We were gathered in the lobby of the Sleep Inn, in a semicircle round the big screen above the fake fireplace. The TV burbled CNN night and day, usually, as business travelers and flight crews came in and out. The lobby had the fake living room look they now favour, reproduction couches and a credenza with a bowl of waxed apples on it. There was a sister hotel opposite, the Dulcet, on the other side of the Dunkin Donuts, that I’d transferred across from, a dive with broken furniture and plaster falling off the roof, and a bunch of dudes, I’m pretty sure, running girls out of it. Airport hotels, like people, sometimes get on the meth. The manager had taken one look at me, a how-did-you-get-here look, and silently transferred me over. There was no big screen in the lobby of the Dulcet, though you could see the black metal brace where one had been.
Here, there were half a dozen of us gathered around the screen as the whole thing turned blue and orange, as Donald Trump began his Oval Office address on the plague.
I’d come down to watch it here, but everyone else was either waiting to check in, or for the airport shuttle, the sort of everyman crew not usually seen outside of a Will Smith movie or a one-seat 70s sitcom: tired white businessman in beige suit, large black woman in form-hugging leopardprint, clueless kid with backpack, the short latino maintenance guy, a few others in non-speaking roles.
‘My fellow Americans I am speaking to you tonight about the challenge something something’ the Donald began, mashing all the words together, his orange badger eyes peeking out from his fake tan, following the teleprompter like it was a stripper’s butt. Got to the end of the sentence then a huge snuffling intake of breath. He looked waxy, but then he always does, a moulded candle. Now he looked worse.
‘Jesus,’ said Mr Beige, ‘he’s ill.’
Twenty four hours after the Michigan and other mini-Tuesday primaries, but it seemed a lot lot longer. Even as people were trooping out to vote in Missouri, Mississippi, North Dakota, Washington state, Idaho and the motor state, as was, the coronavirus story was taking over everything. A day earlier, the organizers of the right-wingapalooza conference CPAC (held at, of course, DC’s Gaylord Hotel) had announced that a virus-positive agent—a lobbyist—had been present at the event, gladhanding his way around. Ted Cruz announced that he was self-isolating, something usually achieved, it is said, by his personality. Congressman Bernard Gaetz, who had mocked ‘the panic’ by wearing a gas mask on to the floor of the House, also self-isolated. All very embarrassing, especially as Trump’s then chief of staff Michael Mulvaney—a week later he had already been sacked by Trump—told an audience that coronavirus was the Democrats’ latest hoax, a second impeachment.
The realization that the virus had been loose in the sealed concrete petri dish of the Gaylord, amidst three days of close backslapping, southern two-wheel kisses, breakfast buffets and sweaty hands on fake gold handrails, introduced the right to something they had lost touch with a while back, reality. Left Twitter (well, dirtbag left twitter) watched the score with mounting glee, especially when it became clear that the press agent of Brazilian thug President Jair Bolsonaro had tested positive, and had palled around with Trump himself.
But the fun didn’t last. As the left steeled itself for a bruising in Michigan, Italy announced that it had 200+ deaths in a day, doubling its total. Then it all started to happen very fast, with New York state quarantining a whole town (New Rochelle, 30k north of NYC), Washington state banned large gatherings, first Harvard, then dozens of colleges sent their students home, whole school districts closed, and all of it without a word of objection about freedom of assembly etc etc. But it was when the basketball peak body the NCAA announced that its tournament season, ‘March Madness’ would go ahead without crowds, that is, barely go ahead at all, that Americans really realised something was up.
Americans love to dodge up traditions—everything from ‘black Friday’ post-Thanksgiving sales to cable TV’s ‘shark week’—and March Madness is one of the biggest. That it could simply be cancelled made it clear that everything could, that the whole jest of post-70s American life, the rolling carnival of whimsy and irony, primo fun and cheap thrills, was far from infinite, and had, indeed, already come to an end. Now, with a shiver, millions were contemplating working from home, or getting laid off from work you can’t take home.
Neither that nor a worried glance at the mortality rates of the virus were as disconcerting as the fact that I’d just spent five days in the ‘Driftless’ region of Minnesota-Wisconsin, working on a story about Trump and the white working-class. The ‘Driftless’ (the term is geologic) runs either side of the northern Mississippi, a striking landscape of sudden single mountains, lakes in chains, hard earth and deep mists. Soon as you see it, ‘Falling’ plays in your head; it’s pure Twin Peaks territory. Dairy on the Wisconsin side, family farms in Iowa and Minnesota, centered on towns and cities like La Crosse that the icy Mississippi runs either side of, with red brick main streets, colleges, bars and, until recently, manufacture.
But the Driftless is distinct for something else, and that is that, centered on La Crosse is a large cross of counties going into all three states that exemplified the 2016 election, for they had all voted for Obama twice, and then voted for Trump. The formation had fascinated me as soon as I’d seen it, because the contiguity and intensity of the switch. The La Crosse cross couldn’t be written off as a simple turnover switch, Obama Dems not coming out, Trumpers turning up. That happened in cities and among black Democrats especially. But 70-80% of voters who vote in any election vote in every election. In La Crosse cross a lot of people turned out for Trump who had pulled the lever twice for O consciously, knowingly and in their intent, consistently.
The vote was a standing rebuke to those who wanted to dismiss all Trump voters as racist and sexist, and to simply write them off in any reformulation of progressive strategy. The Driftless may be near-totally white (though there’s a growing number of Latinx workers staying on), and very parochial, but it hasn’t been aggressively racist (as the Obama vote indicates). Occupied-settled by Germans and Scandinavians who brought nineteenth-century socialist politics with them, the two states provided much of the US left’s leftism. Wisconsin birthed both the Republican Party (in its original radical version), and then in the late 19th century, the Progressive Party. The latter never broke the two-party system, but its spirit and program became the Democratic Party in 1932, with FDR’s New Deal. Minnesota has the only Labor party in the country (its Democrats are the Democrat-Farmer-Labor party) and had health insurance and a comprehensive social welfare system from the 40s onwards, which influenced Johnson’s Great Society program of the 1960s. Minnesota never even voted for Reagan. The state’s poet laureate is Garrison Keillor, of Lake Woebegon Days fame, the bard of nice. In 2016 it came within a few thousand votes of going for Trump. Wisconsin, in a late February, seems to have gone to Trump by six to eight per cent. Whatever happened here is what happened to America.
So I spent four days going round the traps, the skeevy bars of La Crosse (the student bars line the main street; the ‘taverns’—the Sports Nut, Roakies, the Bad Service, low ceilinged dives of green light, moulded carpet, a long bar with stools of tape patched vinyl, a half dozen barflies and nighthawks downing beers-n-bumps—are off to the side), a couple of small villages by the water, hanging out at the Economical Inn, a weatherboard dump so bad the booking sites won’t list it. I planned to lay some ground, and come back during the Wisconsin primary. There was no question of asking people how they voted, or what they thought of Trump. America is so divided now that the mere act of asking questions is a marker of being on the other side; the very act of finding out is something the others do.
‘People round here generally think Trump has done good,’ Steel-o Steve said in the Bad Service. ‘The tax cuts have worked, the jobs are coming back.’ A beer before him and a bump, golden Canadian whiskey in a shot glass shining in the light. Did I see him dip his eyes a little. ‘Yeah, but they’re all at the hospital,’ said Maggie beside him, leather jacketed, women’s beer pot under a tie dye stoner-t. She works there, in medical records. Steel-O’s a welder, a handyman, gets work from La Crosse’s very Wisconsian determination to restore such historic streets as have survived. ‘They’re still good jobs!’ ‘Ha, you don’t work there!’
La Crosse is doing better than most—due to the vast hospital and three colleges—but it still has the frayed edges of American cities and towns, places declining so long that Americans have stopped noticing it. Beyond the old town centre, the wooden houses start to crumble, shops long closed are hung with decades-old signs for spark plugs, vanished cigarette brands, pure Hopperiana. Conventions are a big thing; the town is filled that weekend with men and a few women slouching around with long cover bags hung over their shoulder. Militias? No, the Wisconsin state pool comp is in town, 30 tables set up in the civic centre. They don’t want to talk about Trump either. Fair enough, these are Milwaukee Sandersistas and deep country cheeseheads (Wisconsin’s main product; at football games supporters wear hats shaped like giant cheese triangles). ‘State’s doing great, let’s leave it at that.’
Sure, but, but, but… ‘Cargill’s gone, they don’t have plant here anymore [an industrial giant, largest private company in the US], a company used to do air conditioners here,’ Mike, my Uber driver tells me. He works for Kwik-korp, a northern states convenience store chain, hq’ed here. They have an employee’s profit share scheme (another Minnesota-Wisconsin commonality not found much elsewhere), but Mike drives Uber to pay off the topline hi-lux car he’s doing the Ubering in. Takes me on a tour.
‘That’s the newspaper, it just closed,’ as we pass its old building, 70s, brutalist, out of every made-for-TV movie about crusading journos you ever saw. ‘150 years here. Now it’ll be edited out of Madison [the state capital].’ Other places. That was…that was… Industry went, making things, service jobs flowed in. Kwikkorp is the last of many places that offered a share of the deal.
There was more, much more, conversations, and factoids in the notes, but it all suddenly seems like ancient history now, before the icy deluge. For the Wednesday after, as Trump bumbled and burbled and wheezed his way through a speech speaking of a foreign virus, from China, failing to declare a state of emergency, one watched us pass into a new moment. None of the people I watched it with were Trump deadheads, but hmmmmm beige suited sales rep? Sneaky vote on PC and affirmative action and damn women? The white super? Wanting the good jobs back? Only the black lady was in the clear.
‘Well that doesn’t tell us much at all’
‘Isn’t Trump having a rally this week?’
‘No they cancelled that’s…’
‘Trump cancelled a rally?’
‘Well someone did.’
The next day it would turn out that the speech had been written by Stephen Miller, his immigration obsessed nativist wonk-consigliere. Both Biden and Bernie have their own addresses, Biden’s underwhelming, Bernie’s uncompromising and presidential. Congress was taking of mandatory paid sick leave, eviction moratoriums, no-cost testing, the works. What had been policies that would ‘repel independent voters’ in the general, were now procedural.
On Tuesday night a wave of anger and frustration had broken on the left at Sanders’s loss in Michigan (and everywhere except North Dakota). Michael Moore on MSNBC had been close to tears, not fully coherent, but expressive in that moment. ‘Next time instead of me get someone on who’s waited 10 years for dental treatment. Get someone on seven dollars an hour. Get…’
The frustration was double. It wasn’t Bill Clinton in his prime, or Obama the mainstream were putting up as an electable candidate. It was a 78-year-old political also-ran, with no strong program, a shocker of a record, and quite possible actual neural decline. Worse came to worse, if that was real, they’d whip him out at the convention, and promote his VP pick, probably Kamala Harris.
Now? Well now, anything’s possible. Roll the dice again. The deep study of the Driftless had to be gutted, the old standby, an airport/hotel piece put in its stead. Having come into DC, I got to my hotel, checked Twitter, saw that a quarantine of California was being considered and booked a $99 flight to LA, leaving three hours later, the price saying it all. Denver Airport, the transfer, the world’s busiest by some measure, usually a 22-hour buzzing acropolis, was three-quarters deserted. Trump was tweeting about Biden’s record during SARS. His crackpottedly random Europe ban was being excoriated. Doctors testifying to Congress were openly contradicting him (not strongly enough). Every half hour is bringing something new. Yet still there are no publicly available tests. If you can find one, and you don’t have insurance, they cost $1200 to get. Where will this country be in a week, a day, an hour?
The Obama-Obama-Trump La Crosse cross? That revealed itself on my last day there, in a nearby town called Trempealeau, a place near falling into the great wide river. In the Trempealeau Hotel, a schmicked up onetime riverman’s dive, there to see a friend’s brother’s band, a knowing Americana act called the Sapsuckers, I watched the bar fill with longtime locals and hip Minneapolis-St Paul escapees, all knocking back the Driftless drink, a fruit-tinged Old Fashioned made with brandy not whiskey, a long-ago analogue of German fruit schnapps I’m guessing. ‘Is this the main act’ I asked, as a decent but conventional shaggy singer-songwriter plied his set. ‘Well uh there is no main act’ he said, an impeccably Lake Woebegon sentiment. ‘There’s three acts, this is the first.’ ‘The Sapsuckers…?’ ‘Are last ones.’ OK. Later, as their sly lyrics floated over the crowd, done in piquant sweetheart-of-the-rodeo style, knowing yet sincere, living a tradition, yet extending it,
I thought of what an act of social violence it would have been to ask people here who was and wasn’t with Trump, when the music joined them together giving each side a different access to the same tradition. But what was this place. What happened. Eddie, a 40-year local, singer-songwriter himself, jack of all trades, a toggle tied sweat-top, greying mullet, ginger ale in hand, an, I imagine, vast vinyl collection at home, shelf after shelf, made it clear. ‘The family farms have been dying here. Dairy in Wisconsin, grain on the other side. Been dying a long time, but in the last 10 years. There used to be eight farms around me, now there’s one.’ A bit of follow up later made it clear. In the last decade, across the Driftless and into all three states, family farming had fallen off a cliff. Towns across northern Iowa, western Wisconsin were dying, as their feeder communities died.
So what happened in the La Crosse cross? Everything, very fast, very late. The area’s distinct traditions had anchored collective social life, for decades after they had been blown apart elsewhere—even the convenience store is a co-op?—and when they finally went, the effect was what had happened to the whole of America over a longer period. The Driftless had come loose of its moorings and drifted from the real to the symbolic. They had reached out to Obama to hold onto what they still had. As that went, in town, in country, in the farms, in the bars, they reached out to Trump to make something stop happening, to embody and restore. It hasn’t worked for them and now, across the screens in the hotels, the departure lounges and the living rooms, it isnt working for the country.