By the end of the town hall Bernie Sanders held with Chris Hayes of MSNBC this week in West Virginia, so many of the savagely depressed citizens of that coal-bearing state started to come around to the idea that maybe not much was going to change. The 2016 campaign was over, but the dawn of 2017 has been polemics, chaos, lies.
Meanwhile, the misery in West Virginia is being acknowledged as a shared plight among all of us Americans. Despite red-state voters being sold a load of red-dog slag that all the elites and liberals didn't give a crap about them -- their joblessness, their opioid epidemic -- it seems much more likely that we are all in this together, despite different geography, culture and stations in life.
While it's equal-opportunity bad throughout much of working-class and middle-class America. it's impossible to deny that West Virginia serves as a stark, strip-mined and diseased Ground Zero for America's despair. The boom & bust economics of coal, let alone the politics of coal, are hardly a new deal. The author of one of the best books on the state, John Alexander Williams, startlingly describes this "addicted" state so hauntingly:
"Persons who have studied the impact of coal mining on different societies from Silesia to northern Japan have usually concluded that coal has been a curse upon the land that yielded it. West Virginia is no exception. In its repetitive cycle of boom and bust, its savage exploitation of men and nature, in its seemingly endless series of disasters, the coal industry has brought grief and hardship to all but a small proportion of the people it has touched.
"There has been, of course, a tiny elite of smaller producers and middlemen who grew rich from coal exploitation although not so rich as the nonresident owners in whose shadow the local elite worked. For those West Virginians who lived at a remove from the industry, its impact has been more ambiguous. Certainly coal created opportunities that were not there in the agricultural era, but it also created new problems, especially as the owners of the industry have always tried and have usually succeeded in passing off the external or social costs of coal production to the public at large.
"Moreover, the industry called into being a larger population than West Virginia’s other economic resources can support so that, even after the great migration of the postwar years, the position of the state is like that of an addict. West Virginia is ‘hooked’ on coal, for better or for worse. In the past, it has generally been for the worst.''
This week, as the Trump presidency founders amidst the cruelty and chaos of its agenda, Sen. Sanders sat next to West Virginians to try and steer a conversation back to collective solutions.
One miner sitting on the stage next to Sen. Sanders said he voted for Trump because Trump promised coal jobs. Now this miner was loathe to find out that Obamacare was going to be taken away in the name of freedom and making America great again. Even this man came around to agreeing that universal health care is probably the only real way to end this ridiculous, nihilistic fight over keeping Americans from further sinking their mortality rates. We aren't No. 1 when it comes to suicide, infant mortality, life expectancy.
This town hall was close to heartbreaking. No, it was heartbreaking. A young woman in her 20s offered up one of the most sanguine summaries of West Virginians' state of affairs: Jobs have been so long gone from the Mountaineer State that she's living in a generation where jobs aren't even part of the collective memory.
"I never saw the jobs. I never saw what could be. I still don't know what all is out there. I'm still trying to figure it out. You're born into generational poverty,'' said Sabrina Shrader. "For all the coal that has came out of our mountains. The whole country and whole world got electricity ... we really got breadcrumbs.''
More hauntingly, she understood exactly where the coal industry had left them: Holding an empty bag after the fat cats ran off with all the bituminous gold and all the profit. She didn't even owe her soul to the company store. The company store was long shuttered. And worse, in a state where 250,000 men once worked in as miners, 110,000 of those jobs were lost to machines brought in by mining companies for greater efficiency. Automation is not as easy to vilify as Obama, however.
Trump is not to blame for America's misery, but he is to blame for the rollicking load of bull crap he promised at the rallies he used to satisfy his ego at the expense of America's legion of the lost. He had his finger on the pulse, all right. People are so angry that they surfed a dangerous wave of nationalism and false promises, only to arrive now at this fractured abyss called reality.
Ain't no quick fixes on the horizon. Worse, the chaos of this presidency wastes precious time for a rebuilding project that in places like McDowell County, W.V. there is no more time to waste.
In Nashville, Trump held himself a campaign rally on Wednesday night. Presidents are allowed to go meet with their people, connect, get some energy outside the Beltway. But when crowd enthusiasm comes mostly from "Lock Her Up!" chants, it's hard to ignore the appearance that grudges and anger are all that this campaign was about.
The neo-Nazi haircut boys in the lily-white crowd directly behind Trump bathed the night in Brown Shirt-style "chic." The normalization of bullying, bragging, put-downs and fear-mongering were the hallmarks of this night as Trump huffed and puffed in all the ways that demonstrate he has not one clue, or care, that the Constitution still underscores the principles and actions of this country.
But that is the point of Trump. It isn't about what he is going to build between Americans, it's about walls and dividing people. The Nashville crowd loves the idea of the wall, but down in Texas, you wonder how landowners feel now as the government posts condemnation warnings in advance of taking their acreage for Trump's wall.
While Trump goes out and blows 4th-grade taunts and slogans at his followers, Steve Bannon remains in the White House: The president-not-elected on a collision course between Christianity and Islam, Bannon is bent on tearing it all down, burning it all down, taking it all away. That includes Meals-On-Wheels and Elmo.
In the middle of Trump's Nashville rally, someone on the Twitter machine tweeted that it was Bannon who sent Trump out to the arena for some Roman Empire theatrics, when really all Trump wanted to do was stay in and watch more Fox News. But Trump can't resist the applause, and the sweet strains of the campaign chorus: "Lock Her Up!"
The new president 's big talk about quick fixes continues. It's all going to be great! And the media is still dishonest and the worst bunch of humans. He did not talk about microwave ovens that spy on people, or his false wiretapping allegations against his predecessor, or about the resignation of a National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, who could be a compromised Russian asset.
His top priorities included a travel ban on Muslims that has now been twice rejected by the courts, and a health care teardown that has no chance of passing the House, let alone the Senate. But at least now, with the charade of an agenda in free fall, Trump can't wait to get to tax cuts for the rich, most of whom reside in Trump's billionaire boys club Cabinet. He would have started there, he bellowed, underscoring the joke of the GOP repeal and replace Obamacare scam.
How much longer can this go on? Sanders, in West Virginia, took the time to listen and, unlike Hillary Clinton who coldly stated the fact that coal jobs won't be coming back, Sanders validated the experience of these Americans. In the absence of jobs and hope, anger only goes so far.
I have been reading a good book that outlines how a country that was once the most adventurous and entrepreneurial in the world fell into great malaise and enduring stagnation. It's a country whose immense ship-building skills gave its sailors tremendous advantage over the seas. The drive and ambition of its people to explore the world was fueled by clergy who wanted to convert savages; nobles and merchants who wanted to increase their wealth, and kings who wanted to increase power.
"Portugal, once an envied world power and, in the sixteenth century arguably the world's wealthiest nation, has become an unheralded land,'' write Barry Hatton in The Portuguese: A Modern History.
Much figured into Portugal's demise as a world power. "With the arrival of the Inquisition, established in Lisbon in 1536, the Church of Portugal, which had hitherto shown tolerance to the Muslims and Jews, hardened into a dogmatic and unyielding institution,'' Hatton writes.
The Dutch set their sights on Portugal's overseas assets as Portugal fell victim to power games between the Dutch, France and England. In 1755, the largest earthquake to ever hit Europe all but leveled Lisbon and all the rest of history conspired to leave Portugal in history's wake. Illiteracy, the lack of a strong middle class, little raw materials and especially coal: The Industrial Revolution did not take place in Portugal. In the 20th Century and now, even the poorest parts of Spain were still better off than Lisbon.
I'm not a student of European history, nor am I an avid world traveler, but Portugal is such a strikingly different kind of country that it begged me to try and square up the story behind what I saw and felt while I was there. Portugal's back story is one of heartbreak and failure, but the result is a place where the pace is accidentally human.
Portugal Is Personal
The wonder of life is that you can never exactly anticipate what event or experience will make you see yourself or the world in a new light, or anticipate how a person or place will forever alter the movie that plays in your mind.
Exactly two years ago I went to Portugal. It was my first visit to the country and it was a stroke of luck -- a gift within an already much-appreciated and cool work assignment.
I had been asked to cover the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team in advance of the 2015 Women's World Cup. Pretty great already, given the domestic travel I'd be taking for matches and then the eventual month-long trip to Canada. But in the middle of all that hum of work and travel and excitement, the U.S. team traveled to the Algarve coast in southern Portugal to play in a pretty good international tournament. I got to go, too.
From the moment I stepped off my easy, non-stop flight from Newark to Lisbon and started walking the narrow, dark, hilly, winding and stone tile-clad streets, I knew I was experiencing a city and country unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was magical not because it was fancy or "European" or foreign in some mysterious way, but because Lisbon is colorful but worn, enduring but not quite persistent, slow with a lazy sense of resignation.
It wasn't timeless like Paris or London, but fixed in the past -- decades behind countries like Spain or Italy or France. And the distinct impression is that Portugal is not lagging behind and is on course to catch up to the hectic, glitzy modernity that has draped so many cities and countries around the world. It will remain embedded in its own pocket of space, untied to the usual arc of history. It's a reality strikes you fast, and deep, and does so in the way the bright-colored tiles and paint are smudged with grime and dark edges of decay.
Portugal was suffering, perhaps, but resigned to its station. The language sounded more Bulgarian than romance, which relieved me of any notion of trying to decipher anything anyone was saying. The people in the markets, metro trains and squares were lively if not exactly jovial or extroverted. They didn't seem to notice me, but I didn't feel ignored or invisible. I found myself noticing how much the young people held hands and seemed uncomplicated and not neurotic, as if they had been reared outside the frenetic atmosphere of American and other strains of insidious pop culture.
Portugal was, simply, fascinatingly foreign while also not terribly intimidating. And I found myself hooked by Lisbon and the Algarve, where I explored old cities in Albufeira and Loule, where every tomato salad and dish of piri piri chicken induced another self-satisfied wave of emotion. Portugal was a place you could simply just BE.
Portugal As Internalized Motion Picture
It's been a vast, tumultuous, strange and loopy months here in America since that three-week trip I took to Portugal in March 2015. I suppose that maybe part of the reason Portugal has become an enduring star in the movie I play in my brain is because what I saw was like nothing I had quite seen before.
When I get sick and tired or downright alarmed by what has happened in the U.S. since that visit, I find myself turning to Portugal, extolling its magic and allure to friends and family, vowing to go back as soon as I can, contemplating retirement there or large chunks of time in the Algarve to wander the beaches and old cities and market places.
Lisbon's streets are serviced by trolleys you can pay one fare and ride all day. The art museums and culture are to linger over. The Algarve is a universe that the Swedes and Spanish and Germans and Brits have long made their warm-weather outpost. I met a gaggle of Canadian retirees who crowed about how good they had it for 3 months of the year, eating fresh foods for next to nothing under the Algarve sun.
Olives, fresh fish, cured meats, cheeses, fava beans and wine that costs four Euros for a delicious, deep red -- Portugal may have long fallen from economic grace, but the aftermath is antidote for me. It is a country now fixed in my mind's eye, sunlit, a slow-turning and hard-baked little planet that pulls me back.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.