“Then this thing happened. I decided to pivot. It was probably my best shot at attracting some national attention to Nebraska.”
In the wake of the recent presidential election and the Capitol riots, it’s hard for many Americans to understand why millions of fellow citizens continue to support now ex-President Trump. That support was shown in a close election that was not the landslide rejection of Trump that pollsters predicted… in the multiple state attorneys general who joined the Texas lawsuit contesting swing-state election results… and in Republican senators who overwhelmingly seem reluctant to consider impeachment.
Author Ross Benes brings a unique perspective to the discussion. Benes is from Nebraska, and even though he now lives in New York, his rural, red-state roots give him insights into the increasingly rightward drift of the Cornhusker State and beyond. Having written about the subject for such publications as the Nation, he’s sharing these insights in a new book, Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold, published by the University Press of Kansas.
Nebraska seems worlds away from Massachusetts. Many Nebraskans display pro-life license plates, while their politicians have taken stances against the election results. Of its three Congressmen, two voted against certification, while the state attorney general supported the Texas lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court.
And yet, Benes reminds readers, it’s complicated. Despite Nebraska’s current far-right swing, it has a history of progressive politics. It founded Arbor Day, its utilities are all public entities, and a diverse coalition is defying the Keystone pipeline (the book was published before President Biden halted the entire project in the US).
The inspiration for the book, Benes said in a Zoom interview, came during the 2016 presidential election and Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton.
“It was a weird moment when this fringe character came to the presidency,” Benes recalled. “In New York … people were really surprised that all these other states gave so much support to him. They were interested in states like Nebraska. Following Trump’s election, when I would say I was from Nebraska, people wanted to talk about it.”
These conversations prompted a dramatic shift for Benes, who was considering writing a book about pro wrestling before Trump’s election.
“I may still write it eventually,” he reflected, “a lighthearted, pop culture, fun book. Then this thing happened. I decided to pivot. It was probably my best shot at attracting some national attention to Nebraska.”
As Benes explains, the state lies in the middle of the continental US, with a population of less than two million—including his family and friends. His eastern Nebraska hometown, the village of Brainard, has a population of just 314 according to a 2019 estimate from the Census Bureau. He raves about the opportunities to experience Nebraska’s natural beauty, from watching the crane migration on the Sand Hills to tubing on the Niobrara River.
Yet he is dismayed by the state’s rightward turn, and looks to describe and explain it in his book.
A generation ago, during a previous right-wing shift in the US, author Thomas Frank asked a provocative question about one of Nebraska’s neighbors. It became the now-famous title of his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Benes described Frank’s book as comparable to his, adding that his book is “most similar to” The Fall of Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman.
However, Benes said, “what’s a little different with my book is that I empathize more with the people I’m from. I still love Brainard. I don’t mean to mock it. I definitely hold politicians accountable. I don’t think the far-right drift is good for Nebraska.”
These days, he said, “I see friends post things I think are terrible now on Facebook or Twitter. Ten years ago, I lived in the state, I may have thought something similar. I tried not to be too harsh.” He adds that during his days in Nebraska, “It was never as far-right as the state is now.”
His experiences become a lens through which to explain many Nebraskans’ conservatism on social and political issues—as well as his own evolving position on these issues.
“Immigration, health care, and abortion were three big things my views have changed on as I moved to the big city,” he said.
On abortion, he said, “Nobody was as committed to the Catholic faith as I was in Brainard. Abortion used to be the one issue that determined my support for a candidate—not just a president, down-ballot.”
In New York, he said, “I do not feel as strongly against abortion as I once did.” He describes himself as “still pro-life in a lot of ways” but “wanting now not so much draconian legal restrictions but an expanded social safety net, helping single mothers if they want to carry their baby to term.”
He said that regarding health care, “a life experience influenced my views [in a way] I don’t think a political message ever could.” During his multiple health crises over the years, “I was helped by the government in this case,” he said. “If [we had] the rules [from] before Obama, I would be so screwed by now … a huge financial drain.”
In Brainard, he recalled opposition to illegal immigration. Yet when he moved to the state capital of Lincoln to attend the University of Nebraska, he taught English to refugees in the city and got to know them as individuals.
Immigration became “not just a theoretical principle,” he said, but an “effect on these human beings’ lives. It was clearer in Lincoln than Brainard, and definitely clearer in New York City.”
Benes found that immigration illustrated Nebraska’s swing farther right, well before the Trump era. He recalls the 2006 governor’s race, when the Republican primary pitted then-Congressman Tom Osborne, the legendary former football coach at the University of Nebraska, against incumbent Dave Heineman.
“Back in 2006, this sort of thing was happening,” he said. “The most popular person in the state could lose a governor’s race because he was not as strongly against immigration as other people.”
Benes continues to lament Nebraska’s far-right politics today. He said he is not surprised that the state attorney general “signed on to the ridiculous Texas lawsuit,” or that two of the state’s three Congressmen, Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith, “tried to challenge [presidential] election results.”
“Jeff Fortenberry, Adrian Smith, the governor, and attorney general are all acting like Trump toadies,” Benes said. However, he added, “following the riots, they came out and condemned them. None acted like Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley.”
Benes notes that Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), was among the first Republicans in Congress to congratulate Joe Biden following the election and to call him the president-elect, and that Congressman Don Bacon, the lone House member from Nebraska to vote for certification, called for Trump to concede.
“[Sasse and Bacon] have said things that sound nice, reasonable, they don’t engage in conspiracy theories as others have,” Benes said. “They will still vote on party lines when they have to vote.”
He cites Sasse’s votes against the Affordable Care Act, and against the first impeachment of then-President Trump, adding that he would be surprised if Sasse votes for impeachment the second time.
After all this, might there be a second act for progressive politics in Nebraska? Benes finds hopeful signs in the state’s past and present.
“The far-right trajectory is a little atypical,” he said. “We were always a conservative state but not this far to the right.”
Benes cites names from the state’s Progressive Era past like former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, calling him a liberal fundamentalist Christian who supported labor rights and was “very much against wealth and inequality.” He added, “[Bryan] sounded like Bernie Sanders around 150 years ago.” He praises the 1923 Supreme Court case Meyer v. Nebraska, which upheld the right of a German immigrant to teach his native language to Nebraska schoolchildren after state courts had ruled against him in an example of anti-German nativism during World War I.
“It set a rural precedent and informed all sorts of court cases,” Benes said. “It’s another proud moment in Nebraska history.”
Today, he points to the successes of the state’s unique unicameral legislature on such issues as preventing voter ID laws, and to Nebraska’s longtime environmentalism, including rural residents who helped block the Keystone pipeline.
“All of that shows some hope,” Benes said. “Progressivism has a voice here.”
Benes called the book “one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my career.”
It was “very stressful,” he said. And, he quipped, “I think a book about pro wrestling would also be more fun.”
But, he said, “I feel good about it. I’m glad I put in the time.”
Rich Tenorio is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in international, national, regional and local media outlets. He is a graduate of Harvard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a cartoonist.