Normal, Illinois: Illinois cheesemaker Ken Ropp has a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday.
When coronavirus swept across the United States last March, Ropp’s orders collapsed as restaurants and wineries closed their doors. He feared that his family dairy farm, which has been going through six generations, might not survive the downturn.
“I remember saying to Dad when we milked cows, ‘I do not think we’re going to make it,’ ‘Ropp said.
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 purchase products from local farmers and distribute them to distressed Americans in an emergency. Ropp was invited to deliver 40,000 blocks of cheese every fortnight, and he jumped at the offer.
Instead of going under, Ropp was now in the process of grinding cheese out at an unprecedented pace. Orders rose three times and he hired extra staff to keep up with demand.
Eighteen months later, business is still booming on his farm on the outskirts of Normal, a town of about 50,000 people in central Illinois. But while the present may be sunny, Ropp sees storm clouds on the horizon.
“I’m in my best financial situation for 16 years making cheese,” he says. “But I’m afraid of how it will be five, 10 years later.”
Sydney Morning Herald and Aging visited Normal to learn how voters in the American heartland are doing with the state of the country 10 months inside the Biden era.
Thanksgiving, celebrated on Friday (Australian time), was only a few days away, but gratitude was in short supply. Instead, the overwhelming emotions were grumpiness and gloom – reflecting the pessimistic national mood. Only 23 percent of Americans feel satisfied with their country’s condition, according to a October Gallup poll, while 75 percent are dissatisfied.
“People are not aware of where on our heads we are right now,” Ropp says. “We are exceeding our limits to make people dependent on the government. We adopt a socialist mindset. There are many things that scare me.”
Ropp knows his stance may sound hypocritical as a federal government contract kept his business afloat during the pandemic.
But the self-proclaimed Conservative is convinced that President Joe Biden is leading the country down a dangerous path – from rising government debt to the wave of undocumented immigrants on the US-Mexico border, to schoolteachers pushing “far-left” views on their students.
‘The World’s Laughter Game’
Residents in many parts of America have obvious reasons to be gloomy: dilapidated cities where production jobs have moved to China and opioid dependence is widespread; economically depressed inner cities, where gun violence is a daily threat.
This is not the case in Normal. Crime rates are well below the national average, and the area has the lowest unemployment rate in the state of Illinois at 4 percent.
The presence of several large insurance companies and a public university has provided a steady stream of well-paid, salaried employees. And production jobs return instead of disappearing: Electric car maker Rivian chose Normal to be home to its first U.S. manufacturing plant, bringing national media attention to the city.
Despite all these good points, Mitzi Bell, a 44-year-old daycare worker and Uber driver, discovers 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 spaces,” she says.
“People are worse than they used to be; they feel more secure by being directly rude. I’m a white mom with a black daughter and I look more dirty now.
“The whole culture of being cordial and respectful of each other is getting worse, and it’s really sad.”
Bell describes himself as a politically independent who is willing to vote for both parties. She voted for Biden in the last election because she was desperate to see Donald Trump – a “naughty, ego-driven man” – fired.
Although she’s happy that Trump is no longer in the White House, she’s disappointed with 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 handed down just days earlier, Biden had signed on to America’s biggest bill for infrastructure spending in decades.
Only 43 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance according to FiveThirtyEight poll average – a dramatic drop of 10 percentage points since July. The most notable decline has been among independent voters like Bell. In February, 61 percent of independents approved the job Biden performed; in October, which had plunged to 34 per cent.
Despite the shift from Trump to Biden, Bell says America remains “the world’s for laughs”.
‘China becomes number one’
Like Ken Ropp’s dairy farm, Fort Jesse Café, a popular breakfast and lunch spot in Normal, thrives.
But chef and co-owner Chris Bradley is facing the same challenges as business owners across the country. Inflation is at its highest in 30 years in America, meaning the price of everything from plastic takeaway containers to bacon has risen dramatically. Then there are blockages in the supply chain.
“We do not know what products we will be able to get week to week,” Bradley says. “It’s been frustrating. All the restaurants in town are dealing with it.”
There is a lot to celebrate about the US economy right now. Applications for unemployment benefits this week have hit the lowest level in 50 years, and consumer consumption is strong. But only 35 percent of Americans say the national economy is good, while 65 percent say it is bad, according to an Associated Press survey this month.
“Gases [petrol] the price goes up, the food is more expensive, the price of everything goes up, ”says Michelle Lee, a 66-year-old tax office employee, while eating a shrimp pod boy with her daughter. In October, Illinois gasoline prices rose to $ 3.41 ($ 4.75) per barrel. gallon, the highest level since 2014.
“I voted for Biden, but I’m sorry I did,” Lee says. “America has lost its power and the place it used to be. China wants to be number one.”
Housekeeper Tawauna Melton, 46, agrees. “I’m disappointed and a lot of people feel the same way. Things could go a lot better.”
Josh Barnett also voted for Biden, despite being an elected Republican member of the local council. Barnett is a classic “Never Trumps,” the small cohort of Republicans who gave way to the former president’s politics and personality.
Despite Trump’s election loss last year, he still rages over American politics as the galleon figure for the Republican Party and a potential presidential candidate in 2024.
“This time is so crucial to getting the country back on track, to getting the nation’s heart and soul back to where it needs to be.”
Josh Barnett, City Council Member
“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 “cheating,” increasing the likelihood that Trump (or a Trump-like candidate) will win office in 2024.
“This time is so crucial to getting the country back on track, to getting the nation’s heart and soul back to where it needs to be. It’s a small time window and it’s closing fast.”
Fellow Republican AB Farrington, a manager at a local tire factory, is more representative of the modern Republican base. She believes in Trump’s election fraud conspiracies – “Many dead people voted,” she says – and believes that governments use the coronavirus as a “control mechanism” against their citizens.
“Biden has regretted things that seemed out of sheer hatred of the former president,” she says, referring to his settlement of Trump’s tough border policy.
“I think our country is in turmoil and we are going down fast.”
During her 32 years as a social studies teacher at Normal Community High School, Kelly Keogh was proud to keep her personal beliefs out of the classroom.
“Our job is to get children to think for themselves, we are not there for indoctrination,” he says. “Until Trump, I kept my cards very close to the West – my students always said, ‘We can not see if you are a Republican or a Democrat.'”
But as neo-Nazis stormed through the streams of Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 he felt compelled to shout at the then president for not condemning the white supremacists strongly enough.
“I never thought in my life that I would tell my students that Nazis are bad and that there are no ‘good people on both sides,'” he says. “There are certain things when you can not stand back and be a spectator.”
Below Herald and AgingKeogh’s visit to his ninth-grade world history lesson, Keogh draws an explicit link between Trump’s efforts to use the “big lie” about election fraud to stay in office and Adolf Hitler’s use of the stick-in-the-back myth – the belief that Germany does not lost on the battlefield in World War I – to seize power in the 1930s.
As a reflection of the toxicity of national politics, Keogh has seen how school board meetings have become more and more heated and politicized, while conservative parents rage against mask rules, sex education and teaching “critical race theory”.
“Never has it been so cruel,” he says. “The anger that is out there is unfathomable.”
Keogh is retiring from teaching at the end of this school year, a milestone that gives rise to a gloomy reflection on America.
“As an educator, I wish I could say that the world has become a more peaceful place and that our country has made progress,” he says. “But I’m traveling, and the country is more polarized than ever, and authoritarianism is on the rise. It’s sad for me personally. I feel like I could have done more.”
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