Sometimes you have to go a long, long way to discover truths that are distinctly close to home. Over the last five years, I’ve done just that—left my home in iconically liberal Berkeley, California, and traveled to the bayous of Tea Party Louisiana to find another America that, as Donald Trump’s presidential bid has made all too clear, couldn’t be closer to home for us all. From those travels, let me offer a kind of real-life parable about a man I came to admire who sums up many of the contradictions of our distinctly Trumpian world.
So come along with me now, as I turn right on Gumbo Street, left on Jambalaya, pass Sauce Piquant Lane, and scattering a cluster of feral cats, park on Crawfish Street, opposite a yellow wooden home by the edge of waters issuing into Bayou Corne, Louisiana. The street is deserted, lawns are high, and branches of Satsuma and grapefruit trees hang low with unpicked fruit. Walking toward me along his driveway is Mike Schaff, a tall, powerfully built, balding man in an orange-and-red striped T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He’s wearing tan-rimmed glasses and giving a friendly wave.
“Sorry about the grass,” he says as we head inside. “I haven’t kept things up.” On the dining room table, he has set out coffee, cream, sugar, and a jar of homegrown peaches for me to take when I leave. Around the edges of the living and dining rooms are half-filled cardboard packing boxes. The living room carpet is rolled into a corner, revealing a thin, jagged crack across the floor. Mike opens the door of the kitchen to go into his garage. “My gas monitor is here,” he explains. “The company drilled a hole in my garage to see if I had gas under it, and I do; 20 percent higher than normal. I get up nights to check it.” As we sit down to coffee at the small dining room table, Mike says, “It’ll be seven months this Monday and the last five have been the longest in my life.”
After the disaster struck in August 2012, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued an emergency evacuation order to all 350 residents of Bayou Corne—a community of homes facing a canal that flows into an exquisite bayou (a river through wetlands) with white egrets, ibis, and spoonbills soaring across the water. When I visited in March 2013, Mike was still living in his ruined home.
“I was just starting life with my new wife, but with the methane gas emissions all around us now, it’s not safe. So my wife has moved back to Alexandria, 118 miles north, and commutes to her job from there. I see her on weekends. The grandkids don’t come either, because what if someone lit a match? The house could blow up. I’m still here to guard the place against a break-in and to keep the other stayers company,” he says, adding after a long pause, “Actually, I don’t want to leave.”
I had come to visit Mike Schaff because he seemed to embody an increasingly visible paradox that had brought me to this heartland of the American right. What would happen, I wondered, if a man who saw “big government” as the main enemy of local community, who felt a visceral dislike of government regulations and celebrated the free market, was suddenly faced with the ruin of his community at the hands of a private company? What if, beyond any doubt, that loss could have been prevented by government regulation?