(Editor’s note: Alana Semuels joined the TAD discussion group of Atlantic readers for an “Ask Me Anything,” and a lightly edited version of that Q&A is below. Reader questions are in bold, followed by replies from Semuels.)
Hi Alana. Welcome to TAD and thank you for being here. I live in the heart of the Rust Belt—Pittsburgh—and I was wondering what you see as the best hope for river towns like Aliquippa and Beaver Falls that were founded on steel but now barely scrape by. We are losing young people at a rate of 30 percent, I think. A couple towns have found a niche and have become viable, but I just don’t see many of these places recovering. Do you think they will inevitably eventually disappear like so many other towns in the Midwest?
I started my journalism career in Pittsburgh, at the Post-Gazette, so I have a special alliance to the region (except to the Steelers. Go Pats!). There are towns—like Goshen, Indiana—that have survived the rural exodus, mostly by specializing in a few niche industries. My article “America Is Still Making Things” talks a little more about this. But only a few towns are going to be able to pull this off. I think the rest are going to keep losing population and young people. There’s hope for them to become retirement communities, but that’s not necessarily the most dynamic economic engine.
As someone who really went around and talked to a lot of people from all corners of America, did you think Trump might win the election? Or were you as surprised as the rest of us?
No, I was surprised, too. I wish I had talked to more people about this before the election, but I, like many other journalists, was focused on other things.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the average Trump voter?
Democrats seem to think Trump voters are dumb; they aren’t. They just really don’t like Democrats, especially Hillary. A lot of the people I talked to said they were more anti-Hillary than they were pro-Trump. A friend who is a pollster said people in his groups thought Hillary was a liar and Trump an a-hole, and they’d rather vote for an a-hole than a liar.
I think a lot of people were long-time Republicans, and are as unlikely to change parties as urban Democrats are. But there was one woman who said to me she didn’t know who she was voting for until she got into the voting booth, and then she thought about the FBI and Hillary, and then voted for Trump. I think she is fairly representative.
It irritates me when Democrats criticize Rust Belt voters for supporting Trump. That’s the point of voting—everyone gets to choose who they want. Alexander Hamilton would have liked only the educated people to choose who was in charge, but that’s not a democracy.
Do you think sexism was a big factor in Midwest voters’ hate for Hillary?
No, I actually don’t. But I’m a business reporter, not a politics reporter, so I could be wrong.
What is the most surprising thing you learned while researching “America’s Great Divergence”?
Well the most surprising thing was when I was sitting at a pizza parlor talking to two young guys who said some really racist stuff (they didn’t like cities because they had too many black people, etc), which they knew was on the record. I think it really illuminated for me how different the two worlds are: What they were saying was perfectly fine to say in the world they lived in. In the world I live in, it was shocking.
Where is somewhere you’ve traveled that has really surprised you and changed how you think, either in a good way or a bad way?
Beaumont, Texas, was a fascinating place for me to visit. I had written a lot about segregation at that point, but it is often hard to articulate why segregation is so problematic (beyond general issues of equality and fairness). But I talked to a mother whose daughter had been succeeding in a good school in a white neighborhood, and then had to move to a bad school in a poor neighborhood. In the first school, her daughter had access to a computer, books, and an engaged teacher. In the second one, many of the kids in her class didn’t know how to read.
Based on what you’ve seen of America, do you consider it likely or unlikely that large-scale violent conflict breaks out between factions of Americans?
Hmm, I don’t think widespread violence is likely. One interesting thing I’ve noticed in trips since the election is how everyone is just going about their daily lives as before. Guys, the world has not ended (!!). If anything, people seem more politically engaged than ever.
One of the things I was most curious about after the election was who was going to be impacted first and soonest (apparently, the answer was immigrants from seven countries). But people live locally, and act locally, and will see little changed in their lives for now, I think.
What do you think is the limit at which Trump’s support among rural voters collapses, if there even is one?
I have thought about this a lot, and I think that the limit is a lot higher than Democrats would hope. I was in rural North Carolina last week talking to voters, and I was surprised how many of them—poor, rich, white, black—said they thought Trump was doing a good job. (This was in the midst of the immigration furor.) They said they thought he had a big mouth, and said things that he shouldn’t, but they wanted to give him a shot to turn the country around.
I enjoyed your story “President Trump, Job Creator?” Do you think that Trump either knows or cares that companies are playing him by letting him claim credit for things that they were going to do anyway?
I think he loves this. Announcements like Intel’s recent one about the chip factory in Arizona make him look good, even though he did nothing to make them happen. Intel, like most companies that make these announcements, had planned to do this long ago. By announcing it Trump’s way, though, they might be able to curry favor with him. I don’t think they’re playing him; I think he’s playing them.
What do you think will be the long-term ramifications of Trump’s economic policies? Do you think these ramifications could have a major impact on how rural areas vote, or do you think values and religious concerns will still be supreme?
This is a good question, but unfortunately I don’t have a great answer. It’s possible that Trump will convince more companies to manufacture here. The voters I talked to certainly think he is doing a good job so far. He is really good at making independent business decisions sound like they were because of him. If he does this, I think he’s going to keep a strong contingent of happy voters in the Rust Belt.
But a lot of these manufacturing jobs are going to be automated, and so that’s not going to help these voters in the long term. The automation could take a decade or so, though, so it may not be relevant for 2020.
However, as I wrote in my piece from Elkhart [“It’s Not About the Economy”], economic progress doesn’t necessarily mean voters will support the president. People live in bubbles of their own making, and they often don’t let facts disrupt their narrative of what is going on. (Liberals too!)
I really liked your article last November about the Democrats not having an easy answer for the Rust Belt. So my question is: Is there actually a pitch the Democrats can make that will work? Trump is promising the moon, and while I don’t think he can deliver, it seems like an impossible promise to compete against.
I think the pitch that will work is not the most sensible one, which is training and education. Rather, I think if somehow Democrats can go more progressive, towards a “growth-that-includes everyone” type of message, that could be more appealing, especially to one-time union voters. That might mean talking more about employee-owned companies, or about the importance of unions, or of making business share more profits.
I liked your piece about the TPP and its real impact on the American worker, but it’s interesting how few people in the Rust Belt seem to understand these concepts. Where do you think the disconnect in communication and understanding is? Is there a better way for to get these topics across?
That’s a really good question. I think that’s another thing I’ve really learned while talking to people across the country: People often believe the version of economics that’s simplest. So, “your job is being outsourced to Mexico” is easier to get angry about than “TPP would have raised wages overseas, which in turn could have driven companies to relocate to the U.S., which in turn would have created jobs here.” People in the Rust Belt really hate NAFTA and it’s going to be hard to change their mind about trade.
Seeing that the Trump administration has so far been rather, let’s say, incompetent, do you think he’ll actually be able to impose the trade restrictions he wants? And how do you think they’ll play out if they do indeed happen?
I think that for the next two years, if past is prologue, Trump is going to do pretty much whatever he wants. He already killed TPP. Renegotiating NAFTA is going to be harder, but I think the administration is very serious about this border adjustment tax. The good thing for Democrats, I think, is that most of these trade policies are going to be an absolute disaster for the economy. It’s worrying that Trump does not seem to want to listen to economists, but this will be an interesting experiment in what happens when a country does not follow widely-accepted economic principles.
Do you think the extremely polarizing nature of Trump will make the communities you visited more insular and defensive, and only deepen the divide in America? If so, if there anything that could be done to mitigate this? Is there anything the media could do on this front?
Yes, I do think the divide is going to deepen. People have beliefs about the country and the president and they are going to seek out news sources that confirm those beliefs. So people who like Trump are going to read things saying he’s doing a good job, and those that don’t are going to consume things saying he’s terrible.
I think local newspapers are important here. People care about what’s happening in their communities and still consume local news. So the degree that those papers can burst through those bubbles and share facts, that’s pretty important.
I was recently reading a New Yorker article about how a man from rural America who said he hated black people started up a discussion on C-SPAN with the head of Demos, who is black.
They’re now friends, and McGhee recommended that the man read up on black history and get to know more black people, which he did. I think the more people read up on people very different from them, and make contacts with those people, the better (yes, I realize this sounds very Kumbaya). I am trying to read Hillbilly Elegy right now (though I am not making much progress), and I want to read more about people in rural areas, even as I do more reporting there.
Something I’m always curious about, particularly from writers such as yourself: Do you think online commenting provides an opportunity to bridge some of these economic/educational/cultural divides or does it just widen the gulf? TAD was founded as an escape from the usual fracas of online comment boards, but I’m curious what role you think open online comments plays in today’s America.
If you mean commenting on sites like The Atlantic, I’m not sure that it can bridge the gulf. Many of the Republicans I talk to in the Rust Belt have never heard of The Atlantic and certainly would never read it. They have their news sources; Democrats have theirs.
I’ve thought a lot about how to bridge the divide I wrote about in “America’s Great Divergence,” and I just don’t have an idea. I do know that the opinions and input of people different from me are really important in my reporting, but I usually get those inputs by visiting somewhere really far away and talking to random people. I’d love to have more of those people in my Facebook feed, but I just don’t.
“I’d love to have more of those people in my Facebook feed, but I just don’t.”
I think that’s a really great point. Elsewhere on TAD today it was mentioned that Vox was reporting only 9 percent of Republicans disapprove of Trump right now. Which isn’t surprising in and of itself, but it did strike me how everything I’ve seen lately, through social media and through the news sources I regularly read, has been so negative about Trump that you’d think the entire country turned on him. It’s an important reminder that there really is another world out there that is easy to completely miss.
What do you think will be the most underreported, yet necessary economic/business reporting of the coming year?
I think the middle class is going to continue to hollow out, no matter what Trump does. People at the high-skill, educated end of the spectrum are going to do great, everyone else is going to continue to scrimp. Especially with GOP control in the nation and in many states, there’s going to be little appetite for raising the minimum wage in many places, and there’s likely to be more rollback of union protections. (I believe Iowa is considering scrapping collective bargaining.)
I also think that Trump’s changes to the tax codes, whatever they end up being, are going to be a big deal. So many economists I talk to say the way to lessen income inequality is to raise taxes on the rich. That is definitely not going to happen now.
Is there anything you can share about any big (or little, or anything in between) stories you’ve got coming up? Do you see your writing taking a specific shape under the Trump administration that maybe you wouldn’t have expected last October?
Yea, for better or worse, Trump dominates the news cycle, and he is what people are interested in reading about. I’m interested in what will happen if Trump dismantles regulations to make things easier for business, especially in the environmental arena. I think a lot of journalists are wary of writing stories for four years that are basically “Trump just announced a policy that is dumb. Here is why,” but on the other hand, you can’t ignore when he puts forth things that fly in the face of decades of economic thinking.
I am always open to story ideas about the new world we live in, so if you have any things you’d like to see us cover, shoot!