If you’re one of those sophisticated urbanites who still believe Donald Trump was elected to the US presidency by sheeplike flocks of Red State “deplorables” brainwashed by an army of Russian trolls spreading lies on social media and hacking Saint Hillary’s email, you’d better take a peak through the pages of Charlie LeDuff’s new book, Sh*tshow!: The Country’s Collapsing … and the Ratings Are Great.
LeDuff spent three years travelling the US with a two-man film crew, chronicling the desperation of workers, frustrated by the insincerities of sharp-suited, slack-mouthed career politicians, who were too occupied with nosing their way through the troughs of corporate America to offer hope to their weary constituents.
Is it any wonder, then, that anyone – even a tie-flapping Orange Oaf – who entered the political area spraying words of support to the workers who were shafted by corporate America, would gain their support. That simple phrase Make America Great Again has a remarkable resonance to a family struggling to make ends meet on half the income it enjoyed 10 years ago.
Taking up the cudgels on behalf of those who suffered under globalisation and, particularly, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), LeDuff recalls then-US President Bill Clinton declaring that it “… means jobs. American jobs. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t support this agreement,” when he introduced NAFTA in 1994.
Fine words, but what followed?
Workers in the US heartland found themselves waving goodbye to the well-paying unionised jobs that had lifted their families into middle-class comfort as their cynical employers upped sticks and joined the south-bound trek towards corporate nirvana. Yes, Mexican workers benefitted, sort of – the Yankee insurgents gave them jobs on barely-regulated assembly plants in maquiladoras close to the border, at hourly rates that would barely lift them out of their own poverty.
That corporate asset-stripping, writes LeDuff, is what led to the massive election upset of 1977 that saw the drowning of a complacent political status quo beneath a tsunami of Red State rage. And it was that pent-up anger – not slick-fingered Russian spies – that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency.
Sh*tshow! was conceived when LeDuff, a reporter at a Detroit local TV station, met Fox News boss Roger Ailes, at the company’s New York HQ to push for a national TV news segment called The Americans. He wanted to showcase ordinary people who were “trying to get by as the country and their way of life was disintegrating around them.”
Ailes agreed, but warned that, “he didn’t want stories that would cost him money or advertisers or instigate phone calls from the country club or The Boss [Rupert Murdoch]”.
“In the end”, writes LeDuff, “news isn’t really about keeping the public informed or holding the powerful to account. It’s about cash money. The First Amendment is a fine thing, but the Founding Fathers didn’t think to leave the media a revenue stream. That’s why the industry pushes as many stories as it does about doped-up starlets, foil-hat crackpots, and cats, so many cats. … Money made the 24-hour news cycle spin round. That’s what I’d learned in my years as a newspaperman.”
What follows in Sh*tshow! is a chronology of working class misery and disaster as LeDuff and his crew traversing a country that is “bankrupt and on high boil”, finding tales that show how globalisation has generated a deep distrust of a government that has abandoned and cheated its long-suffering citizens.
These travels take us from LeDuff’s hometown of Detroit, to Nevada, where he records the unwinding of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy’s doomed quest to wrest control of federal grazing land; to Southern “right-to-work” states, where foreign auto behemoths feast on cheap non-union labour; and to icy North Dakota, a magnet for unemployed men in search of black gold at squalid fracking sites, seeking “good-paying jobs where a man could pull down a hundred grand in a year”. Jobs that don’t exist . . .
Along the way, he calls into more blighted communities, including Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, where white cops took the lives of unarmed black youths, their ill-considered decisions leading to massive social unrest.
Detroit, the subject of LeDuff’s previous book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, is now undergoing a much-vaunted downtown renaissance after decades of corporate betrayal, political cronyism, and the worst urban destruction ever seen in modern-day US.
However, LeDuff takes a broad sweep of the city, taking in the still-forgotten suburbs, whose residents – mainly black – struggle in slums ignored by snake-oil selling urban developers and elected officials. Theirs is a blighted world of shattered homes, poor policing and lack of basic services: in one instance an area’s water has been shut off by local government, forcing residents to trek to an abandoned building where the authorities forgot to cut the supply.
Then, up river in Flint, LeDuff finds the decaying birthplace of General Motors, an industrial carcass that was left to rot by the motor industry and its suppliers as they fled to Mexico.
LeDuff surmises that there must have been a run on Kool-Aid in the city, “because everyone residing at the Kirkwood mobile home park [is} wearing teeth stained red.” When he asks, “What’s with the Kool-Aid”? he’s told the tap water looks and tastes like crap, since the city switched from its Detroit source and started to take drinking water from the toxic Flint River.
Officials assured the people it was okay, but you still couldn’t drink the water without sugar in it. It made you gag.”
It turned out that not only did the water taste like crap, it was also poisoning the residents, lead leeching from the old pipes.
Behind the trailer park was “one square mile of post-industrial nothingness”, the former site of Delphi, the largest auto-parts manufacturer in the world, before it hightailed it to Mexico, leaving 50,000 workers in the lurch. That same company now employs more than 50,000 Mexican workers, “in hellholes like Reynosa”.
Throughout his journey, LeDuff finds a disenfranchised and disillusioned workforce, its anger stoked by technological change, globalisation and plain, old fashioned corporate greed.
The wanton destruction of the auto industry in Detroit and Michigan and the offshoring of jobs still rankle, but the task of the remaining union officials is overwhelming, LeDuff finds, as he travels to the cynically named “right-to-work” states of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Mississippi.
There, autoworkers at shining new plants are not required to join the union or contribute to their funds in order to take advantage of union-negotiated benefits, thereby depriving the organisations of the bulk of their funding.
“This region – the Sun Belt, they called it – was considered the new Detroit for foreign automakers”, he writes, explaining why the Union of Auto Workers (UAW) found it hard to organise and try to restore the income of underpaid workers.
Despite the UAW spending $5-million on a campaign to organise workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant, the rank and file voted to reject the union, sending the carpetbaggers back to north. It was a huge defeat. Chattanooga was supposed to be the first domino. Then Mercedes, the crown jewel, would fall. It was supposed to be easy.… And still the union lost, leaving Tennessee only one of four non-union VW plants in the world, the others being in Russia and China.”
Union bosses, he adds, blamed their organising defeat on outside agitators bankrolled by the billionaire Koch brothers,
…whose billboards had propped up showing a decimated Packard automobile factory wit the caption, ‘Detroit. Brought to you by the UAW’.”
But that’s not all they faced:
The Chamber of Commerce, US senators, and even Tennessee’s governor fought tooth and nail to keep the UAW out, threatening to pull the company’s tax subsidies, spreading rumours around town that any future work … would go to Mexico.”
Against those odds, it’s easy to understand why job-scared workers decided not to join the union – a job in the hand is better than one that might soon fly away to Mexico.
Welcome to Globalistan, USA.
In the summer of 2014, LeDuff travelled to Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year-old Michael Brown, a black man, had been shot by a white policeman. There, he found a nation at war with itself – black against white, all against the government, and all against the media.
Except, that is, for the guys who saved the lives of LeDuff and his camera-wielding colleague Matt when they were attacked while filming a night-time mob looting and burning stores on Ferguson’s West Florrisant Avenue, “a mayhem of Molotov cocktails and masked marauders swiping meat and hair extensions, liquor and premium-brand cigarettes”.
Undeterred, the crew returned to Ferguson later in the year to hear the grand jury decision not to charge the cop who’d killed Michael Brown.
The shit, as expected, hit the fan again. Once more, LeDuff and his two-man crew were in the midst of the action, while the network media stars had long gone, their carefully-prepared temporary sets having been trampled and torn and torched.
Later, returning to his hotel, LeDuff turned on the TV and listened to the platitudes tumbling from the co-presenters’ lips:
Their set was blue. Their makeup thick. Their clothing immaculate. There was no telling where in the world they were broadcasting from, but it surely wasn’t Ferguson. Still, that did not prevent them from commenting on the evening’s mayhem as if they had been here … What the world heard from them was that this was simply another case of a white cop killing a young, unarmed black man and the looters and arsonists were simply voicing their historical discontentment and here was another case of the abject failure of the American experience.
I watched them and wept.
In the midst of this chaos and confusion came the presidential election campaign, where a bizarre procession of slick candidates, whose sole skill seemed be spewing bullshit from all orifices simultaneously without soiling their $1,000 suits, mingled with the freshly-coiffed “stars” of the network media to decide which of the Republican candidates would lose the race against the soon-to-be-anointed first lady president, Hillary C.
Not for a moment did the pundits or the election fixers think the rank outsider – an orange-haired hotel-mogul-cum-minor-TV-star – would capture the hearts and votes of that long-ignored Red State mass of voters, who sat eyes glued to Fox News, quaffing Bud Lites, praying for a saviour.
“Watching the unspooling of America from the street corners and the corner bars, listening to the people’s desire for something new, I was not surprised by the rise of President Donald Trump”, writes LeDuff. “He and the travelling circus seals of media dovetailed spectacularly into our shitshow and we used them as side props for all they were worth.”
He gleefully recounts the Republican Convention in Cleveland in July 2016, where he mingled with 15,000 media, who seemed:
…blissfully unaware of the depths of the discord in American life bubbling outside the protective envelope. Inside the perimeter, they wandered aimlessly in their expensive suits. Brown shoes seem to be the style of the moment for the male political media.
A couple of agents from the Secret Service and I stood at the bottom of the escalator of the media centre, admiring the footwear. The colours ranged from saddle tan to walnut, khaki, camel, cappuccino, cognac, caramel, burnished brown, dark burgundy brown, tobacco, tan, cafe, and beach sand…
“I guess they must get paid pretty well in TV,” one agent surmised.
“They’re not getting paid for originality,” said the other.
Then, in another telling vignette, LeDuff recalls Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s words on a radio talk show after the Baltimore riots over the death of Freddie Gray in the back of a police paddy wagon.
Our fainthearted senator confessed: ‘I came through Baltimore on the train last night. I’m glad the train didn’t stop’. … Not only did Paul not get off the train, but he apparently didn’t even look out the window long enough to realise the train had pulled into Baltimore Penn Station. And somewhere in that lay the problem.
The train that the clueless senator rode makes its regular run between the twin towers of power: Wall Street and Washington. On the way, it logs short stops in crumbling cities of the Ghetto Belt – Newark, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Wilmington; Delaware. And, yes, Baltimore. But nobody with power ever seems to visit these places.”
There you have it. Clueless senators. Clueless media. Shattered communities. Fearful voters. All the ingredients for an electoral Revolution of the Red States. Who needs Russian meddling to sway the result?
Shitshow! by Charlie LeDuff was published by PenguinRandomHouse and is available through Amazon. It was previously reviewed for OffGuardian by James McEnteer, you can read his thoughts on it here.
This review originally appeared in Issue 166 of the free online magazine ColdType , of which Tony Sutton is editor and publisher. Contact him via e-mail or visit their website.
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