Michael Holmes

I’m sitting in the back of a cramped car packed with luggage as we cross the state border into Ohio. On every side, we’re surrounded by wide open spaces dotted with trees, cows and farmhouses, with not so much as a hill in sight. It’s nothing like anything I’ve ever seen before, having lived my whole life on the northeast coast.

“Wow, Ohio. The true home of the American dream,” someone says sarcastically, snapping me out of my reverie.

In a way, however, they’re right — the idea of the American Dream seems to be particularly strong in the industrial Midwest region. Driving through the Rust Belt, one cannot help but notice the dilapidated factories and near-abandoned towns that plague its manufacturing regions. The ideal that hard work and perseverance can lead to success and prosperity is necessary to combat the draining hope in the area as industries decline and populations plummet.

This attitude makes the Midwest a very different place from the Northeast coast. While people on the Northeast coast certainly stress the value of hard work — indeed, the stereotype of Americans as overly hard working is consistent throughout the United States — most coastal areas are not fighting against a turning tide of production. As a result, the American Dream itself is usually better fulfilled in this region. The desperation the Midwest feels as it clings to the American Dream in the hope that it may one day be fulfilled, despite all the signs that point otherwise, is unique to that area, and is something entirely alien to the typical “coastal elite.”

The people living in the failing Rust Belt do not see themselves as impoverished, but rather as people who have the potential to be rich, but have somehow fallen down on their luck. After all, the American Dream tells them that if they work hard enough, they will be able to achieve prosperity, so if they haven’t yet, then eventually they will. But as industry continues to flee the Midwest, this dream continues to evade their grasp. Since Midwesterners continue to persevere and work hard in order to achieve the prosperity that they so deserve, they believe that it cannot be their fault that they have failed to achieve their aspirations; instead, it must be the fault of the government itself — the very organization that is supposed to ensure this American Dream for its people.

This frustration with the establishment for failing the region was, for a very long time, exacerbated by politicians’ apparent disregard for the struggles of the industrial Midwest. The elites’ almost determined negligence eventually led the people of the Rust Belt to resent the traditional structure of American politics. If it did not care about them, why should they care about it? If it did not support them, then why should they support its continued existence?

This is why President Donald Trump had such a powerful impact on this area during the 2016 election. Not only did he address the foundation of the Rust Belt’s resentment by promising to bring back industry that would allow for the fulfillment of the American Dream, he also addressed industrial Midwesterners’ complaints regarding what they viewed as a corrupt political structure, vowing to “drain the swamp” and create a government that would address the grievances aimed at it. Whether or not he has actually addressed these issues in his presidential term, his willingness to discuss them and promises to resolve them finally addressed the problems faced by the Rust Belt.

In 2008, Barack Obama won the primary Rust Belt states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In 2012, only Indiana went red. But in 2016, every single one of these Rust Belt states, excluding Illinois, went to Trump. If Clinton had maintained these states for the Democrats, she would have won the election. Trump’s campaign promises finally catered to a group of people who had long felt excluded — and it worked.

As midterm elections approach, and we prepare to elect a new generation of Congressmen and Congresswomen, it is important to keep this dynamic in mind. We cannot continue to ignore the people living in the Rust Belt — they have fully demonstrated their political influence. Just like everyone else in America, they deserve the American Dream, and it is up to us to ensure they get it.

Jake Kalodner jake.kalodner@yale.edu