Many years ago, I rode on a team bus through the agricultural heart of California. Up far too late for a school night, we didn’t get on the road until past 10 p.m., and weren’t getting back to Los Angeles before 2 a.m.
Strange things happen when you qualify for the California state volleyball playoffs. In California, athletic regions are larger than most states. I was an assistant coach at my alma mater. I didn’t have to attend the match, but I enjoy a good road trip.
We took State Route 145 southbound, an empty a two-lane through cotton fields and almond groves to get to I-5. Amid the dark and quiet—the kind of quiet that you only hear after a team’s season has ended—one of our more whimsical players bolted upright and asked of the entire bus, “Is that the real moon?”
She can be forgiven for her incredulity. The moon rising ahead of us that November night was a reddish freak of refraction known only to the flattest of landscapes. It looked nothing like the modest disk she’d seen over west Los Angeles a million times before. As far as the players and I were concerned, we were traveling through a foreign land—California’s own version of flyover country. For all we knew, maybe it did have its own moon.
Back then, Donald Trump was just an inflated real estate developer. Even so, the town of Kerman probably would have voted for him back then. A typical farm town of 8,500 at the time, 20 miles west of Fresno, Kerman floats amid the politically red ocean surrounding America’s archipelago of blue. It is precisely the type of place in which urbane city-dwellers are unfamiliar just as cities are unfamiliar to many people in places like Kerman.
For all of Kerman’s Red State inclinations, the facts suggest that politically we were, if not in friendly territory, at least in territory that wasn’t hostile. In 2000, 53 percent of Fresno County favored George W. Bush over Al Gore. In the 2016 election, Fresno County favored Hillary Clinton 49 percent to 43 percent. Of the four precincts within Kerman’s city limits, only one favored Trump. In neighboring precincts, that number reached 82 percent.
Though Kerman superficially resembles many of the places where Donald Trump dominated—beating Hillary two- and three-fold—it was actually one of the few places in California that was relatively evenly split. Kerman actually teeters on the edge of Red and Blue, making it, paradoxically, an electoral microcosm of the country. And yet, with polarization and geographic sorting, it is near unique among American places.
Kerman’s brand of rural America differs from that in places like Oklahoma or Nebraska. As in communities in those states, many jobs—24 percent in Kerman’s case—are in agriculture. With a median family income of just over $34,000, it’s poor. But it looks different from its Heartland America counterparts. One explanation for Kerman’s political allegiance with urban America lies in demographics. Today, Kerman has 13,500 residents and is 71 percent Hispanic, up from 65 percent in 2000. How its volleyball team reflected its demographics, I honestly can’t recall.
Until 9 November, I hadn’t thought about Kerman for a very long time. Come to think of it, Donald Trump probably never paid it, or its thousands of counterparts, much mind either. There’s not much of a market for skyscrapers on the prairie. And yet in the course of his campaign Trump saw his own moonrise the moment he left his tower and met with adoration in the unlikeliest of places. Hillary Clinton didn’t figure it out until the moment he won Michigan.
As I think about the way Trump’s America views my America, I can’t help but think about what Kerman thought of us or what we thought of Kerman. Some of our players probably didn’t think of Kerman at all—it was a team and a gym, and nothing more. Some may have been enchanted by the idea of a small town, so dissimilar from our metropolis. Some may have been less charitable.
And our opponents, the Lions of Kerman High? I hope they didn’t think of us at all. If they had, they might have been appalled. My school embodied every private school stereotype: wealthy, worldly, fashionable, probably a little spoiled. The children of what came to be known, soon thereafter, of the 1 percent. The girl so perplexed by the moon? She was the daughter of a celebrity, a rock star known in part for Vietnam-era protest songs. How awful must we have seemed to them. How backwards must they have seemed to us.
We’ve all developed notions of the noble struggles of the Heartland, the Rust Belt, Coal Country, and the rest. But until 9 November I think few of us realized just how badly the fuzziness of these notions could hurt us. What has become abundantly clear is that the hurt goes both ways: rural America, no matter how it votes, feels isolated from and therefore threatened by the cosmopolitan America of the cities and coasts. Cosmopolitan America does not recognize these threats and therefore ignores them. It probably believed that rural areas appreciated the urbanity and economic, intellectual, culturally-creative power of cities—looking to them admiringly.
I understand the Trump phenomenon better when I consider what his rallies must have meant to people in towns like Kerman—and in towns far more isolated and far more desperate. In those places, a volleyball playoff game might be the highlight of the year. A win in the state playoffs over a fancy private school might be the highlight of the decade. A Trump visit— one of those rallies where he pledged his allegiance to them and pledged inexplicably to stick it to the “elites”—might have been the highlight of a lifetime.
The beauty and tragedy of athletic contests is that they take place on the court. There’s a handshake and a coin toss and then the game comes into being. It is bounded by rules. Schools become teams. People become players. Places become venues. Participants relate to each other through the prism of the game. Then one of us goes home.I wish we’d done more than just play volleyball that night. We could have gotten to know each other. Coaches could have chatted with coaches. Players could have made friends with their opponents. We could have had dinner beforehand or gone for ice cream afterwards. We could have gotten to know their names and found of what their lives were like. They could have done the same.
This is the type of encounter that, multiplied millions of times, may have prevented our national fracture. It’s the type that may be required for national healing. Gentle conversations, free of accusations and bitterness, may lead to empathy on both sides. That’s one school of thought, simplistic though it may be. The other school holds that the time for reconciliation is past and that the left must battle like never before. Of course, the right will do the same.
A little friendliness might not have saved the world. But I can’t help thinking of the power of small gestures of communion. Those kids grew up four hours from Los Angeles and four hours from the Bay Area. And yet, there’s a chance that none of them ever visited either or even met anyone from either. Their impressions would have been rightfully left to their own imaginations. Even a single encounter is memorable if it’s distinctive enough. We both could have come away with warm feelings rather than with the coldness of our assumptions. We could have reminded each other that we all live in the same state, in the same country, under the same moon. Maybe, seventeen years later, we’d have thought about each other, if only briefly, when we went to the polls.
To their credit, Kerman fielded a hell of a team. They whupped us fair and square. That’s one reason why that bus ride was so somber, celestial oddities notwithstanding. But, still, it was just a volleyball game. I wish all losses were so easy to take.
 For 2000 election details, see http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/statesub.php?year=2000&fips=6019&f=0&off=0&elect=0; for the recent election see http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-pol-ca-california-neighborhood-election-results/.
Josh Stephens is a journalist covering cities, and is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report, the state’s foremost independent publication dedicated to urban planning. He is also contributing editor to Planetizen.com and conducts its “Planners Across America” interview series. His work has also appeared in a wide-range fora including Planning Magazine, The Architect’s Newspaper, Los Angeles Magazine, Sierra Magazine, Grist.org, Los Angeles Review of Books, Volleyball Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, many of which are chronicled at joshrstephens.net.
Copyright: © 2017 Josh Stephens. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/