‘I feel very dark’: All is not well in Normal America

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Normal, Illinois: Illinois cheesemaker Ken Ropp has a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving holiday.

When the coronavirus swept across the United States last March, Ropp’s orders collapsed as restaurants and wineries shut their doors. He feared his family dairy farm, which has passed through six generations, may not survive the downturn.

“I remember telling Dad as we were milking cows, ‘I don’t think we’re going to be able to make it through this’,” Ropp says.

Dairy farmer Ken Ropp believes America is adopting a “socialist midset”.

Dairy farmer Ken Ropp believes America is adopting a “socialist midset”.Credit:Julia Rendleman

A few weeks later he received a call from one of the state’s largest food supply companies.

The federal Department of Agriculture had just announced a plan to buy produce from local farmers and distribute it to needy Americans in emergency food hampers. Ropp was invited to supply 40,000 blocks of cheese each fortnight, and he leapt at the offer.

Instead of going under, Ropp was now churning out cheese at an unprecedented rate. Orders soared threefold and he hired extra staff to keep up with demand.

Eighteen months later, business is still booming at his farm on the outskirts of Normal, a town of around 50,000 people in central Illinois. But while the present may be sunny, Ropp sees storm clouds on the horizon.

McLean County board member Josh Barnett.

McLean County board member Josh Barnett. Credit:Julia Rendleman

“I’m in my best financial position in 16 years of making cheese,” he says. “But I’m scared what it’ll be like five, 10 years down the road.”

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age visited Normal to learn how voters in the American heartland feel about the state of the country 10 months into the Biden era.

Thanksgiving, celebrated on Friday (Australian time), was just days away, but gratitude was in short supply. Instead, the overwhelming sentiments were grumpiness and gloom - reflecting the pessimistic national mood. Just 23 per cent of Americans feel satisfied about the state of their country, according to an October Gallup poll, while 75 per cent are dissatisfied.

Crime rates are well below the national average in Normal and, at 4 per cent, the area has the lowest unemployment rate in Illinois.

Crime rates are well below the national average in Normal and, at 4 per cent, the area has the lowest unemployment rate in Illinois.Credit: Julia Rendleman

“People don’t realise how upside down we are right now,” Ropp says. “We’re overstepping our bounds to make people dependent on government. We’re adopting a socialist mindset. There’s a lot of things that scare me.”

Ropp knows his stance may sound hypocritical, given a federal government contract kept his business afloat during the pandemic.

But the self-described conservative firmly believes President Joe Biden is taking the country down a dangerous road – from the soaring national debt to the surge of undocumented immigrants at the US-Mexico border, to school teachers pushing “far left” views on their students.

‘The laughingstock of the world’

Residents in many parts of America have obvious reasons to be glum: decaying towns where manufacturing jobs have moved to China and opioid addiction is rampant; economically depressed inner cities where gun violence is a daily threat.

That’s not the case in Normal. Crime rates are well below the national average and, at 4 per cent, the area has the lowest unemployment rate in the state of Illinois.

The presence of several large insurance companies and a public university has provided a steady stream of well-paid, white-collar jobs. And manufacturing jobs are returning rather than vanishing: electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian picked Normal to be the home of its first US manufacturing plant, bringing national media attention to the town.

For all these good points, Mitzi Bell, a 44-year-old daycare worker and Uber driver, detects an increased aggressiveness in the way locals treat each other.

“You used to be able to go to the grocery store without people fighting over parking spots,” she says.

“People are nastier than they used to be; they feel more comfortable being outright rude. I’m a white mum with a black daughter and I get more dirty looks now.

“The whole culture of us being cordial and respectful to each other is deteriorating and that’s really sad.”

Bell describes herself as a political independent who is willing to vote for either party. She voted for Biden in the last election because she was desperate to see Donald Trump – a “nasty, ego-driven man” – kicked out of office.

While she’s glad Trump is no longer in the White House she is disappointed in Biden’s performance.

“I had a glimmer of hope when Biden was elected, but he hasn’t really done anything,” Bell says. It’s an alarming verdict given only days earlier Biden had signed into law America’s biggest infrastructure spending bill in decades.

Just 43 per cent of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average – a dramatic 10 percentage point drop since July. The most notable decline has been among independent voters like Bell. In February, 61 per cent of independents approved of the job Biden was doing; by October that had plummeted to 34 per cent.

Despite the shift from Trump to Biden, Bell says America remains “the laughingstock of the world”.

Lower crime rates, more jobs: Welcome to Normal, Illinois.

Lower crime rates, more jobs: Welcome to Normal, Illinois.Credit:Julia Rendleman

‘China will be number one’

Just like Ken Ropp’s dairy farm, Fort Jesse Café, a popular breakfast and lunch spot in Normal, is thriving.

But chef and co-owner Chris Bradley is battling the same challenges as business owners across the country. Inflation is at a 30-year high in America, meaning the cost of everything from plastic takeaway containers to bacon has jumped dramatically. Then there are the supply chain blockages.

“We don’t know what produce we will be able to get week to week,” Bradley says. “It’s been frustrating. Every restaurant in town is dealing with that.”

There’s much to celebrate about the American economy right now. Unemployment benefit claims this week hit their lowest levels in 50 years and consumer spending is strong. But just 35 per cent of Americans say the national economy is good while 65 per cent say it is poor, according to an Associated Press poll this month.

“The gas [petrol] price is skyrocketing, food is more expensive, the price of everything is going up,” Michelle Lee, a 66-year-old tax office employee, says as she eats a shrimp po boy with her daughter. In October Illinois petrol prices surged to $US3.41 ($4.75) a gallon, their highest level since 2014.

“I voted for Biden, but I’m sorry I did,” Lee says. “America has lost its power and place where it used to be. China is going to be number one.”

Housekeeper Tawauna Melton, 46, agrees. “I’m disappointed and a lot of people are feeling the same. Things could be going a lot better.”

Josh Barnett also voted for Biden, despite being an elected Republican member of the local council. Barnett is a classic “never Trumper”, the small cohort of Republicans who recoiled at the former president’s policies and personality.

Despite Trump’s election loss last year, he still looms over American politics as the figurehead of the Republican Party and a potential 2024 presidential candidate.

“This time is so critical to get the country back on track, to get the heart and soul of the nation back to where it needs to be.”

Josh Barnett, local councillor

“I feel very dark,” Barnett says. “The Republican Party has lost its soul and I question whether it will ever get it back.”

Although he admires Biden he believes Democrats in Congress are “floundering”, increasing the likelihood that Trump (or a Trump-like candidate) will win office in 2024.

“This time is so critical to get the country back on track, to get the heart and soul of the nation back to where it needs to be. It’s a small window of time and it’s closing fast.”

Still looms large: Donald Trump at a rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, in 2018.

Still looms large: Donald Trump at a rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, in 2018.Credit:AP

Fellow Republican A.B Farrington, a manager at a local tire factory, is more representative of the modern Republican base. She believes Trump’s election fraud conspiracies – “A lot of dead people voted,” she says – and thinks governments are using the coronavirus as a “control mechanism” against their citizens.

“Biden has undone things that were working out of sheer hatred for the previous president,” she says, citing his dismantling of Trump’s tough border policies.

“I think our country is in turmoil and we’re going down quickly.”

‘Unfathomable anger’

Over his 32 years teaching social studies at Normal Community High School, Kelly Keogh prided himself on keeping his personal beliefs out of the classroom.

Kelly Keogh, a social studies teacher at Normal Community High School:  “Never has it been so vitriolic. The anger that is out there is unfathomable”.

Kelly Keogh, a social studies teacher at Normal Community High School: “Never has it been so vitriolic. The anger that is out there is unfathomable”.Credit:Julia Rendleman

“Our job is to get kids to think for themselves, we’re not there for indoctrination,” he says. “Until Trump I held my cards very close to the vest – my students were always saying, ‘We can’t tell if you’re a Republican or a Democrat’.”

But when neo-Nazis stormed through the streams of Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 he felt compelled to call out the then-president for not denouncing the white supremacists forcefully enough.

“I never thought in my life I would have to say to my students that Nazis are bad and there are not ‘good people on both sides’,” he says. “There are certain things when you can’t stand back and be a bystander.”

During the Herald and The Age’s visit to his ninth grade world history lesson, Keogh draws an explicit link between Trump’s efforts to use the “big lie” of election fraud to stay in office and Adolph Hitler’s use of the stab-in-the-back myth – the belief that Germany did not actually lose on the battlefield in World War I – to seize power in the 1930s.

Mirroring the toxicity of national politics, Keogh has watched as school board meetings have become increasingly heated and politicised as conservative parents rail against mask rules, sex education and the teaching of “critical race theory”.

“Never has it been so vitriolic,” he says. “The anger that is out there is unfathomable.”

Keogh is about to retire from teaching at the end of this school year, a milestone that prompts a sombre reflection on America.

“As an educator I wish I could say the world has become a more peaceful place and that our country has progressed,” he says. “But I’m leaving and the country is more polarised than ever and authoritarianism is on the march. It’s sad for me personally. I feel like I could have done more.”

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