In troubled times, find the center

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the smartest man I ever knew, Marathon farmer Jim Benson. He was born a Republican into a turkey operation, of course went off to Iowa State, was proud to have flown off into the wild blue yonder with the Air Force, and came home to farm and rear a family, serve on the hospital board and offer sound counsel to friends who asked.

He died in 2017 of Lou Gehrig’s disease. His last words to me were, “We can’t go on like this.” 

He was no socialist. He believed in low taxes and cheaper aspirin at the hospital. He shook his head at conspicuous consumption and debt. Work was his middle name. He read the Wall Street Journal. He believed that you improve human rights in China through trade and prosperity. He relied on facts. 

How I wish I could talk to him now. But I have received a couple emails lately from a farmer friend cut from the same cloth: Republican livestock producer, two degrees from Iowa State, served on the school board and the coop board, understands world trade better than Wilbur Ross, has visited Russia, a good God-fearing Lutheran. 

The first email expressed his growing alarm over the coronavirus and his concern that we have not been given enough information from the state, especially about vaccination. That was a week ago. He was frustrated. Mind you, this is not a person who complains. He perseveres politely with a smile and perhaps a subtly framed question. 

This week, he sent another email. He said he had spoken with several Republicans in Buena Vista County who believe that Trump won the election, and that storming the Capitol was okay. “How can I talk to them and have a civil discussion?” he asked. 

That’s the question of the hour as we watch people who could be our neighbors crashing the gates hunting for Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence. There were Storm Lakers out there for the protest if not for outright insurrection — called by President Trump to contest the rightful election of Joe Biden. “It’s going to be wild!” Trump tweeted before he was banned.

A lot of this gets mixed up with religion, and I don’t know what you do about that. The people who went out there thought it was the godly thing to do. The Catholic bishop of Sioux City questioned Joe Biden’s faith recently. How are you supposed to answer that? Biden answers every day by living it and professing it. Some of the locals out there in DC believe that he wants to kill babies. Religion sometimes keeps us from the Truth. 

You combine that with the power of money — the power to keep Whites fighting Blacks fighting Latinos fighting Asians so nobody wins but the money — and right-wing media that feeds the resentments of people who have been screwed for a half-century, and you can make people crazy enough to try and zip-tie Congress while Trump retains power. 

Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Randy Feenstra did nothing but support Trump while he foamed at the mouth over the Big Steal. Feenstra supported the Big Lie until they nearly tried to string up the vice president. 

But the people in Iowa might be having second thoughts. Those who voted for Trump twice have been quieter since the riot. They were voting for tax cuts, fewer regulations and conservative courts, not this. One of my buddies who wears camo and strokes his rifle like a baby voted for Trump the first time but not a second. Others I know scream and shout about pedophile Democrats. You never know how far some- body is from taking up arms. 

My friend doesn’t know what to do. Who does? 

My law-and-order friend who kept a statuette of Reagan in his office says the deaths of the Capitol police are on Trump. Main Street Republicans like Larry Phillips forsook Trump’s cause years ago. Ultimately, it takes a toll on the party. The Whigs crumbled under nativism and racism and gave way to a new Republican Party that Trump commandeered and tried to use as a vehicle to overthrow the government. It is not the party of Norm Erbe and Bob Ray. Certainly not of Abe Lincoln, who would seek to have Josh Hawley of Missouri removed from the Senate. 

The email lets me know that I am not the crazy one, I hope channeling Jim Benson. Most of us are sane and are committed to a rational order. We have to listen to the screaming to discern what the real grievance is: that their wages have dropped in half, their jobs were pumped out beyond our borders while the rich stashed their winnings tax-free in the Cayman Islands, and you don’t dare eat the fish from the Little Sioux for the pollution. 

The Mexican didn’t take their job, the money did. If you have spent the last 30 years prattling about the Constitution, then you have an obligation to defend Congress against armed assault. I think that’s what Jim Benson would tell them with that smile and phrasing the statement as a query: “Doncha think?” Nobody stole anybody’s vote. Even the Wall Street Journal said so. Lock up the rioters, every one of them. That’s what you say. Now, do you think climate change is real, and do you think that maybe we could start a conversation together about how to protect the Raccoon River and our lake? About how agriculture can be made more prosperous and diverse? About how we can create high-paying jobs in Estherville and Storm Lake with wind and solar power? About how we can make our unemployment system more flexible for the needs of workers and small business? About how we can guarantee civil rights? 

We have to find that center again. Joe Biden knows where it is. That’s where we need to be, all of us, right now. It’s that, or it’s running this rig off the rails. That’s what Jim Benson would say, I think. That’s what we should tell our friends.

Art Cullen is the publisher and editor of The Storm Lake Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 2017.

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