Going Home Again to Trump’s America

This is the first of four essays that describe the writer’s Northeast travels between New York, Washington, and New England during spring 2018.

For the most part I keep my distance from Trump’s Boardwalk fascism. Who needs to reminded that the United States, politically anyway, has descended into a reality show? To be sure it is impossible, even when you live in Europe, to escape Trumpism altogether. He shows up at G-7 or NATO summits to lecture European leaders about trade inequality or Putin’s humanism. But living without television and on another continent, I am largely spared Trump’s Babbittry, although any sampling of online newspapers brings his rants into focus. That said, once or twice a year, because I need to remind myself that the United States is a lot more than its village idiocy, I make plans to travel around the country.

In recent years I have biked and bused from Chicago to New York, camped in many states between North Carolina and Oklahoma, roamed the coal hollows of Kentucky and West Virginia, and attended the presidential primary in New Hampshire. It may not make up for my lack of familiarity with Fox & Friends, but at least I now having a working knowledge of where Eugene V. Debs lived in Terre Haute and have visited the house, in Fayetteville, in which lived the late Senator J. William Fulbright (from whom we got the scholarships and much opposition to the Vietnam War).

When seen from Europe, Trump can often become America in its entirety, while when viewed from Commerce, Oklahoma (where Mickey Mantle grew up), his act is simply a variation on vaudeville. (As Groucho Marx liked to say: “You’ve got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I’ll bet he was glad to get rid of it.”)

On this occasion, I had wanted to begin my travels in West Branch, Iowa—the Herbert Hoover Library is there, and he is due for another look—and from there travel into Nebraska, where, in Lincoln, I thought I could track down the grassroots of Williams Jennings Bryan before heading west to Red Cloud and the home of Willa Cather, a writer I much admire. Everything great about the country can be found in the haunting passage in which she describes an immigrant father’s wish for his daughter: “He placed this book in my grandmother’s hands, looked at her entreatingly, and said, with an earnestness which I shall never forget, ‘Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Ántonia!”

From Red Cloud, I wanted to get to Wyoming and there to behold Teapot Dome, the rock that gave its name to the Warren Harding presidential scandal. While that far west, I also wanted to spend some time on one of the Native American reservations, so that I could finally understand which presidents and what federal legislation had created these American bantustans. From Wyoming, I thought I would head north to the banks of the Little Bighorn River, and there, having read (the overrated) Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles, I would brood about American military failure from the Indian wars to Operation Enduring Freedom.

In all I might have been gone three weeks, and I am sure that if I had persisted in traveling without a rental car I would have come home with long stories about how Amtrak, Greyhound, or Trailways have brought the country even lower than Trump. (Actually it is Jefferson Lines that connects Nebraska to Montana.) But after wallowing for days with timetables for Lincoln, Nebraska (Amtrak’s California Zephyrarrives at the convenient hour of 12:08 a.m.), I decided to put the West on hold (as Will Rogers liked to say: “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging”) and attend to mundane matters on the East Coast.

More than checking into the Bighorn Lodge and Angler (you can get a room and rowboat in some of their package deals), I needed to deal with family matters on the East Coast, including sorting out my father’s library (he’s been dead more than five years and his books were in boxes) and papers (he kept faxes that arrived from Chinese restaurants). It might mean missing Gerald Ford’s boyhood home in Omaha, but at least I would bring order to certain files (a good European concept), and it would allow me to roam the Northeast Corridor with abandon, as if it were my Home on the Range, which, in a sense, it is.

Brooklyn—Before It Was Brooklyn

I only stayed one night in Brooklyn, which was enough time to leave my bag at a friend’s house and bike around Prospect Park between downpours. Brooklyn wet-behind-the-ears sounds worse than it was, and since 1981 I have riding the loop in Prospect Park, often cursing the presence of cars on what should be a road devoted to bicycles, runners, and those guys (with Sony Walkmen in their ears) rollerskating backwards through those aligned cones.

Throughout the 1980s, when I lived in Brooklyn, I went to endless cyclist meetings to plead with local political officials to remove cars from Prospect Park. One of those who we lobbied, unsuccessfully I might add, was our local member of Congress, Charles Schumer, who shared our pain but then sided with the taxi lobby, for whom the park was a wind tunnel.

Only in 2018 did New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio ban car traffic from Prospect Park, which was less a profile-in-courage moment and more a reflection on how yellow taxis in New York (yes, all those Checkers from the movies) have lost to Uber not just their economic premiums but their political mojo. (I am sure that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, Esq. is coming to the conclusion that his investment, using Ukrainian hot money, in a hundred NYC taxi medallions was the second worst decision of his career—that after answering an advertisement in a local Queens weekly: “Wanted: Tough Guy NDA Lawyer to Deal with Whiny Mistresses. Must have Playboy and Pornhub experience….”)

The next morning, still in the rain, I left at 4:30 o’dark and headed in my rental car toward Washington, D.C. I had rented a car because on the way down and back I needed to make numerous stops in such far-flung places as Centreville, Maryland, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, neither of which the Long Dog serves.

In fact, the Eastern Shore (the peninsula south of Wilmington, Delaware) is a mass transit wasteland, without trains, buses, and commuter planes (there is some service to Easton). When Trumpism guts what’s left of Amtrak and intercity coaches (“Safe, dependable, and out of business…”), the rest of the country will look like the Eastern Shore, in which mass transit is reduced to a few courtesy vans for the elderly.

Leaving Brooklyn, I did something I had yet to do in all my years of exploring the borough, which was to drive along Fort Hamilton Parkway, a boulevard of tire emporiums, KFC, and bodegas. A friend had suggested it as a direct route to the Verrazano Bridge, although at 4:30 a.m. just about any street in Brooklyn is empty of traffic. It led me through Sunset Park, a brownstone neighborhood whose only cultural attachments are to Greenwood Cemetery, handy if you want to visit Horace Greeley or Boss Tweed.

From there I followed Fort Hamilton into Bay Ridge, where I was reminded—even at that early hour—of the last act of the Son of Sam murder rampage (in the summer of 1977). David Berkowitz aka Son of Sam was caught when, during one of his murders, he got a parking ticket, which allowed the police to confirm his presence near one of the shootings. He was already a suspect of the police in Yonkers, where he lived. The arrest prompted the wisecrack: “New York is a place where you can get away with murder—unless you’re parked near a fire hydrant.”

One history of the case recounts the scene at the police station when they brought in Son of Sam:

Mayor [Abraham] Beame, who had been awakened in Gracie Mansion minutes after the arrest, was waiting upstairs for Berkowitz to enter the building. When he did, the mayor rushed down to congratulate the arresting officer. Mistaking Berkowitz for a detective, Beame moved toward the killer and tried to shake his manacled hands. ‘The photo op from hell,’ as the mayor’s press secretary, Sid Frigand, later described it.

Delmarva and the Eastern Shore of Maryland

The time to cross Staten Island and New Jersey is at five in the morning, although even at that improbable hour the multi-lanes of the highways were alive with speeding traffic.

I entered the Delmarva peninsula on the southern side of the soaring Delaware Memorial Bridge but skirted downtown Wilmington, so that I could be spared thinking about news clippings of Joe Biden riding to the Senate on Amtrak. (Under the train-loving Obama and Biden, Amtrak continued its decline toward irrelevancy, despite all those soaring speeches about high-speed rail and pictures of Joe glad-handing porters at the Wilmington station.)

No part of America fills me with quite the same gloom as the northern counties of the Eastern Shore, which I saw for the first time as a college sophomore, when I drove highway 213 from Elkton to Chestertown.

Then the Eastern Shore had qualities of a Dutch landscape painting. My 1966 Volkswagen had no trouble hugging the meandering roads that seemed to connect the sea to an endless sky. I loved the broad fields of soy and corn. Since that first visit I have watched as that Bruegel horizon has turned into a vast dumping ground of malled America.

Instead of corn stalks and red barns, the northern part of the peninsula is an extended parking lot, a vast CVS drugstore and Burlington Coat Factory. Before it had the look of Revolutionary America, complete with red brick federal-style houses and white picket fences; now it’s a food court.

At 7:00 a.m. (which is when they said they would be free; hence my early start in Brooklyn), I stopped in at my friends’ organic farm, and everything they are doing with their business filled me with hope and optimism.

About ten years ago, they had started the farm with a few organic chickens, which they sold at local markets or by delivery subscription. Now they farm some two hundred acres, and the kale, endive, radicchio, and whatever else they grow are shipped off weekly to such emporiums as Whole Foods and even Walmart.

In the 1970s, Eastern Shore agriculture was limited to industrial-strength corn and soybeans, which were then mixed into animal feeds or shoveled into Frank Perdue’s high-rise chicken factories (its headquarters are in Salisbury, Maryland).

Now hedge fund investors are prowling around the Eastern Shore (including at my friends’ organic farm), trying to figure out if they can franchise cassavamanufacturing across the country.

Remembering Bill Rodgers

Truth be told, I only went to Centreville, Maryland—which is on the Corsica River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay—to commune with the departed spirit of my friend William Rodgers, who died in 1997.

Late in his life, which was rich in letters (Bill loved the written word), I bought his small riverside house. In an earlier incarnation it had been freight railroad shed, and even today the wine pine flooring makes me think that any minute a train will arrive.

Since he died, in part to keep Bill’s spirit alive, I have nursed the house from tenant to tenant, largely so that I have reason to return to Centreville, which is as close as I will ever come to William Faulkner’s mythical Yoknapatawpha County.

Faulkner wrote of a similar Southern setting: “I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk and I saw the last light supine and tranquil upon tideflats like pieces of broken mirror, then beyond them lights began in the pale clear air, trembling a little like butterflies hovering a long way off.”

Bill’s memory began to fail in the late 1980s, but since he had devoted his adult lifetime to newspapers, magazines, and books—as well as muckraking journalism—it took a long time for the candle to flicker out. At least he had the company of his cats and typewriter.

In his last years, he sustained himself—one part E.B. White, the other part H.L. Mencken—by writing weekly letters-to-the-editor of the local newspaper, the Record-Observer, which to its credit published Bill’s broadsides—without complaint except from its other subscribers—against Ronald Regan, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, Spiro Agnew, General Motors, the CIA, Strom Thurmond—well, you get my drift.

Bill was the first environmentalist that I knew. Many of his letters and articles were written in defense of wetlands and endangered species, and he used to annotate the books of Rachel Carson as if prepping for a bar exam. But he never began a sentence or a conversation without trying to introduce grace, levity or wit into the mixture.

A few of his neighbors loved him and considered him a national treasure; the rest loathed him for his routine denunciations of local Eastern Shore governance as a variation on the cabal that ran the volunteer department or the realtors who owned the zoning commission.

I am sorry that Bill did not live long enough to discover CounterPunch, either in print or online, as he would have loved everything about the magazine. It is easy for me, even now, to imagine him sending me links daily to some published article, as back in the 1970s, he devoured the words and reporting of Alex Cockburn. (In Centreville, Maryland, in the 1970s, Bill’s subscriptions to the Village Voice, the Nation, and I.F. Stone’s newsletter were regarded locally as if he were a devoted reader of Pravda.)

The Making of a Muckraker

I only got to know Bill when he was in his late sixties, although, as a close friend to my parents, he had been coming and going from our house for my entire life. They met Bill after the war, and they responded to Bill’s love of words, voracious reading, admiration for Adlai Stevenson, and the long letters he would send to them between visits.

My father admired Bill’s courage in World War II, during which Bill served on a number of merchant vessels in the worst of the Battle of the Atlantic, when many convoys were losing one out of every two ships. And when I cleaned out each man’s library, I discovered that, as reciprocal gifts, each had given the other a complete set of Balzac’s novels.

Bill grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Both of his parents died when he was young. He lived with an aunt, who made sure his clothes were clean and that he had lunch for high school. Like Ben Franklin and Mark Twain—two of his particular heroes—Bill discovered newspapers and printing presses at a young age, and they became—to use the Melville expression about whaling ships—“my Yale College and my Harvard.”

Bill never did go to college, but, as a young man on the Johnstown Tribune-Gazette, he once boarded the presidential train in Pittsburgh and rode in the company of Franklin Roosevelt, who was on his way to Johnstown to give a speech, no doubt about flood prevention. (Bill didn’t remember much of the sighting, except for FDR’s cigarette holder. He said he stood at attention while interviewing the President.)

Bill spent about four years during the war on merchant ships in the North Atlantic. In casual conversations, he would drop in references to the many ports, Murmansk in particular, that he had visited during the fighting. In particular, he loved two small oriental rugs that had come from Basra (now southern Iraq), and he had small pieces of art work from Archangel in Russia.

But he was most at home writing and thinking about American history and politics, and the presence of Trump in the White House would confirm all of his worst suspicions about the collapse of democracy, beginning with the rise of Richard Nixon.

After the war, Bill left Pennsylvania and settled in New York City, where he served on the staffs of the New York Herald Tribune and PM, the left-wing magazine-style newspaper.

Later he worked for a paper manufacturing company, as part of a global campaign to promote letter writing and literary. Never was anyone so well matched with his profession as was Bill when he was in the service of letters. Nothing pleased him more than either to write or receive one, and he equated correspondence with the First Amendment, democracy, and the exchange of ideas. (He did, however, love the Faulkner quote from William’s own days as an indolent post office employee: “I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”) Even today I have hundreds of letters that Bill wrote to me during the years of our friendship, roughly from 1973 until his ink well went dry about 1992.

Bill had as many heroes as villains in his pantheon. As much as he loathed Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and, later, Ronald Reagan (maybe it is for the best that he died before learning about Trump), he thought the world of Senator William Proxmire, Franklin Roosevelt, Mencken, and George McGovern, for whom he wrote speeches and position papers during the 1972 campaign.

Bill wanted McGovern to make corruption and Watergate the centerpieces of his presidential platform, but the campaign went in other directions.

Bill wrote best-selling books about IBM (Think: A Biography of the Watsons and IBM), Nelson Rockefeller (Rockefeller’s Follies), and the power industry, but, as with many muckrakers, Bill was ahead of his time. No one—except some angry liberals and reviewers at the Nation—wanted to hear that Rocky had clay feet or than IBM was running the counting machines of the deep state.

I was his research assistant on his last book, about the corruption that surrounded Lockheed’s Pentagon contracts for the building of the C-5A Galaxy airplane. The publisher spiked the final draft, fearing reprisal from Lockheed. (I still have the manuscript in a shoe box.) I am sure now that his corporate criticism would seem tame.

For my efforts on the book, I earned room and board, plus gas money for the Volkswagen. But for six weeks, I got to read the books in Bill’s vast library and eat dinner at his table, which was a chunk of marble often set up near the wetlands of the Corsica River (a birder’s paradise). His wife Katie was an artist, and often, when I showed up at the house for dinner, the evening meal would be swimming in the bathtub that was part of their living room.

Going through the last of Bill’s library, which was still in the Centreville house (including his set of Balzac novels from my father), I was reminded of our dinners, which moved from the headlines and Washington politics to the Alger Hiss case (framed by Hoover), the execution of the Rosenbergs (state hanging), Nixon’s career (in the service of Orange country bag men), and so forth.

For my part, I loved hearing about the Battle of the Atlantic (he said it was relentlessly terrifying) and his personal impressions of FDR and George McGovern (he liked both). Most dinners had excursions to the books we were reading (he admired the memoirs of Bertrand Russell and the darkness of Twain’s Letters from the Earth). He loved hearing about my college courses, almost more than I enjoyed taking them.

On this occasion, however, the house that he had loved was silent. I contented myself with picking out of his library the last few books of his that I wanted to keep for myself. I left the Balzacs for neighbor but took away a small hardback copy of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, even though—as with Thomas Jefferson—Bill was more partial to Tristram Shanty.

I also gathered up two signed copies of books by George Seldes, the legendary muckraker from the early 20th century, although he only died in 1995, at age 104. A movie about his life is called Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press.

Bill had helped him with two of his books, and now my plan was to pass them on to a friend working at the Washington bureau of the New York Times—in the hope that Bill and George might live on in my friend’s journalism, as I think they will.

Seldes said, although it sounds just like Bill: “There are less than a dozen independent newspapers in the whole country, and even that small number is dependent on advertisers and other things, and all these other things which revolve around money and profit make real independence impossible. No newspaper which is supporting one class of society is independent.”

Next up: Annapolis, Maryland, to the Cosmos Club, in Washington, D.C.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Railsand the forthcoming Appalachia Spring, about the coal counties of West Virginia and Kentucky. He lives in Switzerland.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.