VIDEO: Pork Chops! Politics! The Free Press Goes to the Iowa State Fair.

Brooklynite Ben Kawaller dives headfirst into livestock, fried food, and the great political divide at America’s annual country circus.

I do not have terribly agrarian instincts. My primary interest as a kid was musical theater; I think the closest I have come to cultivating anything was when I was briefly the owner of a Chia Pet. 

But this past weekend, I spent my time surrounded by a radically different type of human: people who, it would seem, have bent the land—or at least some animals on it—to their will. That is to say, I spent this weekend in the patient, often edifying company of Iowan farmers.

The occasion for my mingling with these superhuman Americans was the Iowa State Fair. Founded in 1854 as a plant and wildlife exhibition, the fair now draws over a million people annually to a sprawling, eleven-day celebration of food, music, and all things agriculture. 

Like, all things agriculture. If it can be found on a farm, there’s a show for it at this thing. There are horse shows, poultry shows, and crop shows. There are competitions for biggest bull, biggest boar, and biggest ram. There are pageants for dairy cows, Angus cows, and dead cows (Beef of Merit showdown, anyone?). To say that I covered the Iowa State Fair feels like a misuse of the word cover. It’s more like I poked at it. 

Along with showcasing some of the state’s most impressive agriculture, the fair has, since the 1970s, become a de rigueur campaign stop for political candidates. Over the course of this year’s fair, which runs until Sunday, August 20, no fewer than sixteen presidential hopefuls have appeared or are expected to. My visit coincided with some big ones: Florida governor Ron DeSantis was there on Saturday, only to be upstaged by Donald Trump, who also may have arranged for the flight of an aerial banner urging “Be likable, Ron!” (You have to hand it to him: the man knows how to taunt.) 

I was able to snag a few hard-hitting minutes with Republican Vivek Ramaswamy and Democrat candidates Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson. Iowa also offered this Brooklyn-born Democrat the chance to interact with one of the most exotic species of all: the Republican voter. It occurred to me that had I landed at the Iowa State Fair a decade ago, I may have been itching for a fight with these guys. Surely the abject disdain for Democrats voiced by some of the people I spoke with suggested that, if we wanted to, our playful interactions could have gone in an entirely different direction.

Ten years ago, I would have thought nothing of writing off half the country as ignorant, or stupid, or deplorable—and may have been happy to treat them as such. But these days, when I think of the divide between red and blue, rural and urban, I feel more curiosity than disdain. And the idea of going to war (what else do we mean by “national divorce”?) with any of the people I spoke to—many of whom, Trump voters or not, did not fall neatly into any ideological camp—felt so very wrong.

Who knows how they may have felt about me. But I hope they like the video. 

Ben Kawaller is an L.A.-based writer and host. Watch his last Free Press video, “Can a Boring Old ‘G’ Still Hang with the LBTQIAs?” here. This video was produced by Ben Kawaller and Alex Chitty and edited by Jonah Kaplan. Director of photography was Dan Cain, production assistant Laurel Stelter.

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