Travels with right-wing nuts: My road trip on Route GOP with Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann

One liberal, three GOP strongholds: What a drive through Ryan and Bachmann country says about America right now

Published December 8, 2013 12:00PM (EST)

Michele Bachmann, Paul Ryan                      (Jeff Malet ( Scott Applewhite/Salon)
Michele Bachmann, Paul Ryan (Jeff Malet ( Scott Applewhite/Salon)

Janesville is boring.

It’s Nov. 4, just after 11 a.m. The sky is the color of steel, the air hibernal. I’m walking past Rep. Paul Ryan’s district office. Except for some people waiting for a bus, there’s nobody else outside.

I’ve come here from Chicago on a sort of anthropological mission: Over the next four days, I’ll see Paul Ryan’s congressional district in southern Wisconsin, Michele Bachmann’s district in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, and Steve King’s district in western Iowa – a 1,200 mile drive across the Midwest in search of the region’s secrets. I’m not sure what I expect to find, but I hope visiting these places, and trying to understand them, will shed some light on the political right wing currently waging war on the federal government — or at least paint a portrait of the culture they were birthed from.

Tall order for a road trip, I know.

Ryan’s Janesville office is wildly unassuming, considering the breadth of his influence. Elected to the House in 1998, he rose to national prominence in 2011 when he became chairman of the House Budget Committee, and quarterbacked the GOP's much-loathed 2012 budget proposal — seeking to slash government programs and repeal the Affordable Care Act, while of course leaving Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy untouched. Though the Ryan Budget proved unpopular with the American public, it instantly became the right’s economic blueprint, catapulting the representative from Wisconsin’s 1st district to A-list status in the GOP.

Ryan became the party’s fastest-rising star since She Who Must Not Be Named – a young, attractive conservative who was able to translate the right’s addled rage into measured, level-sounding politico-speak. When the party needed someone to give a shot of adrenaline to Mitt Romney’s beige presidential bid, they tapped Ryan. And his home office is right here, on the main drag of a suburban city, just down the block from an Edible Arrangements and a sports bar.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. People casually sporting tri-cornered hats? Mobs burning copies of the Nation and Mother Jones?

I’m from Illinois, which means virtually every vacation I ever took as a kid was to Wisconsin. Janesville, where you still see Bears flags outside some of the houses, isn’t all that different from the area near Chicago I grew up in. It’s mostly white, middle-class and – in true Midwest fashion – completely unassuming. The streets are tree-lined, the pavement a mosaic of autumn leaves. The houses are old and still cobwebbed from Halloween. Occasionally, you’ll see a "PROUD UNION HOME" sign in a front-room window or a car with a "ROMNEY 2012" bumper sticker, but that’s about it for overt political gestures.

The town is hilly and the hills are real climbers. Big parks are verdant even in mid-fall. Bars and restaurants and churches and strip malls; there’s nothing about Janesville that particularly jumps out at you, but that’s sort of the point. Places like this are retreats from metropolitan stimulation, the buzz of the city traded for the halcyon still-frame of suburbia. Janesville is boring, but kind of on purpose.

It is, above all else, comfortable.

* * *

People in the country drive like assholes. City drivers have a reputation for being aggressive, but this is of a different kind entirely. The city’s aggressive drivers squeeze in front of you in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or blaze past the evening commute on the shoulder of a highway. It’s all part of the Busy Professional self-centeredness thing that leads people to talk on their cellphones while ordering at Starbucks, or convert their train seats into mobile offices. In short, it's all about getting there quicker and filling in the quiet moments of the day with some form of stimulation. The country’s aggressive drivers, on the other hand, all but bully you with their vehicles, which seem bigger and more threatening out here. They ride your tail relentlessly but don’t pass when you slow down. For miles, snarling pickups match my speed, close enough in my rearview to see the creases on the face of each driver.

I’m not actually positive this is the country, though. It’s entirely possible it just seems like the country to my untrained eye. I once worked as a reporter for a newspaper in a small town about 70 miles southwest of Chicago, and told everybody I worked in Central Illinois. People I grew up with from the Chicago area would invariably take this at face value, but people who were actually from Central Illinois — small towns etched into map-flat fields of corn and soybean — would invariably laugh me off. That’s not Central Illinois, they’d say. I might as well have been working in the Loop.

Anyway, it feels to me like the middle of nowhere, even though I can’t be more than an hour away from Milwaukee.  I pass through towns like Darien (pop: 1,580), which appear like a Bruce Springsteen song: two rows of old storefronts whose main drag terminates into two huge grain elevators. The road twines through expansive farmland; this is dairy country and cows are everywhere. They lay on their stomachs in an almost-feline way, with their front legs tucked underneath them and their back legs sprawled to the side. An old wives’ tale holds that a pasture of supine cows portends a coming rainstorm. Explanations abound, ranging from the semi-anthropomorphic (cows lie down to claim a dry patch of grass) to the dubiously scientific (something about the pores in their legs), but only the most deeply superstitious really give them weight. Still, the cows are lying down as I listen to predictions of heavy rain across the region, so perhaps our bovine meteorologists are onto something.

Every town I pass through feels more or less the same. Each features a bucolic downtown hub surrounded by strip malls, chain restaurants and big box stores. In one sense, the sameness is sort of depressing: Nothing, you realize, is as unique as you think it is. And yet, another part of me feels an odd comfort in the familiarity — the sense that, no matter where you go, you’re never too far from a place that feels kind of like home.

* * *

I’m staying with my friend Guillermo in Madison tonight. One of my best friends since high school, he’s getting his master's at University of Wisconsin — a full-on Wisconsin resident now — which still seems surreal to me. By 25, I no longer bat an eye when save-the-dates arrive in the mail, but seeing the out-of-state driver’s licenses of childhood friends still weirds me out. Long-term monogamous relationships, I’m used to. People I grew up with slowly morphing into Seattle Seahawks fans? That I am not.

As a liberal, I’ve always loved Madison, even if it's probably coasting to some degree on the lefty bona fides it earned during the '60s. In many ways, it's similar to San Francisco and Greenwich Village — places that once served as the center of counterculture, then gradually became bubbles for wealthier white liberals to live in. It’s still a progressive city — still a hub of progressive thought — but it no longer feels like a place of progressive action. This is an important distinction.

I could be completely wrong, though. In 2011, 100,000 people descended on the Capitol building here to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union budget plan. It was a losing battle, but they fought it hard. I’m standing outside the Capitol building now. Night’s fallen, and under the ink-black sky, the lit rotunda is indescribably beautiful. It’s the tallest building in Madison — a city ordinance forbids any structure within a mile from being taller — and atop its central dome is perched the “Golden Lady” statue, looking down over the city and pointing forward, into the future.

* * *

Tuesday, 8 a.m. Two hours on I-90 so far, northwest toward the Minnesota border. It’s cold and sunless and foggy enough that seeing the car immediately ahead becomes somewhat difficult. I’m approaching a billboard for an adult store, which promises to make “it” better. That the pronoun “it” is just understood to mean “sex” says a lot about our culture, doesn’t it? The French have la petite mort, which is plenty aggrandizing in its own right, but at least it’s poetic. “It,” simultaneously concealing the subject and putting it on a pedestal, makes us sound like a country of randy teenagers. Which I suppose isn't that far off.

Adult stores are advertised with great frequency out on the highway. The road is lonely, and it’s easy to view sex as the ultimate panacea to loneliness. It’s connection with another person. It takes you outside yourself. That’s what makes it a “little death” — for its duration, you cease to exist.

Obviously, though, adult video emporiums aren’t selling you sex – they’re selling you the idea of sex. The idea of connection, of getting away from yourself. We’ve put so many constructs in place to stave off loneliness: We check our email on our cellphones, engage constantly on social media. I sometimes wonder if we installed radios in our cars not to eliminate boredom, but to keep the quiet at bay, afraid of what we might find in the solitude.

* * *

Driving gives a person plenty of time to think about what they believe in.

I believe, for one, in compromise. I believe liberals and conservatives agree on more than we realize, and that much of today’s hyper-partisanship stems from our having retreated into the comfort of our own camps, where if we’re liberal we can watch MSNBC or if we’re conservative we can watch Fox, and each listen all day to opinions we already agree with. I believe that, for the most part, people are good and want what’s best for the country we all love, but have different approaches to solving our most complex problems, that we would find common ground through respectful, sober discussion. I believe getting out of our comfort zones, and not just dismissing the other side as evil or crazy, would move the country forward.

But what if the other side doesn’t want to compromise? What if they’ve actually campaigned on a refusal to compromise? And what if someone’s views aren’t just different than yours, but abhorrent, or just plain silly?

This is what I decided to call the Bachmann Conundrum.

Michele Bachmann, since her election to Congress in 2006, has been a greatest-hits collection of outrageous right-wing talking points. She doesn’t believe in global warming, arguing that carbon dioxide is a “harmless gas.” She also shamelessly traffics in race-tinged paranoia: In 2008, she was concerned then-candidate Barack Obama "may have anti-American views"; and in 2012, she suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood had begun a "deep penetration into the halls of our United States government." And of course, she’s a career homophobe, terming homosexuality “personal enslavement” and “sexual anarchy.”

Where do you start coming to a compromise with someone who believes homosexuality is a disorder and opposed anti-bullying legislation on the grounds that there have always been bullies and to legislate against it would force “boys to be girls”?

That's the Bachmann Conundrum.

* * *

Minnesota’s 6thCongressional District covers the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities. The district is upwards of 95 percent white and largely middle- to upper-middle class. If you’ve seen a suburb you’ve seen these. Historic downtowns surrounded by a sprawl of car dealerships, office parks, malls. Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart – the same stores as Wisconsin and Illinois, and everywhere else for that matter. Stately old houses, ugly cookie-cutter subdivisions. Nothing particularly mesmerizing about them.

Bachmann’s district office is in her hometown of Anoka, about half an hour north of Minneapolis.  People here, like everywhere I visit during the course of the trip, tend not to volunteer their deepest-held political opinions to random passersby, such as myself, in the middle of their daily routines.

I meet both Republicans and Democrats, and ask general questions about their views on national politics. Sample response: “They all need to grow up.”

And yet, despite disenchantment with politicians as a whole, gentle prodding frequently reveals partisan sentiments lurking below the surface.  People all seem to want the same things – fairness, stability – but often have different ideas about what those qualities entail, and what sorts of legislation can steer us there. In settings where they feel comfortable talking politics, people occasionally give off the affect of talking points. Still, most of those I encounter — say, at a gas station in Ham’s Lake, Minn. — politely inform me:

“I’d prefer not to be interviewed.”

In Anoka, folks are much more keen to discuss Halloween. The town bills itself as the “Halloween Capital of the World,” and features Halloween iconography on its permanent signage. Houses are still completely decked out nearly a week into November, which is all – needless to say – extremely cool.

Michele Bachmann, it turns out, hails from the Halloween Capital of the World.

A coffee shop owner tells me the town earned its distinction by hosting what apparently was America’s first Halloween parade in 1920. As the story goes, some local civic leaders were brainstorming a way to keep the youth of Anoka free of mischief, and decided that a structured celebration would cut down on pranks and vandalism. The strategy worked, and now the yearly celebration has grown to include two parades, a house-decorating contest, and a slew of other events relating to the holiday.

"You missed out on all the decorations," a lady who works at the coffee shop tells me as she prepares a sandwich. Above my head, ghoulish figures are still dangling on wires from the ceiling.

"I don’t know," I say. "Looks like you guys are still pretty good on the decorations."

"No," she says, looking up from the cutting board, "you missed it, believe me. This is nothing."

* * *

It’s 1:45 p.m. when I leave Bachmann’s district. Tonight, I’m staying in Sioux City — Steve King's home base — which means I’ve got another five hours of driving ahead of me. A soft rain is falling. The sky is already dimming into dusk.

King isn’t nearly the star Ryan or Bachmann are, but you probably know a few things about him. One is that he defended Todd Akin after the “legitimate rape” fiasco. Another is that he’s called racial profiling “an important component of legitimate law enforcement.” Yet another is that, during the 2008 presidential campaign, he was the dude who questioned “the optics” of Barack Obama's election as president. Radical Islamists, King claimed, would be “dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11.”

You get the idea. Dude is a Grade-A jackass.

I’m getting tired. The novelty of listening to the Replacements while driving through their home state has worn off, and I’m bored of all my other music. I’m bored of driving. All I want is to have a beer and watch TV in my hotel room. Maybe go for a run. Anything to get out of the car.

Suddenly, I realize the rain has turned to snow. It begins imperceptibly, but within a few minutes the fields are coated in a thin layer of white.

You get used to snow when living in Illinois. People there will tell you about going sledding off the roof of their house, or shoveling their way out their front door. Chicago winters like to start — a couple inches here and there, weeks of blustering cold — and then, sometime in late February or March, just when you think you see the light at the end of the tunnel, a blizzard approaches. We had one a few years ago that basically shut down the state for days. Nicknames for the storm quickly accumulated – Snowmaggedon, Snowpacalypse – but my personal favorite was Snowtorious B.I.G. Point is, our winters are long and brutal, and you learn to deal with it.

Still, the idea of snow in the first week of November is insane. And it’s falling harder, and accumulating fast on the windshield. I scan the radio for a weather report. Eighty snowplows have been dispatched in Southwest Minnesota and drivers a county ahead of me are apparently already finding themselves stuck.

A storm is moving in, and I’m heading right at it.

Fifty miles more on I-90, followed by 100 on MN-60. My estimated arrival time, measured of course by iPhone app, goes from 7:15 to 7:30 to 8:00 to 9:00 as the conditions slow my pace. Meanwhile, it gets harder and harder to see. Turning on the high beams only makes the snow into an opaque wall. Wind blows it across the road and obscures the exit signs.

It occurs to me that I could die out here.

I think about death a lot. Probably more than a healthy 25-year-old should. Always wondering how it’s going to happen, and when. But this is different. This is actual danger. The snow is falling hard. The roads are unplowed. Save for the occasional semi speeding by, there are almost no other cars out here. I’m alone – I literally don’t know anybody for 300 miles. I’m scared shitless.

It’s easily the worst weather I’ve ever driven through, made all the worse by its unexpectedness. I can barely make out the bend of the road ahead of me, so I’m using my iPhone as a guide. I’m a pilot, flying on instruments; I’m tired, but I’ve never been more awake.

It goes like this for another two hours.

Then, about 40 miles outside Sioux City, conditions begin to improve. The roads are still untrustworthy, slick with slush, but I’m able to go 40 mph, then 45, then 50. I arrive in Sioux City around 9:30, feeling sort of invincible.

It’s weird how much being around people makes a difference. On the highway, unable even to see houses out in the distance, you experience loneliness in a wholly new way: In the absence of other humans, you almost feel like you don’t exist. Arriving in a town, past bars and restaurants still crowded with people, it grounds you.

I tell the guy at the check-in counter about the snow.

"Oh man," he says. "Same thing happened to me, once. Snowstorm on my way from Minneapolis. It’s hell."

We compare notes on snow-driving for a few minutes, and then he hands me my room key.

"Well," he says, "I’m glad you made it alive."

I know the whole dying thing is a little hyperbolic. But still, I want to give this guy a fucking bear hug.

* * *

It’s a cold, windy morning in Sioux City. Eighty-thousand people live here, but none seem to be downtown at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. The streets are eerily empty of both people and cars. My body feels as though it’s been run over by a cement mixer, and I desperately want coffee, but 15 minutes of walking yields nothing but discouragement. Eventually, I give up and go to a Starbucks, where I purchase the exact same coffee I bought before leaving Chicago.

The scenery doesn’t change all that much in 700 miles of driving. Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa – it doesn’t really matter. You still get the same K-Mart and Kohl’s and Old Navy. Strip malls and chains have diminished local cultures. The cultures are still there, obviously — it’s just that you don’t really have to engage with them if you don’t want to, the same way you don’t have to engage with facts or opinions you don’t want to engage with. We can stay in our comfortable bubbles, safe from the world outside.

Maybe that seems overly dramatic, but I think there’s something important in the enumeration of generic chains that exist throughout America. Taken one by one, they don’t seem that interesting – just as it’s not particularly interesting to listen to one stranger recite a generic talking point. But over the course of all those miles, there’s a kind of rhythm that develops, and with it comes the realization that maybe what makes any of it distinctive is how generic it all is. And that maybe these divisive figures — the Bachmanns and Ryans and Kings of the world — didn’t emerge from these places in spite of the banality, but because of it.

It seems to me that much of American life has become generic: The arid strip malls that barnacle this country's towns don’t seem too unlike the rote political talking points put forth by the lamest pontificators in the media and the biggest hacks on the Beltway. We buy it all — from routine tuna sandwiches to the chorus of “cut taxes and spending” – because there’s comfort in the familiarity. Or maybe not comfort, but the idea of comfort. Comfort is the hand of a loved one on your shoulder. It’s the deserved respite from life’s labors. It’s home.

The idea of comfort is the spurious confirmation that the way you view the world is without a doubt right.

And I could be wrong, but it seems like comfort and convenience are increasingly pervasive forces in American politics. On the right, the idea of shared sacrifice (“Ask not what your country can do for you …”) has devolved into what seems to me an every-man-for-himself kind of attitude.

On all sides, it seems the notion of intellectual disagreements has devolved into the kind of comfortable Good vs. Bad assumption we were supposed to have shrugged off through postmodern relativism. Which isn’t to say there aren’t Bad arguments or Wrong arguments (see: the Bachmann Conundrum) — there are and we mustn’t pussyfoot around them – only that it seems to me that most of our political debates don’t have to be colossal battles for the soul of this country, but discussions about where to draw the line on the lengthy spectrum of conservative and liberal.

Something else that seems true: No places are purely local anymore. Everything is part of the national dialogue, everything implying something larger. Iowa Public Radio is going over the results of yesterday’s elections. Consensus seems to be that it was a victory for moderation, with hard-line Tea Party candidate Ken Cuccinelli losing the gubernatorial race in Virginia and more pragmatic Chris Christie winning another term as governor of New Jersey in a landslide. All day, every media outlet is trying to extrapolate larger meaning from local races.

The most bizarre story of the day comes out of Coralville, Iowa – a suburb of Iowa City. It’s a completely normal town of less than 19,000 people. It’s got its hot button municipal issues – sizable debt, a controversial TIF development – but it is a totally pleasant, unmemorable place. And yet, the Mayor-elect John Lundell received a congratulatory phone call from Vice President Joe Biden upon his victory. Why? Because, as it turns out, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity had been pouring money into the mayoral race, trying to sway the vote with an aggressive campaign that called Coralville “Iowa’s version of Detroit.”

The Johnson County auditor, in a recap in University of Iowa’s student newspaper the Daily Iowan, said the Kochs' machinations “unsettled a lot of the local people, so they decided to get out and vote” — which seems to parallel the way residents of small towns across America protest the arrival of Wal-Marts in town, for fear it’ll drive out local business.

All politics is national.

* * *

I’m standing in a balloon field in Indianola, Iowa. Every year, Sen. Tom Harkin holds his steak fry “meat and greet” here – an event he’s been putting on annually since 1972 that’s basically a who’s who of democratic politics.

In the fall of 2007, I saw President Obama speak here. He and the other democratic hopefuls, who had set up camp in Iowa for caucus season, were the guests of honor at the steak fry, and I’d somehow acquired tickets.

It seems maybe too cinematic to have really played as such, but this is what I remember: We were all just standing there — hot and bored, complaining that Dennis Kucinich hadn’t been invited — when all a sudden we heard a chant coming over a short hill in the distance, drawing closer: Fired up! Ready to go! Fired up! Ready to go!

They were Obama people, more numerous, organized and energetic than any of the other candidates’ supporters. It was instantly clear in that moment Obama was going to get the nomination. You could feel his momentum. He seemed like the antidote to the cynicism that had spread through the country. He promised a new era in Washington, our nation scrubbed clean of the polarization and spin and alienating double-talk that had been festering for years.

He appealed to my liberal leanings, but believed also in compromise — that old word we’d been told in grade school was the foundation of democracy, but which had somehow fallen from our lexicon in the years since. He was an intellectual: calm, collected, No Drama Obama. But he was also an activist, a community organizer who spent three years fighting on behalf of those who needed fighting for.

Here, six years later, I’m not sure what to think. I’d be lying if I said his presidency hasn’t disappointed me. But Obama’s not the entire government. There’s a whole bunch of people on the other side of the aisle who have staked their political reputations on saying to-mah-to every time the president says to-may-to. The process is slow-moving, anyway: Political sausage-making has yet to catch up to the endless news cycle and On-Demand culture that have trained us to expect change now, or yesterday.

I don’t trust any of my feelings toward the president. I don’t trust my disappointment because I don’t know if I’m frustrated with the process or with him. But I also don’t trust my liking the guy because so many of my feelings are wrapped up in that day at the steak fry when I decided to let go of my cynicism and believe; to admit he’s not different than any other president would also be to say my idealism was misguided. I’m not sure what will stick in his legacy years from now. What of this we’ll remember and what we’ll forget. About the only thing that’s clear is that the momentum is gone, vanished with the hope of a new era that felt not like a wish, but a belief.

* * *

I’m driving home.

Northeast Iowa is gorgeous. The state has a reputation for being flat and dull, but nearing the Mississippi the road twists through massive hills and steep bluffs.

On the outskirts of some unmemorable little town, I pass a house with a homemade billboard on the lawn. "FREE MARKETS, NOT FREELOADERS," it reads. "VOTE REPUBLICAN." A complicated economic debate reduced to six words. Even Hemingway would have trouble with that. I want to be angry, but mostly it just makes me sad.

“We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought,” John F. Kennedy remarked in a commencement address at Yale in 1962. And perhaps the point is this: A little discomfort is necessary to successful democracy. To compromise. To understand where people are coming from.

It’s natural to want to live in the simplified world of right and wrong, good and bad, smart and stupid. It’s more comfortable that way. But comfort maintains the status quo. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily – being comfortable. But the wrong kind of comfort can be an impediment to empathy, which I would posit is the first step in any kind of political change or compromise. Maybe that’s obvious without driving 1,200 miles – I don’t know. But for me, four days of driving served as a needed reminder that, like anything, the most honest opinions we carry with us are those we earned.

By Eric Lutz


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