Rust & Rage in the Heartland

Rust & Rage in the Heartland

Three years after 9/11.


Working meant sparks and steel dust when I was a child. My father labored by day in a factory sharpening the milling tools that cut and form metal; after dinner he descended into our basement and a battery of machines, doing the same work as a side business. At age 12 I began grinding steel. I was on track to make this my living. Then I began writing and left blue-collar life. But I couldn’t really leave it behind.

I was there for the steel-mill shutdowns in the late 1970s and later collaborated on Journey to Nowhere, about ruined steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, and the new homeless who were the victims of deindustrialization. One character in the book was Joe Marshall Sr., who had come back from the D-Day Normandy invasion to his job at US Steel’s Ohio Works. A decade after his son was hired on, the company closed the mill and then dynamited it. Joe took us to the mile-long ruins in 1983. As he surveyed the rubble he said, “What Hitler couldn’t do, they did it for him.”

Joe spoke to the wind, not in response to any question of mine. It was a comment not of rage but of defeat, a sentiment we found among many others we documented. Despair was the norm.

A dozen years later, my collaborator, photographer Michael Williamson, and I returned to Youngstown, and traveled again across America. What was different, and startling, was the level of anger that we discovered. Defeat had morphed into wrath. In Warren, Ohio, there had just been a strike at a steel mill over a plan to sell it, which would have incurred debt and might have led to its shutdown. Homemade bombs were thrown and windows smashed in a fury. Some workers said they would have dynamited the blast furnace had they lost, effectively killing the mill. “Blowing it up would be better than going through that again,” a worker said as someone gave me one of their bombs from the successful fifty-four-day strike, referring to the other shutdowns they had endured in nearby Youngstown.

Everywhere, we listened to people equally as bitter as the men of Warren–people who worked in textiles or the service economy. But what did the anger mean? It just seemed to be flailing, unfocused, drifting like the smoke from the bomb in the desert wind after we detonated it in the Mojave near old US Route 66. Even the full-band version of the song “Youngstown”–which Bruce Springsteen credits with having been inspired by our book–ends not with the steelman rising politically but simply eschewing heaven for the “fiery furnaces of hell.”

Then came the morning that I watched the second tower go down from my Manhattan rooftop. I looked to the west beyond the New Jersey Palisades. I thought of the anger in the middle of the country. Beginning on Christmas Eve, I spent the next two and a half years largely in the nation’s center. I drove thousands of miles and talked with hundreds of people. I went specifically to the places and people and events ignored by the national press.

What I found was that anger had now combined with fear, and together they had become a dangerous brew. Fear alone, of another terror attack, is a strong force in American politics. But fear connected with anger is an especially volatile combination. The 9/11 attacks were not solely the genesis but an amplifier of pre-existing tensions–rooted in the radically transformed American economy, from a manufacturing dynamo to that of millions of jobs of the Wal-Mart variety. One cannot displace millions of workers from high-paying jobs to low ones without a sociopolitical cost. It’s a fundamental reality that was ignored during the rise of the so-called new economy.

Prick the anger whose surface may be pro-Iraq war and anti-Arab, dismissive of Abu Ghraib, and one hears of ruined 401(k)s, poor or no healthcare, lost work. There are 1 million fewer jobs today than when George Bush took office, and the loss of higher-paid manufacturing jobs has been stunning.

Where this mood will lead is unclear, but it cannot be overlooked by anyone concerned about the future of the United States.

On the first anniversary of 9/11 I went to a mosque in Chicago and found a smaller repeat of what had happened for three nights after the attacks, when thousands of whites had rallied near this building in the suburb of Bridgeview. This time, vehicles sprouting giant US flags raced down Harlem Avenue. There were horns and peeling rubber. Two bare-chested men had flags painted neck-to-navel on their bodies. Hundreds of flag-waving white people roared in unison, “USA! USA!”

Out of the cacophony Nancy and her son Jim stood out. They clutched American flags and sputtered indignantly when the cops ordered them home. I later trudged through the snow to their front door, hoping to peel back the curtain on their anger.

Nancy, 56, was reserved while her son, 35, talked harshly about Muslims. This went on for an hour, and then the conversation took a turn away from race and religion. Nancy spoke for the first time. From both now poured a deeper animosity. Her knee is blown out, and the HMO to which she belongs through her job selling window coverings for J.C. Penney had been refusing an implant. Nancy pulled back her top and showed a pain patch on her shoulder. She was battling to get the operation.

Jim excused himself. He returned with a shopping bag stuffed with papers. It dropped with a loud thud on the kitchen table. “These are my bills. Two hundred of them. Ten thousand dollars, one of them. Fifteen thousand, another,” Jim said of some $200,000 in medical bills that followed two heart attacks.

Jim had no health insurance. He remains alive by dint of a sympathetic doctor who secretly slips him the $96 biweekly regimen of medicine.

Nancy had long ago made a foray into the stock market, losing $10,000. Then she watched the market going up at the end of the 1990s and decided to plunge back in. “My neighbor said buy this one stock. He bought it for $4. I bought it for $72, just before 9/11.” She laughed a sick laugh. “Now it’s worth $4.”

Nancy and Jim were typical of those who marched at the mosque–every person I interviewed was unemployed, underemployed, hurting economically in some way. This group of Americans, who number in the millions, harbors deep-seated anger over corporate shenanigans, their lack of healthcare and good jobs, yet in interview after interview I found they are often the most fervent in their support of George W. Bush and his tough rhetoric.

Why? One answer is that Republicans have used “social issues” such as school busing, Willie Horton and gay marriage to speak to these Americans; they mine the anger in the code-language way they have been doing since Goldwater ran for President in 1964, deflecting attention from the true cause of their problems. And the Democrats have been timid, or unable to form a message to break through to them. Another is what happens in any wartime period, including World Wars I and II and the Vietnam era. Any time the nation is at war, there is a tendency toward nationalism.

But what I found after September 11 was different, and more complex. I kept thinking of what I had been told by John Russo, a labor studies professor at Youngstown State University, at the time of the 1996 steelworkers’ strike in Ohio. Russo worried about the workers’ growing wrath–he was seeing it mature into xenophobia and right-wing radicalism. “It’s not unlike the anger in prewar Germany and prewar Italy,” Russo said. And, he added, it was akin to the United States in the Great Depression. “In the 1930s, America could have gone in either direction.”

I didn’t wholly buy into Russo’s argument. Yes, there was anger. Ohio, in the heart of the crippled Rust Belt, had the most white nationalist groups of any state in the Midwest–seventy-three–according to the Center for New Community in Chicago. Yet the anger didn’t seem to be building into a political force or real threat. As I drew deeper into my research, however, I began to see some historical parallels. In 1920s Weimar Germany, people carted bushel baskets of money to buy a loaf of bread; the mark was valued at 4 billion to one US dollar at one point. Bank accounts became worthless, and with economic deprivation came growing anger. What did the government do? Instead of raising taxes on the rich, who could pay, it lowered them. The terrible conditions were actually good for the industrialists and landlords. They wanted the mark to tumble, because they were able to erase debts by paying them off with worthless marks. For a brief time late in the decade, things improved, but after 1929, working-class anger erupted.

In America, too, there were stresses in the 1930s. Father Charles Coughlin’s radio hate ministry mid-decade had 10 million listeners. In hindsight it appears there could have been no historical outcome other than the election of Franklin Roosevelt. But what if there had been no FDR? Walter Lippmann wrote that the nation would have “followed almost any leader anywhere he chose to go.” A cynical leader could have exploited fear, a course taken by so many other inferior leaders in times of chaos. Three years into Roosevelt’s term Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist takeover of the United States. The novel became a historical footnote only because Roosevelt was able to pull enough of the right margin back to the center, or, as he often said, “slightly left of center.”

On the eve of a presidential election seventy-two years after Roosevelt vs. Hoover, Americans are not rioting over food, and homeless veterans are not marching on Washington. But there are different ways for anger to erupt. An undercurrent has been building for three decades. Talk-radio is but one example of how the anger has grown. In 1980 there were about seventy-five stations in the nation that were all talk. There weren’t that many conservative hosts. Now there are 1,300 all-talk stations, and conservatives rule. It’s no coincidence that their popularity rose concurrent with the decline of the manufacturing economy, as anger deepened in American society. These shows were not a cause but a free-market response.

How bad is it? During the 2000 election we went to Texas and Tennessee to find some of the 11.6 million impoverished children–77 percent had at least one working parent, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Because their wages were Dickensian, many had to beg for charity food. During what was alleged the most booming economy in history, America’s Second Harvest (the nationwide network of food banks) gave away 1 billion pounds of food in 2000, more than double the amount in 1990. Yet it wasn’t enough–many food banks ran empty. The despair we saw in the homes of working Americans that election year was equal to that we saw among the homeless in the early 1980s. In many houses I peered into refrigerators and saw them empty. Never underestimate the anger of a parent who puts her child to bed hungry.

Many of the angry people I interviewed after 9/11, those who tune in faithfully to Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly, know their highly paid jobs are forever gone or threatened. Their mood, I imagine, is like those on the right during the 1930s who felt the economy would never again be fixed; Limbaugh, O’Reilly and others are their Father Coughlins.

And it’s not just those on the bottom. A software engineer in Portland, Oregon, told me recently that some of his colleagues have turned hard right, are fearful for their jobs and are angry.

There are tens of millions of American workers living in a virtual depression, in a virtual Weimar. Their anger is real, as is their fear. Ignoring it is dangerous. The right has been addressing it in the form of appearing decisive with “preventive war,” or by cranking up the xenophobia. When many of them go into the voting booth they will punch the card or pull the lever for a candidate who appears strong.

But of course not all the support for Bush comes from this camp. It doesn’t have to be a majority of voters for this rage to have an impact. Given the closeness of the 2000 election and the continued volatility of a split body politic, tipping the scale just 1-2 percent will turn things. It’s all about margins. The hard-right third of the electorate will likely never change. They were there in 1932, and they are with us today. All that needs to happen for the nation to re-elect George Bush, or another right-wing President in the future, is for a fraction of voters to buy into leaders who exploit the anger and fear. There are plenty of malevolent voices to fill the space unclaimed by a unifying, constructive voice.

If there isn’t another terror attack, and the economy freezes in its current state of malaise for millions of Americans, we will likely muddle through without the anger taking a heavy toll. Like Sinclair Lewis’s book, fears of America heading toward the end stage of a Weimaresque journey will be relegated to the dustbin. If there is another terror attack, however, or any of myriad things happen that turn the economy deeply down, who knows?

The solution lies in doing something both parties have ignored in their free-trade euphoria: helping working-class Americans with jobs and healthcare. That will not erase the fear of another terror attack, but it will dissipate some of the anger resulting from economic hardship. It would tip the margin back to a saner political course.

The soul of America will be decided by a fraction of the middle, where a lot of the anger resides. And that will require leadership.

If John Kerry wins, the right margin will rage against him, as it did against Clinton before him, and against FDR in the 1930s. The anger found in America is not going to dissipate. It must be dealt with. And that will take leadership. Is John Kerry the leader? He’d better find his inner FDR–fast. If he does not, that leader needs to rapidly emerge.

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