Iowa: Don’t vote for Donald Trump or Joni Ernst.

Khalid El Khatib
8 min readNov 1, 2020

Just before the GOP caucuses in 2015, I wrote a short letter to the editors of the Telegraph Herald, the paper of record in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. I urged voters to reject the xenophobia of then long-shot candidate Donald Trump. I reminded readers that my father, a Muslim Palestinian refugee displaced to Syria who migrated to the U.S., served three generations of Iowans as a physician. Under the policies being proposed by candidate Donald Trump, my father would have never made it to Iowa. So I asked readers to reflect on his impact and implored them to “remember that Muslims and refugees like my father embody our shared values: hard work, kindness, and community.”

It didn’t work.

But before the Iowa caucus handed Trump second place, as could only happen in a local paper, my letter was published with my full name and home address in New York City. Within a week I received over a dozen cards and notes. The country wasn’t yet as polarized as it is today, but the responses fell squarely into two camps. There were those who equated Islam with terrorism and told me to go back to my country (a familiar refrain from 2001), and there were those either knew my dad or embraced the idea of him empathetically.

One card in particular lives on my refrigerator five years later. It’s from Sister Anne of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. She wrote that she “belongs to a group of religious women who refuse to endorse a candidate with close-minded opinions” who uses politics to display personal bias and ignorance. She concluded, “I did not personally know your father but I have known many of his patients. They had the greatest respect for him and a deep trust in him. Hopefully the majority of Iowans reflect the values you mentioned. God bless you.”

Another card was from my 8th grade history teacher, who seemed ancient well before I was an adult. He always intimidated me. His lessons were humorless, exams frequent, and he towered over the class. He wrote that he wasn’t sure if I’d remember him (all too well), thanked me for the letter, and aptly hoped Iowans would be on “the right side of history.”

In the days leading up to the 2016 election I recounted versions of these stories in a second letter to the Telegraph Herald in which I emphatically endorsed Hillary Clinton. I shared anecdotes of my experiences as the gay son of a Muslim immigrant across social media platforms. I hoped my intersectionality would trigger empathy or nostalgia to get voters to see the consequences of the radical policies candidate Trump proposed as destructive and as tangible.

After all, a friend with a long career in politics always told me, “Repetition wins campaigns.”

November 8, 2016 came and went, and it didn’t work.

Donald Trump won Iowa by over nine points after Barack Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012.

I’m not so arrogant to think I could’ve played a measurable role in how any of it played out. But through all of the time I’ve spent reflecting on the 2016 election, I’m struck by how the stories I told employed the same strategies as many on the Left: reflect the greatness of America through the lens of the most diverse Americans to form a chorus that says, “We are better than this.”

Was the chorus not loud enough? Was it too loud?

I spent the first half of my life in Iowa, 18 out of 36 years. With time it gets harder and harder to see Iowa as it is. People ask what it was like to grow up in Iowa and I tell them it was like a movie or TV show: out of school early on Friday afternoons to watch football, a brown bag full of ears of corn every weekend from Fincel’s Sweet Corn. I leave out that all but three or four people in my high school of 1,600 students were white, that many people I grew up with had never left the country — and not for lack of desire, but because of the socioeconomics of the Midwest.

There is so much power in nostalgia. It’s life’s great retoucher, removing blemishes from memories to make them good and pure. I’ve lived in New York since 2007 and I retreat to Iowa for the holidays and when I need to escape, when I feel like work is killing me, when I’ve had my heart broken.

Every Christmas since college I make a point to sit alone for five or ten minutes in our living room and look at the same fake Christmas tree we’ve had since I was a kid. Like a modern take on “A Christmas Carol”, in those moments every unanswered email and all the drama of New York melts away. It’s the same in a look point near my hometown, which towers over rolling farmland and is so picturesque that even as I take photos on my iPhone I’m able to forget the internet exists.

Scenic lookout point overlooking the Mississippi River valley near Balltown, Iowa, taken in September 2019.

Therein lies the other problem with nostalgia. It wipes away so much of life’s complexity. And that is the space in which Donald Trump, Joni Ernst, and their enablers have burrowed. They allege that we can go back to something that never existed as they say it did. And they take it further to lead their supporters to believe they can erase what’s bad (a pandemic, climate change, economic collapse) by wish and will alone.

In marketing and advertising, the field in which I work, we talk obsessively about advertising campaigns that aim to win “hearts and minds”. They are Nike commercials about perseverance and Folger’s campaigns showing families reunite over the holidays over a pot of coffee.

So it’s no surprise that even through this election cycle, when I continue to write and tweet, I fall into the trap of telling stories that sound like they’re from a script.

Just about a month ago, when the administration attempted to cripple the U.S. Post Office in order to hinder voter turnout, I tweeted about my maternal grandfather. He was born and raised in New Vienna, Iowa where he was mayor of the town, a rural letter carrier to all surrounding farmers, and served as president Iowa Rural Letter Carriers Association. He also wore a watch with President Bill Clinton on its face, and Clinton’s hands told time backyards; he was friendly with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.

My grandfather tragically died in a car accident on his mail route days before his retirement when I was 15. It was before we could thoughtfully discuss politics so I can’t say with any real conviction that he wouldn’t have voted for Trump. Though, with his gay grandson and lifelong dedication to the Post Office, I can’t imagine it. My tweets pontificating about this got hundreds of likes and quickly, I moved on.

I am no longer under the illusion that telling the whole story of who I am and how my family has existed in Iowa and in this world will change any mind. So instead I will ask you not to vote for Donald Trump using what I have learned over the last five years regarding what works and what doesn’t, absent of nuance or complexity.

Here is my final plea. And while straightforward, it’s no less sincere than my stories of my father or grandfather.

Over the last several months I have felt increasing dread.

Starting in mid-July, I paced my apartment feeling like I couldn’t catch my breath. It’s a condition doctors call dyspnea. It came on so suddenly that I swore it couldn’t be anxiety (I’ve always worked stressful jobs and I’ve never been an anxious person.) I went to the doctor in late July and some slightly abnormal tests sent me to the ER where I was discharged at 4am, COVID-free and with a diagnosis of “generalized anxiety.”

It’s been four months, I’ve had dozens of tests, and nearly every day I still feel it, to the point where colleagues call my breathlessness out in Zoom meetings. “Are you OK?”

I’m fortunate to still be employed. I’m healthy. My sisters and my parents are healthy. So, what is this?

It’s everything, but it’s also Iowa — where my mom, who is in her mid-sixties, goes into to work every day as a school nurse. She only removes her N95 mask to eat lunch, outside or in her car. She hasn’t eaten inside a restaurant or been inside a bar since March. Yet, the statistics in Iowa trend in the wrong direction and exponentially so.

Rather than combat the spread of COVID-19, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds has made testing difficult and manipulated test results. Iowa has consistently ranked as one of the ten worst states in the country when it comes to controlling COVID-19. All while, every day, my mom stops responding to me and my sisters’ texts from 7am onwards so that she can work in isolation. So that she can treat sick kids whose families are increasingly suspected to be infected with COVID-19.

What’s more, today Donald Trump will hold a campaign rally at the Dubuque Regional Airport (which no longer has any flights in or out due to COVID-19-related budget cuts), as his rallies have shown to leave a trail of community spread behind them — whether or not you attend.

In New York City, I saw how sinister COVID-19 can be. In April, I worked from home every day while voices on Zoom calls competed with a constant spray of sirens. My block is bookended by two bodegas (our equivalent of Casey’s in Iowa, my favorite convenience store) where familiar cashiers in each passed away from the illness.

I know all too well that COVID-19 is real, and that this administration and everyone who supports it has failed at every turn to stop its spread. This week the U.S. set a world record by reporting 100,000 coronavirus cases in 24 hours. Let that sentence sink in before you read the next: You cannot vote for Donald Trump, Joni Ernst or anyone associated with their party.

If I’m wrong here, I’m wrong. But if I’m right, too many people will pay the ultimate price for politics.

When you vote I’m asking you to discount everything I’ve written before now, to disregard immigration policy, geopolitics, which taxes will and will not increase, and think only of those like my mother who are risking their lives only to live. Those who have been in power for the last seven months are not succeeding, and this is the fight of our lives. They do not deserve your support.

In 2016, too often the response to my pleas to vote against Donald Trump was “What do we have to lose?” Now we know in certain terms.

There are no empathetic endorsements in this post. Don’t cast a vote for anyone if you can’t stomach it. But, if we went to high school together, if you found this post through my Facebook or it’s been emailed to you, and if you live in Iowa, please don’t vote for Donald Trump or Senator Joni Ernst.

Please.

Please!

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Khalid El Khatib

Writer and Marketer. Arab heritage, Iowa roots, New York energy.