Morning In Red State America! How The Dying Towns Of Oklahoma Help Explain Election 2016…


Good Morning, America!

The best way to watch the sun come up across the country is behind the wheel of a car – and that’s exactly what I did – and here is how it looks when you use your Panorama setting while moving!

I wanted to share a trip I took last year, where I got the chance to drive though a part of America that I rarely see. Two-lane highways take you to much different places than interstates do…


Little did I know when I took this tour of rural Oklahoma that it would factor into the recent Presidential election!


Recent political coverage has focused on why Trump won the Presidency – why more suburban areas supported him, and how rural parts of the US feel left behind in the great technological revolution that has changed our country in the past thirty years.

I live in a big city, Los Angeles, and regularly do work in Chicago and New York as well. Huge metropolitan areas with a vibrant multi-cultural energy, a sense that anything is possible and opportunities are everywhere.


Here is how we all voted on Election day 2016: Blue is of course Democrat, Red is Republican…the darker the color, the more concentrated the victory.

As you can see, vast portions of the country are Republican, while those huge cities I referenced, along with others such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Seattle, are largely Democrat.

Clinton lost because the big cities didn’t turn out in the same numbers as in 2012, and Trump scored big victories in small towns like this:


Welcome To Small Town Oklahoma!

As the election map shows, this is where many of those Trump voters live: in small communities in every single state. While there are far fewer people living in these smaller communities, when you add them up they have a definite impact, as we just saw in the election.

I point this out because most media outlets admitted to missing the “silent protest” that was underway across the country. Perhaps the cause of that is simple: they never really go there – or pay much attention just how different life is in these smaller communities.


Welcome To Rush Springs!

I was in Oklahoma last year meeting with a terrific young band for a possible TV project…they live about fifty miles from Oklahoma City, in the heart of small-town America:


The population of Rush Springs was 1,231 at the 2010 census. The town promotes itself as the “Watermelon Capital of the World.” Oklahoma is dotted with small towns like these, and they all looked very similar to me:



I had the chance to spend a day driving around the small backroads of Oklahoma – and these small towns are NOT thriving, they are not part of the technological revolution that has transformed much of our country…



In fact, what I drove through were a collection of slowly dying towns – a few gas stations, convenience marts and auto body shops scattered among blocks of abandoned businesses…



The rural part of Oklahoma that I drove through offered two starkly different sights: gorgeous skies – and empty buildings.


I spoke to many people while I was there: residents of various ages – hotel clerks, gas station attendants, restaurant servers…just small talk that always led to the same comments from them: they saw their towns slowly dying away, and nothing was ever going to change that fact.

In the town of Lawton, there was more activity, since the town supports a military base. I stopped for a bite to eat – of course, it was a burger stand.



Welcome to McKenzie’s Burgers in Lawton, Oklahoma – a great restaurant located in the county seat of Comanche County – 87 miles southwest of Oklahoma City.



The food was great! McKenzie’s has been open for seventy-three years, serving locals as well as Military personnel from Fort Sill, which is located just outside of town. The customers I saw were, in general, a bit older than you may expect in a hamburger stand, and of course young soldiers as well…


I got to hang out with a wide variety of people, especially since I was with a couple of young band members.


I got the sense from everyone I spoke with that they feel disconnected from the rest of the country…they spoke matter-of-factly about a political system that didn’t pay much attention to them, except in ways that were obtrusive: changes in social services, taxes – the stuff everyone complains about, but for them, government was very far removed from their lives – except in negative ways…


That is the underlying tone of a terrific new book, which involved a road trip through the deep south:

Deep South book

“Deep South” by Paul Theroux!

Paul Theroux is the legendary Travel Writer who has a keen eye for detail, and a sense of perspective that is terrific.

Here are a few pictures from the book…see how similar they are to what I saw?

Paul Theroux deep south book photos

Deep South book review

Theroux is a great Writer, and he captures the voices of a part of America that also feel overwhelmingly left behind, with no help on the way. One of the great insights from Theroux is that the Clinton Foundation spends hundreds of millions to help impoverished African nations, but nothing here.

DSC_6105, Deep South, USA. Shot of an empty street. retouched_Ekaterina Savtsova 09/25/2014

DSC_6105, Deep South, USA. Shot of an empty street.
retouched_Ekaterina Savtsova 09/25/2014

This is not to indict the Democrats – I AM ONE. I am just pointing out that there are people in our country who worry that our country has left them behind – and Donald Trump’s message resonated. To fail to understand that is to ignore one of the messages of the election of 2016.

Click here for more great insight from Paul Theroux about people in the “Deep South”:

I had a great visit to Oklahoma, but as I thought of what happened in the 2016 Presidential election, I couldn’t help thinking just how much Donald Trump’s message of making America great again probably resonated here.


Categories: Books / Media, documentary films, Exotic Travel, food blog, Food Review, Hamburgers, Memoirs, Politics, Recipes, Restaurants, Travel, Travel Adventures, Travel Memoir, TV Show, Uncategorized, Wacky Food

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23 replies

  1. Such a shame that these small towns are dying as people move away. I much prefer living in a small town/village to a big city.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One town had no electricity any more, so there was a STOP sign set in the street as the overhead hanging light was dark. This was 6 yeas ago and I assume that a few of the towns I drove through are really no longer there…empty boarded up buildings everywhere….sad and a fact of life all across the US

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful post, John. And startlingly beautiful photos. I think your analysis of Trump’s message for those “left behind” is spot on. I know one of the last times I visited my dad in Ohio, one of his neighbors told me (when I said I now live in Maryland) he wished the coasts would just fall off this country. Living near D.C. now, I’m in a bubble of opportunity. Employment opportunities abound, whether you’re in the government or supplying the government or contracting for the government… I can understand the frustration of the opposite situation, if you find yourself far away from D.C. or any affluent urban situation…far away from the opportunities. And then, in parts of Ohio, where all the jobs are gone (like Youngstown, which just lost its GM plant), public officials have gone as far as to tell people, you should move to where the jobs are. Not as easy as it sounds. Great post–really got me thinking–and I wonder how the OK band fared!?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My wife’s family lives in Ohio and when I visit Cleveland, you sense both sides of this argument: big cities trying to stay ahead of the modern tech needs of new business, and smaller towns slowly fading away, which is what I saw everywhere in Oklahoma…I also posted a GREAT book about life in the “Deep South”, written by Paul Theroux, it showcases some of this same issue – if you re interested –


    • Very interesting. I’m a 82 year old man who has lived his entire life, in city as well as in the suburbs of Chicago. I worked for the United States Gypsum Co. for my entire working career, some 50 years, as a research manager and later as a marketing manager. Through the years I spent considerable time in the market and at our rural manufacturing plants, including Empire Nevada. What I did learn with my experience was that this country runs on the value created by tangible goods and their profits and without such no government survives. It is interesting to see a comment like the one posted in these replies, i.e. “Living near D.C. now, I’m in a bubble of opportunity. Employment opportunities abound, whether you’re in the government or supplying the government or contracting for the government” that view does not understand that a government cannot survive without input. The government provides nothing but merely distributes the value provided by others labor. You cannot provide the necessities for life, that is water, food, shelter and clothing, on the unsupported efforts of government, no matter how big government gets. I wonder where our younger generations are going and when they get there and nothing is left what will they do then! Does not seem like a happy ending for the American Dream!!


  3. Writing from Ireland.
    During the US election my impression of Hillary Clinton was “more of the same, a safe pair of hands”

    From my armchair I wondered how that message was going to go down in middle America.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great point – that message didn’t go down well at all – I am a Democrat, but our party has forgotten how to “sell their message” – and even though Hillary won by 3-million votes, most of those were California and New York – the fact is the race was virtually 50/50 – as most have been for the past 20 years. Thanks for the comment!


  4. Hi there from London, England. I’m a left leaning black woman, a lawyer and mother, middle aged. With relatives who are Americans as a branch of the family relocated there in the 70s. If I’d been able to vote in the US I’d have stayed home.

    My son -who is in his 20s- was an avid Bernie Sanders supporter, and after Bernie was denied by the DNC shenanigans, would have voted for Trump.

    Like the US, vast swathes of the UK have working class/blue collar areas that have been neglected, impoverished, stripped of manufacturing, engineering, heavy industry and similar jobs over 3 decades, and their party (over here that would be the Labour party) assumed they would vote for them. Hence, Brexit, which was very much sticking the middle finger up to the political class who demanded people vote for the UK to remain part of the EU. It wasn’t all about bigotry here I know, I went out and talked to people before the vote- and I’m sure its not all about bigotry in the US either. Or misogyny.

    My Canadian friend- a diehard Clintonista, highly educated, feminist – has just come back from a 4 month road trip through the US, driving through the kind of areas you featured. She saw dying places. But what puzzled me is that she doesn’t get why people wouldn’t vote for Hilary in those places…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, and your insight. I am a lifelong Democrat. Bernie spoke to everyday people in a way the rest of the party didn’t…I am reading “The Kingdom By The Sea” by Paul Theroux, his adventures traveling the entire coast of England…it was 30 years ago, but so many of the issues facing us today were present then…both the US and UK have large segments of the population who have been left behind and want a voice again – we have to live with, and understand, their choice…thanks again for your comment.


  5. These pictures are worth a 1000 words. I’m still in shock about Tuesday night, but signs were there: his huge rallies, the Main Street of Rush Springs and all the other places like it across that big red map.

    Thanks for this post, and the recommendation of Paul Theroux’s book. If I’ve learned nothing this week, it’s that we all need to be more in touch with what’s going on outside of our comfort zones. A lot of people are talking about making a difference by moving to red states and becoming teachers. I hope they do. This piece really spells out what they be walking into and what an uphill battle lies ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Drew, if there are a thousand small towns all worried about being left behind, you add those votes up and that’s what cost her Wisconsin and Pennsylvania…she got “her” votes but no extra, and he got those worried folks to turn out…literally every 6-7 miles I’d roll through another tiny town with one stop light – or even just stop sign – and a street full of closed up buildings


  6. 1,300 is about the same population as Beetley Village. This is a very Conservative area too (except for me…) and would almost certainly vote Trump, (except me…) if we were in America. They should have looked more closely at Paul Theroux’s excellent travelogue. That would have told them that Trump would win, and why.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person


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