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RYAN: Tulsi Gabbard and the Farmer Magic Show

'Is Gabbard from Iowa?'

Photo by Sean Ryan

At the junction of U.S. Route 71 and Iowa 141, a sign with a heartbreaking photo said, "Fingers & Toes 10 weeks from conception." Sponsored by Pro-life Across America. Just outside Bayard, a sign read, "Save the babies. Life begins at conception." Any time you saw these signs, they were placed so you had to look the baby in the eyes as you waited at the stop sign. No other cars for miles. A soundtrack of animal life and unperturbed Mother Nature.

The narrow backroads were all so buckled that it felt like we were driving on a giant trampoline.

Just past Richland Cemetery on 141, another Tulsi Gabbard billboard. Other than that, it's mostly elongated plains. Neat green rows of cornstalks occasionally interrupted by a meadow full of cows or a chicken farm or a town with one stop sign and two side streets.

There were so many Tulsi signs all over Iowa, billboards, lawn signs, various-sized placards, plenty of regalia that you didn't have to buy. None of the other Democrats had that much advertising. Or any, really. You could still find Bernie bumper stickers, but that's everywhere now, isn't it?

Photo by Sean Ryan

The only other 2020 presidential candidate with a comparable showing was Donald Trump. His face and his name were everywhere, even when you couldn't see them, even when they were just below the surface of everyday life. At diners, in cornfields, on people's head accompanied by the words "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN," at gas pumps, on the sides of barns, at the top of grain silos, along listless highways that ramped into dirt like unchristened landmarks.

Photo by Sean Ryan

"Is Gabbard from Iowa?" my dad asked.

No, no, she's from Hawaii. Which is, hopefully, why she began and ended many of her appearances with "aloha." She had been elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives when she was 21, an age many people start with a tornado of a birthday. Gabbard was born in American Samoa. Starting in 2013, she served as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, then resigned in 2016 to endorse Bernie Sanders. If elected president, she'd be the first Hindu. And, if she were selected as vice president by Kamala Harris, who then won the Presidency, we would have the first Hindu vice president/president combo.

Gabbard gained some attention during the second debate one week earlier, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, when she attacked Kamala Harris' criminal justice record, a weak spot. Gabbard lunged full bore, like a Spartan fighting an ambush of Persians. If that doesn't sound lively enough, just know that, as a result, "#KamalaHarrisDestroyed" spiked on Twitter. And by the looks of it, Kamala Harris might well have been destroyed by that moment, at least for 2020.

By the end of the night, it was what most people remembered. Google searches for "Tulsi Gabbard" outperformed "Kamala Harris" in every state except South Dakota, for some reason. None other than the New York Times hailed it as newsworthy. For weeks, journalists recalled it, like bored sailors imagining monsters.

*

Photo by Sean Ryan

And so it was a little strange to see her at the Iowa State Fair, in her black blouse and black chinos and beige sneakers and blood-red blazer with the sleeves rolled up like they did in the 1980s. This sense of out-of-placeness arose with many of the candidates' events, if only as a flash at the beginning and the midpoint. An influx of surreality. Here she was, a presidential candidate, talking to a group of people who had wandered up holding foot-long corn dogs, asking, "Now who's this? Oh, which one is she?" Or, "Less press here today. Bound to be a whole lot of them tomorrow, it being Saturday, the first Saturday and all. Ope, lemme squeeze around you and grab my pop and some mustard."

Photo by Sean Ryan

A decent semi-circle of a hundred-odd people stared ahead at Gabbard in their "TULSI" shirts and signs. They looked sweet and desperate. But outside that tight-knit cluster, the fair strolled along as usual. Seniors in little motorized scooters. Teenagers desperate for hickeys or rebellion. Families dressed in bright matching outfits and meeting points so they never ever got lost or divided or ignored.

Photo by Sean Ryan

A bric-a-brac of middle America. With the occasional MAGA hat and Trump 2020 poster. Because, any time we ventured outside of the Democrats' rallies and events, reminders of Trump floated by constantly. I cannot emphasize this enough. Partly because you will not hear a single solitary word of it from the so-called mainstream media.

In the 2016 election, 93 of the Iowa's 99 counties voted Trump, the largest margin of any Republican candidate in the state since Ronald Reagan took 95 counties, and most of America, in 1980.

Iowa is not strictly conservative or liberal, despite its location at the center of the country, with so much farmland and so little commotion. In fact, that's a big part of why politicians shove themselves into jeans and schlep here. Iowans went with Obama both times. They even voted for Bill Clinton twice. George W. Bush in 2004, post 9/11. Reagan, both terms. Nixon. Lyndon Johnson. They chose Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Charles Hughes over Woodrow Wilson in 1912, but for the most part, Iowa has voted for the winning player. They even voted for Abraham Lincoln, twice.

Iowans tend to choose the politicians who speak to them. Someone who will become their voice. Genuine. With attention to liberty and freedom, individuality. Tradition. Or change. And principles. Seventy-seven percent of Iowans are Christian. And there's a flexibility to that conservatism. These days, Iowa has over 3,000 wind turbines, which generate 25 percent of the state's electricity. The Iowa Supreme Court has pioneered social issues. Women's rights and segregation. In 2009, Iowa became the third state to legalize same-sex marriage, a full six years before it was legal on the federal level.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Gabbard talked about separation. The dismantlement of America.

"This is so heart-breaking," she said, pausing just right, "because we love our country. I love our country. I love our people. It's why, after the terrorist attack on 9/11, I enlisted in the Army National Guard." When she said that, many passersby jerked their heads up, patriotically. Maybe they were thinking about the elderly man just outside the front gate, limp-armed as he offered mostly-uncaring people flyers about suicide prevention for veterans and soldiers. Did you know that an average of 20 veterans kill themselves each day?

Gabbard has served as a soldier for 16 years, beginning with basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Then to Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio. Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. She has deployed to the Middle East twice.

To which a man in the audience said, as if by accident, "Is that so?"

Then she had all the veterans and military families raise their hands, and she said, "Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice. All of you."

Her voice had an oddly sonorous lull to it. There we all were at the kitchen sink and someone was cutting onions.

"The amazing thing that I felt," she said, "was that, those who I stood in that formation with, those who I served with, we all wore the same uniform, serving the same flag, focused on that mission that we have of serving our country, of keeping the American people safe. But there was no difference in that focus. That even though we came — Democrats, Republicans, Independents, conservatives, liberals, black, white, brown, different religions — we represented the diversity of this country, but we stood as one unit. With one voice. With one focus. On putting service above self, and putting country before self. This speaks to who we are, as Americans. This speaks to what unites us, as a country."

She said it so smoothly that people just listened. No clapping, no jeering. Maybe because the point of the speech was commonality, overcoming division, outfoxing dividers.

Photo by Sean Ryan

"And I think it's especially important for us to remember that now, as those who are in power seek to tear us apart for their own selfish gain, it is only when we the people stand up around this unifying principle of freedom, of justice, of opportunity, remembering those freedoms and inalienable rights that are enshrined in our Constitution, for every single one of us, those rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, when we come around these unifying principles, with love for our country and love for each other, there is no obstacle we cannot overcome, and it is only when we do that that we can begin to solve the great challenges of our day. And there are many," she continued. "But we are starting on that common foundation. Coming together. Overcoming those partisan differences. Those ideological differences. And having conversations with each other based on respect, understanding that, when we care for each other, we'll find that we have far more in common than maybe we realized before."

Because it was 2:15 on a Friday afternoon at the fairgrounds, and, at 10:00 that morning, like every morning at the Iowa State Fair, the National Anthem blared from the dopey speakers around the SoapBox stage, outside the administration building. Or that, elsewhere at the fair, at that exact moment, there was a "Get Hooked on Fishing - Fish Local." Also, an "animal 'I Spy' activity" and something called "Oh My! It's Pie!"

Photo by Sean Ryan

Because the fair is American in a way unique to the country's middle parts. You won't find an "old-fashion hymn singing" class or a "milking demonstration" or a "thank a farmer magic show" in New York City or Los Angeles. Not un-ironically. Then, at noon and 6:00 p.m., Narcotics Anonymous meetings at the Maytag Family Theater. Because these days, ours is a country that is — everywhere, secretly — hurting.

Right as Gabbard started talking about the legalization of marijuana, a bald chap wandered by the crowd in a pizza restaurant's T-shirt that said "legalize marinara." Behind him, a group of seniors with overlarge yellow shirts bearing the sequined words "State Fair junky." One of them had "Granny" on the back as she scoured for where her friends went, then clapping and smiling when they reunited by a trashcan.

New installments to this series come out every Monday and Thursday morning. For live updates, check out my Twitter.

One last thing…
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