What the media doesn't get about Trump's America

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guest gathered at Fountain Park during a campaign rally on March 19, 2016 in Fountain Hills, Arizona.

Donald Trump isn't even the Republican presidential nominee yet -- that won't happen for more than three months, if ever -- and yet the Trump Blame Game is already competing with the NCAA's March Madness for the hottest ticket in town. And nowhere are there more recriminations -- and more self-flagellation, much of it deserved -- than among the news media.

Why didn't reporters see the Trump phenomenon coming? Should the media -- which this fall was giving The Donald an astonishing 23 times more network nightly news time than Sen. Bernie Sanders even though their level of support has been similar -- cover Trump less. Or should the journalists be doing more -- to warn people about the risks of what one commentator aptly described this weekend as "celebrity fascism"? Should individual reporters speak out -- like popular photojournalist Brandon Stanton did last week -- or stick to conventional notions of objectivity and "he said, she said"?

Some of these things will be debated long after I'm gone (of course, that could be next week at the rate things are happening, but still ... ). However, one thing is clear. The major news outlets did a lousy job anticipating and understanding the Trump movement because of a toxic soup that is partly our lack of time/resources but more often just elitism and snobbery, larded with some laziness.

A few days back, we were talking here about the rise of a place called Ignoreland. That rise starts with the story of how how the nation's news media ignored the folks who became Donald Trump supporters.

Just last week, the poster child for media elitism in America -- David Brooks of the New York Times, of the increasingly rare species known as a moderate Republican -- made a stunning admission:

Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else.Moreover, many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country.

Not socially intermingled? That has to be the understatement of the 21st Century. Much of the national news coverage is driven by the David Brooks' of the world and their power lunches at the Capital Grille, leading to columns written in their glass-enclosed offices. Even more shocking than Brooks' mea culpa was a recent column on the Trump phenomenon by his more liberal Times colleague Nicholas Kristof, who -- rather than grab a notebook and do an old-fashioned interview or two -- actually built a column around an "interview" with an imaginary Trump supporter. Mind-boggling!

Reading the pieces by Brooks and Kristof, I started thinking again about Joe Gayan -- a middle-aged man that I met back in 2009 at an amazing -- if that's the right word -- event in rural Kentucky called the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot, where, as the name suggests, folks shoot their machine guns (and even the occasional flamethrower or bazooka) at old Buicks or washing machines out in the woods. The event is also a hotbed of anti-government (which in 2009 meant anti-Barack Obama) sentiment.

Gayan, a soft-spoken man with a Wisconsin-nice accent and a curved-beard that gave off a kind of a Wilford Brimley vibe, hailed from West Bend, Wis., and he wasn't there so much for the guns as to market to those anti-Washington folks; he had a stall where he sold DVDs alleging that 9/11 was an inside job and T-shirts with a quote from Thomas Jefferson -- "The beauty of the 2nd Amendment is that you will not need it until they try to take it" -- that in fact was never spoken by Thomas Jefferson. It would have been easy to make fun of Gayan for his wackier ideas and bad information.

But I wanted to hear the rest of Gayan's story. He told me that he'd worked for 30 years at a decent blue-collar job at his hometown's West Bend Industries, making plastic parts for coffeemakers and other small appliances. Then around 2001 -- the same year that the planes hit the World Trade Center -- the work got shipped off to China and other overseas labor markets. He was in his late 40s when it happened -- and now, unexpectedly, "retired." He scraped out a living by selling these trinkets at gun shows. I asked if he resented what had happened to him. "Yeah, that kind of grates on you," he said. "I've said that the next time that corporate America wants to go to war, maybe they should go hire a bunch of Chinese and Mexicans to fight it."

It wasn't hard to find Joe Gayan or to get him to tell his story. I met scores of people like him from Arizona to the Boston suburbs in 2009 and 2010 when I was reporting a book about the Tea Party -- the folks who've more or less evolved into Donald Trump supporters. It would have been easy for David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof to do the same thing -- and there was a better chance that America's economic policymakers would have listened to them than to a schlub like me.

Is someone like Joe Gayan a sympathetic figure? Not exactly -- indeed, when I visited his stall again the next day, he was a prominently displaying the item that proved to be the big hit of the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot , a photoshopped image of a boyish Barack Obama being comforted by a paternal Adolf Hitler. As a society, we must condemn racism in every form. And yet we can never be a truly healthy society unless we try to fix the broader, underlying problems that make people so susceptible to conspiracy theories, racist appeals, and now the "celebrity fascism" of Donald Trump.

These days, ironically, it seems like it's conservative elitists, more so than liberals, who are trashing lower middle-class whites and blaming them for a) their problems such as opioid abuse and high divorce rates, and b) for foisting Trump on the rest of us. Most notably, there was a much-discussed piece last week by Kevin Williamson in the conservative National Review that included this remarkable passage:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. 

Whoa! Look, I think we can all agree that personal responsibility is a thing, and that's true if you live in Kentucky trailer park or the streets of North Philly or the leafy regions of Lower Merion. Sure, that trailer park had its opioid addicts -- but also the woman going to community college while she also raises her kid and works as a food server. But the reality is that more people succeed when society provides the community with more opportunities to succeed. That includes real health care, not just black-market painkillers; a chance to attend college for little or no cost; and a guaranteed living wage. The things that most other developed nations have.

The next president -- whether it's Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or Boaty McBoatface -- is going to have to be honest and admit that the type of unfettered capitalism that America has practiced since 1981 has failed most, if not 99 percent, of the citizenry. It's a cancer of lost jobs and lost wages that started with the de-industrialization of the inner city and has now metastasized in the rural areas and some suburbs, leaving too many voters too willing to succumb to the basest appeal from the lowest common denominator. And that low number turned out to be not the short guy with the funny mustache that some folks were nervously waiting for, but a billionaire reality-show host with an orange comb-over. Nonetheless, it's a big, big problem.

The only way to defeat Trumpism and its fake ideas is not to collectively punish his supporters -- even if some are practitioners of rank racism and xenophobia -- but to come up with some real ideas to improve the places where these voters live: That could mean new tax policies that encourage the creation of jobs in West Bend, Wis., and not in China and discourage destructive forms of speculation, and spending our tax dollars on projects, like building new bridges and replacing lead water mains, that will actually create jobs for the middle class.

The debate on these policies should have started at least 20 years. The failures of our media -- both the elite columnists like David Brooks and the cable networks that have unlimited time for Donald Trump to promote his steaks and a new hotel but little for actual policy talk -- are shameful and embarrassing. No, nobody (except "The Simpsons") could have predicted Donald Trump, but the factors that created Trump were hiding in the plain sight of the American heartland for all to see.

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