Yesterday, five days before the election, I drove my son to his high school soccer game in Hannibal, Missouri, a river town about two hours northeast of Columbia. We headed due north from Columbia through some extremely flat land, all corn, that after a while became the gently rolling hills that once prompted a professor in Iowa to say to my visiting textbook editor wife, “You all farm on hills down there.”
As we were drove, we talked about politics, which my son has great interest in, though more in government and political philosophy than the politicking side, but even if he didn’t, he couldn’t escape knowing about it in the house he’s grown up in. At one point in the flat early stretch, sparsely dotted with farm houses, silos, and tractors, I said something about how growing up in country like that, I could imagine how big cities and protests and the diversity of parts of America not like that could seem alien and even scary, a feeling the president and his party use to their advantage every day in the way they stoke the fires of resentment and rage about blue states and Democrat-run cities, about looters and rioters and people who want to destroy their way of life.
We saw a bunch of political signs as we drove, with plenty of signs for local candidates; there were more for Biden than we thought we’d see, including some that read Farmers for Biden. As we expected, though, there were more Trump signs, increasing in proportion to the Biden signs the closer we got to Hannibal and coming to include giant Trump flags on the backs of trucks and stuck right in the ground. Some of the giant stiff yard signs, even farther north, were Biden signs, or once had been–somebody had cut out the BIDEN on a few of them, leaving neat rectangular holes above the smaller PRESIDENT. We didn’t see similar editing work done on any Trump signs.
I’m writing this morning about our trip because what we experienced when we got there was pretty unsettling, and I’m finding it hard not to see it now through the cut-out holes in those signs and through the fact of the difference between the towns the teams were from. Having moved to central Missouri from New York City some sixteen years ago, I’ll never get quite used to having my college town be seen as the big city in other, smaller towns I visit, but the reception the boys and their parents got was clearly colored by that perception. I’ve given some talks at local libraries and historical societies in some very small towns, and have always been warmly received, and even though we weren’t going to have time to hang out in Hannibal, I was looking forward to being there because of the whole Mark Twain’s Hometown thing. So I wasn’t prepared for the Soccer Families of Hannibal.
I won’t get into the game itself, because I can’t imagine anything people want to read less than a parent’s account of the criminally bad refereeing (it was, really) at his kid’s high school soccer game, or the muttering about my usual not standing up for the anthem (nobody needs to read about that either), but I do want to talk about the anger on the sidelines. I’ve written about the things you hear on soccer sidelines before, and maybe if my fingers hadn’t been frozen I would have turned the things I heard last night into more found soccer poetry, but they weren’t the sort of gently appalling things I’d heard at my sons’ youth games: they were angry. Really angry. And it wasn’t things like the line judge repeatedly telling a man that he was going to have to leave if he didn’t stop yelling at him. Every team has those parents, and ours had a few things to say last night. It was the parents hanging over the fence yelling to their goalkeeper about the boy who was about to take one of the tied-game-deciding penalty kicks against him (ostensibly to the goalie, anyway). Over the course of the game, the Soccer Families of Hannibal imagined a number of fouls against their boys and grew increasingly enraged in their reactions to these mostly uncalled (because mostly imaginary) fouls. They yelled that their boys were going to have to fight back on the field. They yelled that they were going to have to fight for them after the game. A teen girl yelled twice–at the ref? at the few representatives of the Soccer Families of Columbia who’d made the trip, wary of the virus bus?–“We’ll just have to take care of it after the game, then!”
The Hannibal team won the game on penalty kicks, an outcome that seemed to matter a lot to the winners and their fist-pumping parents. It’s hard (and maybe ungenerous) not to wonder whether their joy was informed by their beating the kids from the big city, though apparently the players were talking about it during the game. It’s harder not to wonder whether their rage has some connection to the signage and the season, to the America they’re told we’re living in now, to the deeper affect these things are tapping into, the aggrieved whiteness that people keep trying to excuse as economic anxiety. If my fingers hadn’t been frozen and I’d really wanted to push my luck, I’d have taken pictures of the angry faces and posted them here, and we could have all seen what we want to see in them. What I’m seeing this morning, as I remember them, is the thing I most fear about next Tuesday and next Tuesday’s aftermath: angry white people playing victim, looking for ways to take care of it after the game.