The State of Our Union Is … Strong?

James and Deborah Fallows traveled around the country to see how people are doing in their lives—and are feeling oddly optimistic.

An open road.
In search of America. Thinkstock

In the new book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, James and Deborah Fallows describe their experience traveling around the country over the past half-decade, a time in which the American fabric—such as it is—seemed to be unraveling. But James, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, and Deborah, a linguist and writer—they are married, even after that much travel together—came away from their excursions with more optimism. Their book looks at the different ways Americans remain entrepreneurial and interested in their local communities.

The Fallows’ method of travel was unique: They flew around in a single-engine prop airplane, which, Deborah told me when I spoke to the couple from their home in the Washington area, “was actually really fun and easy.” The project began, she said, when “Jim put out on his blog a note that we were asking people to tell us about their hometowns and why we should come and look there.” According to Deborah, they were “looking for places that had suffered some kind of economic downturn, or had some experience of a big demographic shift, like a lot of new immigrants were coming in or people were floating away.” They got nearly 1,000 responses and “put a pin in the map, and when we would find an FBO, which is airplane jargon for a small plane airport, we just took off and went, hoping that we would find interesting stories. The plane was a wonderful way to go.”

Below is a transcript of our call, edited and condensed for clarity. In it, we discuss why America’s local institutions may be holding up better than we think, what cable news is doing to small-town political discourse, and what their trip tells us about whether Trump could have been elected in another era.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you see this book as somewhat of a conscious refutation or response to the negativity about where the country is right now, or was it more just a matter of reporting and putting forward some ideas that came up on your travels?

James Fallows: So, Deb, you want to go or me?

Deborah Fallows: This sounds like a question for you.

James: I can start with it and Deb can correct and fine tune. The origin of the project genuinely was to see what was happening in Sioux Falls, etc. It was partly just, here’s the difference between what we thought and what we found, which is the main reportorial instinct. The part that would be explicitly political would be to say that the main interpretation of the 2016 election was that it revealed all the horror that was in the unseen part of American life, as if like in one of those medical movies where you stick in a scalpel and suddenly these gallons of pus erupt and people had not known it was in there. Our contention was that the election results were this anomalous overlay on a city-by-city culture that was not representative of Trump’s speeches and Trump’s impulses and Trump’s moves. The third part is an article I have in the Atlantic this month that is the politically looking forward part of the book, about how to make sense of the national malaise and bleakness with what seemed to be a robust local civic effort. Our argument is that in the long run it’s a contest between these things and we’re hoping the local wins out. So, Deborah, over to you.

Deborah: I’m the less political animal in the house, maybe the least one in Washington, D.C., actually.

You’re in the wrong city.

Deborah: Yeah, the struggle of my life.

James: Don’t get her started.

Deborah: We started this project in 2013, when there wasn’t a political backdrop to this story. It was more coming out of the recession, and us coming back from China and wanting to get some instincts about where America was at this point, and wanting to go out to as many places as we could to see if our impressions of what we heard about America from being in China for a long time—everything was going to hell in a hand basket, and that there were really tough times—was true.

The book seems like it is trying to counter some of the pessimism about the country, but specifically about the institutions in our country, often local, which are commonly believed to be withering and opening up space for cultural and political disasters.

Deborah: Yeah. I think you’re right on that. Certainly, the latter point is sort of the Bowling Alone theory. I would say we went out with much more of a blank slate. I think we didn’t come to it with a deep sense of things are going wrong and people are isolated, and everybody’s angry out there.

I think we’re naturally optimistic people, and so our starting point was more we kind of didn’t think things could be that bad, and it wasn’t our experience and it certainly wasn’t our experience in the time that we had been in America before. We didn’t have an agenda. It was really to just open the book and see what was out there.

James: Part of the reason we’ve been a happy couple for so long is we don’t have exactly the same views on the world. I had more of this in my mind: “Are we going to be witnessing all the decline of social fabric that we’ve read about?” That was part of what was on my mind, in addition to just the sort of openness that Deb’s describing. If I were boiling down what I learned into two big surprises, one would be the sense of agency versus objecthood. The default explanation for most of what happens in noncoastal America is people being the objects of things. Objects of deindustrialization, objects of immigration, objects of opioid spread, etc., and all those things obviously are true and that part of the balance of society sometimes affect people more than they can respond. I guess one sort of city-by-city cumulative surprise is that most people don’t think about themselves that way, even now. If a national reporter is going there and saying, “Well tell me how NAFTA has affected you,” then you’ll get a sort of object answer. If you ask instead, what’s happening in the town? What’s happening with your family? Usually the narrative is sort of the person or the family as the center of that drama, as opposed to the object of it.

The “object” thing is interesting because it seems like both sides want to do it. Coastal elites like this prism, and the right does too. One narrative about Trump voters is that they are driven by some silliness the left is doing, or some cultural resentment—that they are in some sense the “result” of other forces.

James: Yeah. Deb, let me just hop in here for a second. I think that as a related but separate phenomenon, one of the really poisonous aspects of cable news in particular, 90 percent Fox in the last generation, has been making people feel chronically aggrieved and taken advantage of. That somebody is cheating you. Somebody rigging the game, etc. It’s inflamed what is an inevitable human tendency but has made that sort of a dominant political force. Somebody’s screwing us. Again, it was impressive to us how much people across the country have a part of their brain now taken over by cable news. If you ask somebody a cable-newsworthy question— What do you think’s going to happen with Mueller? How crooked is Hillary?—you’ll get an answer straight off a cable talk show. We learned just never to ask those things, because you had a much more rounded human response on any other topic. You couldn’t find the actual human being there if you asked a cable question.

Deborah: We didn’t ask about national things, except at the very end. But when we just asked about people’s lives and what was going on in their town, it was so heavily weighted towards in my neighborhood, at my schools, on our main street, what people need here, what people want from my town. I don’t know if people had just given up on the national scene or they didn’t want to talk about it anymore, but it felt like it just didn’t occupy a huge part of where their energy and where their intentions were set and were focused.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of whether Trump could only have happened in 2016. My working theory has been that the reason it happened now is because one political party has sort of completely disintegrated as institutionally serious. Reading your book, though, did make me think more that this could have happened at any time, because you’re not going out there and saying, “boy the institutional fabric of America is gone. We could only get this maniac elected now because look at what’s happened.” Essentially, you’re saying, no, things are OK. People’s lives are pretty good. They’re hopeful, whatever, and we still got this guy.

James: Perhaps predictably, I’m going to agree with and disagree with part of your overall view here. I agree with the basic view that this could only have happened, this being Trump coming to power, in a particular set of political and journalistic circumstances. There’s been an institutional change within the Republican Party to allow Trump to be the nominee and institutional change in journalism, which allowed a sufficient number of people to hear his message and believe it. The old question of if Fox had been around during Watergate, would Nixon have survived? I think the answer is Nixon probably would have survived. That’s where I agree with you. It could only have happened now. The way I reconcile that with our argument about the essential vitality and viability of institutional America at the local level, and to some degree the state level is we’re seeing really a historic cleavage between national level politics and functionality in everything that’s not national level.

The complete tribal nature, identity nature, quasi-religious nature of national politics is separate from the local in a way that I don’t know an exact precedent. It is reassuring for the health at the local level. It’s quite alarming that nonetheless, we have this national result. I guess the news we have to offer is that there is that contrast because I think most people have assumed that national-level dysfunction must indicate profound disease through the entire body politic.

Deborah: In 2013, when we started in Sioux Falls and Holland, Michigan, and Burlington, Vermont, and Eastport, Maine, which are all different kinds of towns and probably three of them, Trump certainly won or had a strong support base there. In all of those towns, and this was way pre-Trump, I think the main thing that struck us, after we got over the kind of gee whiz factor. … Gee whiz, look what they’re doing in Sioux Falls, which is this kind of Nordic state with Germanic heritage [and] 10 percent of their school population is actual refugees. They’ve been absorbing refugees since the Vietnam War. Gee whiz, look what they’re doing in their library and how they’re building up the kind of public recreation spaces in those towns. After those gee whiz factors, we came to kind of lose the gee whiz–ness of it and think, OK, what’s the version of the way Eastport is building their town compared with how Sioux Falls is doing it? I think the main characteristics of how Americans operated struck us as the kind of deep and original spirit of what you think of as this country. It’s democratic. It’s generous. It’s patriotic. It’s working for the common good.

James: Let me interrupt for 10 seconds. While recognizing there’s also been really ugly parts that had always been there, but has been newly encouraged and unleashed, from Charlottesville to the shootings in Kansas, etc.

Deborah: One thing Jim and I talked about a lot when I become very Pollyanna-ish and absolutist in my statements is going back to how we saw things in China. It took a while to really incorporate into our hearts that contradictory things can be simultaneously true. China’s a huge country. You’ve got peasants and you’ve got elites and you’ve got mafia and you’ve got Communist Party leaders all doing different things at once. Sometimes it’s harder to see it in your own country, but it feels like that’s a kind of similar analogy. That you can find everything at the same time.

I want to ask about seeing people in all their different ways. Putting aside the question of how racist people were in voting for Trump—though everyone who voted for Trump, which is the majority of white Americans, and I assume the majority of people in the places you were visiting, voted for someone who was openly racist and misogynist and simply cruel. He didn’t hide this. It wasn’t hard to see. If you watched five minutes of a single debate, if you listened to anything he ever said about President Obama, it was just blatantly obvious. How do you understand that, at the very least, that was OK with so many of these nice people you talked to?

James: Deb, I’ll encourage you to talk, for example, about any relatives you might have in mind, and you could describe their, without being too specific …

I’m not married, but is this how you win over the in-laws?

James: So, Deb, I encourage you to take the lead on this.

Deborah: My mom. She’s 96. She’s been a lifelong Republican. I think she did not … actually because of her grandchildren who are our children, and because of heavy lobbying all around, she actually did not vote for Trump. I think she wrote in Kasich. She wrote in someone else. She’s from Ohio.

James: But she would have voted for him.

Deborah: She would have voted for him, but it was, I think a lot of this that I think we saw from her and from other people was a default vote. They weren’t really, they weren’t going to vote for Hillary because they were Republicans forever. How bad could it be? OK, I’ll look at my local elections and I guess I’ll vote for Trump.

James: The people I think history will have the strongest moral judgment of on this issue are the elected Republican legislators of this age, who know better. They know what they’re enabling with Trump. They know the things they’re not saying. I think it’s a different circumstance for most people. If you’re living your normal life in South Dakota or in Kansas or in Ohio, these national political issues are not central to your life. They are essentially, they’re a big choice you have to make every four years or every two years or the pollsters ask you about or national reporters ask you about, but are not woven into everything else you do.

OK, I’m angrier at Paul Ryan than the average guy who voted for Trump. But Trump has basically a 50 percent or so favorability with white people in this country. And that’s not approval rating, that’s favorability. Again, I guess what I’m asking is not to say I want to condemn all these people. But one of the things that you write about is immigration and the role it plays in a lot of these communities, and a lot of people who voted for Trump have really wonderful ways of interacting with immigrants. If I were a refugee in Erie or wherever else, it would mean something to me, that even if people were treating me well, many of them voted for someone who doesn’t want me to be able to set foot in the country.

James: Yes, I agree. That is part of the complexity and contradiction and tragedy in this time in history. Tragedy in the sense that the great American ongoing sin is the legacy of slavery, and the police violence is a daily reminder of that. I think that it’s, that awareness of that, awareness that immigration has in the long run been a well absorbed and positive and stimulating effect for the country, but in the short run has always been disruptive, at the time when new people are arriving. It has always been complex, and the persistence especially of white/black inequities in economic and political and other ways, is a central fact of this time. This is one of the contradictions of life and American life at this moment that we can’t pretend to resolve, and we’re just trying to add another dimension to understanding of it.

Deborah: I went back and talked to all these refugee contacts that I had after the election, and we went back to see a lot of them too. Putting yourselves in their shoes and their life is really hard because you got this Syrian family who was bombed out and three little kids and spent years in refugee camps, and finally made it to Erie, Pennsylvania, where it’s snowing all the time. Their everyday-ness is, “I’m not in Syria. I am still alive and whenever I have a problem, there’s this vast network of support that I can turn to every day who will help me through this.” I think that they have to be able to separate the everyday-ness of their life and the support that they get from the rest of this overlying situation of what Trump is saying about them every day.

It’s a really poignant quote from a person in South Carolina or North Carolina, who said closely after the election, “Well if I have to go back, if I have to go back to my home country, I will remember that I will always be grateful for the time that I had in America and for the generosity that the American people showed me.” This was from a refugee who felt that he was on his way out the door, back to where he came from.