Trumpism Down to the Local Level

I wrote last week, in a post entitled ‘What Putin’s team is probably telling him about Trump,’ about five degrees of culpability for Putinism’s insinuation and degradation of American politics.

One could modify that list only slightly, and thereby describe Trump’s present influence in America:

(1) those who have served the Trump as operatives and surrogates to advance his agenda in opposition to America liberty and sovereignty, (2) those sympathetic to Trumpism (including white nationalists, anti-Muslim bigots, and theologically-confused & intellectually-stunted Americans who ludicrously think that Trump’s a moral exemplar), (3) those who wilfully refuse to see the damage Trump has done, (4) those who for years have maintained the low standards that have allowed Trump-style lies and misconduct to flourish (including every glad-handing Babbitt in every town in America), and (5) those of us who should have seen more clearly, and dealt with the rest more assertively & decisively, all these years gone by.

Most people, facing a conflict not of their wishes, would yet prefer to fight on only one front. America has not had that luxury in prior conflicts, and those of us in opposition do not have that luxury now. Some might have hoped to fight only nationally, and others to do so only locally. However one might apportion one’s time, there is a need to engage on both fronts.

Those supporting Trumpism declared boldly (and falsely) in 2016 that theirs was an existential struggle. I don’t believe for a moment that their situation was such; I’ve no doubt that they’ve now pushed those in opposition into such a conflict. What they unreasonably feared for themselves they’ve now unjustly inflicted on others.

So be it. Americans have faced secessionist slaveholders, copperheads, klan, and bund. Each threat we overcame, each danger in its time we consigned to the outer darkness.

We will slog through this time, through its dark politics, by use of law and a better politics, until it is no longer necessary to do so.

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 8 of 14)

This is the eighth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter from Part Four (2011) of Janesville (The Ambassador of Optimism). I’ll cover the chapter in detail because it’s so perfect in its account of boosterism, as though Sinclair Lewis’s protagonist George F. Babbitt overtook a Janesville resident and spoke through her.

Goldstein’s account of banker Mary Willmer (co-founder of Rock County 5.0) is utterly devastating. Willmer’s sure that sunny optimism will lift Janesville’s condition from that of a near-depression:

On the first Tuesday of the year, Mary Willmer is in a cheerful mood. This morning, the Gazette has published a guest column she has written in hope of setting the proper tone in Janesville for 2011. The column is featured in the upper right corner of the newspaper’s Opinion page. It reminds people of the efforts Rock County 5.0 has been making to lift the local economy, but the message is less about strategy than about state of mind. “We need to be proud of our community,” Mary has written, “and we need to all be ‘Ambassadors of Optimism.’?” This mantra about being an ambassador of optimism is an idea that Mary came up with during the early weeks of Rock County 5.0’s existence.

Willmer’s also excited about her new-found friend, rightwing billionaire Diane Hendricks:

Seeing her words in print is not the only reason that Mary is pleased. She got home late last night from downtown Madison, where she was because Diane Hendricks snagged her a ticket to the inaugural ball of a governor who is, Mary can see, as determined to set a new tone for Wisconsin as she is for Janesville.

Predictably, those in Janesville who are struggling feel they need more than an ‘ambasssador of optimism’:

The anger that rises against Mary is local. It rises because she has neglected to notice a basic fact: talking up a town to people who can still afford to go out to eat, to travelers checking into the Hampton Inn or the Holiday Inn Express, is not quite the same as telling everyone who reads the Gazette that the only thing they need to do for the economy to recover is to become an optimist. And telling them this near the start of a month during which Rock County’s unemployment rate, even two years after the assembly plant shut down, stands at 11.2 percent. Not the same at all.

(Astonishingly, and cluelessly, Willmer is “slow to sense the anger rising against her.”)

Meanwhile, Mary Willmer’s new pal takes a moment before a meeting to ask recently-inaugurated Gov. Walker a question:

Diane [Hendricks] asks, could they talk for two seconds about some concerns that are best not to raise in front of the group? “Okay, sure,” the governor says. Diane stands close and looks him straight in the eye. “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions and become a right-to-work? What can we do to help you?” “Oh yeah,” Walker replies. “Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.” “You’re right on target,” Diane says, as Mary looks on.”

Goldstein saves the best for the end of the chapter: “Mary types on her BlackBerry a message that she posts on her Facebook page: “Great morning with Gov. Walker. We are so lucky to have him.”

It’s familiar: the insistence on optimism (the myopic role of boosters), the reliance on a local, poorly written but ever-so-obliging publication to carry water for the effort, and the search for a few well-placed pals to reassure that one has arrived….

Goldstein’s accounts in the chapter are, of course, all from 2011. They’re striking. Yesteryear’s mirage of arrival (for one never arrives) seems, from our later date, less arrogant than it is impossibly sad.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 9 of 14).

Margaret Sullivan on Great Local Reporting

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist observes that Great local reporting stands between you and wrongdoing. (Sullivan was formerly The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of her hometown paper, The Buffalo News.)

Sullivan explains what great local reporting means:

“In only 15 years, American newspaper companies slashed their workforces by more than half — from 412,000 employees in 2001 to 174,000 last year.

But that troubling trend wasn’t on the minds of journalists at the Charleston Gazette-Mail last year as they dug deep into the prescription-drug epidemic that was inflicting mortal wounds on their community.

No, what motivated them was the West Virginia paper’s unofficial motto: “Sustained outrage.”

That phrase, coined by former publisher Ned Chilton, “means a lot to people here,” executive editor Robert Byers told me last week, shortly after the 37,000-circulation paper won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The family-owned paper (Chilton’s daughter is the publisher now) has a newsroom staff of about 50.

“You can do a hundred stories” on the opioid crisis, Byers said, “but we wanted to know where all these drugs were coming from, and how could so many pills be diverted onto the street.”

Needless to say, not all communities have newspapers like this. On the contrary, in the Whitewater area, we have papers so weak that they’d never come close to a serious journalistic nomination, let alone a real award. Many of them give each other prizes at local press gatherings, for third-tier work, on a participation-trophy theory of life. Indeed, the local climate is so weak that a small-town politician can brand his own website a news source, cover for years the political projects in which he’s been directly involved, and expect to be taken seriously for it.

If  one can say of the admirable Charleston Gazette-Mail that its unofficial motto is sustained outrage, one can say as easily of the Gazette, Daily Union, Register, and Banner that they might as well have a common, unofficial motto of sustained boosterism.

This local problem has been part of That Which Paved the Way to the weaker economic, fiscal, and social conditions that plague nearby communities. The way out will not come neither from more of the same ideas nor the same people pushing the same ideas.

‘The Closest Thing We Have to State TV’

In the clip above, Seth Meyers considers the relationship between Fox News and the Trump Administration, concluding that Fox News is ‘the closest thing we have to state TV,’ represents ‘sycophantic coverage,’ and that ‘instead of a Bible, Trump should have been sworn in on a TV Guide.’ (H/t to Raw Story for the pointer.)

Small towns across America are familiar with publications that are – in support and in effect – quasi-government publications. In the Whitewater area, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Daily Union or Banner as offering anything other than sycophantic coverage. It’s fair to qualify this as nearly impossible, as ever so rarely one of these publications will stray from an insider’s line, for reasons of personal pique if not actual substance.

We’ve had years of coverage like this, weakening the quality of our politics and thinking, so much so that those in authority sometimes (but not always) seem like parodies of ill-preparation and weak analysis. Low quality of this kind is That Which Paved the Way, enabling a federal government led by the very worst among us.