What the U.S. Election Means for Rural America
Disclaimer: Physicians for Human Rights is a non-partisan organization that works at the intersection of medicine, science, and law to forensically document human rights abuses, build capacity in local communities, and advocate for justice around the world. All posts about United States or international elections reflect the views of the individual author and not the organization.
For the past six weeks, I have been in rural South Carolina doing a family medicine rotation. This town is what one would often think of as a classic rural American town. The only restaurants are fast-food chains – Bojangles, Subway, McDonald’s. The phone signal is so weak that, unless I am connected to WiFi, my phone is useless. Folks who live here own a lot of land and love to go deer hunting. Others live in old houses with a lot of extended family and not enough food. Many people are part of Native American tribes and live in reservation communities. Most are on Medicare or Medicaid or have no insurance at all.
What I find most surprising is that, regardless of everyone’s living situation and background, they all love President Trump. According to them, he is saving America. Every other person has told me that the COVID-19 pandemic is an organized plan by Democrats to overthrow the government. Chances are high that, when I ask patients if they want the flu shot, they look at me like I am crazy. “Honey, do you want to kill me? The flu shot is what gives people the flu. I never get that.” At first, I was self-conscious and uncomfortable in these surroundings. Even the doctors I work with are dedicated Trump supporters. Considering the president's criticisms of the scientific and medical communities throughout the pandemic, despite our sacrifices for the American public, the juxtaposition is difficult to square. If politics come up, the pro-Trump energy is often so intense that I choose to stay quiet.
One patient, though, changed my mind and helped me better process their viewpoints. Like most of our patients, she brought a big bag overflowing with her medication bottles. Recently, she had heard the president talking about how China brought the coronavirus to America, and she decided that taking her medications, which come from China, was too dangerous. She had completely stopped all of them, and no matter what I said to try to convince her otherwise, she refused to believe that they are safe and helpful. There are so many reasons that people cannot take their medicines, but conspiracy theories from the president should not be one of them.
Why is President Trump able to connect to this community so strongly? Why do these patients and colleagues believe him and no one else? They know that he would like to make cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, but they simultaneously believe he is the only person looking out for them. Native American patients have heard his comments about minority groups, yet they pray he will be re-elected. Most of them don’t look down on immigrants, or think that families should be separated, or believe that women shouldn’t have rights over their bodies. At the same time, most have grown up in communities where abortion ostracizes you, religion and Church community bring you a family, and immigrants only exist in the abstract on the news. I have learned that I cannot justify my shock about their beliefs by simply attributing it to ignorance or lack of education. Rather, their core beliefs are often in direct conflict with each other, and like all humans, they have complex, non-linear, and occasionally illogical thoughts to process these conflicting beliefs.
This election is sure to unravel more conflicting thoughts from people across the political spectrum. Take the chance to listen. Continue to work towards the things that you are passionate about. But in the process, we cannot lose our ability to connect with each other. Suffering and cruelty go beyond one president or one election. Problems in our society point to our failure as a country to work together over decades and generations. Regardless of what happens during this election and over the next four years, we cannot let one person take away our collective, intrinsic ability to do good.
Veena Mehta is a third-year medical student at the Medical University of South Carolina and serves as the Regional Chapter Mentor for the PHR SAB's South and South Atlantic regions.