Why is America so angry? Interview with Evan Osnos about his new book Wildland; The Making of America’s fury

“The structural issues in the US are really profound – the compounded effects of segregation and inequality. 

But ultimately you can’t fix what you can’t see. And I think for a long time we were concealing the depth of these kinds of sources of trouble in some of the bunting of our national mythology.”

Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker and an award-winning author. His latest work Wildland is an exploration of the ‘slow-moving avalanche’ that resulted in the Trump Presidency and the Assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

I felt like I was reading a story about the fall of the American Empire told from the point of view of the foot soldiers – the people who bear the weight of the corruption, the vicious cycles of poverty, the subprime mortgage crisis, and the war on terror.

I interviewed Evan about the book for the How To Academy and you can watch the full interview here. Here is a taste of our conversation.

Why did you call the book Wildland?

Wildland is a term for terrain that catches fire in a wildfire because of dried out desiccated accumulated fuel… it is a metaphor for the United States, which has been quite literally in flames this summer.

It felt as if the land and the political climate were mirroring one another, there was this feeling of this crackling and alarming pattern in our public life. And so that metaphor runs through much of what I put on the page. I try to understand how it is that we became so ripe to burn.

So what was the inspiration for the book?

This is a book I absolutely desperately felt like I needed to write because it is as much my own reckoning with my own country – trying to make sense of what we’ve been through and where we’re going. 

I spent a lot of my adult life as a foreign correspondent, I was overseas for a decade. I came back in 2013, and I really did look upon my own place and say, ‘how did we get so furious, so divided, so raw, so angry, so misunderstanding and mistrusting of one another?’

When I was living in China before we came back, Sarabeth (my wife) and I were saying goodbye to our neighbours in Beijing, one of whom is a clerk at a factory who has never set foot out of China.

And she said ‘Be careful, the US is a very prosperous place, but everybody has a gun.’

And I remember thinking how interesting it was that she had formed that impression from the evening news. It wasn’t wrong, but it was in its own way stark and oversimplified, and yet, which is no fault of hers, it was actually kind of remarkable how elegant the portrait was that she had patched together. 

And when I came back to the US, I was struck by how people in different parts of the country were describing one another in terms that were in that sense, as oversimplified and overly stark and I realised that the thing I wanted to do was to try to write three-dimensional portraits of people – actual lives not abstractions in our politics, but to understand how we were all experiencing this from these extremely different vantage points of being American.

There are three cities at the heart of the book.  Greenwich, Connecticut, Chicago, Illinois, and Clarksburg, West Virginia, and 19 people that you return to repeatedly within the book to interview and speak to. Why did you choose these locations and these particular people?

The locations all have a deep meaning for me as they’re all places from my own life. So Greenwich, Connecticut where I grew up, is a wealthy suburb of New York City and has been in its own way the engine room of American capitalism for more than a century. If you can understand how Greenwich is thinking about the economy and how people are making their money there, it gives you a pretty amazing insight into the nature of the terrain and the United States. 

Clarksburg, West Virginia is a small city in the northern part of the state. It’s got about 16,000 people and it is in the heart of coal country.  I went there as a young journalist. I worked at a little paper in Clarksburg called The Exponent Telegram. It was all Democrats, and today it’s all Republicans. The congressional delegation with the exception of one very prominent name was Joe Manchin and everybody else is a Republican. And the state overwhelmingly supports conservatives in its local and state elections. 

And then the third place is Chicago which is where my family is from. I worked at the Chicago Tribune for nearly a decade, and Chicago today is also the place that has some of the highest levels of racial segregation in America. In fact, it’s even more segregated today than it was in 1966 when Martin Luther King marched there.

I took these three places and I thought I might be able to form an impression of America if I can tell them in some detail.

Clarksburg is a place that very much mapped to the American experience of the latter 20th century. The incomes steadily rose from the decades after World War Two, there were successful factories and businesses. It was never a rich place but it was a stable place and a sort of politically coherent place.

It began to change by the end of the century, and there was a billboard that used to hang in town that says “you have a right to be proud.” 

It is not an extravagant statement to say that West Virginia has had a precipitous experience of the 20th century. On all measures of health and welfare, it is trailing the country, and it’s 49th or 50th and in all kinds of health outcomes educational attainment and more. 

One of the chapters you call ‘The Jewel of the Hills’ – about Clarksburg. Fortunately, the Exponent Telegram is still a thriving newspaper. Why is it important to worry about local newspapers going bust and what happens when they do?

When a local newspaper closes down, people are less likely to vote, they’re less likely to run for office. In local government – politicians are more likely to spend more money and to reward themselves with higher salaries, over the course of the next three years after a paper closes down.

There’s almost a biological effect. I mean it is like a mass die-off. Two thousand local newspapers have disappeared over the course of fifteen years, and when one of those goes away, it has a secondary effect that I think is fascinating. It means that people are more likely to spend their time on Fox News, or on other cable networks. They upload their individual political identity to the cloud and become part of this nationalised political conversation instead of seeing themselves as connected to their neighbours in ways beyond a one-dimensional political identity.

Over the last 50 years, for instance, we’ve seen that people are more likely to name the sitting Vice President of the United States, but Americans have actually gotten worse at naming their own state officials. it’s harder for people to name the governor than it was 30 or 40 years ago, and yet they’re still able to talk about people in national politics. 

In the book you talk about the coal industry and mining as being when the lives of the hedge funders in Greenwich, and the miners in Clarksburg get intertwined. There’s a story of corruption, of lobbying, of clear winners and losers. One quotation that you mentioned is that “the company gets the profit and the miners get the shaft.” To me it feels like a great example of some of where this anger has come from. 

About 20 years ago Wall Street realised that there was value in coal – you could do something with it even if it was a dying industry.  You could take out the choice morsels of these coal companies, pull them away, and then ultimately make them into profitable organisations.  In some cases, you have hedge fund managers living in Greenwich, Connecticut who would figure out, I can move a few numbers around on a spreadsheet, take the company into bankruptcy court, get myself relief from their health care and pension liabilities, and then I can go on and turn it around and turn it into something that might be a successful company. 

The miners were very aware of the fact that something was happening beyond their control, there was this thing over the horizon, it was almost vague in its power. It was encompassing the whole financial apparatus and they didn’t have any access to it.

And in the end, there was a pattern of these kinds of financial transactions that in their own way had a profound effect on places in Appalachia.  It’s hard for people to visualise just how dramatic it was, but to take one county – Boone County, West Virginia lost 58% of its jobs over the course of five years.  If you think about how dramatic that is and the effect on people individually, it’s not just the effect on the individual worker – it’s all the people that depend on them, their children, it also gets into the psyche, because, as somebody said to me you now had grown men and women competing against teenagers for the sort of low wage jobs they could get. And that begins to undermine their sense of themselves as citizens, and that affects voting behaviour.  A coal miner in West Virginia who’d been on the receiving end of a financial transaction at Patriot coal ended up voting for Donald Trump. He said to me, ‘I didn’t have any illusion that Donald Trump was going to be the saviour of our world. But who else was saying they were going to do anything for me.’ 

The other thing that comes out really strongly is the corruption and the intersection between politics and coal companies. There’s a strong example of the weakening of the water quality standards that applies to the coal industry and the impact that that has on people’s health.

There was a case I described in the book when one day everybody woke up in one city in West Virginia, and there was this smell in the air.  It was a smell coming off the river – it turned out that there had been a chemical leak overnight that had contaminated the water supply for more than a quarter of a million Americans.  It was one of those events that could easily be consigned to one little tiny paragraph in a newspaper story. People eventually were given bottled water and so on. 

There’s a brilliant Health Commissioner named Rahul Gupta, in Charleston, West Virginia. He had grown up partly in the United States partly in India and eventually found his way to West Virginia.   He said to me, he said, you know, I think it’s hard for folks in West Virginia to fully appreciate just how profound a break this is in what we imagined to be the American promise – the idea that at a very basic level, the provision of clean, drinkable water is something that Americans deserve.  He said you know I know countries in which you begin to make choices about who deserves clean water and who doesn’t, and he says it doesn’t end well.

One of the things that really struck me is that – while we’ve always had inequities in this country –  that’s a feature of the United States going back to its origins, the degree matters so much.  When the degree becomes so far out of the normal bounds of what people have come to expect it actually becomes a difference of kind, not just degree. And that’s the period that I’m describing – these inequities became so profound, so radical in their way, that they began to undermine the very functioning of democracy itself.

 Let’s move on to talk about Chicago. Why is segregation so entrenched in the city?

Chicago has grown at an extraordinary rate over the course of the last generation, but it’s been concentrated in very specific parts of town.  There are in fact 700,000 jobs within a half-hour commute of the wealthier areas in the city, and there are only 50,000 jobs within the same radius of the predominantly black neighbourhoods in the south. These have a compounding effect over time.  People who can leave the neighbourhoods that don’t have enough employment do leave, and that leaves behind people who are less able to support the community and support institutions. And so, that’s the slow-moving avalanche to go back to that term. 

I’d love you to tell us about Maurice Clark, who is profiled in the book. There’s a statistic that you mentioned when you start talking about Chicago and Maurice that a Harvard economist found that children in the top 1% are 10 times more likely to become inventors than comparatively intelligent kids from poor backgrounds and that if the talented children of low income and minority families – those lost Einsteins – were trained for inventive work, as well well off white men the US would register four times the level of innovation it has. How does your story of Maurice Clark fit into this wider story of America’s fury?

When Maurice was 17 years old, he was a member of the Gangster Disciples – he followed his two brothers into the game. And he ended up being charged with attempted murder and went to prison, and he spent the next decade in prison. In prison he had been a barber – he was trained to cut hair, but when he came out, the state of Illinois has an absolutely ridiculous licencing requirement that would have cost about $10,000 or $11,000  to go through the training steps in order to be licenced as a barber outside prison.  So inside he could participate in the legal economy and outside he could not. There are very few pathways for somebody like him to be able to rejoin society in a productive way 

Maurice was gifted in math, he had been a talented student, and there was this point in his life, a kind of parting of the paths in eighth grade  – the beginning of high school. The bus system for the public schools in his neighbourhood no longer paid for a bus ticket for kids over eighth grade, your parents had to pay for, you could get a bus until then. And so as a result, he went to the local high school, the local high school in his neighbourhood, which was terrible. And as he said to me kind of dryly, he said. And so began my life of crime. 

The truth is that the difference of growing up here versus 10 blocks away here is life-defining and profound, and I think that is worth keeping in front of our mind, we all know it intellectually, but I try as much as possible to put it in the terms of an actual life lived.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who went to prison. I think probably the reason why is that this is the bleeding edge of America’s definition of what is legitimate and illegitimate behaviour. Who deserves forgiveness and who does not. Who has the chance for redemption and who does not.  Why do we allow power to stay in the hands of some people and why are some people never given the power to shape their own lives. 

Let’s talk about Trump. When you first started covering him for the New Yorker, you described him as an often-ignored piece of mental furniture with a look of a lordly persona with a squint that combined Clint Eastwood on the High Plains with Derek Zoolander on the runway. In the places that you cover and speak about in the book – Clarksburg, Chicago and Greenwich – what surprised you the most about the reaction to Trump?

When we started on the subject of Trump at the New Yorker we thought of him as such an incidental pop culture feature of early 21st-century life that I remember when I was asked to go write the first story about his campaign they said, ‘You better move fast because we don’t think he’s going to be around that long.’

But I think what surprised me most was actually the reaction he got in Greenwich, because Greenwich for some people will know was the birthplace of the Bush family dynasty – the home of moderate Republicanism.

For compassionate conservatives to quote George W Bush and George HW Bush the idea was there were lines that you shouldn’t cross in politics, and here was Donald Trump gleefully transgressing every boundary around legitimate political behaviour.

Fast forward to 2020 I was surprised to discover that in my old neighbourhood in Greenwich that Donald Trump’s lead actually grew between 2016 and 2020 from two points to 13 points.  That puzzled me because it made me really wonder after four years of Donald Trump how it was that some of America’s most successful, most advantaged people were making a choice to double down on the Trump presidency, and that gave me pause.

And do you have any explanation?

I believe this might be a failure of what I would think of as a tragic imagination, which is the idea that if one is fortunate enough to live a life in which you are insulated from the kind of most brutal threats of daily life, the idea that you will lose your job, lose your house, all of this kind of stuff at any moment, you almost lose the capacity to imagine the worst possible consequences. And part of what happened is that there was a belief that we could vote Donald Trump into office and he will probably be pretty good for certain segments of society and in the end the institutions will protect Americans from the worst outcomes. 

Really, what’s the worst that can happen? 

And we’ve actually seen pretty close to what the worst that can happen is.  We saw a president who was ill-equipped to handle the trials that confronted him. And so I think that that, that failure of tragic imagination gets to something that I find quite encouraging –  the idea that one of the things that can happen is that when you are exposed to this richer understanding of what it means to be American – to really look at the details of what it’s like to be on the losing end of these bets, on the losing end of these transactions that it does force your eyes open. 

There’s a great expression that Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer uses. He says you have to get proximate.  You have to get close to it.  Chip Skowron (a hedge funder from Greenwich in the book)  on going to prison and living side by side with people who are very much unlike himself, he got proximate probably more than he ever expected. But it made him a richer and better person, by his own description. And I think we are living through a period, particularly where younger Americans want to get proximate, and you saw that in these protests, the racial injustice protests of last summer, where you saw young people of all colours and classes kind of wanting to be a part of, of pushing the country forward in a positive direction.

Do you have a theory as to why people like the miners voted for somebody like Trump?

There’s a great answer to that which is that, in, in many places, what they were really responding to was their frustration with politics and the political establishment. So even before Trump. This is an amazing stat in West Virginia people 75% of the state eligible voters in the 1960 presidential election, one of the highest levels in the country, something like 12 or 15 points above the national average. 

By 2012, they had sunk to 46% voter turnout, one of the lowest levels in America. So and it’s only that was a sort of expression of quiet despair.  People had given up on the idea that politics can serve their needs. And then this Trump comes to West Virginia, literally puts on a coal miner’s helmet, and says to people in his inimitable way, you’re going to be working your asses off.  I’m going to put you back to work.

In fact West Virginia ended up losing more coal jobs over the course of four years – another 6400 jobs evaporated. But there were people who felt as if they were desperate.  Some of them said to me, ‘he came here, he said he was going to do this and how could we not take a chance on it.’ 

So I think that the vote for him was really an expression of the desperation to say we were, we want politicians who will serve our needs more directly, rather than any kind of real affection for him.

Evan’s book Wildland can be ordered from here