SOMEWHERE IN IOWA—Here is what happened, right before everything began to go to hell:
It was July of 2015. The president was Barack Obama. I was a reporter for Gawker.com, a thriving independent media outlet. The 2016 presidential election was a year away, and the campaign season had just begun in earnest. In search of the soul of America during this more innocent time, I traveled to Iowa. My plan was to drive across the state, stopping every day at a different Pizza Ranch—a Midwestern chain of Christian-inspired pizza buffet restaurants that are always popular destinations for presidential candidates seeking to meet Regular Folks, and which, to me, seemed a likely place to locate What America Is All About. I was full of twisted optimism for the journey ahead.
Before I set off on my Pizza Ranch quest, I spent a day at a Christian political conference in Ames, IA, that attracted a number of the Republicans running for president. What a bunch of wackos! I dashed off a piece making fun of them all, marveling in particular at the sheer idiocy of Donald Trump, about whom I concluded, “It’s all rather entertaining, as long as we all agree he’s never going to be elected.” My story filed, I went back to the hotel to prepare for my journey.
An hour later, I got a phone call. It was my boss, Nick Denton. He needed me to come back to New York right away. Gawker was falling apart; top editors had quit; the newsroom was on edge; everyone was outraged; the whole place seemed in danger of melting down. Assuming that this was just another of Gawker Media’s standard annual crises, I sighed, waved goodbye to Iowa, and flew back home.
Here is what happened next: Gawker pivoted directly from that crisis into a lawsuit that ended up bankrupting the company, causing Gawker Media to be sold and Gawker.com to be shut down; Donald Trump was elected president; and everything that we had mocked became the dominant political and cultural force in America, while we ourselves were blown to bits. Among the many casualties of that dark and shocking time, there was a tiny one that stayed close to my own heart: the Pizza Ranch story. It was the one that had gotten away. Everything had indeed fallen apart, to a far greater extent than I had ever imagined possible in those innocent days of summer 2015.
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Now, four years have passed. Another presidential campaign is somehow upon us. Though battered and dazed, America is still here. So is Iowa. And so are its 76 Pizza Ranch locations.
Des Moines is a city that lives up to its reputation, and nothing more. Even if you know intellectually that most Des Moines residents are not fresh-scrubbed, pink-cheeked, hearty Midwestern corn-eaters with jobs in the insurance industry, you could be forgiven for believing it was so. Iowa’s capital, like much of the state, is extremely clean and lacking in things that are not where they are supposed to be—which is to say, interesting things. The office buildings of downtown Des Moines are connected by a series of enclosed skywalks. In normal cities these would be infested with wandering alcoholics and scratchitti, but there were no signs of either here. On the Sunday I arrived, there was a single Starbucks open downtown, and inside were all 43 of the city’s yuppies. There is a large sign by a road out of town that reads, “COLONIAL—GOOD BREAD—TRY IT!” Something in the spirit of that sign captures much of the Iowa vibe.
Good white bread! Try it!
Just across the river from downtown is the East Village, which is often referred to as the “hipster” area of Des Moines, in the very lax interpretation of “hipster” that means “home to a music venue, new loft apartments, and at least one cute greeting card store.” The East Village is home to RAYGUN, an Iowa-themed T-shirt and knickknack store that brands itself “The Greatest Store in the Universe” and which is a mandatory stop for any political reporter desperately looking for a little “color” to fill out their Iowa campaign dispatches. Every member of the media who passes through Des Moines is contractually obligated to stop in at Raygun and quote at least one of their quirky T-shirt slogans, like “Body By Ranch” or “Just Another Loser Teacher,” to show that Iowans are in on the whole Iowa joke. In fact, Raygun is so in on its own joke that it now sells media-themed T-shirts like “America Needs Journalists” and “Pay For the News” and even, despicably, “I’m Not a Player, I Just Blog a Lot.”
Though I do not typically support violence against journalists, I absolutely support the right of any Iowa citizen to kick the ass of any journalist wearing one of these shirts. It is easy to imagine the entire staff of Axios gleefully loading up on these for souvenirs. Raygun’s fawning little items are a perfect demonstration of the sort of media self-regard that makes so many people hate the media. Not that I blame the T-shirt store owners; like all great American entrepreneurs, they saw an opportunity to soak the idiot tourists, and they took it.
This is an extreme example of the broader, incestuous Iowa-Media-Politics relationship that can, in campaign season, give the state the repugnant flavor of a megachurch full of MSNBC fans. To learn something about America, it is necessary to separate oneself from the glare of the TV cameras and the smarmy self-importance of the media hordes. It is necessary to travel a more lonely road. That is where Pizza Ranch comes in.
Founded in Hull, IA, in 1981, this chain of Wild West-themed pizza buffet restaurants has spread across the entire Midwest, and is now as ubiquitous in Iowa as Cracker Barrel is down south. Pizza Ranch’s stated corporate vision is “To glorify God by positively impacting the world,” and one of its cofounders, Lawrence Vander Esch—who was also chairman of his county’s Republican Party—spent four years in prison after being arrested in 2001 for multiple counts of sexual abuse. The Sioux City Journal reports that “Vander Esch admitted to coercing teenage male employees of the Pizza Ranch in Hull to donate semen samples for a University of Iowa medical research project. After helping collect the samples, Vander Esch would later tell the boys that their sperm counts were not high enough to be paid for the samples. According to court documents, no samples were ever submitted for medical research.”
There can be no more appropriate celebration of our nation’s bizarre internal contradictions than a Jesus-loving, sex scandal-tainted, cowboy-celebrating pizza chain. The unlikely character of Pizza Ranch is its most fascinating asset. At its core, it is a powerful demonstration of the American promise that you can create your own new reality from scratch. In the monotonous fields of Iowa, after all, you are equidistant from the Wild West and from the kitchens of Italy—each is, for all practical purposes, a million miles away.
One thing that must be said about the pizza at Pizza Ranch: it’s bad. The dough is thick and bready; the cheese is chewy and bland; the variety is unremarkable. On the upside, there is plenty of it. You can even order a special pizza to be delivered to your table just by paying the price of the buffet. At my first Pizza Ranch stop in Ankeny, in a shopping center surrounded by vast fields blanketed in snow, the restaurant was a warm and buzzing haven, packed with families dining together, as well as one reporter freak dining alone and writing furtively in a notebook. The walls were hung with wagon wheels, and horse shoes, and wooden pitchforks, and a whole universe of signs bearing slogans like “Home on the Range” and “Howdy Pardner,” each carefully hung at a 30 degree angled slant for maximum folksiness. The bathroom is called “The Outhouse,” and inside is a sign reading “Never Squat With Your Spurs On.” Outside, a full-sized covered wagon watched over the parking lot.
I do not want to give the misleading impression that Pizza Ranch only serves bad pizza. There is other bad food as well. Specifically, in addition to the pizza buffet, there is a hot food buffet featuring fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, mac and cheese, stuffing, green beans, and corn; there is a salad bar that includes a baffling array of random ingredients that make it nearly impossible to construct a passable salad (mandarin oranges and boiled egg? Bacon bits and macaroni salad? Iceberg lettuce, dried cranberries, chickpeas, and ham? Every possible permutation ends up revolting); and, for dessert, “dessert pizzas” that consist of the same doughy pizza crust topped with cinnamon and sugar, or canned fruit and white icing. It can be improved by holding it under the soft serve machine until it is covered in a blanket of dairy simulacrum. There is also pudding—but it is located, inexplicably, at the salad bar, so it always seemed to have a few chunks of green peppers stuck in it.
I had planned to invite officials from across the political spectrum to dine with me a Pizza Ranches across Iowa. And I did. But not a single state or local Democratic or Republican Party official took me up on my offer. I choose to attribute this to my reputation for tough, challenging journalism, rather than to the intrinsically disquieting nature of the invitation itself. Fortunately, other political figures were more open minded. On my second day in Iowa I met Joe Ellerbroek and Paige Lee, two members of the Des Moines chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, at a Pizza Ranch in a strip mall in the new-looking suburb of Waukee.
Ellerbroek, 28, grew up nearby, and Lee, 26, moved there in 2017, after working for a voter education nonprofit. Their chapter, with more than 100 dues-paying members, focuses on issues like affordable housing, abortion rights, local social services, and spreading the word about socialism—the same sort of practical/ theoretical mix that characterizes DSA chapters across the country. They also successfully disrupted a Mike Bloomberg event late last year. But while Iowa’s reputation as a secluded backwater is overblown (Ellerbroek answered my predictable question about this by shrugging, “We have the internet”), it is true that the state’s unique place in the national presidential race tends to warp the local political scene.
“There’s a gap between Des Moines city politics and the kind of Democratic party structure that is waiting every four years for a big injection of attention through the caucus... Because there is so much media access and this professional campaign worker pipeline that develops around the caucus, there’s not much of an incentive to have an aggressive program for change if you’re an Iowa Democrat,” Ellerbroek said. “We want to use the caucus not to support any one candidate, but to confront power structures that think they can get away with just showing up and hee-hawing at a Pizza Ranch.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with hee-hawing at a Pizza Ranch. Much great journalism can be produced that way. By the third day, I was already an unwitting participant in the Think About Pizza Ranch diet: All I had to do was think about Pizza Ranch, and I didn’t feel hungry any more. You can try to approach it tactically—eating only pizza one day, for example, and only hot food the next, and maybe even only salad bar another day, if you can manage to find anything edible there—but all of the food had a distinct Pizza Ranch flavor and aroma that settled into your gut the moment you walked in the door, casting a Wild West pall over any attempt to outwit your culinary fate. I sat that night in a harshly lit Pizza Ranch on the south side of Iowa City, behind an Eagles Lodge, picking at a plate of string beans in a desperate attempt at a cleanse. A line of pissed-off people swarmed around the empty hot bar, waiting for a new tray of chicken to emerge from the kitchen. I noted on my way out a Pizza Ranch-branded suicide helpline flier pinned up to a display board near the door; a nod to Christian service, surely, but also perhaps useful to anyone who planned to dine here for a week straight.
The following afternoon, I drove for an hour past barren, rolling brown farmland to a Pizza Ranch in Washington, IA. The entire way down, I listened to A.M. talk radio that repeatedly made the following two points: A) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a simplistic, uneducated child who does not understand complex modern problems, and B) We must take Biblical prophecies seriously. The restaurant was next to a Walmart and an empty field that smelled strongly like manure. The buffet was closed. I took this as an opportunity to not eat at Pizza Ranch that day.
The only presidential candidate campaigning in the state of Iowa on March 13 was Andrew Yang. A former entrepreneur and nonprofit CEO, Yang is running as the universal basic income candidate—the bedrock of his platform is a $1,000 per month “Freedom Dividend” for every citizen—and is trying to creep into contender status in the Democratic primary by spending more time in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier than all the bigger names. Part of his ceaseless commitment to campaigning was to meet me for lunch at a totally empty Pizza Ranch in a shopping center in North Liberty, where he ordered a table full of pizza and fried chicken for his young staff and talked policy to the extent possible while chewing through several pieces of chicken.
Yang sees automation and what he believes will be a permanent destruction of millions of jobs as our nation’s most pressing economic threat. “It’s no longer a speculative threat in the future,” he says. “We’re in the third inning or so.” Though this specter has famously been floated since the Luddites were smashing looms, he says that this time is different, citing the millions of manufacturing and retail jobs that have already been wiped out and the declining labor force participation rate of people stranded without work who cannot magically pivot to become software engineers.
Whereas most Democrats advocate programs that target the poor and middle class, Yang says that a $12,000 per year basic income, funded by a value added tax, would mitigate a host of problems, from basic economic inequality to the subjugation of women to student debt. In exchange, those who opt into a basic income would give up their access to many existing parts of the government social safety net, including Social Security. (All of this is laid out in great detail in Yang’s book and on his website, along with dozens of other policies including repurposing empty shopping malls and “Making Taxes Fun”). Running for president, he said, was really his only logical choice: “If you believe that I’m generally right about both the timing and nature of the problem, we don’t have a whole lot of time. If I messed around and like, ran for Congress or something, what’s that really gonna do?”
Whether or not you feel Yang’s policy approach is the best (I remain skeptical that Giving Money to Everyone is superior to Giving Money to The Poor), the fact that he is a deep underdog more than a year away from the caucus gives him a refreshingly plainspoken kind of honesty. “Anyone who says ‘I’m gonna run the government like a business’ is dumb,” he said when I asked whether he bears any similarity to Howard Schultz. “I’m not some out of touch asshole. I’ve been hanging out with human beings my entire life.”
I could not, however, get him to say anything bad about Iowa. That is the sacred cow. He even expressed enthusiasm about bringing his kids to Pizza Ranch for spring break. I have my doubts.
On my last day in the state, I sat alone in an upholstered booth in a Pizza Ranch in Pella, IA, at 5 p.m. with a smattering of other early bird retirees. There were no kids to play the claw game in the Fun Zone this early in the evening. I glanced at a harness, and a lantern, and a wagon wheel strung from the ceiling. Why? The combination of pizza and fried chicken to the exclusion of all other food—why? The Wild West in the most desolate corners of the plain states—why? A diverse nation of 300 million lending electoral primacy to a land of white farmers—why? The sickening aroma of the buffet served to concentrate the mind.
When I came here in 2015, I had time to visit only one Pizza Ranch, where I purchased a promotional Pizza Ranch-branded Christian music CD that they were selling for $5. There was one song in particular that I blasted over and over in the rental car, that filled me with certainty that brighter days were just ahead:
Everybody needs a little hope,
You know the kind that turns your grey skies blue,
A little something that’ll pull you through
Well good news, that something’s living right inside of you, yeah
That was the very end of the Hope and Change era. Four years later, I contemplated this false promise bitterly. Pizza Ranch, it turns out, is just like America itself. Begun unnaturally on the strength of an unlikely idea, it is alluring from the outside. Toys! Flashing lights! Abundance! The consumer choice is dazzling. But after a while, what once seemed like endless options are shown to be smaller and less thrilling than you thought. The longer you spend inside, the more you feel a nauseous, repugnant feeling creeping into your gut. The edges of life’s buffet are revealed to be prison walls. And over time, your motive will evolve from greed to a deep desire for escape.
The last time I was here, Pizza Ranch portended personal, professional, and political doom. Yet I came back for more. It is this intrinsic American spirit that guides us all: A belief that this time will be different, despite a lack of any evidence to that effect.