Reports Of Small-Town America’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Reports Of Small-Town America’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Michael Kruse’s article is bad journalism, factually and spiritually, but it is simply the latest and sloppiest entry in a growing genre: the new American Gothic.
Carolyn Zelikow
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In a recent article for Politico Magazine, Michael Kruse takes readers on a ghastly tour of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, past the neighborhoods marked “X” for demolition, to the house where a baby starved to death, and onward into the living room of a woman whose son overdosed last year. The place emerges as a gray hellscape soaked in fentanyl and the fumes of closed mines, where hollow-eyed retirees shuffle past shuttered diners in a trance of bitter grief.

The retort from Johnstown’s city leaders is crisp, devastating, and will sadly never have the readership of Kruse’s original narrative. “Simply put,” they write, “Johnstown was just the convenient backdrop Politico needed to validate its storyline.”

In portraying this otherwise innocuous steel town as a kind of real-life version of the horror-genre video game “Silent Hill,” Kruse means to answer the oft-pondered question, “Who on earth still supports President Trump?” Unspeakably wretched white people, is his general answer.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Or Silent Hill?

Kruse’s article is bad journalism, factually and spiritually, but it is simply the latest and sloppiest entry in a growing genre: the new American Gothic. The scene is buzzing with activity. Mark Zuckerberg has just returned from Trump’s America and he cannot hide his tears. J.D. Vance is serenading the lecture circuit with his hillbilly elegy.

Charles Murray and Robert Putnam have delivered door-stoppers on the unravelling American fabric, and The Economist recently revisited its cheery 2012 meditation, “The sadness of Scranton,” with an essay on globalization’s losers that begins, “Even before the disaster, Scranton had been having a poor century.”

Separately, these are all outstanding analyses by serious people, and there are many other fine writings in this vein. But taken in their totality, one could be forgiven for thinking that (1) most of America is hurtling towards sodden annihilation, with northeast Pennsylvania at the helm, or (2) that writing an “unsparing” (read: brutal) profile of an American town or city is a rite of passage for participation in the public sphere. At the very least, one would conclude that the news-reading public has an insatiable appetite for images of wet mobile homes and disused barns.

These Reports Are Greatly Exaggerated

Singular as these times we live in may be, it is worth pausing to ask why these gloomy narratives are having such a moment in the sun. A thirst to know the people who elected Trump president is not a sufficient answer. Love or despise Trump, it simply is not true that the people who voted for him are noticeably worse off than the average Joe.

If the media’s interest was to discover “Trump’s America,” they would leave poor Pennsylvania alone, and visit the suburbs of Phoenix, the county where Trump scored the most votes in 2016. Or the fourth estate might visit Staten Island, the kind of financially stable enclave where Trump did quite well. Or they could profile white college graduates, who voted for Trump over Clinton by a 4 percent margin.

Eye-watering poverty is there for those who seek it, from West Baltimore to suburban El Paso to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge, but Trumpland as a whole is relatively affluent. Why does the media focus on its destitute fringe?

In his notorious essay “The Father Führer” for National Review last year, Kevin Williamson reveals his hand: “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities [where Trump’s base lives] is that they deserve to die… The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”

While the majority of Trump’s 63 million voters do not actually belong to an “underclass” and most probably came to him for a complex patchwork of reasons (such as the 29 percent of Latino voters who chose Trump), it serves a purpose for these authors to depict the whole lot as a “basket of deplorables.”

The new American Gothic is indeed grisly. Its authors, consciously or unconsciously, hate what Trump stands for to such a degree that they have convinced themselves that his supporters must be utterly deformed by poverty and addiction. The ultimate fantasy? That his base might just extinguish themselves through their own dysfunction.

A New War on the Poor

To understand our current mood, it is worth taking a look at President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. In the early 1960s, books like Michael Harrington’s seminal “The Other America” exposed widespread suffering in the United States, shocking a nation that believed that, at least among whites, more or less everyone had partaken in the affluence that blossomed after World War II.

Johnson launched the War on Poverty in part to protect his and voters’ vision of America as the beacon of the free world. To win the public over to this effort, Johnson and his team orchestrated a media blitz that descended on the distressed cabins and coal mines of Appalachia. Half a century later, most of America still thinks of the region through the lens of those photographers and journalists, an iconography that broods heavily over today’s reporting on the region.

Then as now, media sensationalized the misery of poor whites, but in the 1960s, it was with the explicit purpose of calling for specific, unprecedented remedies to their suffering. Flip back to LIFE’s Valley of Poverty” photo essay of 1964: “In a lonely valley in eastern Kentucky,” it reads, “live an impoverished people whose plight has long been ignored by affluent America…President Johnson, who has declared ‘unconditional war on poverty in America,’ has singled out Appalachia as a major target.”

The legendary John Dominis, who shot the series, published these photos of diseased children, tar-paper churches, and families scratching for lumps of coal in the snow to illustrate what he and other Americans believed was a solvable problem: these places just needed electricity, medicine, a helping hand. While Appalachia may have had to endure the stigma of “Deliverance,” it also got Medicare, food stamps, Head Start, and a decade that saw the highest levels of federal spending on anti-poverty programs of any era in our history except for the New Deal.

As a new generation of journalists descends on these same places, looking for the same harrowing stories that were told half a century ago, they might ask themselves whether, like their forbears, their analysis can also claim to rally readers towards a grander vision of America, or whether their lurid pessimism might instead be doing the reverse.

We live in an era of enormous, even terrifying challenges, but most communities in this country have what it takes to adapt and thrive. What they lack is confidence, the framework for imagining a future that is better than the nostalgia-hued past. Decades of dismal, simplistic reporting about small cities has not helped. Smear pieces, like the Politico article at hand, do tangible harm.

No one has all the answers for America’s small cities and rural places, and that is a great reason to approach these communities with curiosity, analytical rigor, and an open mind. Besides, photojournalists must be running out of grey hills and rainy parking lots. A ray of sunshine might be a welcome change of pace.

Carolyn Zelikow directs the Hometown Summit, a conference in Charlottesville, Virginia for small cities. She is also associate director of national programs at the Aspen Institute.

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