I’m driving through these beautiful fields. I want to grab that corn like you’ve never seen. So rich, so beautiful,” Donald Trump told a standing-room crowd last July, at a Make America Great Again “family picnic” in Oskaloosa, Iowa. An obvious applause line, perhaps, but Trump delivered it with the aplomb of a man who had just taken the lead in every national poll. He was speaking to a crowd of about 700 people inside a high-school auditorium, and another 700 or so were standing outside in the overflow section. The appearance of this crowd was, not surprisingly, homogeneous, though one man who looked Latino sat on the bleachers behind the podium, well within view of the cameras trained on Trump. Before the speech, this man had been intensively stage-managed by Trump’s people: he was taken off the stage, given a properly logoed T-shirt, then reseated up front, stage left, nope, not quite, and finally reseated on the periphery, stage right, about halfway back.
While the man and the rest of the crowd looked on, Trump moved quickly from the pandering particulars to his generic stump speech, about a terrifying trip to the border (“My wife came home, and she was crying”) and murderous Mexican immigrants (“Such a big problem, and nobody wants to talk about it”). If Trump recognized the connection between the corn he wanted to grab and the immigrants he wanted to send home at Mexico’s expense, he didn’t acknowledge it. But I’d guess that nearly every person in that auditorium understood the contradiction: corn is America’s largest crop, Iowa grows more of it than any other state, and Iowa’s agribusiness depends on the Latino laborers who fill the towns that the Midwest calls “little Mexicos,” one of which was just twenty-five miles from where Trump was speaking.
This month, on February 1, Iowa’s caucuses mark the true beginning of the presidential-election season — the process by which the nation, at least in theory, has its say about the fundamentals of its existence. Trump was just one of twelve 2016 presidential candidates who toured Iowa during the two weeks I spent in the state last summer. The other nine who were then running would arrive within a few more weeks. Observers have long scratched their heads about the weird positioning of the Iowa caucuses, and every four years pundits declare that Iowa’s relevance to presidential politics has come to an end. (“Is Iowa Over?” Politico Magazine asked bluntly the month before I was in town.)
It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics. But Iowa is not over. In fact, it may be more relevant than ever. Grasping the corn as Trump suggested leads us not just to the tensions of immigration but to all the central issues of the campaign — to health care and obesity, to our nation’s worst environmental problems, to poverty and income inequality, and to the entrenchment of a corporate oligarchy. We are what we eat — all of us, not just Iowans. Corn is the foundation of our bodies and our body politic, a truth that is more evident in Iowa than in any other place in the nation. Far from being an outlier, Iowa plays a central role in American culture. The weeks and months leading up to the caucuses represent the one time every four years when our political elite briefly acknowledges that fact.