Sometime in 2015 I started getting headlines from my hometown newspaper, the Journal Times of Racine, Wisconsin. They arrived every day, sometimes twice a day, with news from Racine (population 80,000) and the surrounding cities, towns, and villages: Caledonia, Burlington, Union Grove, Mount Pleasant, Kenosha. The crime dispatches were both lurid and sad:
“Racine man allegedly tried to fight with a pipe, also reportedly yelled racial slurs”
“Caledonia man allegedly tried to instigate neighbor’s dogs to attack, caused a disturbance and danced a jig”
“Woman accused of pulling fire alarm, spraying fire extinguisher during argument”
“Racine man allegedly broke into a foreclosed home, threw a party”
These were balanced by feel-good stories and stories of locals who’ve done well.
“Man rescued after being stuck in mud while climbing at Cliffside Park”
“St. Lucy student, 8, publishes book about unicorn princess scientist”
“Racine student’s art selected to be part of Carmex social media campaign”
“Blue Man Group: One of the first Men is a St. Cat’s grad; now he’s in Hollywood”
I would like to read these stories, but I can’t: the Journal Times does not comply with European GDPR. Each click (and I often click) bumps me into a digital brick wall. I have written several times to ask how a Racinian living in Amsterdam might read his hometown newspaper. No luck.
Nor can I unsubscribe: the unsubscribe page is behind the same wall. But I wouldn’t want to. I’ve grown accustomed to the daily alienation.
My home town happens to be one of those “real America”-type places that national and international journalists love to descend on whenever American elections loom. It is a mid-sized deindustrialized American city, with high unemployment and too many empty storefronts downtown. Barnes & Noble drowned out smaller bookstores years ago; you still go there because it isn’t Amazon. But every four years Racine emerges as a Rust Belt Delphi, offering oracular glimmers of our future and our fate. I was born and raised there, but I can say little about that broader fate. I have no idea what is going to happen.
To admit that I have no idea what is going to happen is a professional embarrassment, since I teach something called American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Having that particular job means I face a quadrennial barrage of Dutch journalists asking me for authoritative insight or “expert” wisdom. They want answers and explanations. One asks me about “flyover” parts of America (including, I guess, Wisconsin), because Dutch people should better understand those parts. Should they really? Would it help? Is the Netherlands a flyover part of Europe?
Such inquirers don’t really need me. America-experts abound in the Netherlands, as I discovered when I moved here. I find that cottage industry simultaneously impressive and depressing: impressive because I shrink from making predictions, depressing because international commentary often treats American politics as a sport or a gladiatorial spectacle. Wrestling. No, scratch that, it’s more poignant: the America-expert is simultaneously a sportscaster and a person who on some level believes in America. Holding these imperatives in suspension is a terrible predicament, especially now.
Anyway, if Racine is a synecdoche for “America,” I find “America” impossible to narrate or explain. I have only fragments.
A headline from February: “Racine and Caledonia using technology to expedite election processes, reduce human error.” The picture shows elderly women hunched and squinting over laptops and tablets. American democracy depends on them.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission classifies me as a “permanent overseas voter.” Every two years I perform my small civic duty from afar. In October 2016, a month before the election, I got an email with instructions. “Dear Wisconsin Permanent Overseas Voter,” it began, and it was sent to about 700 people, all of whose addresses were visible to everyone else. No “Bcc:” for Wisconsinites!
It charmed me at the time. Such an admirably low-tech non-system suggested, maybe counterintuitively, that American elections are in fact hard to hack from the outside: they’re so local, so clunky. You download the ballot, print it, seal it in an envelope, put that sealed envelope inside another envelope together with a certificate signed by you the voter and by a witness. The witness (“Required!”) has to be another U.S. citizen, though it is hard to imagine the elderly vote-counters deciphering witness signatures enough to verify them.
On the darker side, the patchwork inanity of American voting reveals a system that is already—in the more tragic historical sense—hacked. American politics operates in the grooves of a 233-year-old Constitution that does not guarantee the right to vote. In 2011, Wisconsin passed a voter-ID law; it was one of more than twenty states to adopt voting restrictions after Republicans gained control of Congress as well as state legislatures. Voter suppression plays out in Departments of Motor Vehicles, where the mandatory voter ID cost $28 unless you knew to ask to get it free. A years-long legal battle ensued, but the law stood through the 2016 election, deterring tens of thousands of registered voters, disproportionately the poor and the non-white. Trump won the state by 22,748 votes. Much ink was spilled after November 2016 about Hillary Clinton’s failure to visit Wisconsin enough—less on these harder and more dismal facts.
Living abroad, I was not purged from the voter rolls. In fact, we permanent overseas voters participated in our own miracle: of the 700 co-recipients of that message, not a single person replied-all. The collective politeness of this far-flung Wisconsin diaspora was breathtaking. I was tempted. I am still tempted! I hope they feel a twinge of homesickness, wherever they are. I hope they voted.
The morning after the election I had to teach a seminar of a class called “American History, Beginning to End.” I had spent part of the evening before at the all-night “Verkiezingsnacht” at the Melkweg. That was a mistake. I left before it all turned dark.
The text on the syllabus that morning was “Rip Van Winkle,” Washington Irving’s story from 1819 about a lazy but good-humored fellow who sleeps through the American Revolution. To get away from his nagging wife, Rip goes into the woods, slumbers for 20 years, wakes up with a long beard and a rusted gun, and makes his confused way back to his now-unfamiliar home town. The locals treat him as an unwelcome stranger and demand to know “on which side he voted.” His response—“I am a poor, quiet man, a native of the place, and a loyal subject of the king, God bless him!”—only infuriates them more. “A tory! a tory! a spy! a refugee! hustle him! away with him!” Irving’s satirical nightmare resolves into harmony: Rip, free of his nagging wife, takes his lazy place among the town’s elders, a living connection to the nostalgic past.
“Rip Van Winkle” is a time-travel story, a template for all stories of waking up in changed worlds. But on November 9, 2016, it offered no comfort. Rip gets to sleep through it, after all, but I had not slept. Nor, for that matter, had the world changed. We still had to live through those curious months between Trump’s election and his inauguration, through the piss-tapes and post-mortems, through the sad stupid theater of it all.
Dutch friends and colleagues offered their unnerving condolences and their annoying bright-side interpretations. “Having it out in the open,” they’d say, “is better than having things fester under the surface.” Yet American politics remained a sport and a spectacle, a faraway circus. As the scandals rolled in, Dutch friends said, gleefully, “Now he’s gone too far—they’ll have to stop him!” They said this not with alarm but with expectation: they were projecting Dutch parliamentary deliberation onto the American scene, conjuring a civilized, moderate they who would step in to do the stopping.
It was hard for me to parse the outsized faith in American institutions—liberal Europe is still wedded to an idea of America, after all—from the modern Dutch inability to fathom true political breakdown.
How bad will it get? On a FaceTime call with my mother soon after the election, we talk about the plausibility of having to shelter undocumented immigrants in one’s attic.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) dates back to the months after September 11; it is a child of the Bush administration’s odious Homeland Security Act. The Obama administration deported more people, in raw numbers, than the Trump administration will. The DACA program, which Trump will scuttle, reflected a principle of selection: prioritize deportation in a way that minimizes terror, but still deport.
Under Trump, ICE will come to resemble fascist shock troops. Concentration camps on the borders will attract global outrage, but the cruelty is not only on the border. A Journal Times headline will arrive in July, 2018: “Racine resident detained by ICE.” Ricardo Fierro lived in Racine for 23 years, after moving from Mexico when he was 16. He’d been head of the Latino Chamber of Commerce. (Racine is not reducible to “Trump Country.” The broader Racine County, which contains the City of Racine, went to Trump by 4,040 votes, but the City tends Democratic. The city is multicultural; one fifth of the population is of “Hispanic origin,” according to the Census’s categories, and one fifth it “Black or African American.”)
My niece is friends with Fierro’s daughter, who was born in Racine and will turn 18 in time to vote in the midterm elections. Fierro’s arrest is sinister and strategic. There will be vigils, protests, appeals to local, state, and national politicians. Gary Younge will chronicle the case in the Guardian. It will be to no avail.
Around this time I will have to read an old novel: Anniversaries, by the German writer Uwe Johnson. Written over 15 years, from 1967 to 1983, and running to 1700 agonizing pages, it follows Johnson’s home town in Mecklenburg, drip by drip, through Nazism, war, and Soviet occupation. Layered over that history is the day-by-day chronicle of Johnson’s protagonist, Gesine Cresspahl, fecklessly reading a newspaper in 1968. It will be unbearable. Another headline will arrive in August 2019: “Local man Ricardo Fierro deported 1 year after being detained by ICE.”
In September 2017, Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker proudly announced an enormous contract with the giant Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, whose factories in Shenzhen, China, had gained notoriety in 2010 for their suicide-prevention nets. Foxconn’s first American factory—the hub of what Walker called “Wisconn Valley”—would be in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Racine. They promised 13,000 new jobs and Walker promised them 3 billion dollars in tax credits, plus another billion in state-funded infrastructure. Homes were cleared to make way for the new age.
It is the signal failure of the Trump era in Wisconsin. I can only sketch the disaster here. Soon after the ground-breaking ceremony, in which Trump, Walker, and Foxconn CEO Terry Gou wielded golden shovels, Foxconn scaled back, announcing a smaller, more automated factory that would employ only 3000 people, mostly engineers. That number, too, would evaporate. Wisconn Valley would not fill the vacuum left by manufacturing’s long decline. It would not reindustrialize the deindustrialized city.
The golden shovels were breaking already-scorched ground. Walker’s rise in 2011 represented the “conservative conquest” of the state that Dan Kaufman chronicled in The Fall of Wisconsin. Walker held onto power thanks to millions of dollars from the Koch Brothers. In his first year, he stripped public employees’ collective-bargaining rights—teachers and state workers, but not cops and firefighters. Protests gripped the state capital but the policy prevailed. Slashing the University of Wisconsin’s budget, Walker tried to remove the phrases “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” from its charter and replace them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
It was clear by the 2018 elections that the Foxconn “deal” was rotten, that Walker had been suckered and had suckered the state. He was finally voted out, but the Foxconn disaster wore on. Writing in The Verge magazine, the journalist Josh Dzieza uncovered failure upon failure, and desperate efforts to polish the turd. State subsidies were conditional upon hiring quotas, so when the deadline approached, Foxconn’s newly conjured nonsensical sub-companies hired people to do nothing and then fired them when the deadline passed. Local politicians were powerless, having pandered to a tech giant under the assumption that a tech giant would know what it was doing. But it didn’t.
Absurd new plans emerged to make up for Foxconn’s incompetence. Wisconn Valley became a series of flailing, doomed startups. They entered—and even won!—a “Smart Cities” competition in early 2019, imagining “camera-festooned autonomous vehicles” that would “patrol high-crime areas,” self-driving cars that “would ferry Racine’s workers to Foxconn’s campus.” It was all a sad farce, a neoliberal Potemkin Village designed to please… who exactly? Trump, who tweeted it as a success story? Foxconn executives? Themselves? All of the pain devolved onto the people who had no real power. The precarious “knowledge workers” wept at their desks.
It wasn’t always this way. Wisconsin has a heroic progressive and even radical tradition, dating back to the 19th century. Every newsletter from the Journal Times mentions “Interesting things people found in the Journal Times archives” and I wish I could see them.
Foxconn’s CEO has shaped Wisconsin’s political fate more than any “swing voter” has. And yet as the election approaches, attention turns narrowly and neurotically to those voters, the least interesting of all political actors. Candidates and coastal journalists cater to them. Swing states are not more “American” than other states, but because the presidential election hinges on them, they are held aloft as somehow more real. It becomes easy to forget the anti-democratic absurdity of my vote being more decisive than everyone else’s.
The margin-players who went one way in one election and another way in another election are sought out and studied for their special mutations, their outlook on the world. The epistemic yield is minimal; the inner political life of a Wisconsinite is no more or less interesting than anyone else’s. In August The New York Times zoomed in on Trump’s “defectors”—those in “battleground states” who voted for him in 2016 but now had their doubts. A man from Racine voted for Trump because “he wanted to abolish Obamacare, and he didn’t trust Mrs. Clinton,” but now he can only trust platitudes: Trump “said he was going to, quote unquote, drain the swamp,” this man tells the Times, but “all he’s done is splashed around and rolled around in it.” Now he believes Biden has a chance to “bring the people back together.” and he hopes his running mate “can close the divide between the two parties.” Fascinating.
The impulse to peer into the psyches of real American swing voters is understandable. It reflects a wish, a will to believe that democracy is a matter of an individual’s authentic expression of political preference, that a person’s politics is an independent rather than a dependent variable.
The Siena College / New York Times Upshot poll dated October 12, based on a sample of 789 “Wisconsin likely voters,” puts Biden up ten points. It was conducted soon after Trump caught COVID, so the last question asks whether you think it’s more likely that “the President will recover quickly” or that “the President will take weeks to recover from the virus.” (The poll does not ask whether Trump’s death would be fitting or unfitting, just or unjust, a sorrow or an enormous relief.) 60% of whites without BA degrees say he will recover quickly; 25% say he will take weeks. 46% of whites with BA degrees say he will recover quickly, 38% say he it will take weeks. Helpful! Roughly the same number of respondents, college educated or not, said they didn’t know or refused to answer. Polls are a bulb that reveals everything yet illuminates nothing.
Headlines hint at a brokenness that polls are not equipped to capture. The Journal Times often delivers to my inbox what seem like parodies of bleakness.
“Abandoning loved ones: Three urns recently found discarded in Racine County”
“Crematorium planned for former flower shop in Union Grove”
The latter headline is the saddest one-line poem I’ve ever read. I would anthologize it alongside this slapstick allegory of despair:
“Garbage truck dumps load at Badger Plaza after contents start on fire”
In the 1920s, the husband-and-wife team of sociologists Helen and Robert Lynd sought out the most typical American city to study. They found it in Muncie, Indiana, but called Muncie Middletown in the unlikely bestseller of 1929 that emerged from their pile of data and interviews. The book inaugurated a sociological genre. The Middletown studies have many descendants, with varying explanatory power. Modern, poll-driven snapshots of swing states are among the lazy journalistic heirs. One Journal Times headline, “11 Racine-area alleys you will never bowl at again,” calls to mind another heir: the insipid lamentations of Bowling Alone (2000), which tsk-tsk-ed Americans for no longer joining bowling leagues, and claimed to quantify, via survey data, the loss of something called “trust.” (Never mind that people can bowl with company even if they’re not in a league.)
The original and early Middletown studies, for all their limits, at least aspired to articulate a place’s deeper psychological and economic predicaments. They were often more attentive to the deeper structures of class and caste than any poll or piece of data-journalism is now. Middletown’s key cleavage was the “division into working class and business class”; as Progressive intellectuals who would soon embrace the New Deal, the Lynds punctured the myth of American social mobility. In the more powerful recent heirs to Middletown, the cleavage is between the college educated and the non-college educated.
“Out of the ashes of the current catastrophe,” Helen Epstein writes in The New York Review of Books, about several new Middletown-type studies, “America’s white working class seems to have fashioned a new culture of pain and trauma, rooted in white America’s peculiar imperative to seem happy all the time (unless you’re sick) and to personalize and depoliticize financial hardship.” Deaths of despair have increased conspicuously in recent years among non-college-educated whites, who might rely on government disability benefits even while voting for the party that dismantles the state. To call it hypocrisy misses a deeper logic of precarity in America. What seem like causes are often symptoms.
The Journal Times, 14 November, 2019: “Racine named second worst area in U.S. for blacks, up from third”
Up from third! The rating comes from a Delaware-based organization called 24/7 Wall St., which runs data on segregation, incarceration, poverty, mortality, economic inequality, and level of education through an algorithm, placing American cities in something like tournament bracket of misery. Minneapolis, site of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, is in fourth place; Milwaukee, Racine’s neighbor to north, is #1. The same organization will later deem Racine the poorest city in Wisconsin.
11,000 people attended the anti-racism demonstration in the Bijlmer. I saw as many signs in English as I saw in Dutch. Speakers navigated between Dutch legacies of colonization and the more-or-less “American” vocabularies that have galvanized protests abroad. In many American cities, meanwhile, the protests raged for weeks, and militarized police deployed counterinsurgency tactics, as if putting down uprisings in occupied territories—which is indeed what they were.
Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Racine’s neighbor to the south, on August 23. Two days later, during the Black Lives Matter protests that ensued, a white teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, shot three protestors, killing two. He had come to Kenosha from Antioch, Illinois.
The Journal Times, 30 September, 2020: “Racine Police adds pink to patches in support of breast cancer awareness.”
Back in February, while the Democratic primary was still on, I tried my hand at making phone calls for Bernie Sanders. Maybe I could make a difference. Maybe a Wisconsin accent would come back to my voice—the flat vowels and round “r”s—and I would make a connection that only a local could make. We would compare Dutch cheese and Wisconsin cheese and I would convince them that billionaires should not exist.
My fumbling attempts, alas, suggested that the phones had already been saturated. “Sorry man, I’m at work, and I get a lot of these calls,” a potential Bernie voter tells me. My mother tells me her landline rings all the time. Fatigue reigns.
When Joe Biden prevailed on “Super Tuesday,” March 3, I was in the US—in Virginia, not in Wisconsin. 14 states and the colony of American Samoa held their primaries that day. Wisconsin’s primary was more than a month away, but Super Tuesday was Biden’s coronation as the Democratic nominee. It all happened with a providential-seeming suddenness, though the shock feels long ago now. It wasn’t providential, it was merely overdetermined: by the forces of capital that consolidated around the non-Bernie candidate, and by an incipient awareness of the pandemic that then loomed.
I sometimes look with fondness at a few photos I have of my mother, my sister and her family at a Bernie rally in 2016. Bernie won the 2016 Wisconsin primary 57% to 43%. I sent my mom a Bernie coffee mug; she’s often drinking from it when we talk, seven hours apart.
The Journal Times, 16 March, 2020: “Archbishop frees Catholics of obligation to attend church this weekend because of COVID-19.” What a relief.
A few days later, Wisconsin governor Tony Evers, the Democrat who replaced Walker, issued the “Safer at Home” order. In May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional, by a 4-3 conservative majority. The Chief Justice’s name, I am amazed to learn, is Patience D. Roggensack. Paralysis and confusion followed, and have persisted into the present, as Evers issues mask mandates and conservatives challenge them in the courts. Cities and towns do their own thing. It is another patchwork inanity.
Wisconsin’s primary elections in April became an episode of cruel idiocy. The Democratic governor postponed the primary, as other states had wisely done; the Republican-dominated Supreme Court struck down the postponement. Long lines of masked voters formed at the polls; news outlets try to measure the number of coronavirus cases that resulted. More concrete, though, is the number of polling places that were closed in Milwaukee: 175. Only five remained open. My own primary ballot never arrived.
Kanye West’s political aspirations, meanwhile, were stymied by Wisconsin bureaucracy and the inescapable passage of time. Republicans had worked to get his name on the ballot in Wisconsin, to put him forward as a spoiler drawing votes away from Biden. The deadline was August 10, 2020, 5pm, but the Republican attorney who submitted the signatures got to the Wisconsin Election Commission building at 5pm and 14 seconds, and only made it into the office itself several minutes later, after shuffling with her pile of papers. “Democracy died in Wisconsin,” a friend writes me. For a while, legal wrangles over the composition of the ballot made it unclear whether the ballots that had already been sent out would be considered legitimate or not.
I don’t get any instructional emails from the Wisconsin Election Commission this time around. No reunion for the no-Bcc community, alas. I just keep clicking myvote.wi.gov, waiting for a ballot to appear. When it finally does, I print it out, put it an envelope, put the envelope in an envelope, find a witness, sign the form. I spend the extra 18 euros to have PostNL track it, out of fear that it’ll get lost in the cynically underfunded US postal system. More clicking.
The Journal Times, 14 September, 2020: “Milwaukee archbishop: Fear of getting sick not an excuse to miss Mass.”
“What was a man’s ‘home town,’” Willa Cather wrote at the end of Lucy Gayheart, one of her sadder Nebraska novels, “but the place where he had had disappointments, and had learned to bear them?” American fiction, in general, does not celebrate the home town. It mocks it, spurns it, mourns it. You Can’t Go Home Again was the title given to Thomas Wolfe’s ponderous posthumous novel of 1940 about “Libya Hill,” code for Asheville, North Carolina.
I don’t feel this way, even if I am, as it were, deracinated. I do not feel like I escaped some middle-American fate. I like going home. I like the Public Library and its view of Lake Michigan. I like the walk from my mother’s place to Wilson’s Coffee & Tea on Washington Avenue, and I feel welcome in that unbroken place. I hope you recognize, dear reader, that a place and a people should not really be judged by the headlines of their local newspaper. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t been home in more than a year, and it pains me. I want very much to see my breath in the Wisconsin winter air.
As for the political future, I am not optimistic. Viewed against the melancholy fragments of this essay, arrayed across my cluttered desk in Amsterdam, one overseas vote feels like a tiny thing. And yet I’ve clung to it. Pessimism is not the same thing as despair. I can only hope my vote is a drop in a full bucket.