Talkin’ Iron Range turnin’ red blues

Hawkins Pit near Nashwauk, 2018. Photo by Aaron Brown/Minnesota Reformer.

I’m a trailer house kid from the Iron Range who donned a v-neck sweater and started writing about local politics and history. 

To me, northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range has never been just one thing. Beautiful and harsh. Inspiring and depressing. Like many of my friends and family, I stayed. Like many others I could have left a long time ago.

Instead, my family and I built a home on the land. I watch birds and haul my garbage to the dump. I constructed a media career the way my dad builds lean-tos on every garage he’s ever owned. It’s not fancy, but enough to make my phone blow up over the 2020 election.

They call from NBC and PBS, the New York Times and the Times of London. Networks from France, Denmark, and Germany want to know what’s happening on the Iron Range. Is it true, they ask? Will the Iron Range turn red? Will this small collection of iron mining towns in northern Minnesota deliver the election to President Trump?

It’s true, I say. In part. Trump enjoys significant support on the Iron Range, especially in the rural townships surrounding the old towns. He already demonstrated that support in 2016, though, so this isn’t new. There are no more than 50,000 votes on the actual Iron Range. If Trump exceeds his Range victory in 2016 he’d still only clear 10,000 votes at most. (He lost in 2016 by a bit more than 44,000 statewide.) And that’s not assured. Thus, in terms of how Minnesota votes, the Iron Range remains a unique, fascinating, but ultimately limited part of the political equation. 

So why do media outlets keep calling? Why does Trump seem obsessed with the region?

Trump is talking about the Iron Range because it’s a symbol of a bygone past, a mining industry dominated by men in single-income households. The mining lobby has long railed against environmentalists and liberals, natural enemies of Trump and his supporters. This story becomes a good fit for the Trump ethos of loud voices and blunt instruments.

Modern mining is actually more technical, requiring more training and fewer workers than ever before. Most mining households are dual income with a spouse working outside the home. And these are among the best paid households on the Range, upper middle class by local standards. Most people on the Range don’t work in mining; they work in service industries and health care, typically earning far less.

Trump’s Iron Range appeal comes from preserving the economic and cultural caste system that rooted here after the first shovels turned in the 19th Century. Under these rules, people may only do well when those deemed unworthy are held down. For this platform to win, a lot of people who don’t directly benefit from Trump’s presidency need to believe that they do. 

One of the best ways to accomplish this is to sell a story: “The Iron Range was closed, but Trump opened it.” That’s not even remotely an accurate way to describe what’s happening on the Iron Range. But it fits on a TV news chyron. For those shrink-wrapping their boats for storage this month it sounds true enough. 

For anyone else, however, this message paints Democratic policies as an existential threat, a notion not based in factual reality but reinforced by the ubiquitous pathos of coffee klatch wisdom. (“I saw someone on TV say it; it feels right to me.”)

Paradoxically, it is the Iron Range’s refusal to embrace cultural and economic change that has led to its current political change. It’s easy to trust Trump and complain about violence in Minneapolis or the left’s obsession with climate change. Diversifying the economy and our population comes with hard work and discomfort. 

I can point out that such discomfort was central to the creation of the Range, but you get the same reaction. Our ancestors “did things the right way,” while today’s immigrants leech off of the system. Similar men said the same thing in Range newspapers of 1915 about their ancestors, of course. But what is this, history class?

The Iron Range is a land of long grudges and short memory.

The Iron Range is a land of long grudges and short memory. Everyone remembers their high school years, though; in fact, we can’t shut up about them. The good times become associated with virtues like hard work and God’s grace, while the bad times can always be blamed on others: Republicans, Democrats, Duluth, St. Paul. You name it. Blame almost never falls on the actual causes. Namely, our slavish devotion to a single industry and our lack of interest in cultivating a different future. 

Yes, miners work to provide for families, to send kids to college and fund a retirement. But they are not the only ones.

Today on the Iron Range, nurses and nursing assistants pull double shifts. They call home to tell their spouse or babysitter that they will be gone another eight hours. They will return home exhausted. 

A mother and father rotate between work and home. They care for the children but their relationship strains from absence and stress.

A union construction worker waits for the call that will determine whether the winter brings work or unemployment checks. But tourism and hospitality workers wait for the same calls, with even fewer resources to fall back on.

The 2020 campaigns may invoke the Iron Range, but only in terms of how those with some want more. Those with little who want some? They are the majority of the Iron Range.

Will the Iron Range deliver the election to Trump? No. Certainly not on its own. Can Trump deliver prosperity to the Iron Range. Only for some. And not for long. At its absolute best Iron Range politics lifted these people into the middle class.

At its absolute best Iron Range politics lifted these people into the middle class.

That’s what happened for today’s old men in Trump hats. That’s what happened for me, an egghead writer and teacher.

The greatest thing about the Iron Range, the reason I stay, is the beautiful melding of humanity that raised the quality of life for working people. It’s too bad so many have forgotten how that happened.

Is the Range red?

The Iron Range has always been a rusted red with blue-gray streaks of iron ore. When the sun shines these colors paint a vibrant landscape. But when the clouds gather everything just looks gray.