Police clash with supporters of President Donald Trump during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Alex Kent/Tennessee Lookout)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jim Leiker is professor of history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park.
When pro-Trump extremists converged in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, they followed precedents that had been in the works for a long time.
In winter 1979, the American Agriculture Movement led a “tractorcade” from the Midwest and plains to the U.S. capital. AAM’s goal was to draw attention to the nation’s agricultural crisis. Since 1935, half of farms on the Great Plains had failed. Those who did not had to expand and become more dependent on loans and expensive equipment.
When grain and livestock prices fell in the 1970s, foreclosures became a common sight. So did closings of schools, small-town banks, and businesses. People left land and homes that had been family owned for generations.
With the Rev. Martin Luther King’s landmark March on Washington only 16 years past, AAM had good reason to think such a demonstration would succeed. But urbanites in the D.C. area proved unsympathetic.
When a blizzard hit the capital, farmers used their equipment to help plow the streets and get the city functioning. However, this tended to get lost amid news media accounts of snarled traffic and scarred lawns on the Mall. Headlines like “Harvest of Ill Will” and “The Farmers’ Tantrum” dominated national news.
Conservative columnist James Kilpatrick wrote: “By equating themselves with the hippies, yippies, long-hairs and loonies of the 60s, they have done a disservice to farming generally.”
The ideological trail that led to Jan. 6 began for many in the tractorcade’s aftermath.
After the negative publicity, more than half of AAM’s local chapters closed over the next two years. Some farmers started exploring alternate markets for their grain, such as gasohol. Others discovered common cause with feminists and civil rights advocates, whom they saw as fellow oppressed minorities. For a few, stubborn forms of rural nationalism and racist conspiracy theories became convenient ways to explain their predicaments.
Some farmers started exploring alternate markets for their grain, such as gasohol. Others discovered common cause with feminists and civil rights advocates, whom they saw as fellow oppressed minorities. For a few, stubborn forms of rural nationalism and racist conspiracy theories became convenient ways to explain their predicaments.
– Jim Leiker
Eastern Colorado and western Kansas played prominent roles. In January 1983, police used mace and tear gas to break up farmers who tried to force their way into the Baca County, Colorado, courthouse to stop a foreclosure auction. A year earlier, 56 people attended an “ecological seminar” near Weskan, on the states’ border, that taught camouflage, hand-to-hand combat, and construction of pipe bombs for home defense.
Through the 1980s, propaganda from the John Birch Society and the posse comitatus started finding its way onto kitchen tables and into after-church socials. Christian Identity literature described Kansas as the site of Armageddon’s “Battle of the Wheat Fields,” when farmers would make their stand against urban Black and Jewish people storming the countryside, looking for food.
In 1985, the FBI and Kansas Crime Prevention Association claimed that foreclosures in the Plains region elevated membership in paramilitary organizations to more than 2 million.
With some violent exceptions, the militia movement largely spent itself in the 1990s. But thanks to the rhetoric of charismatic politicians, its ideology of armed anti-government resistance and liberal-elite conspiracies, fomented in corrupt Eastern cities, found a home in mainstream conservatism during the decades ahead.
It would be a mistake to exaggerate the rural origins of the insurrection of Jan. 6. Many who stormed the Capitol that day came from cities and suburbs. They were factory workers, Realtors, IT technicians — hardly the kind of angry pickup-driving types often assumed in stereotypes about Trump supporters.
But that event did culminate from, and contribute to, a growing city-country split that becomes more evident with each election.
Kansas leaders ignore this history at their peril.
Depopulation in our rural areas continues strong. Each census reveals more parts of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas returning to the 1890 definition of “frontier” as having less than two people per square mile. Those who leave tend to be young, better educated and politically moderate, more prepared to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
What remains are aging communities more isolated, and more prone to radical thought and behavior, than before.
A review of the county breakdowns on the Aug. 2 vote shows a clear rejection of the “Value Them Both” abortion amendment in urban areas. Yet even in most rural counties, surprising numbers of “No” votes in excess of 40% occurred, proving you can’t always know a person by their ZIP code.
Progressives might have a rare opportunity here to build bridges. But that will require sensitivity, some acknowledgement that the fears of rural Kansans about their way of life being under attack are real, because they are.
Indifferent shrugs and a concession to the inevitability of metropolitan life will be insufficient.
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