• How Trump May Win Ohio and Pennsylvania

    September 18, 2016 // 52 Comments »

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    The every-four-years parade of east coast journalists trooping out into the Rust Belt of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia and their neighbors has begun.

    Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have run their stories. You can Google them (fine, here’s one), and the articles from smaller outlets that will follow, but I can save you some reading time, because they are all basically the same:

    Oh my God, the Midwest is a freaking mess. Nobody has jobs, middle-aged white people are doing heroin and meth, and everyone is on food stamps. These people are angry as hell at, well, they say the government.

    Trump and Hillary have been through (name the one small town you stopped in) and promised to bring back the old industrial jobs (Trump) or some hi-tech something (Hillary.) I stopped by a (diner, bar, waffle house, VFW hall) and talked to (name of the one guy you talked to.) He told me times are tough, but these people are tough. They built the mills, they pulled America up by its bootstraps. They’ll make it. Quote some Bruce Springsteen song you heard that afternoon driving east as fast as you could. Done.

    The reporter then rushes back to New York to bathe in Purell and drown his/her disgust in warm PBRs and Starbucks spiced lattes. Next story is about a new start-up in Brooklyn that is creating a social media platform for dogs or something.


    Understanding the Heartland

    Most reporters act shocked to find people “out there” so angry. They can’t understand why the “folks” take food stamps but think handouts are for lazy people. They can’t understand why someone without health insurance, coughing up chunks of the asbestos they breathed in every day at the factory, opposes Obamacare.

    The people the reporters speak with feel they got cheated. They worked hard, they paid taxes, they sent kids off to war (every small Midwest town has a memorial stone, if not three, to the local people who died in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq…) Then they got screwed by, well, someone. The lucky ones now work for minimum wage at a local Walmart full of junk made overseas. The rest visit the charity pantries and spend their food stamps not because they are lazy like “those people” (a code word for urban African-Americans; the few people of color in these towns tend to feel the same way), but because they are hungry. They wait like a cargo cult for the boom years to return, someday, somehow.

    Trump gets this at a visceral level. He tells them it is not their fault, or his, though both share blame. It was the Japanese, or the Chinese, or some mythical Big Government, or regulations, or even the unions that gave the same workers higher pay and good benefits. It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to play to a crowd angry and confused looking every four years for some answer, and some hope.



    I Saw Them, The Ghosts of Tom Joad

    I grew up in Ohio during the 1970s and 80s, and watched the industrial heartland fall apart in front of my eyes. Our town had a huge Ford plant. It was sold to Toyota, who cut jobs by half before closing it all down because they got better tax incentives in Kentucky. I don’t know what happened in Kentucky, but I can guess.

    I wrote a book about all this, the last fifty years of the Midwest. When you look at it as a historical event, today’s state of things is as inevitable as sunset.

    The book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent. Close to four years ago I tried to sell it to a couple of the larger publishers in New York. No literary agent wanted it, no publisher was interested. As one put it, declining me, “You’re saying there’s poor people in Ohio?” Another was clearer: “Who wants to read a book about unemployed whites?”

    The first publisher outside of New York I approached, one located in Indiana, immediately took the book.



    How Trump May Win the Swing States

    I fully doubt Donald Trump has read my book, or many books at all for that matter. Someone on Trump’s team, however, is very aware of the unfocused anger in the Midwest I wrote about, and is working hard to use that to get some votes. If Trump takes the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, it will be because of that staffer’s insight. Maybe s/he’ll write a book about it.

    Until then, here’s more about my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent:

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Movie Review: “Braddock America”

    February 14, 2015 // 9 Comments »

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    If I’d made a documentary film about the scars left on America through industrialization, instead of writing Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent about it, what I would have likely ended up with is “Braddock, America.”

    History

    “Braddock, America” is a feature length documentary now in limited release set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former steel town now left to literally rust away to hell. Like so, so many other towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and throughout the Midwest, Braddock began life in the 19th century as just a place along a mighty river, surrounded by coal. Then Andrew Carnegie built a state-of-the-art steel mill. George Westinghouse followed suit and constructed his first plant in a valley adjacent to the Monongahela River. For the decades that followed, the Monongahela valley was the industrial pulse of a growing America. Most of the steel that made the United States the world’s leading industrial nation, steel for train tracks, cars, the girders of the then world’s tallest skyscrapers, was made in places like Braddock.

    Workers were granted some share of the profits, protected by the strong unions they had fought for. There was once a rough kind of social contract: work hard for the mill, and in return you’d make enough to raise a family, have health care, retire on a decent pension. The system was not perfect, but it fueled the greatest economic boom and consumer society known.

    Then, during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, everything changed. Steel was imported, manufacturing across the U.S. declined, and the unions were broken. Soon enough, the mills went away, leaving the people. The Rust Belt lost a manufacturing empire but never found a new role. Braddock is a place that capitalism discarded, a victim of America’s apartheid of dollars.

    A Well-Made Documentary

    “Braddock, America” is a well-made documentary that weaves together the past (the film begins with archive footage of the glory days), the present, and pokes at an uncertain future that haunts the whole town. There is no narrator or off-screen voice; the people left in Braddock (90 percent of the population has escaped over the years since the mills shut down) tell their stories alongside images of the near-ghost town in which they live. It is a gentle, touching portrait of good people trying to pick up the pieces, after their livelihoods were taken away by larger processes they do not even now fully understand. They display a sad stubbornness, and you watch the film both admiring them and wanting to shout at them to get out.

    One scene shows a city official walking down a deserted street designating empty homes for demolition. Another one shows kids playing in a deserted school building. The town can no longer support a grocery store. A worker looks back at the mill, and calls what he and his father did there “sacramentel.” Town officials discuss their hope that additional money will come from the state to help them demolish more derelict buildings. An outside job/career coach’s presentation falls apart when none of the people in the room have any previous work experience to cite; one asks if his labor in prison counts. Abandoned homes can be bought for $3000, unless they have already been stripped by thieves of their aluminum siding and copper wiring, in which case they are worthless.

    The image above, from the film, tells the rest of the story.

    A Few Issues

    The film suffers from a few things. Persons being interviewed are not identified, leading to some confusion. The historical clips are used in many places as filler, and disrupt the flow of the film. The film lacks a clear narrative arc; people talk– and they are interesting– and then the film ends. A touching scene in a bar where local musicians play the song “American Pie” is cut short. One key historical event discussed, a violent labor strike, appears to have taken place in nearby Homestead and not in Braddock.



    Hope is Not a Strategy

    The people of Braddock still express hope, or perhaps are left only with hope, as the only strategy for a way out. But like nearly every town in the Rust Belt that has tried to dig itself out, the optimism often seems misplaced and misguided over time. “Things got broken here,” says a two-year old ad for Levi’s also filmed in the town, “maybe on purpose, so we could get to work.” That did not happen. A New York Times video features Braddock’s then-mayor explaining how the town will “rise from the ashes.” He said that in 2009, and it did not happen. By the time this film was shot in 2012, that mayor was already gone himself.

    The filmmakers have created a sensitive memoir to a place and time that once described America to the world, and, with some irony, now, ironically, again describes America to the world.

    You can see trailer for “Braddock, America” online.




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    Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent

    June 19, 2013 // 21 Comments »

    Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99PercentIt is my pleasure to announce that my next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent, will be published in Spring 2014 by Luminis Books.

    Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is a fictional look at the New Economy, building on The Grapes of Wrath to examine the new Working Poor, and the non-working rich, to conclude we are all now the ghosts of Tom Joad.

    Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is about growth, failure and redemption. Rich in allegory, it is funny and serious, Holden and Joe Dirt. Along the ride the story tackles bullying and suicide, first kisses and cunnilingus, and the protagonist’s struggle to overcome his father’s war that survived within him. It’s a question about how to still own something—your labor, your self-respect—you’d sold.

    The main character narrates:

    This used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face; it was never supposed to be the finite place we’re headed for. There were pieces of pieces of machinery from the abandoned factory left on the ground, too unimportant to sell off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization, the left droppings of our failure. Might as well been the bones of the men who worked there left. We were once the American Dream and now we just were what happened to it.


    Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is about regime change, the death of manufacturing, the deindustrialization of America, and a way of life that was lost alongside those jobs. Wages never were higher than in 1973 and fell as poverty rose in almost equal proportion. How did we go from the booming prosperity of the 1950s and 60s to the Rust Belt of the late 1970s in the course of only two or three generations?

    A Personal Note

    For my many dear friends in State Department Diplomatic Security, I am sorry to say that the book contains nothing of official concern, and so sadly you are not going to be involved in this project. You unsuccessfully tried to sabotage my first book, We Meant Well, and now I am giving you the space to ignore me and focus on cleaning up your own house.

    For regular blog readers, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is the same story you may have previously known as The People on the Bus. There will be much more information to come, but trust me on this: This story will kick your ass.



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