The first time I felt Iowa wasn't home

Zach Elias grew up in Bettendorf and is a graduate student in philosophy who studied at the University of Dubuque.

I consider myself a curious person. Sometimes that quality has been to my benefit. Sometimes it has been to my detriment.

My curiosity particularly emerges during any election season. Every time, my political voice is reenergized when I see signs in the yards of my neighbors, political ads, and announcements of candidates coming into town.

The first cold winds of the winter season call an end to a fun, untethered summer. The beautiful fall leaves in the frame of the big combines put me in a reflective mood. Who wouldn’t stop to admire all the change? It’s as if nature knows a big decision looms, and is doing its best to sober you up from the summer sun.

I grew up in Iowa. The first state to caucus every four years, and historically an important swing state. A closely-watched state, once known for its fantastic public education. A state once known for being among the first to legalize gay marriage.

For all of those reasons, I always felt a sense of belonging. Not because of any specific ideas, but because Iowans, for a long time, seemed to affirm a culture of diverse thought. Our state had a special responsibility in the presidential nominating process, and we didn’t always follow the national talking points. We were Iowans before we were Republicans or Democrats. I was proud of that culture. Who wouldn’t be?

I wanted to contribute to my state’s political culture. I caucused for my candidate. I went to all the town halls, all the meet and greets, and all the rallies.

Yes, even Donald Trump rallies. Not because I ever voted for him, but because my fellow Iowans had. I thought we were Iowans first. I thought and still believe people have the right to be wrong, to be persuaded by the wrong people. I thought my fellows Iowans were wrong about this man, but I felt I owed them the chance. Surely, one poorly worded speech wasn’t going to change anything.

I thought participating in that affirming culture meant listening to ideas you disagreed with. So I went to Trump’s rally at the Dubuque airport shortly before the 2020 election. I talked to people. They had a lot to say.

I disagreed with almost everything they said, but I listened. I kept telling myself I owed my fellow Iowans that basic attention. After all, these folks were important community members. No matter how I diced it, the Iowa I love and grew up in wouldn’t have existed without them. I couldn’t ignore them. I couldn’t just vote them into annexation.

And no matter how many times I wished Trump had never run for president, I couldn’t ignore my fellow Iowans who chose him. He inspired something in my neighbors, and I wanted to find out what that could have been.

I felt I was giving my fellow Iowans the attention that Simone Weil, the French philosopher, considered “the rarest and purest form of generosity”.

I don’t remember that much of that day. I was generally distraught by what I was hearing. There was, however, one thing I heard that I will never forget.

“Ilhan Omar, she’s a real winner. Ilhan Omar, who obviously hates our country. She likes to tell us how to run our country.

Members of my community, the one I thought I was a part of, responded by shouting, “Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!”

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. I am a first-generation American. My parents were born in Syria. When I heard my fellow Iowans cheering for the removal of a legal American immigrant, it occurred to me that they didn’t want me here either.

It was beyond our disagreement about taxes, abortion, health care, or any other policy disagreement you could imagine. They did not want me in my state. They didn’t want me around. I thought we were disagreeing about ideas, not about my existence.

I promptly left. I felt so stupid. My curiosity had been to my detriment that day.

For the first time in my life, I felt Iowa wasn’t home. The kid who grew up on the banks of the mighty Mississippi down in the Quad Cities and got his bachelor’s degree in Dubuque found himself alienated by the place he loved.

I write this from a state nearly a thousand miles away. I’m part of that wave of 20-somethings who have left the Midwest.

By no means am I asking anyone to agree on everything. But I hope we can recognize that on the docket this midterm election, many topics have the potential to alienate our community members. To leave them so bitter, they might just leave Iowa.

I am advocating for the pluralism that once defined our great state. I hope you can join me.

Top image: Screenshot from NBC News video of President Donald Trump’s rally in Dubuque on November 1, 2020. His remarks about Ilhan Omar begin around the 42-minute mark. A transcript of his speech can be found here.

About the Author(s)

Zach Elias

  • The deep end of Iowa History

    Although recent history would suggest what Mr. Elias believes about Iowa sounds right, there has always been an under tow of segregation, racial hate and down right nastiness about Iowan’s that surfaces easily when it comes to fear of the unknown. It comes out from under the rug especially quickly when people in power start to imply a twisted nationalistic view of a situation. We, as Iowan’s , tend to work well under a team mentality, and all you have to do is look at Iowa football to see this at work! We can fight with ourselves over school rivalries simply because of football! When it comes to codified things like what happened in WWI and the “Babble Proclaimation” it makes it preticularily easy to get behind our “American” team and pick on the “slackers” who happen to be of German heritage simply because they spoke German! It got so bad they had to change the law to cover every foreign language simply because people didn’t know German from any other non-english language! Even French, a language spoken by one of our Allies was forbidden! Suddenly every foreign language newspaper was out of business. Anyone practicing his constitutional right to freedom of speech found it was quickly suspended if you said anything negative about the draft, and you could be jailed for years! Some citizens were even deported! Failure to comply with following this language order for German ministers who had elderly parishioners who hadn’t learned the language created mob actions that nearly cost two people there lives right here in Iowa! In the 1920’s the Klan was very active in Iowa, notover Blacks so much as Jews and Catholics! Even in those days politicians were sworn in to “uphold and defend the Constitution”, yet at the same time they were following the crowd that violated their oath of office and nothing happened! The very time the Constitution should have been hauled out and put a stop to this, it was being trampled under foot by the entire legal system! We need to do better, and we have on ocassion, but not often enough. Once the mob mentality takes over down come the goal posts and away goes the constitution! Fascists will quickly step in and freedom will disappear. Watch carefully what the Trumpanzies are up to, and it certainly doesn’t look like it was some accident they relish talking about hate, discrimination, and making enemies out of ethnic minorities !

  • Mrs.

    Thanks to both of you first for such a great editorial by Elias & then to Steve for the great comments. We have 4 grown children, raised and educated in Iowa. We now have 1child living in Iowa because his work brought him back here. All of our other children & all but one of our 10 grandchildren live in other states. They left Iowa because of the vile political climate here, the poor quality of education here, the inadequate support for workers, the minimum wage below poverty level & much more. As the saying goes “ will the last young person to leave Iowa turn the lights off.”

    • My young Iowa relatives left this state...

      …along with some other young Iowans I know. Their reasons included the desire for cleaner lakes and rivers and more public land for outdoor recreation. I’m glad they are living in places that make them happy. Unfortunately, their Democratic votes left Iowa with them.