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My Thoughts on the Complicity of Rural America in the Election of Donald Trump

donald trump

I am appalled, as are tens of millions of other Americans, by the fact that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. I voted for Bernie Sanders during the primary season, believing that his progressive views were (are) the best way forward for the United States. Sanders’ inability to connect with older, rural, white Americans, and the Democratic National Committee’s attempt to derail him, doomed Sanders’ candidacy. While many Bernie supporters think that he would have beaten Trump had he received the nomination, I am of the opinion that this is little more than wishful thinking. Yesterday, I cast my ballot for Hillary Clinton primarily because I thought (and still do) that a Trump presidency will be disastrous for America. I was willing to overlook Clinton’s scandal-plagued career and her connection to Wall Street because I believed at the time (and still do) that electing Donald Trump would send the United States careening down a path that could lead to world war. A Clinton presidency would likely have been more of the same, a sameness that I could, if need be, stomach for four more years. As a progressive and a liberal, I’ve come to see that neither political party represents me. In 2008, swept up by promises of hope and change, I believed that Barack Obama would bring fundamental change to America. By 2012, I realized that idealistic hope and change had been swallowed up by an obstructionist Congress, lobbyists, big banks, and Wall Street. While President Obama talked a good game, his allegiances were still with corporate America. This became clear in the aftermath of the housing bubble collapse, when the Obama justice department failed to prosecute those who caused the collapse. The political élite ignored how angry middle America was over the pain and suffering caused by the last major recession. Having been ignored for decades, these older, white, Christian Americans see in Donald Trump a man who is willing to stand up for them; someone who speaks their language and empathizes with their pain; someone who doesn’t see them as deplorable. These are the people who swept Donald Trump into the White House. The majority of baby boomers and older people voted for Trump. Over eighty percent of Evangelicals cast their vote for the Republican nominee. Most of these people were never going to vote for a Democrat, so there is literally nothing that Trump could do that would turn them away from voting for him.

Next year, I will be 60 years old. Outside of a few years in California in the 1960s and Arizona and Michigan in the 1970s, I have spent my life living in Ohio. I have watched Ohio turn from a union-strong democratic state to a solidly red state where virtually every major political office is held by a Republican. As an Evangelical Christian and pastor, I was pleased to see Ohio move to the right. I suppose that, if I were still an Evangelical, I would be actively involved in trying to turn back the social progress of the past eight years. I have no doubt that I would have been working to criminalize abortion, shove gays back into the closet, reinstitute marriage as between a man and woman, force transgenders to use the bathroom that corresponded to their birth sex, and above all, I would been working to establish God and the Bible as the absolute authority in matters public and private. Fortunately, for me, my political and social views began to change in the late 1990s. While I was still conservative in many ways, my views began to creep leftward as I realized how hurtful and harmful many of my views were. By the time I left the ministry in 2005, I had moved to the far left of the evangelical tent, and had I not ultimately lost my faith I am sure I would now be a liberal Christian.

I now find myself quite alone in a sea of ravenous Evangelical Republicans. I know that there are numerous area residents who feel as I do. What do we do, now that our fellow citizens decided to elect a xenophobic, misogynistic, race baiting man unfit for public office? I live in Defiance County Ohio. Seventy-one percent of registered voters voted yesterday. Sixty-four percent of them voted for Donald Trump. Twenty-nine percent voted for Hillary Clinton. In nearby Fulton, Henry, and Williams counties, the splits were pretty much the same. Even worse, in Paulding County, seventy-two percent of people voted for Donald Trump, while Hillary Clinton received twenty-three percent of the vote. In nearby Putnam County, eighty percent of voters voted for Trump. A measly fifteen percent voted for Clinton.

While most rural Northwest Ohio counties have unemployment rates below state and national levels and jobs are plentiful, the fact is that much of the area has not yet recovered from the housing collapse. Yes, jobs are plentiful, but wages are not. My wife works for a large manufacturing concern who is having a hard time attracting new employees. If you find yourself looking for a job that starts out at $10 or $11 an hour, then move to rural Northwest Ohio. Housing is relatively cheap, as are groceries. If jobs are plentiful and housing and food are affordable, why do so many local residents still fear the future? One of the reasons is that wages are stagnant, and for those who work in local factories, after they reach a certain wage level all they receive are token, often laughable wage increases. The same workers have had to absorb scandalous increases in insurance costs. When my wife started with her employer in 1997, her insurance plan had a $300 deductible and a $1,200 maximum out-of-pocket. Today, her insurance plan has a $3,750 deductible and a $6,000 maximum out-of-pocket. During this time span, the amount that she pays for insurance premiums has gone up over 200%. Outrageous costs such as these are dragging many rural Americans right out of the middle class.

The housing collapse destroyed local property values. While values have improved in recent years, they are still below what they were in the 2000s. My wife and I bought our house in 2007 at the height of the boom market. Over the past 10 years we have made $25,000 of improvements on our home, including a new roof, windows, doors, and major inside remodeling. Yet, if we sold our house today, I doubt that it would bring much more than $10,000 over what we paid for it. Three houses across the street from us have sold in the last two years. All of the sellers were forced to reduce their prices in order to sell their homes. That said, housing prices are cheap, often hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper than similar homes in cities and on the East and West Coast.

During the Obama administration, environmental regulations have been used to saddle local residents with increasing water and sewer costs. In nearby Defiance, residents are having to deal with water and sewer bills that could, when all the forced EPA mandates are met, reach $200 a month. While the EPA is absolutely right to force Defiance to stop dumping shit in local waterways, I do understand the frustrations of local residents who are forced to pay ever-increasing utility bills without any meaningful wage increases. The small community I live in had to install a sewer system for similar reasons. Fortunately, the project was shovel ready and the village received over $1 million of TARP money to pay for the new system. If the village of Ney had not received this money, our water and sewer bills would be much more like those of Defiance.

Rural Northwest Ohio is religiously dominated by Evangelical, mainline Lutheran, Methodist, and Catholic churches. These sects are decidedly white, conservative, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, and Republican. They are an aging population who think that the 1950s were the best times of their lives. Farms dot the landscape, and the latest election results show that farmers overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, even though, if Congressional Republicans have their way, drastic cuts will be made to farm programs.  Quite frankly, the only thing that will turn rural areas such as this one towards a more progressive path is for there to be a lot of funerals. Until grandma and grandpa die off, rural Northwest Ohio will continue to be a bastion of Republican values. I will do what I can to be a voice that counters their delusions, and I know many others will do the same, but we do not have sufficient numbers to make a meaningful difference in the short-term. Our best approach is to begin helping the millennial and gen-x generations find their political feet. Both the Democratic and Republican parties attempted to co-opt younger Americans for political gain. These young voters bought into Barack Obama’s message of hope and change. Eight years later, many of these same voters believe that the two-party system is broken beyond repair. It is for this reason many young Americans supported Bernie Sanders, hoping that he would split off from the Democratic Party and run an independent campaign. Disheartened by Sanders’ pragmatic refusal to do so, many of these disillusioned young voters stayed home on election day, allowing idealism to trump pragmatism. It remains to be seen if the millennial and gen-x generations will continue to support the two-party system, or will instead opt to burn the house to the ground and start a political revolution. I think Bernie Sanders is right when he says what America really needs is revolution. Perhaps after four years of being ravaged by an orange-skinned monster, America will be ready for a real hope-and-change revolution.

I am often asked why I continue to live in rural Northwest Ohio. Why would an atheist with socialistic/progressive/liberal values continue to live in an area dominated by God’s Only Party? The short answer is that this is where my children and grandchildren live, but there is more to my living here than just my love for family. First, I was born here. My father’s parents were Hungarian immigrants who settled in this area, operating a hundred-acre farm until both of them died in the 1960s. Both my mom and dad were raised on the farm. While my dad was raised in Ohio, my mom spent most of her younger years on a farm in Missouri. My rural country roots run deep. Polly and I recently celebrated our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. We have spent most of our married years living among rural people. The slow, lazy hum of rural life suits us. Good schools surround us and we have few of the fears that many city-dwellers face. While we lock our doors and cars out of habit, if we didn’t it is likely that nothing would happen. We know our neighbors, even though we have little in common with them. We are surrounded by wildlife and greenery, and the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan are but short drives away. We know little of traffic jams, and when we go to the big cities of Toledo and Fort Wayne to indulge in that which only they can provide, we are always glad when we return home; and that’s the key word…home. Yes, I am angry that my fellow country folk played a big part in electing Donald Trump. I totally get the anger that many of my blue state friends have towards rural America. Their anger is warranted, but I hope they will remember that not every country hick or hillbilly is a Republican. This is my home, and I will, from my little corner of the universe, do what I can to make sure that Donald Trump is a one term president and that his harmful policies are kept from fruition. As disheartened as I am today, I know that I cannot remain silent. If my goal remains a better future for my children and grandchildren, then I owe it to them to muster what strength I can to defeat political ideologies that want to roll back progress. Throwing feces and writing screaming blog posts will gain me nothing. I must do what I’ve always done, and that is to be a loud voice for progressive values and the humanist ideal.


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    People will be left leaning or right leaning when it comes to economic policy, social values etc. That is fine. It is just a disgrace that the person representing the right was a man like donald trump.

    George Bush didn’t vote for him. Bush didn’t vote Clinton either. Sums up the farce that was this election. Hardened republicans who couldn’t support democrat policy had the option of staying at home or voting for trump. How did it come down to this?

    Whatever your political beliefs you have to say Trump is not fit for the office. Christian voters who think he is some sort of saviour are blind fools.

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    Thank you Bruce. I spent yesterday mostly in tears. Not because Hillary lost, but because of what we all lost. The America I grew up believing in is gone; perhaps it never even existed. I thought we were better than this. I thought that there was no way Trump could win, that we would see him for what he is; a dangerous demagogue with no understanding or respect for our Constitution. Surely we understood– but we didn’t, we don’t. Bush II made me angry, but this is heartbreaking. I don’t recognize the country I now live in and I’m not sure I want to.

    It’s also personal. The love of my life is a French national, still living in France. In the 11 years we have been together, immigration laws have changed and it is much more difficult, if not altogether impossible, for us to live together longer than 3 months at a time, so we chat via internet video, usually twice a day, unless family obligations interfere. We joke that the glitches in Skype are really Homeland listening in, but with a Trump presidency, it might not be a joke.

    You see, it’s not just that he’s French and that Mr Trump has singled out Germany and France for “extreme vetting”. My love also travels to Germany, has a daughter married to an Algerian Muslim and he sometimes sends me money so I don’t go hungry or so the utilities don’t get shut off. (My son and I live about 30% below poverty level). It’s not hard to see how a government controlled by those who promote conspiracy theories could twist those innocent facts into something that seems nefarious. One curious NSA agent and poof!– I’m on a no-fly list and even those 3 months together are nothing but a memory. The fear I feel is very real and not without cause. Add to all that the fact that my health insurance will disappear if the ACA is repealed or even merely not funded and it is difficult to feel anything but despair.

    But your words remind me that I’m made out of pretty tough stuff. Statistically, based on my background, I should have been either dead or in prison 2-3 decades ago but I’m still here and, at least for today, still free. Donald Trump cannot rob me of my convictions and I refuse to not live by them, regardless of the cost. So I will summon what courage I can and carry on along side of you. Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone in this fight overall, just in the particulars.

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    Take heart, my American friends. The USA is still home to myriad thousands with vision, to millions who like you are heartbroken today
    We stand with you here in Canada and elsewhere and we know that these dark times, this mad blind choice will someday be seen as the bottom we fell hard into and then began to climb out to a new America. Did Sanders say we need a revolution? Yep. In the meantime, Trump can still be hobbled, filibustered, shouted at… The lies he has told, the magical solutions will now all come back to feed on his presidency.

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    Doug B.

    Good description of people living in NW Ohio who would vote for Trump. It really is too bad they will be the ones hurt by the new US order coming from Trump and the GOP. The issues you mentioned that they care most about won’t be addressed.

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    Wonderful article, Bruce. We’ll see where this thing goes..keep writing, keep being a voice of reason. By the way, the counties around where I live (SW VA, NE TN) were more like 80% for Trump..

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    I’ve had a tough couple of days here. My heart is broken because my perception of the United States was of a nation moving forward, finding ways to be better, to treat each other more kindly and ever more fairly. What I’m trying to do is rearrange my mental furniture and figure out how to go forward.

    I live in rural northern NYS and know some people who think this election came out pretty well. Now I have to wonder if these people, some of whom I respect (or thought I did), really are OK with racism and sexism. Oh and about a dozen other isms that have been laid bare.

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    Thank you for this post. Despite the results, I’m trying to remain hopeful. We the people will have to work hard to keep the fight on.

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    Here is hoping that YOUNG folks get involved in the grass roots for progressive politics. I do what I can to talk to like minded young folks to get involved at the local politics of the area. sigh. It is tough! Thwy think their vote doesn’t matter! They think, “why spend the time and money to get involved!” oye.

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    One of the more extraordinary things about Trump support has been the backing of evangelical Christians. So a candidate who

    1. Is commercially bereft of morality, as witness his readiness to abuse the system via multi bankruptcy, and reluctance to pay tax.
    2. Clearly has no religious belief, lying recently about ‘reading the bible’, so as to woo the believers.
    3. Denies man induced climate change in the face of 97% of climate scientists who accept it.
    4. Has a despicable view of women, and is even prepared to engage in ‘boiler room banter’, including grabbing them ‘by the pussy’. (Note I can readily distinguish Bill Clinton’s behaviour here).
    5. Lies constantly about his personal wealth.
    6. Lies, or certainly grossly exaggerates, about self funding his campaign.
    7. Has as much empathy with ordinary working people as…well, Hilary Clinton.

    …is supported by a group who claim to stand for decency and morality. Of course, in reality they know the meaning of neither word.

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    Good, thought provoking article Bruce. I generally share your assessment of both candidates, and voted for one of the third party candidates.

    Have you compared the voting statistics you cited to 2008 and 2012? I wonder if there was really a change?

    Nationwide, Republican popular voting has been flat. McCain got 60M in 2008, Romney got 61M in 2012, and Trump got 60M on Tuesday.

    On the other hand, Obama got 69M and 66M in 2008 and 2012, but HRC only polled 60M this time.

    (All numbers rounded to nearest M)

    To me, these numbers dispute the notion of the angry middle aged white male voter being the reason Trump won.

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      Van, probably the best reason for Trump’s victory (and I didn’t see it even though it should have been obvious) is that Trump stole an issue the Democrats had abandoned–protectionism. Hillary was exceptionally vulnerable because riding on Bill’s coattails Trump could make the case that NAFTA was a part of the decline of the rust belt. People are still talking about the Reagan Democrats in Macomb county Michigan. This along with a tactful pander to Evangelicals with the Pence pick and promise of a right wing supreme court and there goes the Midwest, dragging with it Pennsylvania.
      Some interesting consequences of this realization is that I think Bernie Sanders would have won, if nominated. If any other Republican was nominated they would have lost against Hillary (though I suspect Kasich might have been able to pull it off.)

      • Avatar
        Bruce Gerencser

        You bring up a good point about Bill Clinton. While he is generally regarded as a “good” president, his social and trade policies did great harm to manufacturing businesses and their workers.

        Trump is right about trade and jobs. However, unless Congress has the will to use tariffs and protectionism to level the playing field there’s little Trump can do. Congress is controlled by corporate overlords, and they will certainly oppose any attempt to put the interests of American workers first.

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          (I should add the irony is that Bill Clinton stole issues from the Republicans like welfare reform and free trade, and his wife reaping what he sowed.)
          If you watched the NAFTA Ross Perot-Al Gore debates on CNN (I think on Larry King) If not you might still remember the salient quote, “The Giant sucking sound of jobs going down to Mexico.”
          It is interesting to look back at it 23 years later. Gore wasn’t wrong that it was a net plus (a net plus for whom?), but it still had and has huge ramifications for rust belt factory workers. All the retraining in the world won’t save a factory town.

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        Bruce Gerencser

        Matt Taibbi had this to say about Democrats ignoring rust belt workers and their families:

        The almost universal failure among political pros to predict Trump’s victory – the few exceptions, conspicuously, were people who hailed from rust-belt states, like Michael Moore – spoke to an astonishing cultural blindness. Those of us whose job it is to cover campaigns long ago grew accustomed to treating The People as a kind of dumb animal, whose behavior could sometimes be unpredictable but, in the end, almost always did what it was told.
        Whenever we sought insight into the motives and tendencies of this elusive creature, our first calls were always to other eggheads like ourselves. We talked to pollsters, think-tankers, academics, former campaign strategists, party spokes-hacks, even other journalists. Day after day, our political talk shows consisted of one geek in a suit interviewing another geek in a suit about the behaviors of pipe fitters and store clerks and cops in Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia. We’d stand over glitzy video maps and discuss demographic data points like we were trying to determine the location of a downed jetliner.

        And the whole time, The People, whose intentions we were wondering so hard about, were all around us, listening to themselves being talked about like some wild, illiterate beast.
        When 60 Minutes did its election-eve story about the mood of the electorate, they had to call up a familiar Beltway figure, pollster Frank Luntz, to put together a focus group. Luntz’s purpose was to take the white-hot rage and disgust hurled at him by voters on both sides of the aisle during the “focus group” portion, and translate it all into a media-speak during the sit-down. Luntz did his job and gave Steve Kroft his sound-bite diagnosis of The People’s temperature. “That’s not blowing off steam,” he said. “That is a deep-seated resentment.”

        Deep-seated resentment. There was a catchy, succinct line, over which we could all collectively stroke our chins in quiet contemplation. That’s as opposed to what the voters intended, which was to sock us all so hard for our snobbism and intellectual myopia that those very chins of ours would get driven straight through the backs of our skulls.

        There was a great deal of talk in this campaign about the inability of the “low-information” voter to understand the rhetoric of candidates who spoke above a sixth-grade language level. We were told by academics and analysts that Trump’s public addresses rated among the most simplistic political rhetoric ever recorded.

        But that story cut in both directions, in a way few of us silver-tongued media types ever thought about. The People didn’t speak our language, true. But that also meant we didn’t speak theirs.
        Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, ostensibly a comedy but destined now to be remembered as a horror movie, was often cited this past year as prophecy. The film described a future dystopia of idiot Americans physically unable to understand the tepid grammatical speech of a half-smart time traveler from the past. Many reporters, myself included, found themselves thinking about this film when we heard voters saying they were literally incapable of understanding the words coming out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth.

        “When [Trump] talks, I actually understand what he’s saying,” a young Pennsylvanian named Trent Gower told me at a Trump event a month ago. “But, like, when fricking Hillary Clinton talks, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit.”

        So these Trump voters had a comprehension problem. But we were just as bad. We couldn’t understand what they were saying to us. We refused to accept every signal about whom they hated, and how much. Why? Because Trump’s voters were speaking a language that has been taboo in America for decades, if not forever.

        Nobody in this country knows how to talk about class. America is like a giant manor estate where the aristocrats don’t know they’re aristocrats and the peasants imagine themselves undiscovered millionaires. And America’s cultural elite, trained for so long to think in terms of artificial distinctions like Republicans and Democrats instead of more natural divisions like haves and have-nots, refused until it was too late to grasp the meaning of the rage-storm headed over the wall.

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          Appalachian Agnostic

          People want short, simple bite sized statements that they don’t have to think about very much. The people in my area think Trump is going to bring coal back because he said he would. As if all it took to make an obsolete technology relevant again was the will to do so.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      This post focuses on rural America and the part they played in Trump’s election. Nationally, Trump won the election because of poor Democratic voter turnout. Republicans were quite effective in blocking or making it hard for minority voters to vote. I haven’t seen the actual data, but I suspect that black voter turnout was down.

      At the end of the day, Democrats lost this election because they have lost touch with working class Americans. They are no longer viewed as champions of the people. Remove the social hot button issues and Republicans/Democrats are pretty much the same. Both are controlled by lobbyists, banks, and Wall Street.

      One thing is for sure….we better buckle up….cuz we are headed for one hell of a ride. A cabinet of Bolton, Christy, Gingrich, Giuliani. Ponder that for a moment. ?

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        Totally agree, Bruce. I have always been a city dwelling east coaster, that went to school in Indiana. It always stuck me how the rural folks had such a different view point from us urban folks. This outcome does not surprise me. When i moved to SC in the 80’s I could see the demise of one factory-mill towns. I was fortunate that I had a good education and could adapt to the changing economy. God (or the equivant expletive) Help us ALL. Trump is a disaster, IMO. Hoping he is reined in by the saner elements of the GOP (assholes that they are…..just sayin’)

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    Appalachian Agnostic

    I am in a dark place right now because of this election. I am seeing people I have known for my entire life in a new light. And I am turning in to a snob. I have begun to resent being resented because I won’t dumb down my language. I can’t focus on my work and I want to eat junk food all day. Sometimes I wish I could cut myself off from humanity and go live in a secluded cabin somewhere, but good luck finding a place because the rednecks have filled the hills with their Goddamned trail cameras. Gaaarrrrrggggggggghhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    best analysis and prediction of trump winning was way back in jan by john michael greer, blaming it on arrogance and not listening to rural voters that have been trounced for the last 30 years due to trade and lack of jobs:

    and his follow up now, after the election:

    also, i don’t follow this lady, or infowars that she reports for (tho i’ve heard of infowars before), but somehow stumbled across a couple of her videos before the election, showing just how sparsely attended clinton’s rallies were; there was another video blogger or two that said similar things, altho i don’t recall which ones they were. in short, there was evidence that there were no crowds showing up at clinton’s events, while there were 20k people showing up at trump’s, and he’d gotten more money from individual donors than any other republican. this video from about a week before the election, with bill clinton himself speaking, shows a very small and unenthusiastic crowd:

    speaking of arrogance:
    here’s the architect of obamacare saying the lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, and that the american public is stupid, on multiple occasions:
    and in front of congress:

    the wikileaks emails show that clinton and her team manipulated the system to exclude bernie sanders, and they also manipulated the system to get the news media to cover the “pied pipers” of trump and some others, since they thought it would be easier to defeat trump that someone like jeb bush. they also conspired to manipulate the the polls, including a larger share of democrats in the samples to make their numbers look better.

    in short, there was plenty of warning to those interested in seeing it. and clinton’s own manipulations got in her way. no sympathy for her or any of the the people that enabled her living in a bubble from me at all.

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    i wrote a post last night that didn’t show up. perhaps the multiple links made it go to moderation or the spam folder? thanks for checking.

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