Tumbling Downhill

Perhaps we’ll look back in a few years and see that three recent works published within a year of one another form a trilogy of non-fiction inquiries into the state of our nation and indirectly into the reasons for Donald Trump’s surprising triumph in 2016.

The “tumbling downhill” trio are memoirist J.D. Vance’s The Hillbilly Elegies (June 2016), sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (September 2016), and journalist Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story (April 2017). All of these works follow a pattern laid down by George Packer in The Unwinding (May 2013) and if you are looking for even earlier models to the work of John Dos Passos in his USA Trilogy and investigators like Oscar Lewis’s studies of Hispanic immigrant families in the late 70s and early 80s.

All of these works focus on representative citizens in whose individual lives are inscribed large American themes. In their individual lives are to be found the yearnings and aspirations, the fears and the phobias, the history of agency and helplessness typical of many Americans at this juncture in our nation’s history.

Packer casts a wider net, interviewing not only the displaced and disposed farmers and factory workers but also some of the movers and shakers who are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Washington lobbyists. The mosaics of the other writers are much smaller and arguably more interesting because of the focus on a common geographical location and regional cultures. Vance is the son of Appalachia whose grandparents moved from Jackson, Tennessee to Middletown, Ohio during the days of economic expansion, days when unskilled laborers were able to work at high paying jobs in the factories that dotted the Rust Belt. The outsourcing of jobs brought a myriad of problems to Vance and his parents. Raised by his salty grandparents because of the absence of his father and the addiction of his mother, Vance is able to resist the tribe’s downward spiral and get enrolled at Ohio State and eventually at Yale Law, but he never truly escapes the memories of poverty and dysfunction that marks his hillybilly culture.

Hochschild is a liberal professor at the University of California, Berkeley campus who ventures into the heart of red state America, rural Louisiana, in order to discover the truths behind the stereotypes of the Tea Party types who rail at the government despite receiving a disproportionate share of the governments largesse and who remain committed naturalists despite the disfigurement of their land by the extraction industries.

Goldstein’s territory is the city whose name gives the title to the book. Janesville is a typical Upper Midwest city of 64,000, the largest city (rival Beloit is second) and county seat of Rock County, about 2/3 of the way from Chicago to Madison, the state capitol. It’s also the home city of now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a son of the town’s “Irish mafia” that made money in the construction trades, who was first elected to the 1st District post in 1998.

Janesville was home to The Parker Pen Company, founded in 1888 and operated in Janesville through 2009. Another industry, employing far more people than Parker ever did and far more synonymous with the American identity, folded about the same time. Having operated in Janesville since 1919, General Motors announced in 2008 that it would close the plant in stages over the next three years. While GM designated its vacant plant a “stand-by site,” in 2015 it made the decision to permanently bring to an end the relationship between the corporation and the town. The thin hope for the town’s revival was dashed.

Goldstein’s book is an account of the impact of the decision on the lives of selective townspeople over five years from 2009 to 2014. For instance, we meet twin girls, Kayzia and Alyssa Whiteaker, when they are smart, bubbly middle-schoolers with talents in acting and public speaking. At the end of the work, these daughters of a father who worked at a GM plant for 13 years making $28 an hour prior to the layoff, are working two and three part time jobs, taking on-line high school classes because it affords them flexibility, and are trying to figure out how they will pay for the tuition at University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Their parent’s income, Jerad as a fork-lift driver at a Madison warehouse and Tammy as a secretary at an auto dealership, comes nowhere close to what the couple previously made. The girls learned how to overcome their shame as they went to the Parker Closet, the food pantry at Parker High set up by a conscientious social science teacher. At least they have a permanent roof over their head, unlike the many homeless kids who are imperfectly served by a program called Sixteen-Forty-Nine, so named for the time spend outside the school day.

While Jerad suffers the up and down employment consequences of choosing to remain in stagnant Janesville, other co-workers accept GM’s offer of employment in other Midwest cities where GM is still producing cars and trucks. They become GM gypsies, commuting the 270 miles from Fort Wayne at the end of the Friday shift and then returning as second shifters on Monday morning. Making $30 an hour as a shift leader, Matt Wopat, shares an apartment with a co-worker, drives a beater on the brink of extinction, and counts the days in the ten years he has to retirement. He will never enjoy the lifestyle and benefits of his father who had an important job as a human resources advisor to his union brethren in the plant and who was a driving force behind the three-day Labor Day Fest, a civic ritual that limps along in 2014. Yet he and his wife, a Hallmark card shelf stocker, labor valiantly to support their three daughters.

Goldstein’s book also presents us with portraits of those who try to cushion the fall: The community college administrator who ramps up courses for the retraining of unemployed workers, some of whom know little or nothing about computers after careers as car trim installers, auto-body painters, and car seat upholsterers.  The Job Center administrator who cajoles businesses to help retool then employ the unemployed. The aforementioned high school teachers who daily deal with the collateral damage of suddenly unemployed and frequently depressed parents. Sometimes the cushion doesn’t work. One of Goldstein’s subjects enthusiastically pursues a community college associate’s degree that prepares her for a job in law enforcement, a job that she quickly comes to hate. Estrangement from her husband and the aimlessness of her son lead her to take her own life, one of many suicides among the working class in the wake of the New Depression.

Goldstein is especially observant in writing about the two Janesvilles – the divisions between the deeply affected and the relatively unaffected citizens of Rock County. It’s an explanation for the persistence of dissatisfaction amidst the recovery, a recovery if not robust, at least one that has produced low unemployment rates in the county and the promise that the city can rebrand itself as a high-tech city on the I-94 corridor. Among those doing well are a few folks who make efforts to steer Janesville and the county through hard times. Two women spearhead the Economic Development Committee, laying out a five year plan for recovery and ending the sometime bitter rivalry between Janesville and Beloit, now co-partners in Rock County rejuvenation.  Mary Willmer is the community president of M&I bank which in 2011 merged with BHO-Harris quite to the financial advantage of Ms. Willmer. She collaborates with Diane Hendriks, chairman of Beloit-based ABC Supply (a manufacturer of roofing products) and a millionaire who gave $1.9 million to support Trump’s candidacy and another $8 million to a PAC whose mission was to discredit Hillary Clinton through negative advertising. For such generosity Hendriks earned a spot on the Trump Inauguration Committee. Juxtaposed to the suffering unemployed, these boosters, projecting optimism about the county’s future, seem out-of-touch.

As does Janesville’s Golden Boy Paul Ryan, the serious policy wonk who in 2012, four years after the announced plant closing, is selected by Mitt Romney as his VP, in large part because of his plan to put America back to work. Perhaps it’s a sign of the endurance of Janesville’s union-labor history that Ryan can’t even carry his own birthplace or even his own precinct. Tellingly, the pre-convention rally for the newly announced VP was not held in Janesville but in Wauwatosa. Nevertheless, he returned to the House for his eighth term after the defeat of the Republican national ticket.

Another politician whose story is women into the fabric of the work is that of Scott Walker, the divisive governor who survived a recall vote in 2012, a referendum brought on in large part because of his efforts to weaken the power of the state employees unions. Goldstein speculates that the existence of reasonably well-paid, unionized, and pension-bound government workers rankled the recently unemployed workers at factories like GM. These disillusioned workers jettisoned their Democratic Party past as a nihilistic protest, a cry against the unfairness of life.

While Goldstein’s work ends in 2014, about the time that the 2016 presidential race was taking off, it’s inviting to wonder if the workers that Goldstein profiled voted for Trump, a candidate who promised to Make America Great Again, presumably like the 1960s heyday of GM Janesville when the plant employed 4,300. Much has been made of Hillary Clinton’s strategic error in not visiting the Rust Belt states; Trump’s margin of victory was 27,000 votes in Wisconsin. Clinton carried Rock County by 8,000 votes (52% of the total). But then Obama beat Romney in Rock County by 49,000 votes (61% of the total). If Clinton had done as well as Obama, Wisconsin would have been put in the Democrat’s column. And so too might have Michigan and Ohio where Trump’s victory margin was also small.

Would Clinton, had she won, be better able to address the problems of the dispirited Jared Whiteaker and Matt Wopat and the millions of others that are tumbling downhill?


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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