Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Trumpification of One Small Town

Wonderful piece by Brian Groh in the Times about his home town, Lawrenceburg, Indiana. In 2008 an overflow crowd came out to hear Bill Clinton proclaim that under an Obama administration, the economy would boom and their town would come back:

But things didn’t improve. The latest census reports median household income in Lawrenceburg as $30,735, with a little over 32 percent of us in poverty. And in 2014, according to The New York Times, our small county (which is over 97 percent white) sent more people to prison than San Francisco. In January, our hospital cited a “higher number of uninsured patients” as a reason it needed to “right-size” its work force by laying off 31 employees and eliminating behavioral health services.

And there are darker omens. Last fall, my teenage nephew came running into the house, wide-eyed, saying he’d found a human skull in the woods. I followed him until, panting at the bottom of a ravine, I saw the skull trapped in a thicket of sticks and leaves, missing several of its front teeth. The police arrived, and for the rest of the night, I watched from my bedroom window as flashlights swept over the long grass, through the woods, until they were finally swallowed by darkness.

It was an overdose, an officer told me later, the victim most likely another casualty of the nation’s opioid epidemic. (In 2017, in this county, there were 80 opioid prescriptions for every 100 residents.) The young man seemed to have died higher up on the hill, where they found more of his remains. The rain must have washed his skull down the slope.

The skull felt like a portent, but also a turning point. Months later, I noticed a vendor at a roadside stand selling Trump flags. “Trump 2020: Keep America Great,” one read. Another read “Trump 2020: No More [Expletive].” It was more than half a year away from the election, and I remember thinking: Why flags? A flag was something people fought under, and for; something people carried to war. By the summer, another vendor popped up selling flags with even bolder slogans like “Trump 2020: [Expletive] Your Feelings,” “Liberty or Die,” “Make Liberals Cry Again.” The economy was in the dumps but the flag business was booming.

And not just Trump flags. In the past few months, I have seen three Confederate flags hoisted in neighbors’ yards, where previously I’d seen none. Just a few weeks ago, two masked men appeared outside our high school, holding a large KKK flag and fliers, apparently scouting for young recruits.

At times, all of this has felt like a horror movie, where it starts off happily enough — in a sun-drenched, idyllic farmhouse — and then the darkness slowly takes over. The change has occurred so slowly that at times, I hardly noticed it, until one day I barely recognized my hometown.
Obviously I don't think Trump has any kind to solution to these problems, and the KKK certainly doesn't. But democracy is not safe as long as millions of people feel that the system is failing and ignoring them. I would say that one constant of my life, from the 1970s to now, has been this sense of loss across a wide swathe of America, leading to widespread anger and frustration. Almost everybody running for office in America says he or she stands for change, taking it for granted that to defend the status quo is a losing message.


Shadow said...

"In 2017, in this county, there were 80 opioid prescriptions for every 100 residents."


David said...

The neocons may have killed a bit of America's soul with their invasion of Iraq and use of torture. It's a blight on a history that we've never really reckoned with. But something happened during the first two years of Obama's presidency that may have caused deeper, longer-term problems. Was it Obama's embrace of neoliberalism (Larry Summers, a soft approach to an errant Wall Street, etc.)? Yes, possibly, and certainly in part, I would say. But I'm struck at how rapid the hostile reaction against him was. By 2010 the Tea Party was the dynamic political force in flyover America. That's too fast for the failure of sort of promises Clinton was making in this town in 2008 to take effect. So, while I don't much like neoliberalism, I wonder if the reaction against him that leads to Trump, the really emotional anti-liberalism ("make liberals cry"), etc., may have been driven in part by popular rejection of Obama in principle (and yes, much of that would be about race, IMHO) and in part by conscious Republican decisions about how they could recover from the 2008 defeat and the rejection of Bushism.

David said...

it's a blight on OUR history. Oh, Blogger.

David said...

failure of THE sort of promises. One mistake, and you need an editing function. Two mistakes begins to look like carelessness.

Anonymous said...

David, I forgive you your typos and concur with your surmise.

Those who already feel threatened by their lack of achieving some mythical version of the American dream would be shocked, angered, and even more deeply threatened by the ascension of a man of African descent. Imagine how they'll feel about Kamala.

pootrsox said...

Bah! My tablet anonymized my comment!

David said...


It looks like we are both being hoisted on the petard of Blogger! Much mutual forgiveness on the part of the humans is in order.

G. Verloren said...


America has a problem with not wanting to help people who need help.

We have a lot of small towns that are unsustainable as they currently exist - their economies rely overwhelmingly on things like coal, or manufacturing plants, or other industries that are fading in this country, and have been for a long time.

And the thing is, we know we can't bring back coal. We know we don't even want to. Technology advances, things become obsolete, and the world is better for it.

But our big problem is that we don't help people transition away from those failing economic foundations. We practically don't help people, period.

We hate to have the government spend taxpayer money on those in need - in part because we have an idiotic, cruel, and selfish culture that demonizes the poor, and believes that bad things happening to people is proof that they are bad people. We hate the idea of giving free housing to the homeless, free food to the hungry, free healthcare to the sick, et cetera. We feel they somehow "don't deserve" help.

Meanwhile, we don't bat an eyelash at the government spending trillions of tax dollars on guns, bombs, mayhem, and murder. But we resent the idea that we might spend taxpayer money on helping our own people lead better lives. What insanity.


Lawrenceburg, Indiana should have been given so much more help than they've received. But they weren't. And the reason they weren't is because of cynical political game-playing, and the immoral behavior of politicians on both sides.

Bill Clinton should never have promised to help those people if he couldn't actually deliver - any idiot could tell you that would bite the Democrats in the ass down the road. Talk about taking a massive long term loss for a tiny short term gain.

But also the Republicans are largely to blame, as they have for decades staunchly opposed government aid to people in need at all levels, and imposed a chilling effect on liberals who might otherwise attempt to get help to Americans in need. The American left is hesitant to propose broader measures of assistance, because they're worried about the political optics of doing so. They know that if they offer too much, the right will reflexively attack any such generosity and many American voters will resonant with such an attack. Put simply, they can't afford to help people, because then they'll lose more elections.

G. Verloren said...


All of that said, there's also an uncomfortable truth we need to face. Not every small town in America is worth trying to save. That's just the cold, hard reality.

There's only so much that can be done in some places. Some towns are just too isolated these days, too far removed from the broader surrounding economy, with too little population, and too little reason for people to want to move and live there.

When you've got a town up in the hills that only even exists because it was built to supply labor to a coal mine, and that mine is now empty and worthless, how can the town reasonably be expected to survive? We can't transition every dying coal town into a modern high tech economy of some kind.

When you've got a remote fishing village somewhere on the coast of New England that only ever existed because there was a fishery there that has now been depleted through overfishing, what hope do they have to not disappear? We can't turn every "quaint" little fishing village into a tourist destination or what have you.

When people live somewhere ONLY because there is a resource that can be extracted, and that resource either runs out or becomes obsolete, the town no longer has a reason to exist, and it quite naturally disappears. Look at all the 'ghost towns' left by the gold rush. Look at abandoned settlements all through history.

Some towns and cities have more going for them, and can stay afloat. If they're big enough, have enough other reasons for people to keep living there, or if they can relatively easily transition to a different kind of economic basis, they remain.

But we have to accept that there are going to be rural Americans who we will need to try to convince to abandon their dying towns and move elsewhere, to places which are more sustainable, where they can live lives that have futures. And that means spending taxpayer money - offering to buy their homes at generous prices, offering them retraining programs to help them transition to new skills and careers, offering them financial assistance in every field to help make moving to a new place easier.

And we need to actually DO these things, and not just make empty promises which we can't or won't deliver on.

Shadow said...

From Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country"

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. [Terms of abuse against African Americans and Jewish Americans] will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

David said...


Yes, I love that quote from Rorty, which I remember from this much-cited column from Jennifer Senior ( Like Senior, I especially like Rorty's phrase, “socially accepted sadism,” which he uses elsewhere for a lot of that Rat Pack-era casual insult humor (including, e. g., whites wearing blackface for Halloween). His overall diagnosis (as described by Wikipedia) of the problem comes down a bit too much to familiar nostalgia for the kind of words Ted Sorensen used to put in JFK's mouth, but those paragraphs are simply brilliant.

Shadow said...


We would never have heard of Don Rickles if not for socially acceptable sadism.

G. Verloren said...


Oh no, not Don Rickles! What a priceless cultural treasure we would have missed out on! The world has such a shortage of middle-class white men performing comedy based around being insulting and/or disrespectful, particular when it comes to people like ethnic minorities! Glad we dodged that bullet, eh?

Shadow said...

He was an amateur. Talk show hosts like Geraldo, Jerry Springer, and Jenny Jones turned it into a sport. Socially acceptable sadomasochism.