Notes from the urban/rural divide: Trucks

It has come to my attention that truck ownership and lack thereof has been turned into some kind of strange purity test for some among the right, heavily yoked to the idea that ‘truck’ conjures up a salt of the earth rural resident. You know, who knows how the world really works, a person who works for a living, a person who understands the value of labour and apple pie and the American way. The truck, here, becomes a standin for larger, more abstract concepts.

And a large part of that is the result of marketing on the part of the auto industry. Car and truck manufacturers have taken the truck from a utilitarian work vehicle to a potent symbol — one specifically linked with masculinity, to the point that some have come out with separate lines of trucks targeting ladies. A real man drives a truck. A truck means you’re a red-blooded American, preferably the bigger, the better, no matter what you’re doing with it.

I always find it deeply perplexing when I’m in the city and I see spotlessly clean trucks, sometimes low riders, that are clearly not designed for actual work. They can’t be driven with a full load or they’ll bottom out, they’re definitely no good in the woods, they clearly aren’t driven around a farm, they’re just vanity vehicles, a performance of the American dream, buying in to the American ethos.

Full disclosure, here: I’m a rural resident who lives on a dirt road and I drive a Prius. Why? Because I travel a lot for work, and having a compact and highly energy-efficient car meets my needs. If I really need a truck for something, I borrow a friend’s, if the cab is compact enough for me to reach the pedals, which isn’t always possible. Of my friends who own trucks, they’re loosely divided into work trucks that don’t actually leave the property because they’re so battered and get such terrible mileage and light duty trucks that they use for hauling various things around and heavier trucks for towing stock trailers and whatnot. All of the people I know who own trucks own them because they need trucks — and they are not above borrowing my car on occasion.

Fundamentally, a truck is just a vehicle, okay? Having or not having a truck, driving or not driving a truck, doesn’t really confer any credentials of any kind. Lots of people in rural America don’t own trucks because they don’t need them. Lots of the trucks I see around town are festooned in socialist bumper stickers. When I’m in the city, some of the trucks I see are clearly work trucks. Others are obviously not. Everyone seems to get on okay either way.

Conservatives have a truck fetish that I honestly just don’t really understand — and because they fetishise trucks, liberals in urban areas often make weird value judgements about people who drive them. Believe it or not, you’re not automatically re-registered Republican when you buy a Chevy. You might have a gun rack in the back of your Ranger, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an NRA member, or even a conservative. Trucks are just trucks.

American car culture fascinates me, because so much is bound up in the cars we own. The very word ‘Prius’ probably evokes all sorts of associations for you, building up an image of the kind of person who drives one. (Crunchy granola, kind of a performative liberal, possibly vegan or belongs to a meat CSA but nothing between, a little fussy, probably an asshole.) Cars have gone beyond a simple practical thing we own to get around and into a more complicated expression of who we are and what we believe — my practice of buying the cheapest most efficient care for my needs definitely seems to differ from that of many Americans.

The truck has become a potent symbol because the auto industry made it into one, and conservatives have both driven and fed that. Particularly when oil prices were rising and many fiscal conservatives and liberals who dislike waste were turning to cars, the industry had to come up with something to push truck sales, and it stumbled upon the age-old tradition of consumerism-as-expression-of-American-values. Buying a truck is American, it’s the thing you do when you care about your country and want to make a statement about your values, and Republicans believe they have a monopoly on values, so and thus, the truck has become a conservative symbol, and because people think rural America is conservative, it is also by extension a rural symbol.

The car:truck ratio in rural America varies tremendously according to population, regional industry, poverty rate, and a number of other factors. In some communities, there are tons of trucks of all different stripes. In others, they aren’t as visible — or families have enough money for a farm truck and a town car; the kids driving 30 miles to get to the high school may take the family car, not the truck, for example, for reasons of fuel efficiency.

A pickup can be a tremendously useful tool if you’re towing or hauling things on a regular basis. The rest of time, it can honestly be kind of a pain in the ass. It’s less fuel efficient — especially late model trucks, which are uniformly hulking and gas guzzling — can be harder to park, tends not to drive as well, isn’t great on curvy roads. Those who purchase vehicles on the basis of practicality may tend away from trucks, depending on what they do and where they work, while those seeking to use a car as a symbol may gravitate towards a truck…but the same could be said in urban areas, where I’ve started seeing more trucks popping up. Ultimately, the kind of vehicle someone drives doesn’t actually tell you all that much about their politics or where they live, much though people might believe the contrary.

Sometimes a truck is just a truck. Other times, it’s a dogwhistle.

Image: Truck, Matthew Peoples, Flickr