wages have often caused tensions to boil over. In the last year, someone spray-painted “Mexico” over the “Marshall” in the city’s “Welcome to Marshalltown” sign.
I’m intrigued to see who would show up for this thing. Would Cruz be able to attract some supporters from the Latino community? Nope. The crowd inside is all white, mostly dour, mostly male, and mostly gray. Would Marshalltown’s strained race relations translate into disinterest for a Latino candidate? Nope. The place is packed to the gills.
Cruz gets somber as he speaks about his immigration legislation, “Kate’s Law,” named after Kate Steinle, “a beautiful young lady, murdered for no reason on the pier in San Francisco. Her murderer was an illegal alien who entered this country over and over and over again. He was a repeat criminal with a rap sheet as long as my arm. Yet he kept being let go and kept coming back and coming back and the mayor of San Francisco happily welcomed him to a lawless city. The last thing Kate said as she died in her father’s arms were just, ‘Help me, Dad.’ ”
I ask an old-timer named Richard Hoffman, who farms south of Grinnell, why he likes Cruz and he replies, “He’s got the same attitude as I’ve got.” What’s that? “God, guns, liberty.” He then opens his wallet and taps a callused finger on a yellow NRA card. I ask if Cruz’s potential ability to attract fellow Hispanics in a general election played a part in his candidate selection and he puts his hands up, chuckles, and says, “I hate to say it, but absolute truth, yes.”
Next stop on my tour of Republican primary voters and candidates of color: Waterloo. This town has what is for Iowa a relatively high proportion of African Americans—about 15 percent.
In the middle of the last century, Waterloo was prosperous. Rath Packing Company boasted of having the largest meat-packing plant in the world here, and Waterloo even hosted one of the early NBA teams.
Today, Waterloo’s best days are clearly behind it. The Chicago Federal Reserve recently published a study of ten once-great manufacturing cities in the Midwest, which put Waterloo in the second to lowest category of “fading,” which was just above “overwhelmed.”
At its manufacturing peak in 1970, Waterloo had an African American unemployment rate of about 4 percent. A recent article in the website 24/7 Wall St. named Waterloo one of the top ten “worst cities for African Americans,” citing among other things an unemployment rate for African Americans of 24 percent in a city that boasts an overall unemployment rate of 4.9 percent.
Waterloo is also the site of a candidate forum hosted by a group called Cedar Valley Patriots for Christ, with a logo showing the American flag contorted to look like a cross. Co-sponsors include the rightwing news site Breitbart, the Iowa Firearms Coalition, and . . . drum roll, please . . . Preppers Direct, an online outfit that caters to doomsday preparers.
The crowd is all white, and skews older and male. As I’m finding a seat, I’m asked if I want to enter the raffle. The prize: A five-day survival kit or “ten brand new, thirty-round, high-capacity, AR-15 magazines.” I’m good, thanks.
The crowd is all white, and skews older and male. As I’m finding a seat, I’m asked if I want to enter the raffle. The prize: A five-day survival kit or “ten brand new, thirty-round, high-capacity, AR-15 magazines.”
The forum is moderated by Trevor Loudon, a real rock star in the anti-Obama fringe conspiracy community. (Not born in the United States? Check. Islamic? Check. Soviet-trained communist? Check.) Loudon’s New Zealand accent gives him an air of authority, and this crowd hangs on his every word.
Cruz is up first and spends most of his time stoking fears of Muslims and undocumented workers. He’s asked what he is going to do about ISIS. “Kill ’em all,” he says. Bringing Syrian refugees to the United States gets a big “No!,” and Cruz adds that we should be “resettling those refugees in the Middle East . . . not bringing them here, where terrorists could wage jihad.”
When asked about United Nations “Agenda 21,” a nonbinding sustainable development resolution, Cruz says he will “oppose any international law that has a binding effect on the United States [and] that also includes Sharia law, which has no business in the United States.” This earns him the biggest round of applause of the afternoon.
Cruz also crows about his involvement in Texas v. Medellin, a case in which two teenaged girls were brutally raped and murdered by “a gang in Houston and one of those gang members, Jose Ernesto Medellin, was an illegal alien.” (Cruz made sure justice was served, he declares, and Medellin got his lethal injection.)
Another questioner says he’s from California, which used to be “the state of Ronald Reagan.”
“Now, what happened in California is happening throughout the country with this illegal alien deal,” he says. “So, the anchor baby concept, my understanding, is that they should not be citizens.”
Cruz responds: “Let me say as a policy matter, I agree with you emphatically that we should end birthright citizenship. It makes no sense for us to incentivize people coming here illegally.”
Mike Huckabee saunters up to the stage after Cruz and, as usual, refreshingly steers clear of race baiting. Instead he stays in his niche with the most extreme anti-choice rhetoric, throwing down the gauntlet with a call to defund Planned Parenthood.
Pounding his fist, Huckabee proposes defending the Constitutional rights of all fetuses in court. “We would make the abortionists [explain] why they have the inherent right to go out and kill a baby. I would welcome that fight and in the meantime, we’d save all those babies’ lives.”
As I leave the event, I talk to a fifty-something man in the parking lot named Fred Saul. I ask if any of the forum candidates caught his eye. He says no—he’s still leaning toward Ben Carson. Carson, he says, will use “common sense in his administration,” as opposed to President Obama, who “has done more to racially divide this country than anyone I have ever known.”
Ben Carson is, at that very moment, holding a book signing nearby at the Barnes & Noble on Waterloo’s south side, hawking his latest book, which coyly uses the same name of Obama’s 2008 landmark speech on race, A More Perfect Union.
The Carson campaign had a strong run in the fall, overtaking Trump nationally and in Iowa, after Carson told reporters that a Muslim President would be incapable of following the Constitution if it conflicted with the Koran. But his star has faded a bit since the terrorist attacks as more Republicans seem to prefer the tough-talking Trump and Cruz.
The crowd of about 150 people is young, and mostly female. About 10 percent are African American. People are absolutely giddy with anticipation, waiting in a long line for Carson to arrive. When he walks in the door, the place goes crazy with shrieks, whistles, and thunderous applause. A college-age woman wearing a University of Northern Iowa shirt turns to her friend and says, “I can’t believe we are actually going to get to meet him . . . I just . . . I just can’t breathe.”
Floyd Bumpers, an African American man from Waterloo in his mid-sixties, says he is a registered Democrat who voted for Obama the last two elections, but is thinking about voting for Carson this time around. “I don’t know a lot about him, but what I do know about him I like.”
I try to interview an African American woman, but she laughs and says her mother would kill her if she knew she was at a Republican event.
Afterward, I ask Carson what he thinks about seeing a lot of African Americans at a Republican event.
“It’s encouraging,” Carson replies. “All over the country, I notice that there are a lot of African Americans who are actually kind of waking up and recognizing that policies that keep them in a state of dependency are not the policies that they want for their children and their grandchildren and we’ve got to start looking at ways to get people out of dependency and let them climb the ladder of opportunity.”
This “state of dependency” is a popular theme in Carson’s writing and stump speeches. As he sees it, African Americans were largely content prior to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and welfare programs since then have actually caused poverty, higher unemployment, and nearly every other problem that has afflicted his community in recent decades.
As he sees it, African Americans were largely content prior to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and welfare programs since then have actually caused poverty, higher unemployment, and nearly every other problem that has afflicted his community in recent decades.
It occurs to me, as I listen to him, that this seems to be the farthest off-kilter that the Iowa Republican caucuses have ever been. Yes, the caucuses always bring out Republicans who are far more willing to embrace extreme elements than general election voters, but never before have so many gotten so far with race baiting. And never before has so much of it come from candidates who are people of color themselves.
As I leave town and head home to Wisconsin, I remember that Sinclair Lewis once worked at Waterloo’s local paper as an editorial writer. And that got me thinking about a line from his cautionary tale, It Can’t Happen Here. It sums up everything pretty well:
“Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.” ω