The Heart of It All: On David Giffels’s “Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America”

By Liz SkalkaNovember 5, 2020

The Heart of It All: On David Giffels’s “Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America”

Barnstorming Ohio by David Giffels

IT’S NOT OHIO’S official state motto, but it might as well be: if you want to understand America, come to the Buckeye State. From the Lake Erie coast to the Appalachian hills, we have America in spades. The gateway to the Midwest, our nation’s seventh most populated state manages to be at once rural and urban. We’ve given you football, airplanes, and Neil Armstrong. And we’re not done sharing. Ohioans welcome you with big arms to our heart-shaped state.

As Ohioans, we know ourselves as many things: warm, genuine, and hardworking. We’ll put you in your place — ope!, as the local self-effacing expression goes — then offer you the shirt off our back. We like to talk. We’re not all proud of Cincinnati chili. Please don’t bring up Michigan.

I came to Ohio as a political reporter looking for the same thing that David Giffels sets out to find in his illuminating new book, Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America.

A former local newspaper journalist, Giffels expertly observes some of the issues and events weighing on Ohioans as they consider their historic votes: the closure of a storied General Motors plant in Lordstown, the mass shooting in Dayton that left nine people dead, a farming sector reeling from erratic weather and Donald Trump’s trade war. Giffels offers context but allows Ohioans to tell their stories, which are rich and complicated. The people and places he visits during a year on the road erase any notion of the state as a monolith.

The urgency of Giffels’s project is obviously driven by the 2020 election, a contest that will determine not only who controls the White House for the next four years but whether Ohio, trending redder since 2016, is able to maintain its vaunted status as a perennial swing state and tastemaker. Our winning streak is uncanny and unmatched: we’ve sided with the winner in the last 29 out of 31 presidential elections. No Republican has won the White House without persuading a majority of Ohioans. The nation’s coasts looked to the United States’s quintessential swing state to explain how the 2016 result happened. What they found were people who both couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton and who found hope in Trump’s promise to restore the more prosperous way of life that existed for previous generations.

Barnstorming is a rare account of this seismic shift from one of our own. A native son of Akron, the birthplace of the American tire industry, the author knows his subject well. Giffels writes that he’s a “lifelong, doggedly committed citizen of a state that’s often easier to leave than to love.” And instead of leaving, he built a life here where he felt needed and inspired. Unlike so much of the drive-by reporting on Ohio, Giffels is on the inside looking out, tracing the events of the last four years to explain the nation’s “troubling misalignment” through the eyes of Ohio, “which has forever served uniquely as a reflection of the nation, a conscience of sorts.”

This isn’t a book that seeks to pit Democrats against Republicans or force anyone into their political corners. Giffels allows the people he writes about to exist in the gray space that characterizes our ongoing realignment. He begins, for example, with Jim Renner, a former steelworker whose political attitudes more or less cancel each other out. Renner is a self-professed libertarian-leaning Democrat. In 2016, he broke with Democrats and voted for Trump, but claims to have no use for the Republican Party. Renner embodies all the contradictions, ambiguities, and conflicting loyalties that Trump’s candidacy unmasked. And there are many more here just like him.

In what is perhaps his strongest chapter, Giffels drives his Subaru straight into a “raw nerve,” the parking lot of General Motors’ Lordstown plant in northeast Ohio. The plant and its 4,500 workers used to make the Chevy Cruze until the automaker ended production and closed the facility in 2019 (it was later sold to an electric truck startup that employs far fewer people). Many Lordstown workers who were close to retirement were forced to relocate to other plants to keep their jobs.

Four years ago, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon to eke out a win in Trumbull County, which includes the behemoth plant and many of its workers. Trump rode a wave of simmering discontent to capture the county, then Ohio’s 18 electoral votes, then the White House. During his first year in office, Trump returned to the area and promised that it wouldn’t be long before its factories came roaring back to life. “Don’t move; don’t sell your house,” he told a crowd in Youngstown, famous words that Democrats would repeat again and again after the plant closed less than two years later. “The closing of Lordstown Assembly was described around town as another broken promise, in forsaken tones,” Giffels writes.

To its credit, Barnstorming also departs the well-worn path outsider journalists travel across Ohio. It largely sidesteps the desperate scenes of poverty and addiction that tend to color reporting on the state. (Ohio has been most closely associated in recent years with J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which details his childhood in a small town near Dayton.) Giffels visits an independent bookstore in Mansfield, the passion project of a woman who returned to a hometown that many before her had abandoned. He highlights the state’s booming craft-beer industry, a prime example of the vibrancy that emerged here despite our industrial decline. And he traces the slow death rattle of a suburban shopping mall, Rolling Acres, that was eventually razed and replaced with an Amazon fulfillment center, one of the tech giant’s six massive packing and shipping facilities in Ohio that employs thousands.

In what could be argued is Barnstorming’s greatest achievement, Giffels resists the urge to whitewash our history in service of a political narrative that focuses exclusively on white, working-class voters. He visits Cincinnati to interview the city’s first Black mayor and goes in search of the site where Margaret Garner — whose real-life story inspired the famous native of Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison, to write Beloved — first crossed the river to escape her Kentucky slave owner.

Giffels eventually comes full circle to his hometown, where he encounters Leonte Cooper, a young Black man who, as the first member of his family to attend college, begins to discover his own political voice, a journey that mirrors Giffels’s own: “What he had found, in essence, is the question I had been chasing, the question of the individual, the question of the voter, the question of the candidate, the question of Ohio, the question of America: Who will listen to me? And what do they want in return?”

Giffels doesn’t reveal who he thinks is going to win in November. It’s not necessary to forecast Middle America’s inescapable trajectory. Visiting Martins Ferry, a small city on the Ohio River that hugs West Virginia, he writes:

It’s easy to tell a place like Martins Ferry that all it needs is another steel factory to make everything better again. I’ve been hearing that same code for decades, but it rings less true and less relevant with each passing year. We need — and are actively inventing — new ways to thrive. The dark parts of the Rust Belt are real, and if there was an answer, we’d have recognized it ourselves a long time ago.

Barnstorming is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the forces shaping our electorate in a place too often written off as “flyover country.” Cracking open Ohio, Giffels proves that “real America” exists beyond our diners and Walmarts in a way that resists reducing our voters to Trump supporters and everyone else. If anything, Barnstorming could have used more analysis tying together what Giffels learned talking to Ohioans. These are the types of invaluable insights that were absent from so much election prognostication in 2016.

It’s possible that 2020 could end Ohio’s long streak of picking the president, charting a new course for us as a retired swing state. If that happens, at least we’ll have a sense of how we got there.


Liz Skalka is an Ohio-based political reporter covering statewide politics and the 2020 presidential campaign.

LARB Contributor

Liz Skalka is an Ohio-based political reporter covering statewide politics and the 2020 presidential campaign.


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