James Fallows is a staff writer at The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.
James Fallows is based in Washington, D.C., as a staff writer at The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for more than 40 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Shanghai, Beijing, and London. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a Fellow of the American Geographical Society. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of U.S. News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot.
Fallows won the National Magazine Award for his 2002 story “Iraq: The Fifty-First State?” warning about the consequences of invading Iraq; he has been a finalist four other times. He has also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his book National Defense and an N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America foundation. His books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. Before Our Towns, his most recent book was China Airborne (2012). He is married to Deborah Fallows, the author of the book Dreaming in Chinese. Together from 2013 to 2017 they traveled across the United States for their American Futures project, which led to Our Towns. They have two married sons and five grandchildren.
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At his rally/press conference this evening, March 29, Donald Trump effectively said that doctors and hospitals in New York are selling masks “out the back door,” accounting for current shortages.
You can see it for yourself here, on this C-SPAN video, starting at time 12:00. Trump notes the shortage of masks and says:
Something’s going on. And you ought to look at it as reporters.
Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door?
Through his public career, Trump has been notable for his projection, in the psychologists’ sense of that term. What he is aware of in himself is what he claims to detect in others.
For instance: He has a long history of making up “sources”—his posing as “John Miller” in leaks to New York reporters back in his real estate days, and in his “lots of people are saying” stories. Thus he accuses reporters of doing the same. His own children are dealt into his business arrangements. Thus this is his point of attack against Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine.
If you asked most Americans why emergency rooms and ICUs might be running short of masks, the last possibility they would think of is that the masks were “going out the back door.” We are talking about doctors, nurses, and medical staff working around the clock in increasingly difficult circumstances. We are talking about hospital administrators now thinking about beds, ventilators, space in temporary morgues. All of these health staffers are coping with sick and dying people, while wondering when they, themselves, might get the disease.
It had not even occurred to me that people like these might be skimming off masks and selling them.
But this is what occurred to Donald Trump.
Projection. It’s something he might have thought of himself.
This afternoon, Trump put out a tweet that rivaled “out the back door” in its bottomless lack of empathy. He said:
Trump is a problem, but clearly he cannot help himself. No one who could talk about his personal ratings, when the public was dealing with economic collapse and mounting deaths, would do this if he had any sense of empathy, decency, or impulse control.
The 53 Republicans who control the Senate could do something on the country’s behalf.
But the number who have spoken up about Trump’s descent these past few days?
Just before the 2016 election, and then again after its results became clear, I did a series of Atlantic items on a challenge I thought the press was not prepared for.
The challenge was dealing with a major political figure—Donald Trump—who fit no previous pattern of how presidents or other major figures conceived of “truth” versus “lies.”
All politicians, like all people, will lie about matters large and small. But most politicians, like most people, usually lie for a reason. They want to avoid blame or embarrassment. They want someone to like or treat them better. They want to paint themselves in a better light. They’ve talked themselves into “believing” a more comfortable version of perhaps-painful truths.
We all know examples from daily life. In the life of public figures, it means things like: Richard Nixon lying about Watergate (in hopes of not getting caught). Bill Clinton lying about his affairs (ditto). Lyndon Johnson concealing what he knew about the worsening situation in Vietnam (so as not to complicate his re-election chances). FDR concealing his physical limitations (so as not to have them complicate his political and policy goals).
So in dealing with the political universe as of the summer of 2015—the time when Donald Trump entered the presidential race—the press could start by asking: What’s the reason a certain statement might be a lie? What would a president — a mayor, a senator— have to gain by shading the truth? The related assumption was that people wouldn’t go to the trouble of crafting a lie without a reason to do so. Lies are harder to remember than the truth; they involve more work in getting people to back up your story; they involve the risk that you’ll be caught.
What made Donald Trump different was not how much more frequently he lies — though he does so at a prodigious rate. (As Daniel Dale and the Washington Post’sfact-check team, among others, have tirelessly chronicled.)
Rather the difference was that Trump so plainly recognized no distinction between true and false—between what the “facts” showed and what he wanted them to be, between what he wanted people to think and what they could see for themselves. Some public figures are unusually “willing” to lie; Trump seemed not even to notice he was doing so. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s famous book “On Bullshit” bears on this phenomenon—people who just talk, in a slurry of “true” and “false,” with no concern or even awareness of the difference between the two.
In Trump’s case it became clear long ago that he lacked the mental filter that alerts most people to the boundary between true and false. He would probably sail through any lie-detector test. He does not care if his claim can be instantly disproved (eg, his “landslide” victory, actually one of the narrowest in history). He does not care if his lies contradict one another, as when he attributes the same “someone told me” story to different sources from one day to the next, or rolls out his ludicrous “Sir” anecdotes. He does not care if a lie does him any good—who believes, or cares, whether his uncle was “a great super genius” as a professor at MIT? He does not care that the Adonis-like heroic portrait that has hung for years at Mar-a-Lago would be a source of mirth for most viewers.
“The news media are not built for someone like this,” I wrote two months before Trump was sworn in:
[We have] as president-elect a man whose nature as a liar is outside what our institutions are designed to deal with. Donald Trump either cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, or he knows the difference but does not care….
Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt. For instance: Bill Clinton survived “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he was damaged then, and lastingly, when the truth came out. Knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies.
None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.
1) Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst [that “millions of people” had snuck into the polling places and voted, presumably for Democrats], TheWashington Post and TheLA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.”...
By contrast.. the NYT takes a more “objective” tone—there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination.
What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional—but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s is closer to calling things what they are.
It’s nearly three-and-a-half years later. Everything we saw about Trump on the campaign trail we have seen from him in the White House, including the limitless fantasy-lying.
I submit that these three-and-a-half years later, much of the press has still not rebuilt itself, to cope with a time or a person like this. Or with a political party like the subservient Trump-era GOP.
To choose only a small subset of examples, from only the past three days’ worth of history, here are some illustrations. These are words and deeds that, each on its own, would likely have been major black-mark news events in other eras. Now they are just part of the daily onrush.
1) Us, and them. Two days ago, on March 27, Donald Trump signed in the Oval Office the most expensive spending bill in American history. Getting it enacted required sustained, major efforts from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and from Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, who got every one of his fellow Democrats to vote for the bill.
After Lyndon Johnson relied on Republican support to get his civil-rights and Medicare legislation through the Congress, he made sure that the Republican leaders from the House and Senate were with him for the signing ceremonies, to receive some of the first pens he used. (When Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in the Oval Office, he had only Democratic legislators around him—but that was because of near-unanimous Republican opposition to the bill.)
Structurally Trump’s situation this week was like LBJ’s: he was signing a bill the other party had played a crucial role in passing. But when Trump signed the bill yesterday, not a single Democratic legislator was present. Pelosi said she had not been invited.
Every other president has tried, at some point, to expand his support beyond those who originally voted for him (which is why all others have at some point had popularity ratings of 60 percent or 70 percent). Every other one has at some point tried to express the interests of the entire public, not just “the base.” Trump has never done either—and that failure is so baked-in that it barely registers now.
Obama used precious months in his first year trying to get GOP support for his medical plan; he failed; and a running press critique thereafter was that he should have been doing more to “reach out” to the other side. (Recall the whole “Have a drink with Mitch McConnell” motif.) I haven’t seen any columns fretting about Trump’s failure to “reach out” to Pelosi or Schumer. “That’s just Trump.”
2) “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” In this past Friday’s version of his marathon TV sessions—the supposed “health” briefings that have become daily hour-long substitutes for Trump’s campaign rallies—Trump said that most of the governors now requesting federal aid were friendly to him. But not all, and the ones who weren’t “appreciative” had better watch their step.
“Q. You say the governors are not appreciate of what the federal government has done. What more—
“A: [breaking in}: I think the governor of Washington [Jay Inslee] is a failed presidential candidate. He leveled out at zero in the polls. He’s constantly tripping and—I guess ‘complaining’ would be a nice way of saying it…
In Michigan, all she does is—she has no idea what’s going on. All she does is saying [whining voice] ‘Oh, it’s the federal government’s fault…’
“I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job…
“Mike Pence, I don’t think he sleeps any more. He calls all the governors. I tell him—I’m a different kind of guy—I tell him, Don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him.
“Don’t call the woman in Michigan….
“You know what I say, If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
What would have made news about this passage in any other era?
First, the naked favor-trading: What Trump is saying about the states of Washington and Michigan is more or less what led the House to impeach him last year, regarding Ukraine. That is: threatened use of federal power and favors, to reward political friends and punish political enemies—and in this case for unconcealed, openly stated political reasons.
Second, the crassness and cruelty, to leaders coping with life-and-death emergencies in their home states. “A failed presidential candidate.” “She has no idea what’s doing on.”
Third, the misogyny: Repeatedly avoiding the name of Gretchen Whitmer, elected last year as governor of Michigan, and calling her “the woman in Michigan.” Check the C-SPAN video if you’re in doubt about the dismissive tone of these remarks, and recall Trump’s frequent references to “Crooked Hillary” and “Crazy Nancy Pelosi.”
There was some brief press followup on all these points, but mainly it was again normalized as Trump being Trump.
3) Lies, lies, lies. I’ll leave to the other chroniclers a complete list of the several dozen lies in Trump’s live-broadcast appearances in the past few days. On Thursday, he went on at length about the bounty of tariff payments that the U.S. was receiving “from China”—which revealed either a black-is-white misunderstanding of how tariffs work, or a Harry Frankfurt-style indifference to the bullshit of what he was saying. (None of the White House reporters challenged him about his tariff claim.)
Here is just one consequential lie to stand for the rest: Trump repeatedly claims, and has done so every day this past week, that no one possibly could have seen this pandemic coming, and that everything was great until just a few weeks ago.
Of the countless reasons to know this is false, consider this Politico story on the detailed, 69-page playbook the National Security Council had prepared for coping with just this kind of emergency. The exact timing, origin, and biology of this new disease of course came as surprises. But the consequences and choices are ones any competent government would have foreseen.
Just a month before the 9/11 attacks, in which more than 3,000 people were killed, George W. Bush received a memo famously titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Many years later, press analyses still pointed this out. For years after the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which four Americans died, congressional Republicans held several dozen hearings, to determine whether the Obama administration should have been more prepared.
In the past few days’ papers, I see no followup on this NSC report. Press standards for covering Trump have already factored in, and thus implicitly forgiven, the corruption and incompetence.
4) Repeating the mistakes of 2015. Starting in the summer of 2015, cable channels began running live Trump rallies, because they were so “interesting.” People watched. Ratings went up. And by Election Day, Trump had received billions of dollars’ worth of free airtime. One calculation of the value was $5 billion; another, $2 billion. In either case, a lot.
Without this coverage—this decision by TV outlets, to improve their ratings by giving limitless free, live airtime to Trump—he could never have become the Republican nominee, let alone the president.
Trump himself clearly views the “briefings” about the “virus” — really, rallies about his greatness—as this year’s substitute for the live rallies he can no longer hold. But the cable and broadcast outlets, as if 2015 and 2016 had never occurred, are covering his daily briefings as they did the rallies of days gone by. For more on why this is a mistake, please see this suggestion from Jay Rosen of PressThink, about how the media could shift to “emergency setting”, and this from the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple on the problem of nonstop live coverage of Trump telling lies.
The media were not built for someone like this. That someone has not changed. The media must change.
It has been nearly half a century since Erie, Pennsylvania, was officially recognized as an “All-American City.” But beginning with the first of our repeated visits nearly four years ago, Deb Fallows and I have come to think of Erie as an important bellwether location, a representative small city for the America of our times:
It grew with a strong, classic-American manufacturing base, but suffered as its factories, like so many others in the “Rust Belt” region, closed during the globalization era of the 1990s, and again after the financial crash a dozen years ago.
But over the past decade, like other cities along the Great Lakes swath from Buffalo to Cleveland and on to Detroit, it has worked hard to reposition itself as a “Chrome Belt” economy, with advanced-tech industries (aerospace, sustainable energy, 3D-print and plastics) rather than mass-production sites.
During its industrial-boom heyday a century ago, Erie was a major magnet for immigrants, mainly from Italy and Eastern Europe. Now it actively promotes refugees as “new citizens.” Before the current clampdown on U.S. acceptance of refugees—about 110,000 four years ago, fewer than 20,000 now—as much as 20 percent of Erie’s total population was made of recent refugee arrivals. They came from Syria, from Sudan, and from other troubled spots around the world (as Deb Fallows described here).
The proportion of Erie’s African-American population is slightly larger than the nation’s as a whole, and its past (and present) race relations track the strains and inequalities of black-white relations nationwide.
At first glance, what you notice in Erie’s downtown is what is gone: the stores that are shuttered, the factories not making things any more. What we came to notice, on second and subsequent looks, was what was emerging: the stores being reopened, the smaller, newer workshops in the back rooms of old, broken-windowed factories, the little tech companies and larger start-up companies developing downtown. I described one of those firms in 2016 here, and another in 2018 here.
Also at first glance, you see on Erie’s streets signs of America’s social distress—especially of homelessness, addiction, and grossly unequal opportunity in schooling. On longer exposure, we saw signs of efforts to reknit a civic fabric, from nonprofit organizations like the innovative Jefferson Educational Society (including its program to train cadres of future leaders); to the locally headquartered Erie Insurance company, which has invested heavily in new downtown structures; to numerous arts and civic organization we’ve described over the years.
In short, if you want to see the goods and bads of modern America, its burdens and its possibilities, go to the Bayfront, or walk along State Street or Peach or Sassafras in downtown Erie, and look around, more than once.
Now all of the United States, with much of the world, faces a public-health emergency that is becoming an economic disaster as well. And from the “representative city” perspective, the most dramatic change in Erie is that the very institutions that have led its nascent recovery are most imperiled by this moment’s economic collapse.
Small businesses. Playhouses and music venues. Startup tech companies. Civic-action and resettlement groups. These have made a crucial difference in Erie, and many other cities. Now all of them face unprecedented stress.
“The story of Erie is is a microcosm of the challenges many cities are facing across the nation,” Ben Speggen and Bruce Katz wrote in an illuminating report, issued yesterday. (Speggen, based in Erie, has worked for the Erie Reader and the Jefferson Educational Society. Katz, co-author with the late Jeremy Nowak of The New Localism, is director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, in Philadelphia.) They add that today’s Erie:
shows how a community writ large—and a group of remarkable, passionate entrepreneurs, and city builders—have been able to restore a sense of civic pride and purpose and put a city back on track, and how that years-long effort is at risk of reversal in a matter of weeks.
Years of effort, undone in weeks. That’s the prospect that Erie, and countless towns and cities like it, are facing right now.
Of course the pressure applies in every part of the nation, and restaurants and stores from San Francisco to New York are shuttered as well. But those cities’ ascent has been vastly more powerful than Erie’s uneven recovery. Battered as even the superstar cities are at this frightening moment, no one doubts that some time they will be back strong.
As for Erie? The Katz and Speggen report goes into “tell us everything” dollars-and-cents details for two businesses that have been important parts of the downtown revival. One is a relatively new coffee shop called Ember + Forge, which has anchored an important corner of downtown. The other is a relatively established local brewpub and restaurant called Lavery Brewing, which has been so successful that it recently opened a second location.
Both had been thriving; both have seen their revenue shrink virtually to zero; both have had to lay off most of their staff and are considering what it will take even to survive at all.
The full Katz and Speggen report is available in PDF here, with articles about it on the Drexel site and at the Erie Reader. I won’t attempt to summarize it, since its details are its strength. But I encourage anyone interested in the practicalities of American economic recovery to read it— and to compare it with some of the pre-coronavirus reports I mentioned recently. I completely endorse the “what comes next?” parts of its conclusion. In it they stress the complex, fragile networks that have allowed businesses like these two to emerge, and for cities like Erie to renew themselves:
On one level, a fast recovery in the long term (when the health crisis abates) is dependent on the nature and scale of the short-term response. The longer we can keep small businesses alive and workers employed, the quicker the recovery and rebound will be ….
Almost overnight, downtowns have eerily become lifeless movie sets— literally former shells of their former selves; the buildings are intact (unlike after a flood), but there is little or no business being transacted given the imperative of social distancing and the collapse of basic consumerism. If we can keep businesses alive, then the bounce back will be rapid and pronounced. If businesses collapse, then the recovery will be slow and painful.
On another level, the recovery will depend upon the kind of bottom-up responses and collaborative action that is a hallmark of Erie and many other communities. In our view, this crisis is too complex and multi-dimensional to be left to policymakers sitting in our remote national capitol. Rather, local networks of public, business, civic, university, and other leaders need to band together—now—to prepare their communities for what comes next and be a constant feedback loop for national and state governments.
At some point, the emergency will be over. Then the longer-term recovery will begin. Reports like this are important guides to what should happen next.
In the second of his two extended live-TV performances yesterday—a White House coronavirus update, following a Fox News “virtual town hall”—Donald Trump said that prospects in the effort to control the virus were improving. As you can see starting at time 2:30 of this C-Span video, he said:
I’m very proud to be your president, I can tell you that.
There’s tremendous hope as we look forward and see light at the end of the tunnel.
Most of today’s living Americans were born in 1980 or afterward. (The median age in the U.S. is now just over 38.) Most of them would not instantly recognize the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel,”
But Donald Trump was born in 1946, and he would know this phrase. During his teenaged years and his early 20s, when hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries were being drafted for service in Vietnam, and when more than 50,000 of them were killed, those words were among the most infamous parts of the American lexicon. Like “it became necessary to destroy the town, in order to save it”—a possibly apocryphal phrase attributed to a U.S. military officer, about the scorched-earth policy—“light at the end of the tunnel” came to symbolize the sustained folly of the war in general, and the illusion that success was near at hand.
The closest post-Vietnam examples would probably be early proclamations about the Iraq war: Dick Cheney’s pre-war assurance that “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” and George W. Bush’s triumphal appearance under a “Mission Accomplished” banner shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Or, early in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Among pre-Vietnam examples, a counterpart might be Neville Chamberlain in 1938, shaking hands with Adolf Hitler in Munich, and then returning home to declare that they had ensured “peace for our time.”
Gen. William C. Westmoreland and a lawyer for CBS argued yesterday over one of the most memorable phrases of the Vietnam War, with the lawyer suggesting that the general had misled Washington into believing there was “light at the end of tunnel” in 1967 and the general saying he had not used that expression.
“I never had quite that degree of optimism,” General Westmoreland told the jury at his libel trial against CBS in Federal Court in Manhattan.
But the lawyer, David Boies, showed the witness a Nov. 26, 1967, cable he had sent during a visit to Washington to his deputy in Saigon, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, in which the phrase “some light at the end of the tunnel” was bracketed in quotation marks.
People of my parents’ generation would hesitate or catch themselves before “peace for our time.” News-conscious people of my children’s generation would recognize the freight that comes with saying “mission accomplished” or “heck of a job”
And people of Trump’s generation, and mine, would recognize that “light at the end of the tunnel” is not what you would say if you wanted to convey genuine confidence, any more than you would say, “I am not a crook” if you wanted to convey genuine innocence. You cannot have been alive in that time and not have absorbed this phrase.
The typically young members of a White House speechwriting staff—the people who worked on the script from which Trump read yesterday—would not know this phrase from their own experience. But in normal White Houses, they would have looked these things up. (When I worked, in my 20s, on a White House speechwriting staff, our “spare time” reading was from the volumes of past presidential addresses.)
But Trump himself would have to have been familiar with this phrase. So yesterday, as he saw the note cards, did he see the phrase—and not remember it? Did he remember, and not care? I don’t know, and it doesn’t make a difference in his response to the current pandemic. But it is one more illustration of things we have heard and seen, which we would never have seen before.
Two other for-the-record elements from Trump’s public performances yesterday.
With several of his scientific experts behind him, explained how much worse the 1918 flu pandemic was:
“That was a flu where if you got it, you had a 50/50 chance, or very close, of dying.”
In fact, the mortality rate during that devastating worldwide illness was between 2 and 3 percent—not around 50 percent, as Trump claimed. Most of the experts around Trump knew better; none of them said anything. I can’t quickly think of a case of another president making such a wildly inaccurate basic-fact claim, without a quick “For the record, the president meant to say...” cleanup.
Three times yesterday, Trump said that his goal for “opening up the country” again was Easter Day.
During his Fox town hall: “I would love to have it open by Easter. I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that.
It’s such an important day for other reasons. I’ll make it an important day for this too I would love to have the country opened up an rarin’ to go by Easter.”
After the town hall, he said: “Easter’s a very special day for me. And I see it in that timeline I am thinking about. And I say, Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full.”
And when answering press questions about “why Easter?” later in the day: “It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful timeline.”
This year’s Easter Day is April 12, or 19 days after Trump’s announcement. As of yesterday afternoon, while Trump was talking about the Easter “timeline,” the official confirmed-case count for the United States was nearing 47,000, and the death toll was in the low 600s. I’ll note in this space where the numbers stand 19 days from now.
The theme in this “Our Towns” space has been, and remains, the sources of vitality, practicality, generosity, and renewal in local-level America, despite bitter polarization in national-level politics.
The series began almost seven years ago, when smaller communities across the United States were still trying to rebuild their economies after the financial collapse of 2008 and beyond.
Now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the very people and groups that led the way in local recovery—small businesses, innovative start-up organizations, locally oriented restaurants and bookshops and bars and civic spaces—are exposed to a sharper, more sudden, and potentially more devastating shock than the one they endured a dozen years ago.
National-level and international responses obviously will determine much of our collective public-health and economic future. But in the past two weeks, Americans have already seen governors and mayors, schools and hospitals, religious organizations and foundations and nonprofit groups taking the lead while the national government has faltered.
The upcoming theme in this space will be on-the-ground reports on the way the economic, civic, and medical dramas are playing out. Part of America’s future is being determined right now in the U.S. Senate, at the Centers for Disease Control, and in the White House. But what is happening in the rest of the country matters at least as much, and probably more.
Let me start with a reader’s note that directly addresses this point, and then a few resources from people who have been thinking about equalizing opportunity around the country, before the current cataclysm. The reader’s note is below.
An Atlantic reader who has moved from a major East Coast city to a medium-sized city in Greater Appalachia writes:
My apologies if this seems irrelevant given the size and scope of the current world situation. Given your past works, I thought this might provide some fodder for your overarching work regarding Our Towns.
I am a lifelong politics and government person in my mid-40s. I spent the better part of 15 years engaged in either civic associations, county-level citizen advisory groups, and local government advocacy. I experienced first hand how listening to a community's concerns, and working directly with local officials, could make a material difference in a neighborhood’s quality of life.
Against this backdrop, I avidly followed your dispatches from around the country during the research for Our Towns. As I was still an active private pilot at the time, it was a perfect mix of topics for me.
It also planted in me the idea that there were different ways of achieving a quality of life outside of the major metropolitan areas. It was a major reason my wife and I started to look outside of [an East Coast metropolis] for where our next chapter could take place.
We settled on [the medium-sized city], moving here in December of 2019. It was like your main thesis come to life. Besides the unlimited outdoor options, the easier pace of life, the strong local brewery scene, there is a palpable sense of local patriotism. Of locals seeing their success being tied to one another.
And so it is heartbreaking to see and feel the very hard limitations of this optimistic world view run headlong into the current [coronavirus] situation.
I am saddened for lives that will be lost and economic hardship that we will endure. This is mixed with a nearly overwhelming anger … Even admitting that a President isn’t responsible for creating the underlying crisis of a pandemic(or oil market crash), they are responsible for having systems and institutions that have been nourished and prepared to react to them.
I know that over a long enough time period, we'll recover and we will rebuild. But there will always be scar tissue. And part of that is a honest reckoning of how fragile the system is, and a dimming of optimism for what it can build. A small price compared to loss of a loved one, or the economic pain that will sure to be revisited upon our most vulnerable population.
Many groups and individuals we’ve reported on, over these past half-dozen years, are gearing up now to deal with the economic crises that are affecting everyone, in places large and small, but that could intensify existing regional differences.
Some of the reports and insights we have been following, and will report on, in coming days:
1) “A Vital Midwest: The Path to a New Prosperity,” from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Information about the report, by John Austin and Alexander Hitch, is here. The full report, in PDF, is here.
As the introduction by Richard C. Longworth of the Council, previously a long-time economics writer for the Chicago Tribune, puts it, the stereotype of the industrial Midwest that dominates political discussion is out of touch with real developments there:
Much of the world’s attention to the Midwest is an almost indecent fascination, born of the 2016 presidential election, with the postindustrial rust and ruin of the region’s old factory towns and rural hinterlands. With the nation’s gaze thus averted, the rest of the Midwest has been reinventing itself. The result, half completed, looks nothing like the silos and smokestacks of yore ….
Already we see a new Midwest, powered by different places, people, and industries … Most of the economic capitals of this new Midwest are not the old industrial cities. The new economic centers are places like Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; Indianapolis, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis, Minnesota…. All have leaders who understand that the world has changed and their cities must change with it. And all know where they stand on the global supply chain. They are global cities now, earning their living from the global economy.
The report is worth reading in full, for midwesterners and anyone else considering the next stage in American economic recovery.
2) “Countering America’s regional economic disparities is going to take more than hope,” from Mark Muro and Robert Atkinson, via AEI. Information about the report is here, and the full PDF is here. This follows a longer and more detailed report, “The case for growth centers: How to spread tech innovation across America,” by the same two authors and Jacob Whiton, which came out late last year as a joint project by Brookings and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. (Summary of Brookings-ITIF paper here; PDF here.)
The reports’ main argument is that despite the mounting costs and frictions of operating in super-star cities like San Francisco and Seattle, and despite the growth of “Rise of the Rest” centers across the country (a trend they dispute), the highest-value parts of the tech economy are still concentrating themselves in a handful of places. Left to its own incentives, the authors argue, the tech economy will not naturally spread itself more broadly across the country.
But, they say, it can be nudged, encouraged, and steered in that direction. To me the fascinating part of these analyses is their specificity about exactly where innovation-promoting policies might be effective—and their reminder that today’s richest regional economies themselves are success stories of place-conscious policies of the past.
As for past examples, the Brookings-ITIF report says:
From the 1920s to the 1940s, many believed that Boston would go the way of the rest of New England, with the city’s traditional manufacturing of textiles, shoes, and machines migrating to the low-cost South and stagnation setting in. But Boston took a different path toward becoming one the strongest innovation hubs in the world, in no small part due to federal support. World War II brought an influx of federal funding to the city, especially for the development of military electronics. As the Cold War began, that support was formalized and dramatically expanded ...
The federal government was even more instrumental in the development of Silicon Valley …. In 1992, Santa Clara County (the heart of Silicon Valley) received more defense prime contract funding per capita than any county in the nation. As historian Leslie Berlin writes: “It’s not a stretch at all to say that Silicon Valley exists because of the federal government.”
The federal government also had a major hand in the development of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park ….
None of this is to say that these federal investments created these places on their own or that they were designed to create these places … But they did help enable emerging growth centers to become self-sustaining.
As for current candidates, the report gives this map. The report gives details about these localities:
This past week, Muro, Whiton, and Robert Maxim, of Brookings, did a report on the metro areas where the pandemic shutdown was likely to be most destructive. For instance, this is part of their list of places where economies are most dependent on “high risk” industries like energy and tourism, and so where job losses could be worst:
For now the main point is: In the long, slow, uneven recovery from the past Great Recession, people around the country have thought and learned a lot about the process of recovery, and how it can be hastened and more broadly shared. We’ll try to share some of those findings in this space, and report on local responses to this new global crisis.
3) “How to Rescue Main Street From Coronavirus Before It’s Too Late,” by Adam Ozimek and John Lettieri for the Economic Innovation Group. (Report is here; PDF version is here.)
The title is self-explanatory, and the meat of this report is a detailed list of proposals for sustaining the small businesses that have been so crucial in community renewal around the country, and now are at unprecedented risk.
Thanks to these authors, innovators, and other civic patriots. More reports on their work in the days to come.
Being president is even harder than it looks. Success in the job requires a wider range of talents than any one human being has ever had: Private persuasive and horse-trading skills. Public ability to inspire. The analytical capacity to grasp decisions that lack any “good” answer. The emotional capacity to read the moods and needs of the country, as those change. Physical stamina. Psychological balance. A ruthless ability to judge character, especially among allies and staff members. A similarly steely ability to block out bitter and hurtful criticism—otherwise, you couldn’t function—without becoming deaf to warnings of genuine problems. And that’s just the start of the list.
As I noted in a piece about Barack Obama as he neared the end of his first term, these demands of office are so many, so different, and so complex that the question is not whether a given president will fail in office. All of them will fall short in some parts of the job. The relevant question is whether the areas of each president’s inevitable failures will matter more, or less, than those of his success. John Dickerson went into the ramifications of “The Hardest Job in the World” in a big Atlantic story two years ago. (Update: Dickerson did an eloquent brief segment on the requirements of presidential leadership-in-crisis, on Face the Nation yesterday.)
Because this job is impossible, people who hold it go through a predictable change of attitude toward their living predecessors. On arrival, new presidents usually think: Look at me! I’ve won the biggest prize in public life. I don’t know why these other guys messed things up so badly. Let me show them how it’s done!
The years go on; the problems mount; Congress is a headache; the public can’t be pleased. Predictably, presidents develop “strange new respect” for the only other human beings who understand what they are going through. Usually when running for the office, presidential candidates criticize those who came before—directly, if mounting a challenge, or indirectly, in suggesting how much better things will be under new management. But after a president has been roughed up for a while, he’s more careful in his criticism. (Really, it’s hard to find on-the-record examples of many of the first 44 presidents criticizing their predecessors.) Sometimes in public, more often in private, presidents go to those who have left office to ask: What do you think? Or: Can you help us out?
This reality was the premise of a question an hour into Donald Trump’s very long press appearance yesterday afternoon. In the exchange—which you can see starting at time 59:00 of this video—a reporter asked Trump:
In previous crises like the tsunami, and Katrina, past presidents have called their predecessors and said, Hey I need you to step in, and do something like that.
Do you have any interest in reaching out to presidents Bush, Clinton, Obama, Carter—
Before he finished the question, Trump was talking over him to challenge the premise. Trump answered:
Look. I have the best people in the world. I think we’re doing an extraordinary job.
If you look at the H1N1 [under Obama], if you look at that whole—that was a disaster, that was a tough period of time for our country. You look at so many other things that weren’t handled very well, whether it’s Katrina [under GW Bush] or something else.
Look, I respect everybody. But I feel I have an incredible team and I think we’re doing an incredible job….
I don’t want to disturb them, bother them. I don’t think I’m going to learn much.
What this reveals about Donald Trump’s self-regard and Dunning-Krugerism is too obvious to need elaboration. Also his intolerance for even imagined criticism, and his instinct to respond with an attack. In this case, the question invited him to step into the long tradition of presidents facing crisis. Instead he used it not only to elevate himself but also to diminish the others. (“So many things that weren’t handled very well.”) Others presidents likely thought such things to themselves, especially early in a term. But they would not have said them—on nationwide TV, during a crisis, when supposedly trying to inspire, unite, and heal.
Two other remarkable events of the day:
When told by a questioner that Mitt Romney had isolated himself (presumably after meetings with his Senate colleague Rand Paul, who yesterday tested positive for the disease), Trump acted surprised. “Romney’s in isolation?” he asked. When told it was true, he said, with obvious sarcasm, “Gee, that’s too bad.” (You can judge the tone for yourself, starting at time 43:40 of this clip.)
Again, many public leaders might have thought this of their rivals. No others would have said it out loud.
I mentioned earlier the extraordinary position of Anthony Fauci, during the pandemic. He has a lifetime’s worth of credibility behind his words and advice. But he is being made to stand almost every day, on live TV, behind a president saying things that Fauci then needs--tactfully—to correct.
The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas had an interview with Fauci yesterday morning, in which he said that the administration had not pressured him to be more visibly supportive — “I’m not sure why.” Later in the day, Jon Cohen of Sciencepublished an interview unlike any I have read from a figure who was still serving within Trump’s orbit. A sample:
Q: You're standing there saying nobody should gather with more than 10 people and there are almost 10 people with you on the stage….
A: I know that. I’m trying my best. I cannot do the impossible.
Q: What about the travel restrictions?… It just doesn't comport with facts.
A: I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?
What I want, as of today, March 23, is for him to stay there, as long as he can.
These things were notable about yesterday’s installment of what has become the regular daily White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic:
That it happened at all. Early last year, Donald Trump directed Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then his press secretary, to stop conducting daily press briefings, which had been routine for press secretaries for decades. Sanders held her last briefing a little more than a year ago. Her successor, Stephanie Grisham, has not held any at all. Until this month, Trump himself had appeared at very few formal press conferences. The last one I find a record of was in September, 2018. Instead Trump would talk at informal press scrums, usually while walking to or from a helicopter.
Now Trump is on TV, answering questions, day after day, including the weekends. This brings us to…
That it was a virtual campaign rally, At two of the briefings this week, Trump had dropped his previous pooh-poohing of the virus threat, and his personal criticism of media figures and other politicians, and had instead struck a somber, “we’re in this together” tone. As I noted here, this shift in tone was greeted by some in the press as a sign of Trump’s new statesmanship.
In the past two days, Trump has been back to the more accustomed tone of tweets and his rallies. In those settings he has had two constant themes: that he is so great, and that his critics are such cheating losers, each point usually based on information that was false.
The tone, and the false data, returned yesterday. Much of what Trump said was false: Most dramatically, his claim that the FDA had just approved use of an anti-malaria drug for treatment of COVID-19, and that it would be a “game-changer.” (FDA officials immediately clarified that they had done no such thing.)
Trump’s new fondness for these “briefings,” and their increasing conversion into Trump campaign rallies with scientists rather than local-government officials as the supporting cast, should cause cable-news producers to reflect on the path they are headed down.
In the year after Trump declared his candidacy in the summer of 2015, cable channels ran so many of his “Lock her up!” rallies live and at full length, that the coverage amounted to hugely valuable free campaign publicity. One source calculated the free-airtime values as being worth several billion dollars.
From Trump’s point of view, it makes sense to turn these events into the unfiltered airtime he used to count on at mass rallies. From the media’s point of view, it made sense to cover the first few of them live. But given the rising falsehood quotient in what Trump says, and his determination to cut off or divert questioners who try to ask about these falsehoods, cable networks should stop airing these as live spectacles and instead report, afterwards, with clips of things Trump and others said, and whether they were true.
Their real reason for live coverage back during Trump’s rise was that ratings went up: People wanted to watch these spectacles. Even if that’s still true, we certainly have learned that Trump will use most of his time to attack and lie, and that panelists’ corrections never catch up. In time of crisis, cable-news channels are making the public less informed, and thus increasing public danger, by providing such a convenient platform for lies.
Also, as a practical matter, if the briefings were no longer covered live, Trump would lose interest in attending himself. Then the scientists could come back on stage—and eventually they could be covered live again.
That Trump edited the script. As Jabin Botsford, a Washington Post photographer noted, Trump scratched out the word “corona” in his speaking script, and replaced it with “Chinese,” so that he would talk about the threat of “the Chinese virus.” When he read most of the rest of the prepared text, Trump sounded as if he were seeing it for the first time. This was a word he cared about.
That he ended with … this question. I lack the spirit to go into all of this now. You can read the story here and here. Again, nothing like it had ever happened at the White House before.
Update: As I write I see that Jay Rosen, at his Press Think blog, has come to the same conclusion about live event coverage. His item covers many other steps in what he calls “emergency mode” handling of Trump, but on live events he says:
Switching to emergency mode means our coverage will look different and work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us….
We will not cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, we will attend carefully to what he says. If we can independently verify any important news he announces we will bring that to you— after the verification step.
I agree with that, and with Rosen’s conclusion, addressed to readers:
We feel we cannot keep telling wild and “newsy” stories about the unreliable narrator who somehow became president. Not with millions of lives at stake. We have to exit from that system to keep faith with you, and with the reason we became journalists in the first place
This afternoon, at the now-daily press presentation about the virus and disease, Trump was asked why he used this term—given the bitter public and governmental response it has evoked in China, and recent reports of racist anti-Chinese reactions inside the United States. (For instance, the starting entry of a widely shared Twitter thread yesterday from Jiayang Fan, a writer for the New Yorker, is below.)
At today’s conference, Cecilia Vega, of ABC, mentioned the possibility of racist backlash to “Chinese Virus.” She directly asked Trump, “Why do you keep using this?” (You can see the exchange starting at time 1:44 of this video.)
Trump snapped back with what amounted to two points: First, that he was just calling things by their real name, and second, that he was getting back at China for suggestions that the U.S. was really to blame.
Why keep using the term?
Because it comes from China. That’s why. It’s not racist at all. I want to be accurate.
I have great love for all of the people from our country. [sic] But as you know, China tried to say, that it was caused by American soldiers.
That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen. As long as I’m president.
My purpose for the moment is not to review the full history of pejorative names for diseases—for instance, why syphilis was called “the French disease” by 16th-century Italians, to which the French responded by calling it “the Neapolitan disease.” Nor about the acute sensitivity in China to being seen as a source of filth and disease—something that would be an insult anywhere, but which in China comes with a distinct historical background that makes it particularly inflammatory. (Rough parallel: Think of any familiar defamatory stereotype used against Africans, or Latin Americans, or Jews, or any other group. Then think of a U.S. president using that in tweets and statements.) Nor about the point my colleague Graeme Wood astutely makes: that the real scandal is what the administration does (and fails to do), more than what it says. Nor the likelihood that the animal-human transfer that gave rise to this pandemic probably occurred in wild-animal markets in China. (Evidence suggests that the transfer that gave rise to the H1N1 “Swine Flu” epidemic a dozen years ago took place somewhere in North America, but the disease was not generally known as “the American Flu” or “the Mexican disease.”)
Rather it is to note this moment in the United States’s relationship with its most consequential foreign partner-and-competitor. While the combined public-health and economic catastrophes of the moment are commanding attention, the China-U.S. interaction may have moved in a distinctly darker direction.
Neither the United States nor China is big and dominant enough to force the other country—also big, also dominant—to do something its leadership or public genuinely does not want to do.
But both the United States and China play a large enough role in the other’s economic, strategic, environmental, cultural, and overall situation that each can make life significantly better, or worse for the other—not to mention effects on the rest of the world.
The story of the past nearly five decades, starting in the Nixon-Mao era, is of U.S. and Chinese public and private leaders generally looking for ways to work together as wary partners, more frequently than they looked for ways to confront each other as outright foes. (I described this dynamic in an Atlantic article, “China’s Great Leap Backward,” four years ago.) And the story of the past five years, as I described in that same article, is of sharper and sharper differences between the countries. That was even before the trade-war confrontations of the past three years.
Now the leadership of each country is acting, in public, as if it has nothing to lose by insulting and provoking the other. Witness the accusations from Chinese officials that the U.S. may have intentionally engineered the virus and unleashed it on an unsuspecting Chinese public, or the public use of “Chinese Virus” by a president, in full awareness that it is a flash point on the other side, and the reported private use of “Kung-Flu” by a White House staffer.
Yesterday the Chinese government took a step that even the most grizzled China hands found shocking: It revoked the press credentials for U.S.-citizen reporters from the three leading U.S. newspapers—the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal—and began the process of expelling them from the country.
During the long ups and downs of U.S.-China relations—with the lows of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the U.S. bombing of a Chinese embassy in 1999, the Chinese military jet that ran into a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in 2001, the recurring trade disputes, plus the assorted highs—Chinese officials had never taken this step before.
As with most things in China, the logic of this move is probably mostly internal, as part of the ongoing years-long domestic crackdown underway in the time of Xi Jinping. (Alex Dukalskis of The Wilson Center and University College Dublin laid out internal-Chinese dynamics in a tweet thread today.) But it is a very significant escalation of the U.S.-Chinese showdown — and one that, as best I can tell, went unmentioned by the U.S. president yesterday, and today until the press-questioning part of his presentation today.
Late in the press conference, a reporter asked Trump what he thought of the Chinese move, and “what is your message to the Chinese about transparency.” (You can see it starting at time 2:08 here.)
“I’m not happy to see it,” Trump said, as if he were talking about the latest fall in the stock market, or problems for the cruise industry. Then:
I have my disputes with all three of those media groups. I think you know that very well.
But I don’t like seeing that at all. I’m not happy about it at all.
And then he moved on. Just looking at the words, you might imagine it was a Voltaire-like “disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” But if you watch you’ll see that it came across as a minor issue—an occasion for registering his unhappiness with these same three papers, and to shift to something more interesting.
I hope that this most consequential relationship for the U.S. will not be another casualty of the pestilence. But as I write, on March 18, it appears to have taken an under-publicized turn for the worse.
During press questioning at the White House today, Donald Trump was asked whether his tone about the coronavirus challenge had suddenly changed. For weeks, he’d been mocking the virus threat—at rallies, in tweets, and in press remarks. But both yesterday and today, he’d suddenly shifted to warning that the public-health and economic problems were real, and would remain so for a long time.
Trump denied there had been any shift in tone, and said (as you can see here):
“I have always known. This is a real pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic....
“I’ve always viewed it as very serious.”
This is a flat-out lie.
Setting the lead for many Republican politicians and for most coverage on Fox News, Trump had for many weeks pooh-poohed the idea that the virus should be taken seriously.
He has said it was “contained” and “under control” (as McKay Coppins pointed out).
He has said “It’s going to disappear” and, “We have very little problem in this country” (as David Leonhardt pointed out).
He said three weeks ago that the U.S. had “15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” (as the White House briefing transcript shows).
He tweeted just eight days ago that “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation” (as The Hillpointed out).
From growing global awareness of the disease in January, until his press conference yesterday, March 16, Trump had consistently minimized the medical and economic danger. He frequently likened the virus to the seasonal flu, and at a rally said that criticism of his administration’s virus responses was “a hoax”—indeed, a continuation of the impeachment “hoax” by other means.
That Trump has shifted his tone so dramatically says something about the scale of the disease and its impacts. I hope it says something positive about the upcoming federal commitments to join the effort against it, so far led by governors and mayors.
But that he believes he can baldly zap away all memory of his words and deeds and reinvent himself as the man saving his country from pandemic—another Anthony Fauci, but with executive powers—reveals something about Trump’s mind and character, and something about his assessment of public life.
About his mind it suggests: He lives in the moment, and whatever he wants to be true at this instant, is “true” for him, at least while he’s saying it.
About his assessment of others it indicates: He is betting he can get away with it. At some level he must know that half the press is weary of writing the 900th story pointing out his falsehoods. The other half is hungry for some way to show its “balance,” and to avoid using the plain word “lie.” And meanwhile the constituency Trump said would stay with him if he “shot someone on Fifth Avenue” may still be aboard.
An assessment on CNN just after the press conference indicated the kind of response Trump might be betting on. The estimable Dana Bash said of Trump’s comments, “He is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone, today and yesterday.” We’ll see what the online stories tonight and the print headlines tomorrow morning say about Trump’s shift.
Will “today and yesterday”—the subdued tone yesterday, the “I have always viewed it as very serious” Orwellian big-lie today—enter public consciousness as the time when Trump “got serious” and “became a leader”? Or as the time when he finally went too far with a blatant lie?
As I write this, in real time, we can’t be sure. I have my own guess, which I hope proves wrong.
This afternoon, on the heels of a widely panned formal Oval Office address, Donald Trump assembled a group of scientific and corporate leaders to talk about dealing with the coronavirus. You can watch the whole thing on the White House YouTube channel.
I suspect that we’ll see one line from this conference played frequently in the months ahead. You can watch it starting at around 1:22:00, when reporter Kristen Welker of NBC asks Trump whether he takes responsibility for the lag in making test kits available.
I don’t take responsibility at all.
Narrowly parsed, and in full context, Trump was referring only to the test kits — and was continuing his (fantasized) complaint that rules left over from 2016, under the Obama administration, are the real reason the U.S. has been so slow to respond to this pandemic.
But filmable moments in politics are not always taken in full context, and at their most narrowly parsed logical reading:
All of these—in full context, and most-sympathetically read—had a meaning you could understand and perhaps defend. None of that context or meaning survived, as those went from being phrases to weaponized symbols.
Will that happen to “I don’t take responsibility at all”? We will soon see.
Other stage business points:
A series of CEOs came to the microphone to describe what their companies were doing to speed testing or help out in other ways. Trump caught the first three or four of them unawares, by shaking their hands as they moved away from the lectern. All seemed startled, as you can see in the video.
Then the other CEOs began to catch on, and a following group of them scuttled away from the microphone before Trump could grab them for a handshake, or held their own hands clenched together, in a protective prayer-style grasp.
Finally, (at 1:06 in the video) you can see Bruce Greenstein, of the LHC group, surprise Trump with an elbow-bump rather than a hand shake. Trump himself seemed completely oblivious to the idea of social distancing. It was also notable that one speaker after another touched and moved around the same microphone, and put his her hands on the sides of the same lectern.
I mentioned earlier today the uneasy and evolving position of Anthony Fauci, who has been the “voice of science” through this episode as he has during previous medical emergencies. The uneasiness lies in the tension between his decades as a respected scientist, and his current role as a prominent member of Team Trump. Can he retain his long reputation as a straight shooter? While maintaining any influence with Trump?
Make what you will of his body language through the events today. (He is at far left in the picture below.)
Also today, I mentioned the inevitable-for-Trump, though inconceivable-in-other-administrations, ritual of Trump subordinates limitlessly praising the goodness and wisdom of their leader. It was striking to see all the CEOs skipping right past that formality.
But if you felt a phantom-limb twinge in the absence of these comments, all you had to do was wait for Mike Pence. You can hear him starting at around 1:07, with comments that began “This day should be an inspiration to every American” and built in earnestness from there.
There was much more from the question-and-answer session, but I don’t want to spoil the experience of discovery for anyone who has not seen it yet.
Two hundred and thirty-five days until the election.
As of today, March 13, 2020—three-plus years into the current administration, three months into public awareness of the coronavirus spread, seven-plus months until before the next election—Anthony Fauci is playing a role in which no previous Trump-era figure has survived.
One other person has been in the spot Fauci now occupies. That is, of course, James Mattis, the retired four-star Marine Corps general and former secretary of defense for Trump. Former is the key word here, and the question is whether the change in circumstances between Mattis’s time and Fauci’s—the public nature of this emergency, the greater proximity of upcoming elections, the apparent verdict from financial markets and both international and domestic leaders that Donald Trump is in deep over his head—will give Fauci the greater leverage he needs, not just to stay at work but also to steer policy away from the abyss.
Why is Anthony Fauci now, even more than James Mattis before him, in a different position from any other publicly visible associate of Trump’s?
Pre-Trump credibility, connections, and respect. Fauci has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the National Institutes of Health, since Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1984. (How can he have held the post so long? Although nothing in his look or bearing would suggest it, Fauci is older than either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. He recently turned 79.)
Through his long tenure at NIH, which spanned the early days of the HIV/AIDS devastation and later experience with the SARS and H1N1 epidemics, Fauci has become a very familiar “public face of science,” explaining at congressional hearings and in TV and radio interviews how Americans should think about the latest threat. He has managed to stay apart from any era’s partisan-political death struggles. He has received a raft of scientific and civic honors, from the Lasker Award for health leadership, to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by George W. Bush.
Thus, in contrast to virtually all the other figures with whom Trump has surrounded himself, Fauci is by any objective standard the best person for the job — and is universally seen as such. This distinguishes him from people Trump has favored in his own coterie, from longtime consigliere Michael Cohen to longtime ally Roger Stone to longtime personal physician Harold Bornstein; and from past and present members of his White House staff, like the departed Michael Flynn and the returned Hope Hicks and the sempiternal Jared Kushner; and fish-out-of-water Cabinet appointees, like (to pick one) the neurosurgeon Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Put another way: Very plainly, Trump needs Fauci more than Fauci needs Trump. This is not a position Donald Trump has ever felt comfortable in— witness the denouement with Mattis.
The ability not to abase himself before Trump. The first Cabinet meeting Donald Trump held, nearly three years ago, was unlike any other conducted in U.S. history, and very much like subsequent public appearance of Trump in company with his appointees.
In that meeting, on June 12, 2017, as TV cameras were rolling, Trump went around the table and one-by-one had his appointees gush about how kind, wise, and far-sighted he was—failing only to compliment him on his humility. (Tina Nguyen described the meeting at the time in Vanity Fair.) After praising himself, Trump called on others to praise him, starting with the reliable Mike Pence. “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice president to a president who is keeping his word to the American people,” Pence began. All the others followed his example—with the prominent exception of Mattis. He spent his “praise” time instead complimenting the men and women in uniform he led.
No public event like that Cabinet meeting had happened before in the United States, simply because no other president has been as needy for in-public adulation as Trump is. Of course most politicians and all presidents are needy; you could not run for the presidency if you had a normal temperament. (Background reading on this point, while you’re “socially isolating”: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.) Every political leader eats up the praise in private—“Wonderful job today, Mr. President—you were really connecting!”, not to mention Veep—but all the rest of them have been savvy enough to know how tacky this looks in public. The modern exception-illustrating-the-rule might have been Lyndon Johnson, with enough of the Sun King in his makeup to enjoy having people humble themselves before him. But holding a public adulation-fest? If George W. Bush had heard, say, Karl Rove start in that way, he would likely have said, “OK, Turd Blossom, what are you angling for?” Barack Obama—or John F. Kennedy, or Jimmy Carter— would have arched an eyebrow as if to ask, “Hey, did you think you were still playing in the minors?”
But what we saw in that Cabinet meeting, we have seen again and again from those around Trump. The most humiliating recent examples come from the people in charge of the coronavirus response: Pence again; Alex Azar, head of Health and Human Services; Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control; and Seema Verma, in charge of Medicare and Medicaid. The beginnings and endings of their public statements, and the answers to many questions, are larded with praise for Trump and his “decisive and visionary action.” (For the latest example, see Verma under questioning from Martha MacCallum of Fox News. Verma repeatedly dodges MacCallum’s direct question about whether hospitals have enough ventilators and other supplies (as Fred Barbash laid out in the Washington Post. MacCallum makes one last try—and Verma seeks refuge in saying, “And that’s why the president has taken such a bold and decisive action.” That claim made no logical sense to MacCallum or the listeners, but it reflected the inescapable logic of what is expected from members of the Court of Trump.)
There is one exception: Anthony Fauci. He has occasionally said that he agrees with aspects of the administration’s or the president’s policies, but he has avoided the ritual self-abnegation. Of course Fauci held his job long before Trump came to town, and is not part of the normal round of high-level appointments each new administration makes. (To the best of my knowledge, though, directors of NIH institutes, like Fauci, serve “at the pleasure of the president” and so could be removed. If I’m wrong on that, will update. Update: Several NIH veterans have written in to say that Fauci’s position is officially different from that of the NIH director, and is not directly a presidential-political appointment. Recent history teaches that a vindictive president can make things difficult even for career civil servants. But I am grateful for the clarification. )
But Fauci’s polite but consistent reluctance to grovel cannot have gone unnoticed by the audience-of-one for all the other appointees: Trump himself.
Daring to contradict Trump, in public. This is a step beyond anything Mattis attempted. Through the first two years of the administration, background-sourced stories and reports based on “those in a position to know the Secretary’s thinking” laid out the increasing distance between Mattis’s view of American interests and what Trump was saying and doing.
But there is no precedent, from Mattis or anyone else, for what we have seen these past few weeks from Fauci at the podium. Is the coronavirus problem just going to go away (as Trump had claimed)? No, from Fauci. It is serious, and it is going to get worse. Is the testing system “perfect” (as Trump had claimed)? No, it is not working as it should. Is the U.S. once again the greatest of all nations in its response to the threat? No, it is behind in crucial aspects, and has much to learn from others.
Fauci is saying all these things politely and respectfully. As an experienced Washington operator he knows that there is no reason to begin an answer with, “The president is wrong.” You just skip to the next sentence, “The reality is...” But his meaning—“the president is wrong”—is unmistakable.
Anthony Fauci has earned the presumption-of-credibility for his comments. Donald Trump has earned the presumption that he is lying or confused. A year ago that standoff—the realities, versus Trump-world obeisance—worked out against James Mattis. Will the balance of forces be different for Fauci? As of this writing, no one can know.
Four years ago, when Donald Trump was on his rise—from apparent-joke candidate, to long-shot, to front-runner, to nominee, and on to electoral winner—I wrote in this space a series of “Trump Time Capsules.”
They started with #1, back in May, 2016, when a Paris-bound airliner plunged into the Mediterranean and Trump immediately declared that the cause must have been terrorism. “What just happened?” he shouted to a rally crowd before wreckage had even been found. “A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100 percent wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100 percent wrong.” (Naturally, French authorities later determined that the crash arose from a mechanical problem.)
Through all the posts, the idea was to record in real time what people knew about Donald Trump, about the country, and about the issues and stakes in the election, before any of us knew how the contest was going to turn out. As I wrote in introducing the very first installment four years ago:
People will wonder about America in our time. It can be engrossing to look back on dramatic, high-stakes periods in which people were not yet sure where things would lead, to see how they assessed the odds before knowing the outcome. The last few months of the 1968 presidential campaign: would it be Humphrey, Nixon, or conceivably even George Wallace? Or 1964: was there a chance that Goldwater might win? The impeachment countdown for Richard Nixon, in 1974? The Bush-Gore recount watch in 2000?
The Trump campaign this year will probably join that list. The odds are still against his becoming president, but no one can be sure what the next five-plus months will bring. Thus for time-capsule purposes, and not with the idea that this would change a single voter’s mind, I kick off what I intend as a regular feature. Its purpose is to catalogue some of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president would do.
- About the unfolding-by-the-minute consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
- About the recent collapse of the stock markets, and the less immediately visible, but ultimately far more damaging, economic and social effects of the sudden simultaneous collapse of the travel and lodging industries, of the live-events and sports and conference and entertainment businesses, of restaurants and bars, of taxis and trains, of stores in college towns, and of the impact of all of this on the people who unload baggage from airliners or clean rooms for hotel guests or work as security guards at museums or sell jerseys at baseball games. Such roles are not as resonant as “steelworkers” or “coal miners” in political or journalistic discourse, but these jobs collectively form a very large part of the economy, they’re very hard to do over the internet or “remotely,” and they’re being eliminated at a pace not seen in at least a dozen years, and probably since the 1930s.
We don’t know.
So behind our veil of ignorance about outcomes, this is another chronicle of what we knew and heard day by day, which I’ll intend to operate, as with the original series, through the upcoming election season.
Obviously I am skipping through what would be several decades’ worth of news in normal circumstances: impeachment, the Democratic primaries, the evisceration of legal norms, and so on down a long list.
Instead, for an arbitrary starting point, let’s begin with Trump’s Oval Office address last night on the virus threat. I have experience with this rhetorical form: I wrote a number of such addresses long ago when Jimmy Carter was president, and I have studied dozens of them in the intervening years.
This latest Trump speech was uniquely incompetent and inappropriate, and it’s worth noting why, as American voters decide whether to retain him in office.
One audience that Trump himself takes seriously—the world financial system—obviously took a dim view of his statement, as markets around the world headed sharply downward practically as soon as he began to talk. Of course, their view indirectly affects everyone else.
But from a political, rhetorical, and civic perspective, what was wrong with the speech? While watching it, I was assessing the speech by two standards: What it showed about Trump and his styles of thought, and what it showed about presidents and their roles in similar moments of stress.
As for Trump himself, his public vocabulary is strikingly limited on a deployable-word-count basis: “Many people are saying,” “it’s the greatest ever,” “we have tremendous people,” “very good things are happening,” “there has never been anything like it,” and of course “sir.”
Equally striking is the consistency, or narrowness, of the messages Trump delivers. A huge proportion of his entire discourse can be boiled down to two themes:
I am so great, and am doing a better job than anyone else ever has. (Biggest crowds, best economy, most loyal supporters, etc.)
Other people are such cheaters—and it is outrageous what they are trying to get away with. (They’re sending rapists; they’re behind on their NATO payments; they’re ripping us off in trade; etc.)
I won’t go through the whole classification of his discourse into these two categories, but nearly everything he said last night could be boiled down to one or the other of those themes.
I am so great and am doing the best possible job. (“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history … Our team is the best anywhere in the world … Because of the economic policies that we have put into place over the last three years, we have the greatest economy anywhere in the world, by far.”)
Other people are mistreating us and are to blame. (Repeated references to the “foreign virus,” banning entry from most foreign nationals who have recently been in Europe, etc.)
Of course, every presidential address in every era has implicitly argued, I am doing a good job. Whether the challenge they’re dealing with is the Great Depression or the 9/11 attacks, Pearl Harbor or the Cuban Missile Crisis, when describing the challenge and their intended response, all presidents are effectively saying: You can feel better about this emergency, because I have a plan.
But until Trump, other presidents have applied the “show, don’t tell” policy when it comes to their own competence. They want to show they are acting the way the country would hope, so they don’t have to say it.
Trump says it himself. He quotes other people saying it about him. And he insists on hearing about his greatness from his retinue—most recently in the fawning statements made by his own vice president and secretary of health and human services, who preface their updates about the virus with North Korean-style compliments for the leader’s far-sighted action.
Five years into Trump’s presence as a foreground political figure, many listeners are inured to the two unvarying notes in his presentations: that what is good has come from him, and what is bad has come from someone else. But the prominence of these two notes in an Oval Office address was a reminder of how much we have learned to overlook. This is not how presidents have ever talked before.
And what about the speech, just as a speech? In my view it had three problems: how it was conceived; how it was written; and how it was delivered. (Plus, a bonus fourth problem I’ll get to at the end.)
How it was conceived: An Oval Office address is by definition about a big problem. (Otherwise, why is a president imposing on our time this way?) And its purpose is to answer several explicit questions: Why did this happen? How bad is it? What are we going to do about it? It also, always, must answer a deeper, broader, and more important question: Will we be OK?
Abraham Lincoln’s First and Second Inaugural Addresses can be thought of as precursors to Oval Office addresses of the broadcast era, and as the ideal form of such speeches, answering all these questions. (Why did this happen? “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war…. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend’ it.” Will we be OK? “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in..”)
Again, that’s the ideal form, but it is one that other presidents have had in mind as the model to work toward. These addresses have been about us, the American family, not about me, the leader. But Trump has only the me note in his vocal and emotional range, except for them as the enemies. He used the word us in the speech, but it was just a word. Audiences swallow a lot of guff from politicians, entertainers, and other public figures. But over time, the public can size up its most familiar performers and recognize which words ring true to them, and which they’re just reading from a script.
And this is entirely apart from the speech’s failure to address the major elephant-in-the-room questions reporters, governors, and public health officials had been asking. Starting with, Why are we so far behind with tests?
How it was delivered: Donald Trump is very effective and entertaining as an unscripted live performer, riffing and feeding off the energy of a crowd. Why does he keep going to big rallies? Partly because the crowds adore him there, and partly because this is what he’s genuinely good at. His rallies—part greatest-hits, part “you have to be there to believe it!” surprises—are great shows. That’s how he commanded so much free airtime on cable TV through 2015 and early 2016: it was the latest must-watch reality show.
But you can’t do that in every speech. And while Trump can still slip a little bit of his rally-meister style into an hour-long State of the Union address, it’s just impossible in 10 minutes behind the Resolute desk. And thus he seemed robotic, even narcotized. Presumably he had seen the text before he encountered it on the TelePrompter—in normal circumstances, a president would have done practice run-throughs many times before the cameras came on. But to judge from his delivery, he was trying to parse his way through sentences he had never seen before. If this seems harsh, compare George W. Bush’s Oval Office address after the 9/11 attacks, or Ronald Reagan’s in 1986 on defense spending and arms-limitation talks.
Bonus: Within an hour of Trump’s speech, other parts of the government were issuing “clarifications” about points he had misstated in his speech. No, not all travel from Europe was suspended. No, the European transit ban did not apply to cargo. No, Americans coming back didn’t need to be screened before reentry. And no, on other points.
Had the need for immediate fact-checking arisen, with any previous Oval Office address? Not that I am aware of. Whatever political party holds the White House and whatever policies these speeches seek to advance, such addresses usually reflect the greatest level of attention to detail that a president’s team can apply. Unfortunately, it probably did so in this case, too.
Twelve hours after Trump’s speech, Joe Biden gave an address that was “presidential,” by the standards listed above. It expressed concern for those suffering in medical, financial, or emotional ways. It laid out what was known and unknown about the challenge. Implicitly, it argued: We will be OK.
What the contrast between the speeches means, politically or in terms of public health, we don’t know at this moment. As of this installment, we know that Donald Trump faced a familiar test of presidential mettle, and badly failed.
From an author’s point of view, the most important quality of any book is its done-ness. Once you accept that a book is as good as it is going to be, and as finished as you can stand to make it, the miasma lifts and you can move on—to the next writing project!
From a reader’s point of view, the most important qualities of a certain kind of non-fiction book are brevity, specificity, and humor. I’m talking about “theme”or “argument” books that address a current issue—as opposed to, say, biographies, which can be at their best when long and meandering, or narratives or histories, which are designed to immerse you in the details of another time and place.
When the purpose of a book is to advance a new or different way of thinking about a topic, it should be: as short as possible (so the reader gets the point efficiently); as specific as possible (so the reader can test the argument, and perhaps change future ideas or behavior); and as droll as possible (because, obviously).
Garfield is known to most of the world as co-host, with Brooke Gladstone, of the public radio show On the Media, from WNYC in New York. I’ve known him in that way, from listening to the show regularly and being an occasional guest on it. But I’ve also followed Garfield’s work through the years on the topic of this book—actual programs and systems to improve the media, both financially and substantively. In American Manifesto he pulls together many of the themes he has developed. The result is something that’s neither, on one extreme, a detailed, step-by-step “white paper”-style report on media improvement—nor, on the other, just an op-ed-scale lament.
Instead it’s part diagnosis, part prescription. As he puts it in the early pages, in a passage that gives an idea of his writing tone:
This book is a cry for help in three parts. The dry way of describing it: “An examination of the tragic confluence of the American preoccupation with identity and the catastrophic disintegration of mass media, yielding a society that may be irretrievably fractured, unless we act now.” A less dry way of putting it: “Run for your life. We’re being Dumptied.” As in Humpty, the self-satisfied jumbo egg that once sat atop a big, beautiful wall and wound up in countless irreparable pieces.
Take note: I am not speaking of Trumpty Dumpty. The greatest threat we face is not from a rogue president, but from ourselves.
The three parts that follow are about, first, social and political division; and second, the collapsing economics of traditional media. (“Media have been ‘disrupted’ like the Hindenburg was ‘disrupted.’ A three-century-old mass-media model has been blown to smithereens, and the surviving journalistic fragments are not only too poor to adequately watchdog the government, but also algorithmically segregated from huge swaths of the electorate. O, the humanity.”) The concluding third section is a six-point action plan for individual, corporate, and political remedies.
For most people who have followed the future-of-media debate, the book’s greatest value will be in part three, the recommendations. I won’t give away all of Bob Garfield’s action plan. But I will say that one of its main public-policy proposals involves modernizing antitrust laws and enforcement, to catch up with the technological, financial, and social realities of this age.
The title of that chapter is “No, Really, Trust Busting.” The term “trust-busting” comes of course from the original Gilded Age era, when new and maturing technologies (railroads, automobiles, mass production, mass communication, industrialized agriculture) created new fortunes and new inequalities. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Teddy Roosevelt trust-busting efforts of the early 1900s, the rise of the labor movement, the state-by-state spread of reform laws—these were all responses. For democracy and civil society to survive after our Second Gilded Age, something comparable is necessary now. So Bob Garfield argues, and so I agree.
(By the way, one of the best political speeches I’ve heard on this topic was by a U.S. senator, back in 2016. You can read about the event where the senator spoke, which I happen to have attended, here, and get a PDF of the speech text here. Spoiler: The senator was Elizabeth Warren, and the speech was given long before she launched her presidential run. The event was titled “America’s Monopoly Problem: What Should the Next President Do About It?” It took place when most of the political world assumed that the “Next President” in question would be Hillary Clinton, because of her then-enormous lead over Donald Trump in the polls.)
I was glad to have read American Manifesto, and I think most media- or politics-minded people will be too. Congratulations to Bob Garfield on its done-ness, and good news for the rest of us in its brevity, specificity, and wit.
Let’s take another look at Dayton, Ohio. For context, here is a report on how the city has dealt with the loss of major industries over the decades, and with the mass shootings in its nightlife-and-cultural Oregon District this past summer. And here is a report on how the University of Dayton—a private, Catholic, research university located a few miles from downtown—is reconceiving its mission to emphasize revival of the community as a whole.
Today’s subject is another major part of the local higher-ed equation, Sinclair Community College. Sinclair is very large as community colleges go, with an enrollment of about 28,000 students per year in college-credit courses, and another 12,000 in other programs.
It also has a very long history. It was founded in the late 1880s, growing from vocational-training programs that a young Scottish immigrant named David Sinclair had established at the local YMCA. The main clientele was factory workers, many of them immigrants, who were pouring into this part of Ohio (as with other midwestern cities) during its industrial-age boom. The original Sinclair’s ambition was to provide specific technical training and general “Americanization” courses in civics and language.
“Many community colleges around the country are celebrating their 50th or 60th anniversaries now, because they were part of the big post-World War II educational expansion,” Steven L. Johnson, who has been president of Sinclair since 2003, told me in Dayton last month. “We’re into our 133rd year.” He said that while some institutions might have predated what David Sinclair and his contemporaries set up in Dayton, today’s Sinclair Community College appears to have the longest history of continuous operation among all U.S. community colleges.
In dispatches from around the country, Deb Fallows and I have argued that community colleges are the indispensable part of this era’s U.S. educational establishment. We’ve seen and described this in Mississippi, and in rural post-tobacco Virginia, and across Michigan, and many places beyond. I still believe what I argued about community colleges earlier in this journey — namely, that while every branch of American education is always “important,” from preschool and K–12 to the most intense research universities, community colleges really are the crucial institutions of this economic and political moment. That is because:
They’re local- or state-based, and thus far freer to experiment, adapt, and innovate than most federally run institutions are at this moment of paralyzed national politics.
They’re more and more the institutions that feel responsible for matching people who need opportunities with the fastest-growing opportunities of this era. (For instance, in much of the country there have been more openings than candidates for relatively high-wage “skilled trade” jobs: from welding and construction, to engine and robotics maintenance, to many aspects of the ever-expanding health-care industry. Many community colleges emphasize preparing graduates for jobs that are in demand right now, while also developing skills and adaptable-learning techniques that will apply for whatever jobs emerge a decade from now.)
Because they’re often dispersed across a state, with branches in smaller cities and rural areas, many of them have taken a lead in devising region-wide and rurally focused development plans. Most everyone knows that America outside the big cities faces its own set of challenges, from attracting new residents to creating new economic strongholds to dealing with physical and mental-health problems. The people working hardest toward solutions, at least among those I’ve met, are disproportionately at community colleges.
What makes Sinclair unusual and worth notice, apart from its long history? I was struck by three aspects.
First is the sheer scale of its impact on the community. According to Sinclair officials, at least half of all Dayton-area residents have taken classes there at some point.
Second is the way it is trying to broaden access to its programs—for groups ranging from high school students to people in correctional institutions.
Third is its integration and cooperation with other parts of the region’s educational and economic structure. You don’t always see research universities and community colleges working together; in Dayton they appear to be doing so.
First, the scale. When I met Steven Johnson and Adam Murka, his chief of staff, on Sinclair’s campus, I asked about their claim that half of Dayton-area residents had taken classes there. How could this possibly be true?
“Let’s do the numbers,” Johnson said, all of which highlighted the fact that Sinclair is a large institution in a medium-sized town.
The city of Dayton itself has just under 150,000 people. Depending on how you count, the surrounding metro area totals somewhere between 700,000 and one million. Beyond the tens of thousands of students Sinclair enrolls each year, it employs about 3,000 people. Spurred in part by an Ohio program that encourages high-school students to take local college courses, nearly 8,000 Dayton-area high-school students take classes for credit at Sinclair before they graduate from high school. When the local economy goes down, as it did dramatically after the 2008 financial collapse, Sinclair’s enrollment goes up further still, and people who have lost jobs re-train in hopes of finding new ones.
“We know that if you add it up, every decade we’re educating about 125,000 different people in the area,” Johnson said. “Over time, it means that we’ve directly touched the lives of about half the people within an hour’s drive of here.”
I asked Johnson and Murka if they knew of any other community college with proportionately as large a regional impact. “We wouldn’t know about all of them, but I’m not aware of any,” Murka said. Johnson, who has been an administrator at colleges in Arkansas, Texas, and Florida, said that in his experience, “this footprint is unique.”
We met in the college’s Building 12, its main administration building, which includes large meeting spaces. “It’s not a joke; everyone in the community has been here at some point,” Johnson said. “Every gala, every civic event, every big gathering has happened here. We are just part of this place.”
Like many other community colleges, Sinclair offers programs in health care, and law enforcement. “Whenever you hear a siren in the Miami Valley, there’s an 80 percent probability that someone in that emergency vehicle—fire, police, paramedic—is Sinclair trained,” Johnson said.
Second, the ambition to broaden and include. For residents of Montgomery County, of which Dayton is the county seat, Sinclair tuition is now $3,500 per year, which the college says is the lowest in Ohio. Over the past dozen years, the number of students completing a degree or certificate has gone up more than five-fold—low completion rates being one of the long-standing failures of America’s community colleges. In 2005, about 1,500 Sinclair students completed their degrees or certificates. Last year, more than 8,000 did. The number of degrees and certificates completed by minority students has also risen sharply. (From just over 500 in 2012, to nearly 2,000 last year.)
The broadening strategy that most got my attention was Sinclair’s “Prison Education Program,” to offer people still in correctional institutions courses that lead to certificates or associate degrees. “We have all this human talent—latent talent—now incarcerated,” Johnson said. “What they need is not random ‘enrichment’ courses, but a pathway, to something specific.” The courses lead to certificates and degrees in food-services, addiction counseling, social work, agriculture and forestry, supply-chain management, and other fields. About 2,000 incarcerated students are now enrolled, at 15 institutions across the state.
“This program is also unusual in its scale,” Adam Murka said. “Lots of states are involved in prison education, but I’m not aware of anybody doing as much as we are, toward credentials where people can actually get jobs.” He pointed out that people with felony records are barred from future employment in some fields, notably including teaching and medical care. “We’re concentrating on fields where they can find work.” According to Sinclair, recidivism rates have fallen dramatically among people who have completed these courses.
Third, collaboration between this community college and the area’s main research institution, the University of Dayton. Sinclair and UD are not the only important higher-ed organizations in the region—another important one is Wright State University—but they have a long history of collaboration, as opposed to the arm’s-length, disdainful, or competitive attitude with which some four-year universities view their community-college counterparts. For instance, since 2016 the two institutions have offered a program called the “UD Sinclair Academy.” Under this system students start at Sinclair, earn an associate degree there, and then transfer their courses for full class credit at the (much more expensive) University of Dayton.
There are many more aspects of the Sinclair story that I won’t go into here. The one that tempts me most: their advanced work in “Unmanned Aerial Systems,” or drones, including a very high-ceilinged “Indoor Flying Pavilion” (video here) where the little devices can fly and be tested and calibrated in all weather.
Instead I’ll return to the question I earlier asked the leaders of the University of Dayton: how the rest of the country should think about the situation of Dayton, with all it has lost and all it is trying to regain.
Steven Johnson grew up as part of a large farming family in rural Wisconsin. Adam Murka is from the Dayton area and graduated from the University of Dayton — before working as an aide for the area’s Republican congressman (and former Dayton mayor), Michael Turner.
How does each of them think about Dayton now—and think it should be understood, by the rest of the country?
“Dayton is proud,” Steven Johnson said. “I like to say, having lived in Austin [where he went to graduate school, at the University of Texas], that Dayton was the Austin of the Industrial Age in America. It was the place in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s. It was a booming place. People really didn’t see themselves in any way, shape, or form as ‘second class,’ compared to the very biggest cities. That consciousness remains.
“This is an extraordinarily competent place,” he said. “People here understand how to do things. And it’s a big enough place to have all the components of a city’s life—and small enough that it’s not siloed.”
Both he and Murka said that everyone in Dayton was aware of the larger “declining Rust Belt” perception mage applied to the region as a whole, and the particular way Dayton’s opioid and factory-closing problems have dominated national-media attention to the town. “There’s this image, ‘Dayton was once great and booming, and now it’s just horrible,’” Johnson said. “It’s frustrating because I think, Would you look more closely at this region? There is a lot happening here. On average, the quality of life is very high. Of course I immediately have to stress on average, because of our obvious problems. But if you take me to Austin, in five minutes I can show you all its problems and contrasts too.”
About Dayton’s woebegone image, Adam Murka said, “Among Daytonians, and maybe everywhere in the Midwest, there is a very strong allergy to self-promotion.” Murka said that he had spent an earlier part of his career in Washington D.C., “where that allergy does not exist. I don’t necessarily mean that as a slam,” he said, “But—of course you promote yourselves! Or in Texas they might say, ‘It ain’t bragging if it’s true.’ Here that’s just not done.”
With appropriate allowances for broad-brush regional caricatures, Murka said there was an upside of this taciturn midwestern approach: “It means it’s a great place to do business. If somebody makes you a promise, they’ve very likely to keep it. The downside is that people don’t know about all the promise you have.” He said that if he told a loyal New Yorker, “Man, your city must be a terrible place to live,” then “in the best case, they say ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ And in the worst case it degenerates quickly.” But tell a Daytonian about the city’s woes, and the reply is likely to be, “Yeah, we’ve had some hard times here ...”
“I have seen more optimism in the last five years than in the past 15,” Steven Johnson said, about the developments in downtown Dayton and varied business and cultural startups. Adam Murka made a similar point in a different way.
“One of the nice things about having gone through catastrophic change, is that you have gone through it,” Adam Murka said. “You know you can do it.”
“We are a place that knows what it is. The smartest thinkers in the world say that the rate of change is going to increase exponentially. We know we will be able to adapt to those kinds of changes, because we’ve already done it, several times.”
It’s time for another report on Dayton, Ohio, subject of this introduction last month.
A century ago, Dayton was known mainly for the things it created, from the Wright Brothers’ airplanes to the cash registers used around the country and produced by Dayton’s home-grown National Cash Register corporation, later NCR.
Over the past generation Dayton has often been the dateline for stories about things older Rust Belt communities have lost. In Dayton’s case, these include a major GM assembly plant, whose closing two days before Christmas in 2008 was chronicled in the HBO documentary film The Last Truck, by local filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. A few months after GM’s departure, the city lost NCR itself, which in 2009 delivered the shocking news that it was moving its headquarters to Atlanta and abandoning the riverside office park in Dayton that it had built for itself back in the 1970s, during the heyday of the sprawling “office-campus” trend.
At the time of the move to Atlanta, some 1,250 NCR employees were working in Dayton, most within earshot of the imposing Deeds Carillon, built by one of the company’s early leaders and an all-around civic titan, Col. Edward Deeds. As the New York Times’ Dan Barry pointed out in an artfully acidic piece the year after the move, the Carillon remains even as other traces of NCR have vanished. Barry noted that the NCR executive who presided over the change, a controversial figure named Bill Nuti, had himself declined ever to shift his residence from New York to Dayton—and was prominently featured in the Atlanta press saying that the relocation out of Dayton was “great for NCR.” Perhaps so, but for Dayton it represented the loss of its last remaining Fortune 500-company headquarters and a large number of high-end jobs.
But, as noted in this previous post, things move on. The closings weren’t the end—for the physical structures that GM and NCR has abandoned, or for the town. After The Last Truck, Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar made a celebrated followup Netflix documentary, American Factory, about the Chinese glass-making firm Fuyao that has set up operations in GMs old plant. NCR’s expansive former suite of office buildings and factory structures near the Carillon are now occupied by research centers for GE and the electronics company Emerson, Cox Media’s broadcast and print operations, a variety of others firms, and many operations of the University of Dayton, located nearby. “The footprint NCR left in Dayton is large,” Ty Greenlees, of the Dayton Daily News, wrote last year, in an updated look at the site NCR had left behind. “But many in the community saw opportunity.”
Today’s subject is how one of the city’s major institutions, the University of Dayton, has decided to throw itself all-in, to the effort to find new opportunities in and for the town. (Another of these institutions, Sinclair Community College, is similarly all-in on the Dayton-renewal effort. More about what Sinclair is doing in an upcoming report.)
“The city’s name is in our name,” Eric Spina, an engineer who came from Syracuse University to become president of the University of Dayton three years ago, told me when I visited the town last month. “The health and vibrancy of the city, especially of the urban core, are central to our ability to exist—to attract the best faculty and staff, to convince parents that this is where they want to send their kids. So bringing vitality to this city and region really is an existential question for us.”
This past spring, I reported from Muncie, Indiana, where Ball State University—a large, public institution—has taken responsibility for the city’s troubled K-12 public schools. To the best of my knowledge—and that of the Ball State authorities—this is the first time a U.S. public university has directly run a community’s schools. The Ball State move is a particularly clear-cut example of a trend that Deb Fallows and I have seen around the country: The commitment by four-year and research universities, which might traditionally have tried to wall themselves off from urban problems through a widening town-and-gown separation, instead to view their future as linked to the community’s.
The University of Dayton is a private, Catholic, relatively prosperous research institution, founded by the Marianist (Society of Mary) order of the church. Geographically, its lovely main campus is set apart from downtown Dayton and its struggles—across the boundary of an interstate, miles from the main manufacturing centers, in the sylvan riverside area next to where NCR also chose to build its campus.
One strategy for universities like this, in towns like this, would be to say: Hey, that’s them, too bad for their problems, but come see how nice life can be within our sheltered enclave. Another approach, of which we’ve seen more and more examples, is for university leaders to say: This is us, we rise or fall together, let us prepare our students for their broad global possibilities by teaching them responsibility for where we are now.
What are illustrations of the University of Dayton’s investment in the city? I mentioned last month Eric Spina’s speech at a Dayton-renewal conference where he said that the university, as an “anchor institution” of the community, was there to stay. “We’re not moving to Mexico City,” he said. “We’re not moving to Atlanta,” an NCR reference that everyone in the audience understood.
In practical terms this means several physical commitments:
One is the university’s investment in the $90-million-plus renovation of the Dayton Arcade—a century ago the focus of downtown commerce, but for the past generation another derelict structure. (I’ll have more to say about this project, and the downtown as a whole, in another report.)
Another is its financial and reputational commitment to the “onMain” project, in partnership with the large regional health system Premier Health, toward creating “Dayton’s Imagination Zone.” The project will involve re-use of a long, 38-acre tract of mostly undeveloped land formerly occupied by the Montgomery County Fair. It conveniently runs the distance from downtown Dayton to the university district—and from the university to the river.
“This is not a 5-year project, or 10, or 20, or 30,” Spina told me. “This is a 150-year investment. How often do you get 38 uncontaminated acres in the middle of a city? Not very frequently, and we are all determined to do this right.”
Doing it right, in his view, would involve a sustained investment in mixed-income housing, locally focused retail, parks and amenities, and other aspects of the modern urban ideal. When completed, it is meant to foster a connection rather than a separation between town and gown—and explicitly a closer connection between Dayton’s black and white communities, for which the Miami River has been a historic dividing line.
Why bother? I asked Spina why development of Dayton-the-city should be part of his franchise as leader of Dayton-the-private-university. He told me his views on that topic—and also about what people misunderstand about a “declining” midwestern city like this.
On the university, he said that its Marianist heritage predisposed its students and faculty toward community involvement. But beyond that, he said, “I see two primary reasons for deeper engagement.”
One was “our fiduciary responsibility to students—making sure that they have the best possible education.” Rigor in the classrooms is supposed to be taken for granted. But, he said, “I believe that education is optimized if we get students out of their bubble.” Through engagement in the community’s struggles, “they may come to understand that they aren’t going to solve any of these problems. They are there to contribute—their knowledge, their skill, themselves—to a team that can address big issues. That is learning to be a leader, in the Marianist way of life.”
The other motivating force, he said, was the school’s like-it-or-not connection to the city’s progress and reputation. “We are here,” he said. “We employ more than 3,000 people. We have, with grad students and undergrads, more than 11,000 students.”
“We own homes here. We spend money here. We recreate here. We have an extraordinary research institute, which has grown from 400 employees to about 600. We want this region to be successful, and we believe we can contribute to that. In this day and age, when fewer institutions seem to have both a longer vision and a sense of connectivity to the local and and a commitment to the public good, I think we have to remember that universities should be committed to the public good.”
The other topic I asked Eric Spina about was the outlook and self-image of Dayton. When national media go there, it’s usually for a “Rust Belt city in crisis” story, or for a followup to the Oregon District shootings in downtown Dayton this past summer. What was it like to lead a major institution there, day in and day out?
“We can argue about whether downtown Dayton is at the [positive] tipping point or not,” he said, referring to the blocks around the arcade project. “I do think a few more things need to happen. But all of a sudden, there are successful developers from outside the area who have begun projects here. All of a sudden, many people are living downtown, and even in the suburbs you have this awareness that there are free concerts, restaurants, arts, other interesting things going on downtown.”
I asked him what he said to prospective faculty members or students, about deciding to commit to this town. “First I say, forget what you’ve heard about the ‘rust and decline.’ Think about the people. The people here are highly collaborative. They work together and they get things done.” He gave the example of bigger-city arts organizations, where the ballet and the symphony and the opera would talk about joint efforts—but feud, compete, and don’t move past talk. “Here we have the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance,” with combined calendars and ticket sales for a range of arts organizations. “That’s one illustration that speaks to the heart and soul of the community, where the dominant culture is practical-minded, toward getting things done. It’s a place where there are collaborators, and the quality of life is high.”
Five years ago I wrote about the unofficial and mostly joking civic motto for the fast-growing city of Greenville, South Carolina: “Greenville, are you kidding?” When a company transferred a family to Greenville from a more “glamorous” location, the first reaction was typically, “Are you kidding?” But as the city’s mayor, Knox White, told us, “They wouldn’t come here—until they came here, kicking and screaming, and the next thing you know, they’d bought a house.” (The rapid in-migration to Greenville makes this more than just a boosterish claim.)
The Dayton version of this joke-motto is that the city is a “two-cry” place, a term particularly widespread among the military families transferred into and away from the adjoining, huge Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Many people I met told me about this concept, including Eric Spina: When he was in his final interview with the university’s presidential-selection committee, his wife, Karen, went to lunch with some Dayton residents. “They told her that Dayton was a ‘two-cry’ town,” Spina said. “She asked, What do you mean? And they said: You cry when you hear that you have to move to Dayton. Then you cry when you hear you have to leave.”
Is this the view of someone with an interest in putting the community in the best light? Of course. Does it fully represent all the outlooks, heartbreaks, and divisions in a still-troubled region? Of course not. But this perspective is different enough from the standard media view of places like Dayton, and also representative enough of the institutional innovation we’ve seen from central Oregon to southern Georgia, to be worth attention.
Next up: another important and nationally significant part of Dayton’s educational mix.
Here are news items and developments related to trends we’ve been covering in the recent “Our Towns” series, and elsewhere:
The furniture business returns, and is looking for furniture-makers. In a series of dispatches from Danville, Virginia, and its environs, Deb Fallows and I talked about this region’s reaction after the three previous pillars of its manufacturing economy collapsed more or less at the same time, over the past generation.
Those pillars were tobacco-growing and related activities, which for obvious public-health reasons have been in long-term decline; textile mills and clothing-makers, also shrinking over the past generation due to competition from the Caribbean, Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere (we wrote about effects of this shift in South Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and Mississippi); and furniture-making, again mainly due to lower-cost competition from China.
This week TheWall Street Journal reports on the return of furniture-making jobs in North Carolina—not to the levels of the late 1990s, but steadily increasing through the past decade. What’s the main limit on the expansion? For now it is the supply of skilled trades workers for these jobs. This is connected to two other trends we’ve seen and written about across the country in the past few years: the continued growth in relatively well-paying skilled trade jobs across the country—in construction, advanced-manufacturing, health services, repair-and-maintenance, wind- and solar-power projects, and so on. See a report from NPR here, and from a trades group here.
The other trend is the crucial role of community colleges, and “career technical” programs in K-12 schools, in equipping students who need opportunities for the opportunities that now exist. I keep arguing (for instance, here) that community colleges are the institutions-of-the-moment, in increasing the chances for really inclusive economic growth. Soon I’ll give another example, from Dayton, Ohio. It’s one more reason to reading this WSJ piece by Ruth Simon.
People who leave small-town America, and people who return. This week, the PBS News Hourhad a report by Jeffrey Brown on Millennial-generation Americans who have a choice of where to work and live—and are choosing to live in small towns or rural areas. Obviously this is just in sync with what Deb Fallows and I have been observing from coast to coast.
Of course this development does not mean that the pressure on very small areas has abated—the steady disappearance of rural-health facilities is one of the biggest challenges for small and rural areas trying to remain viable. And of course it does not mean that New York, Seattle, and San Francisco will lose their roles. But it’s an important complicating reality: the re-peopling of some parts of “left-behind” America, with people who are looking for ways to bring new life to these areas.
A “revenue lab” for local journalism. The 10-year-old nonprofit TheTexas Tribune has been one of the most important state-scale models of how journalism can re-establish itself, with a new financial model (as discussed here and here). This week it announced a new “revenue and training lab,” to systematize, improve, and share models for sustainable local journalism.
As Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the TheTexas Tribune, wrote in an announcement: “We’re creating our first-ever revenue and training lab—a freestanding entity, housed in our Austin newsroom, where we’ll experiment with innovative ways to fund local news, model best practices that we hope will benefit the entire ecosystem, and mentor and coach dozens of our would-be peers …. The RevLab, as we’ve already started to shorthand it … [will be devoted to] this noble pursuit of sustainability strategies for our industry.”
Examples of smaller-town functionality. As part of CNN’s “Fractured States of America” series, kicked off by Ken Burns, Deb Fallows has a piece today on cases she’s seen of communities trying to heal rather than intensify national divides. It starts in our favorite southern-Arizona community of Ajo and moves to Sioux Falls and elsewhere. It also includes a photo of a very powerful piece of civically important public art: the monument erected in Duluth, Minnesota, site of the northernmost lynching in U.S. history, to the three men unjustly killed there.
It has been another rough period for the financial models behind journalism in general, and local news outlets in particular.
Last month Brookings released a sobering report about the spread of “news deserts” across the country, driven especially by the collapse in newspaper advertising revenue. In 2000, according to this report, newspapers took in more than $70 billion in total ad revenue (measured in 2018 dollars). By 2018, that number had plummeted to about $14 billion. Local papers have been harder hit than the industry as a whole. As Clara Hendrickson, the Brookings author, put it: “While [Google and Facebook] account for 58% of digital advertising revenue nationally, the two companies account for 77% in local markets.”
Also last month, a merger between the country’s two largest newspaper chains, Gannett and New Media Investment Group (parent of GateHouse) was completed. GateHouse, which owns hundreds of newspapers and community publications across the country, has a richly earned reputation for accelerating the destruction of local papers. Its track record with small papers—for instance, in this Massachusetts example—is to boost their profit margin in the short run, by slashing expenses (notably in the newsroom). As the publications dwindle into local insignificance, revenues and expenses chase each other down. Eventually the withered titles are combined into a regional chain or shut down entirely.
Will this formula now be applied across the Gannett empire, from USA Today on down? Last month I posted a brave defense of reporting ambitions from the editor of a Gannett (now GateHouse) paper in Tennessee. We’ll see how things turn out, there and elsewhere. One ominous indicator is the contention from both Gannett and GateHouse that their combined company could “save” hundred of millions of dollars in operating costs. As Richard Edmonds wrote last month on the Poynter web site:
Big layoffs are looming as the combined company (to be called Gannett) attempts during the next several years to deliver a promised $275 million to $300 million in cost-saving synergies….
At both companies (as throughout the industry) newsroom staffs have been reduced as revenues and profits contract. That is particularly true in the smallest markets. Sources have told me that at each company at least a third of the titles are so-called “ghost newspapers” with as few as one, two or three locally based reporters or editors.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I watched the #SubscribeSunday concept, apparently originating at TheBoston Globe, gain traction—which I hope will increase over the years. Yes, it’s become a gimmick to piggyback names for the post-Thanksgiving sequence of themed days: first “Black Friday,” and then, “Small Business Saturday,” “Cyber Monday,” “Giving Tuesday.” But I’m all in favor of promoting the idea that people should think consciously about paying for journalism. Many nonprofits receive a huge share of each year’s donations in the final few days of that year. In part that’s because as December 31 draws near, many people (including me) start to think: Gee, I really should be giving XX amount this year, what are the main places I’ve left out? Developing a “gee, I really should … ” consciousness about reporting will take time but is important. (For instance, with this very magazine.)
Every element of today’s journalistic establishment is trying to experiment its way to a new financial footing and a new connection with communities and readers. This week there is genuinely positive news about one of the experiments I wrote about this past summer: the Report for America initiative, which sends experienced-but-still-rising reporters and editors to news outlets across the country, especially in small towns and rural areas hardest-hit by the pressures on local news. It’s growing four-fold, from its second year of operation to its third.
In 2018, when Report for America first started, it sent a total of 13 reporters to local news rooms. This past summer, Deb Fallows and I met in Houston with a group of 60-plus journalists, who made up RFA’s second annual corps. This week, Report for America announced that it would send 250 reporters to 164 newsrooms in 46 states across the country. “This is probably the largest hiring blitz in local news in recent memory,” Steven Waldman, a veteran journalist and tech entrepreneur who is co-founder of Report for America, told me after the announcement. “I think it ought to give people a sense of hope that this crisis of local news is solvable.”
You can see the whole list of news organizations here, along with the beats to which the new reporters will be assigned. For instance, “Vietnamese and African American neighborhoods,” for the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. Or “Rural healthcare” for the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Step one of RFA’s annual process, whose results are just being announced, is securing commitments for new reporting slots, and choosing the news rooms best qualified for RFA support. Step two will be choosing among applicants for these postings. Applications for these positions are open until the end of January next year.
That these are new beats is an important part of the Report for America model: It asks publications to specify what they’d do if they had more resources, then helps them fill that gap. Its funding model, described in detail here, is also designed to pull new money into local journalism, including from local foundations and donors in each area. To oversimplify: the local newsroom, the national Report for America organization, and local philanthropies all share the cost of employing additional reporters. The annual cost of a new reporter averages about $40,000. Report for America puts up about half the money; the news organization and local philanthropies share the rest.
“We’ve been putting out the message that community foundations and others can have really big impact for their dollar, if they invest this way,” Charles Sennott, a former Boston Globe reporter who is head of The GroundTruth Project which launched Report for America, told me this week. “If they invest $10,000, they can make a significant difference in local coverage.” Toward its goal of mobilizing more city-by-city philanthropic support, Report for America recently hired Todd Franko, former editor of the now-closed Youngstown Vindicator in Ohio, as its “Director of Sustainability.”
“Of course everyone is focused on the bleakness out there [in local journalism], and it is quite bleak,” Steven Waldman told me. “But there is also a lot of great creative energy.
Waldman said that the first part of the conversations he, Sennott, or other RFA representatives would have with local newsrooms could be depressing. “Sometimes it was heartbreaking, the kind of fundamental accountability-reporting that just wasn’t getting done any more,” he said. But then, he said, “It was also inspiring to hear from editors all around the country, who were trying against great odds really to address these needs.”
Waldman said that local journalists or civic figures naturally had a more acute sense of the gaps that needed to be filled in local coverage—compared with an outsider’s guess. As an example: immigrant and ethnic-minority communities began growing in many small towns, at just the time local newsroom staffs were shrinking. Thus many of this year’s newsroom slots involve coverage of these communities.
“We have seen a tremendous appetite among creative newsrooms, and talented journalists, and quite a few philanthropists” to devise new approaches, Waldman said. “So if we bring them all together, and wrap it in a spirit of public service, we can really create something better than we’ve ever had before.” He said that his conversations with local editors and reporters had reminded him that they “already have in their bones the sense of news as a public service. They just need a way to keep doing that.”
“We see some light, at a time that feels like it’s dusk in American local journalism,” Charles Sennott told me. “We can see that emerging journalists are answering a call to service. We’re starting to feel momentum to restore journalism from the ground up.”
Staying versus moving is one of the eternal tensions of American life.
Americans have frequently moved: Consider how the geographic center of the population has shifted over the centuries, from east of Baltimore, when the Constitution was written, to west of the Mississippi now.
Tales of location and dislocation, voluntary or forced, are at the heart of American history and literature. They range from Lewis and Clark and The Oregon Trail, to O Pioneers! and The Grapes of Wrath—from The Warmth of Other Suns to On the Road, from Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise and Ladybird, and a thousand other illustrations before and after.
But of course Americans, like people of any culture, have at the same time craved connection, place, family, roots—the sense of being at home. This is part of our literature and life as well: The Education of Henry Adams in the Boston Brahmin way, and Where We Come From, by Oscar Cásares, as a very different recent illustration, with its account of life along the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas.
My goal is obviously not to sum up this unending tension in the national life. It is instead to tee up one practical aspect, as a prelude to this evening’s debate among 10 Democratic candidates.
Through America’s history, there has been a long dying off of the very smallest hamlets and settlements. In the 1870s, a small rural town might support several farming families, a general store and a school teacher and perhaps a newspaper publisher and an undertaker. Now if that village or settlement exists at all, it might just be a retired farm family, or someone working as an employee for a corporate owner, or someone who drives 50 miles to work in an Amazon or Walmart warehouse. Our literary reference here is Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, about the withering of his North Texas hometown of Archer City, Texas.
As we described in Our Towns and related articles, you can see the evidence of this smallest-town attrition perhaps most easily from above:
Even in South Dakota’s fertile East River, you can easily trace from low altitude what the railroads ushered in 150 years ago, and how their impact has ebbed. As we flew along one of the east-west lines that brought settlers into these territories and carried crops out to markets, we would see little settlements every few minutes. In the 1800s they were set up at roughly 10-mile intervals, an efficient distance when farmers were delivering their harvests by wagon. Now it seems that four out of five of those towns are withering, as farms are run with giant combines and crops are hauled by truck.
So, there will continue to be some communities—of a few hundred people, or a very few thousand—that are just too small to survive.
But what about those settlements that are large enough that they are not going away? Charleston, West Virginia, has lost more than a third its population, compared to its peak before the decline of the coal and chemical industries. Countless mid-sized cities in Pennsylvania and Ohio have fewer people than they did 30 years ago. The same is true in many Plains states.
And yet many of these cities, while smaller than they used to be, are still sizable in population terms and richly endowed with the physical legacy of their long decades of boom and growth. Big churches and synagogues; once-grand civic buildings and banks; department stores and concert halls—the many other reminders of the architectural ambitions and grandeur of an earlier American age. In some places across the country, the tattered parts of this heritage are being renewed. (For instance, like this, from Danville, Virginia.) In others, the decay goes on—fewer restored downtown apartments, more tattoo parlors and for-pay blood banks. But even the most struggling of these cities, unlike the Dust Bowl settlement where Caroline Henderson lived, is not simply going to disappear. Many of their people are not just going away.
Jason Segedy, of the planning department of the city of Akron, Ohio, wrote recently on his Tumblr—called “Notes from the Underground”—about what he called “the U-Haul school of urban policy.” That is the idea that if you can make people more geographically mobile—moving them out of a place where opportunities are dwindling, and into a place where new possibilities are opening up—you will have done much of the work that matters, toward making the U.S. economy fairer, more open, more inclusive, more dynamic, and so on.
People still are going to move, Segedy and others emphasize. But that’s become harder in various ways than it might have been a generation ago (for reasons Segedy goes into), and it doesn’t address the prospect of those who want to, or have to, stay.
Segedy’s whole post is worth reading—as is this complementary 2018 reported essay by Alec MacGillis in ProPublica, and Chris Arnade’s powerful and much-discussed book, Dignity. For the moment, I’d like to emphasize this part of Segedy’s argument, as part of his list of the modern limits of the “U-Haul solution” for America:
4) The Enduring Importance of Place: ...When people left behind small communities in Appalachia or the rural South, in order to improve their individual economic prospects, it was undoubtedly a hardship for the people who were left behind in those places, but the number of people who were impacted was relatively small ….
That obscure, old, abandoned silver mining town in the Colorado mountains that you can’t name might have been a one-industry town, just like Youngstown was, but the similarity ends there.
Whether we’re talking about a smaller city like Flint or Youngstown, or a larger one like Cleveland or Detroit, we’re looking at established places with tens or hundreds of thousands of residents, surrounded by hundreds of thousands or millions more. The critical mass of people, and economic activity, even in a massively shrinking city like Youngstown, is staggering.
The notion that large numbers of people can just walk away from larger urban regions in the Rust Belt, without disastrous social (and, increasingly, political) implications is naive in the extreme. Encouraging everyone to abandon their friends, family, and community, and head for greener pastures might be a solid course of action for an individual person or household, but it is suicidal as a regional economic development strategy.
Nearly everything that matters in life is contradictory. Through our years of living in China, Deb Fallows and I were continually re-amazed about the opposites that were simultaneously true in that country: Rich and poor. Modern and backward. Tender and cruel. Controlled and chaotic—all true, all at the same time.
The American version of that outlook that I’ve come to believe, through our travels, involves opportunity and inclusion. America should make it easier for people to move—toward new places and possibilities, toward better versions of themselves. And America should make it better for people who stay. Again, as Jason Segedy put it:
In case I haven’t said it enough:
I’m not arguing that people should never move away from where they live.
But, I am arguing that we need a better answer than “You need U-Haul” for the economically struggling people in the cities of the vast post-industrial heartland of this troubled nation.
Formally these two approaches are known as “mobility-based” and “place-based” strategies. As Segedy, MacGillis, Arnade, and many others point out, “mobility” policies have usually seemed more high-brow and respectable than place-based approaches. Helping a talented young person go from a hick town to a research lab is a commencement speech-worthy illustration of the American Dream. Helping that hick town improve itself can seem like more pork barrel. But America’s version of China’s endless contradictions is that both of these opposites matter: Helping people, and helping places. A fairer chance for people who go, and a fairer chance for people who stay.
Where this is leading, in today’s installment, is my ever-increasing interest in groups, thinkers, organizations, and others who are trying to systematize “place-based” policies. To give just three illustrations, from many possibilities:
The latest addition to this list is the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, whose focus over the years has been America’s entrepreneurial economy. Recently it released “America’s New Business Plan,” described in detail at this site, with a detailed set of recommendations for how cities and regions can foster the new businesses that, collectively, account for nearly all of the net job growth in the economy. “A lot of policy makers have a misguided emphasis on attracting big, established businesses,” Victor Hwang, Kauffman’s vice president for entrepreneurship, told me about this study. “Think of the big fight over cities trying to get [Amazon’s] HQ2. When you think about what could have been done with a fraction of that money, to foster new businesses, it’s very significant.”
What, in specific, could have been done? The Kauffman report, available online here and as a 25-page PDF here is designed especially to redress a funding-and-opportunity gap that has penalized women, people in rural area, and non-whites across the country. “Women, black, and Latinx entrepreneurs disproportionately struggle to raise the funds their businesses need,” the report says. “While 45% of men say that getting the money to start a new business is difficult, 63% of women report the same. On average, black entrepreneurs start with much less capital, have less family wealth to rely on, and are much less likely to get bank loans or other forms of investment than equivalent applicants who are white or of other racial identities.”
What makes this report valuable, from my point of view, is that it is chock full of specifics. They come in four main categories: 1) improving financing for new businesses; 2) sharing practical know-how in business operations; 3) streamlining regulations that burden small businesses in particular (as opposed to a general anti-regulation crusade; and 4) buffering some of the external risks that may deter people from taking a plunge-into-the-unknown by starting a business.
What’s an example of category four? Health-insurance costs and student-loan burdens. The Kauffman report goes into detail about proposals that could (in theory!) get bipartisan support, and that could create “a safety net that supports entrepreneurial risk-taking.” There is a lot more in the report.
Why mention this today? Because one more Democratic debate is about to begin. Lord knows there is a lot of other breaking news right now that is likely to dominate the questioning. But sooner or later, attention will turn again to the economic problems—both person-based and place-based—doing such damage in the country. Whoever emerges from the Democratic field will need ideas and plans for dealing with them. Fortunately the supply of such ideas is starting to grow.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
The extent of Oscar Health’s work on coronavirus testing hasn’t been previously reported.
On March 13, President Donald Trump promised Americans they would soon be able to access a new website that would ask them about their symptoms and direct them to nearby coronavirus testing sites. He said Google was helping.
That wasn’t true. But in the following days, Oscar Health—a health-insurance company closely connected to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—developed a government website with the features the president had described. A team of Oscar engineers, project managers, and executives spent about five days building a stand-alone website at the government’s request, an Oscar spokesperson told The Atlantic. The company even dispatched two employees from New York to meet in person with federal officials in Washington, D.C., the spokesperson said. Then the website was suddenly and mysteriously scrapped.
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at the UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored. (It may also turn out to be the case that people who are immune to the disease can still pass it on under certain circumstances.)*
Across the country, social distancing is morphing from a public-health to political act. The consequences could be disastrous.
For Geoff Frost, the first sign of the coronavirus culture war came last weekend on the golf course. His country club, located in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, had recently introduced a slew of new policies to encourage social distancing. The communal water jugs were gone, the restaurant was closed, and golfers had been asked to limit themselves to one person per cart. Frost, a 43-year-old Democrat, told me the club’s mix of younger liberals and older conservatives had always gotten along just fine—but the guidelines were proving divisive.
At the driving range, while Frost and his like-minded friends slathered on hand sanitizer and kept six feet apart, the white-haired Republicans seemed to delight in breaking the new rules. They made a show of shaking hands, and complained loudly about the “stupid hoax” being propagated by virus alarmists. When their tee times were up, they piled defiantly into golf carts, shoulder to shoulder, and sped off toward the first hole.
The dominant conservative philosophy for interpreting the Constitution has served its purpose, and scholars ought to develop a more moral framework.
In recent years, allegiance to the constitutional theory known as originalism has become all but mandatory for American legal conservatives. Every justice and almost every judge nominated by recent Republican administrations has pledged adherence to the faith. At the Federalist Society, the influential association of legal conservatives, speakers talk and think of little else. Even some luminaries of the left-liberal legal academy have moved away from speaking about “living constitutionalism,” “fundamental fairness,” and “evolving standards of decency,” and have instead justified their views in originalist terms. One often hears the catchphrase “We are all originalists now.”
Originalism comes in several varieties (baroque debates about key theoretical ideas rage among its proponents), but their common core is the view that constitutional meaning was fixed at the time of the Constitution’s enactment. This approach served legal conservatives well in the hostile environment in which originalism was first developed, and for some time afterward.
China warned Italy. Italy warned us. We didn’t listen. Now the onus is on the rest of America to listen to New York.
In the emergency-department waiting room, 150 people worry about a fever. Some just want a test, others badly need medical treatment. Those not at the brink of death have to wait six, eight, 10 hours before they can see a doctor. Those admitted to the hospital might wait a full day for a bed.
I am an emergency-medicine doctor who practices in both Manhattan and Queens; at the moment, I’m in Queens. Normally, I love coming to work here, even though in the best of times, my co-residents and I take care of one of New York City’s most vulnerable, underinsured patient populations. Many have underlying illnesses and a language barrier, and lack primary care.
The president is transmuting his calamitous failures into political gold.
Donald Trump is presiding over one of the worst calamities to befall the nation in living memory, and anyone who has followed his response since the coronavirus morphed from a worrisome outbreak in a Chinese province into a global pandemic knows the truth: Trump’s response has been disastrous. It’s no wonder that just a couple of weeks ago, a writer in this magazine concluded that “the Trump presidency is over.”
It seemed reasonable, logical. But once the polls started coming in, it turned out the American public—at least for now—disagrees. Despite his well-documented incompetence and lies, Trump is now enjoying some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency. Even more baffling, a majority of Americans—as many as 60 percent in one poll—think he’s doing a good job tackling the crisis.
“This time of isolation could be a period of great growth or great struggle in your relationship.”
Humans have evolved with a drive to share life with a partner—just not all day long. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savanna formed pair-bonds, but they parted in the morning to go about their separate tasks. So did our ancestors on the farm. For hundreds of thousands of years, even the most devoted couples have been uttering some version of that basic romantic principle: “I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”
So what happens now that spouses are staying home all day, and many unmarried couples suddenly find themselves quarantined together? The peril facing relationships quickly became obvious to the pioneers of this new intimacy on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where couples were cooped up for two weeks in their cabin during the ship’s quarantine. Ellis Vincent, a retired airline executive from Australia, told a reporter that he and his wife, Kimberly, were passing the time by having long conversations during which she displayed a remarkable memory.
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
President Trump’s targets have been Democratic leaders. But the outbreak isn’t going to stay confined to Democratic states.
It shouldn’t be all that remarkable when two leaders talk in a crisis. On Sunday morning, President Donald Trump got on the phone with Mayor Bill de Blasio to discuss what New York City needs to survive a white-hot outbreak that is only getting worse. De Blasio asked him to send more ventilators and military personnel, warning that in a week’s time, the health-care system could be overwhelmed.
Yet with these particular leaders at this particular point in history, it is remarkable. Until recently, de Blasio told me, none of his calls to the upper reaches of the White House were returned. Two weeks ago, the Democratic mayor said publicly that Trump was “betraying” his native city by not sending more life-saving medical equipment. Ever sensitive to criticism, Trump said, in turn: “I’m not dealing with him.”