News Opinions Politics World

He Already Saw the Election as Good vs. Evil. Then His Tractor Burned.

HENDERSON, Neb. — Jonathan Rempel has never been a loudmouth around town about his politics, but his views are clear when he asks rhetorical questions like, “Have you ever got a job from a poor person?” Or when he says that taxes are a form of extortion. They show up on Facebook, where some of his posts support gun rights and criticize a welfare state.

It was even possible to tell his political outlook from across a field, from the two “Trump 2020” flags that he had hoisted above his combine — until a couple of weeks ago, when a fire destroyed much of his farm equipment.

In Mr. Rempel’s farming community of Henderson and in the countryside that makes up much of the majority Republican state of Nebraska, people say that President Trump represents their deep convictions. And those strongly held beliefs exist in a good versus evil framework in which many see issues like abortion, immigration and what is to them the trade-exploiting, virus-spreading nation of China in the starkest of terms.

Nearly four years ago, in his election night victory speech, Mr. Trump pledged to fight for the “hard-working men and women who love their country and want a better, brighter future for themselves and for their family.”

“The forgotten men and women of our country,” he promised back then, “will be forgotten no longer.”

The president’s supporters in places like rural Nebraska say they feel remembered. To them, these four years have brought a sense of belonging in a country led by someone who sticks up for, and understands, their most cherished beliefs. To the more than 50 percent of Americans who disapprove of the president, Mr. Trump can represent division and dishonesty. In Henderson, and many places like it, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign pitch that he is fighting for the soul of the nation simply doesn’t resonate. People here would view its soul as being in jeopardy if he triumphed.

Thousands of Mr. Trump’s backers showed their devotion to him last week as they solemnly streamed against a chilly autumn wind, some traveling hours, to hear him speak at a campaign event in Omaha, one of a series of whistle-stop rallies across the country where supporters have come together as a single denomination certain of one another’s values.

Credit…Jonathan Rempel

“Always look where I am,” a man coached a young girl in coveralls, telling her to stay close as they held hands and wove through the Omaha crowd waiting for Mr. Trump. “But these are Trump supporters. You don’t have to worry.”

That sense of Trumpian kinship permeates rural areas like Henderson, population about 1,000, with its two-block downtown, fiery red oak trees, silver grain elevators and artwork on the side of a building off Main Street that reads “some bigger, none better.”

It’s what made the phone call Mr. Rempel received about two weeks ago from fire officials as he and his wife were readying their children for school all the more shocking. His farm equipment was in flames. The combine, a tractor and two semitrailer trucks parked in a corn field south of town apparently had been set on fire.

Keep up with Election 2020

“I said, ‘No, that’s not possible,’” Mr. Rempel, a fourth-generation farmer, recalled, describing his disbelief that his equipment had been destroyed and his corn harvest put in jeopardy.

Mr. Rempel won’t speculate on a motive for what he believes was arson; the State Fire Marshal has said only that it is investigating the incident.

The charred remains of his farm vehicles sit in a field surrounded for miles by tilled prairie. A blackened Trump flag lies crumpled at the base of a scorched tractor. Mr. Rempel had been so certain they were safe, he left the keys in the ignition.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Though it is unclear how the fire started, the news about it startled a community that believes it shares a common value system. The fact that one vehicle was outfitted with Trump flags has led some residents and some of the more than 1,700 people who commented on Mr. Rempel’s Facebook post about the blaze to declare the fire politically motivated.

It’s a sentiment also expressed by top Republicans in the state. Gov. Pete Ricketts brought up the incident when asked at a news conference about vandalism to pro-Trump signs, calling anyone who would do such a thing “anti-American” and “people who hate our country.” Senator Ben Sasse, whose recent leaked remarks criticizing President Trump were viewed by many Nebraska Republicans as blasphemy, also called the incident “abhorrent.”

For his part, Mr. Rempel refuses to speculate about a motive, but here in Henderson, a certain fear is being whispered: The fire-starters are aligned with antifa, coming from the cities to attack their way of life.

“Whenever you see something on fire that was lit on purpose, or whenever you see a business destroyed, whenever you see somebody making a point through violence, it’s evil,” Mr. Rempel said. “And evil destroys.”

Like most other states, Nebraska is cleaved by an urban-rural divide. Mr. Trump won overwhelming support from the state as a whole. But people in Nebraska’s two major cities tend to vote more liberally than those in rural areas. Mr. Trump won in Omaha’s Second Congressional District in 2016, but Barack Obama won in 2008. The district’s winner picks up a single electoral vote in a state that, unlike most others, splits its votes, which could play a pivotal role in a close election.

Omaha is 117 miles from York County, where Henderson is situated and where Mr. Trump in 2016 won by a landslide. Most people in the county say they are voting for him again — and most plan to go to the polls in person on Tuesday like they always do on Election Day.

“I like what he stands for. He’s against abortion. He’s against evil. He’s against higher taxes,” said Pat Goossen, who owns The Petal Pusher, a flower shop on Henderson’s Main Street. “He shares my values. I don’t want higher taxes. I don’t want our jobs going out.”

Ms. Goossen watched the violence that accompanied some of the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death on the nightly news. The images made it seem like entire cities were on fire. This summer violent protests broke out in Omaha, where a Black man was killed by a white business owner as people marched against racial injustice. But the protests didn’t reach Henderson.

Though the president has refused to denounce white supremacy, Ms. Goossen, who is white, like most of her neighbors in Henderson, said she couldn’t believe that the president was being tied to violent outbursts at rallies against racial injustice.

“Do you honestly think he caused the burning and the riots? Are you out of your ever-loving mind? He did not,” she said. “He was a victim of this just like the rest of us.”

Ms. Goossen and other supporters of Mr. Trump speak with reverence about the president’s plain talk, how he isn’t a typical pontificating politician, how he, a real estate mogul from New York City, can relate to all strata of society.

Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times
Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times
Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

The president has been on job sites and spoken to workers “hauling drywall and raising steel,” said Blake Collingsworth, who runs a home-building business in Lincoln.

“You have to be for the little guy,” Mr. Collingsworth said. “He understands that part of society and how important the working person is.”

People like Tim Esch, a rancher from Spalding, remember the pain caused in the 1980s by President Jimmy Carter’s Soviet grain embargo, which sent prices of corn and wheat tumbling. Mr. Trump’s policies on trade with China have been difficult for farmers, too, he said, but will pay off in the long run.

Some of Mr. Trump’s plans haven’t worked out, he said, but his actions show that he has listened to the concerns of farmers.

“This whole China thing, Trump has done nothing but be supportive,” Mr. Esch said.

Like Mr. Esch, many Republicans in Nebraska think the Democratic Party is using the pandemic as a political tool against the president. Cases of the coronavirus are soaring here; church prayer lists include long lists of names of those suffering. In Henderson, the virus found its way into a nursing home and has affected several families.

But on farms where the nearest home is miles away, worries about the illness seem far-off.

“I’ve got bigger problems than a virus that 99.9 percent of us can overcome without medical intervention,” said Mr. Rempel who, like most other people in the area, doesn’t routinely wear a mask when gathered with others.

Mr. Rempel enjoys the lonely feeling of being on the farm, where he can zone out in the cab of his combine or behind the wheel of his pickup, bouncing down gravel roads.

“I love being in flyover country. I love it. I embrace it,” Mr. Rempel said, walking through his rows of corn and fretting over every bent stalk. “I lived in Omaha. Nobody knew who you were. You could do whatever you wanted. You could go steal a car and run into a post and run away and nobody cares.”

Rural life, he said, offers accountability among people who share a set of values. Being around parents, grandparents, those “who take pride in you,” is grounding. It’s something he thinks is lost in big cities.

Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

The fire has trained Mr. Rempel’s focus on the divisiveness of the country, something he said he was tired of even though he knows his views are starkly different from many people who support Mr. Biden.

“Everybody wants to put people in a box so we can decide right away if we hate you. You’re a Trump supporter! You’re a Biden supporter! We hate you!” he said. “We need to quit that as a country. You are who you are, and I am who I am, and I can love you even if I don’t agree with you.”

In Henderson, word spread quickly among the tightknit set of farmers about Mr. Rempel’s burning equipment. Everyone knew it happened at a crucial time when corn needed to be harvested and hauled to market. The urgency was all the greater for Mr. Rempel whose wife was days away from her due date with the couple’s third child.

Neighbors and friends from church brought over casseroles and homemade cinnamon rolls. Mr. Rempel’s sister set up a GoFundMe page called “Burned Farmer” where donations have topped $100,000.

And under a silvery sky of a frigid recent dawn, a line of combines and tractors rumbled across the horizon and pulled to a stop in a gravel lot. Some two dozen farmers descended their vehicles and gathered for a prayer before they got to work. They came from neighboring farms and as far away as Colorado to help Mr. Rempel finish his harvest.

“Welcome to my life,” Mr. Rempel said, taking it all in, “where people are good.”

Related posts

A Colossal Off-Year Election in Wisconsin

Ray Morrison

Justices grant review in 14 new cases but don’t act on hot-button issues

Ray Morrison

Three decades covering the Supreme Court

Ray Morrison

Little-Known Lawyer Pitched Trump on Extreme Plans to Subvert Election

Ray Morrison

Why Pennsylvania Republican Leaders Are All-In for Trump More Than Ever

Ray Morrison

Parents of St. Louis man killed in police custody return to the court

Ray Morrison

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy