Q&A: Peter Hessler on a foreign correspondent’s approach to Trump country

New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler. Photo by Darryl Kennedy.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Peter Hessler brought readers to the western Colorado city of Grand Junction for a piece that delves into the personalities of Trump supporters in a place that becomes a stand-in for rural America writ large.

At nearly 6,500 words, Hessler’s story, headlined “How Trump is transforming rural America,” doesn’t follow the typical track of a journalist trekking to Trump country to see whether supporters still support him, only to find— surprise!—they do. Such coverage has been satirized in The Washington Post and occupies meme territory on social media. Instead, Hessler zooms in on how Trump’s tone is being reflected in local behavior.

Much of the piece also focuses on the local newspaper, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, and how TrumpLife is buffeting its publisher and reporters. Hessler recounts how the paper’s publisher, Jay Seaton, once considered a libel lawsuit against a Trump-supporting state lawmaker who called The Sentinel “fake news.” He also tells of a Sentinel reporter named Erin McIntyre describing her reaction to a local Trump campaign rally on Facebook, which led to “attacks by Trump supporters” that were “so vicious that she feared for her safety.”

And there’s this:

During the election season, it’s common for some people to cancel their subscriptions, but last year the Sentinel lost more of them than usual. That’s one of the ironies of the age: the New York Times and the Washington Post, which Trump often attacks by name, have gained subscribers and public standing, while a small institution like the Sentinel has been damaged within its community.

Hessler was able to spend months on the story since he now lives in nearby Ridgeway, Colorado with his wife and daughters. He put in the time to get to know his subjects and followed up with those he’d met before the election. He spent days with Matt Patterson, a high school dropout who worked as a cruise ship entertainer before attending an East Coast Ivy League school and moving back to his hometown to organize for the president’s campaign. “I bust unions for Grover Norquist with a classics degree and as a former magician,” is a Trump-supporter quote for the ages. “Almost everybody I met in Grand Junction seemed more complex, more interesting, and more decent than the man who inspires them,” Hessler wrote.

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The piece, which spent days as the most-read item on the magazine’s website, also offers a tough look at Grand Junction, the largest city between Denver and Salt Lake City. Hessler portrays it as a place with potential, but one that is underperforming. He blisters through stats like how property taxes, which fund schools, are among the lowest in the state; “the average age of a school building is forty-four years”; and voters haven’t approved a sales tax hike since 1989. In an area with “1.15 deputies per thousand residents, in comparison with a state average of 2.28,” there’s a crime wave.

Also:

Like many parts of America that strongly supported Trump, Grand Junction is a rural place with problems that have traditionally been associated with urban areas. In the past three years, felony filings have increased by nearly sixty-five per cent, and there are more than twice as many open homicide cases as there were a decade ago. There’s an epidemic of drug addiction and also of suicide: residents of Mesa County kill themselves at a rate that’s nearly two and a half times that of the nation. Some of this is tied to economic problems, but there’s also an issue of perception. The decrease in gas drilling weighs heavily on the minds of locals, although few people seem to realize that the energy industry now represents less than three per cent of local employment. They’ve been slow to embrace other sectors, such as health care and education, which seem to have more potential for future growth.

Seaton, publisher of The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, says those words sting. He hopes the Hessler piece one day will be viewed as a “before” picture of a Grand Junction that changes for the better.

“I think that we’re poised for some really great things around here,” Seaton told me over the phone recently. “But like anyone in their personal life who has a problem, or a company that has a problem, or a community that has a problem, you have to identify the problem before you can make changes. And Hessler’s piece does a good job of identifying some problems around here.”

Since its publication in the July 24 edition, the story has generated two critical letters published in The New Yorker. In Grand Junction, a local professor penned a guest column in the Sentinel saying Hessler’s “expert analysis of Trump’s rural America” left a bleak impression, but promising life there isn’t hopeless.

Covering Trump supporters in Trump country is a story that’s hard to do well. I caught up with Hessler to talk about his approach. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for clarity.

 

How did you get on the Trump-in-rural-America story for The New Yorker anyway?

I’m not really a US political reporter. I’ve mostly been a foreign correspondent.

I was 11 years in China, most of that for The New Yorker, then I was five years in Egypt for The New Yorker, and I’ve been mostly working on my Egypt book. But because of the things that were going on, and because the magazine doesn’t have many people outside of the coasts, I agreed to do a little bit of stuff from this region. When I do projects, I try not to be too much in the mix. I’m not on Twitter or Facebook or things like that. I’ve always found it’s nice to just structure my own thing and try and figure it out without getting influenced too much by larger conversations.

 

You destroy your local paper and you don’t have anything that serves that role. You’re at the ground level there—and when you’re hurting your own institutions, there’s nothing that’s going to come in and help you.

 

How is that a benefit for a piece like this?

I think it’s beneficial to come to this sometimes as a foreign correspondent, almost because it’s better not to have too many assumptions and to be aware of just the fact that there may be some major differences from what you expect or from what you’re accustomed to or from your comfort zone.

I basically was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. I’m comfortable in the United States, but it’s never totally familiar to me at this point. There’s always a level of foreignness to it, which I like, and it’s a useful perspective. It is really useful to be based somewhere other than New York or DC or LA or San Francisco—just kind of the basic cities where people tend to be. You can make trips into the interior, but it’s never the same as living in a place. This kind of reporting is also informed by the people I know in Ridgeway and the interactions with other parents in my kids’ classes at the public school.

One thing that I noticed when I was working on this was that a lot of my liberal friends would say, “I can’t imagine how you talk with those people. How do you listen to this stuff, how do you spend time with them?” And to me that was pretty striking. I lived in China for 11 years and talked to all kinds of Chinese communist officials. I was in Egypt during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and spent a lot of time talking to the Muslim Brotherhood guys. So I’m used to talking to people whose views are not necessarily the same as my own. It doesn’t jar me. I don’t find it weird or bothersome.

Sometimes we do have a problem with this in the media, because there is a general political climate among journalists. It is generally a left-leaning profession and you have to find a way to disengage a bit [from] that and to be open to taking other views seriously.

One thing that being oversees has taught me—actually, every place I’ve ever lived, whether it’s China, Egypt, or western Colorado—a lot of the local views are things that I probably wouldn’t agree with, or maybe I would find personally offensive even, on some level. But my conclusion from that is, maybe I’m the guy that’s weird because all these other people believe in different things than me. So you have to be open to that. I think that’s one of the lessons.

 

What are the risks in making one place like Grand Junction a stand-in for rural America?

In the story, I don’t ever say this is a microcosm of the country as a whole. I think people can see there are dynamics. It really helps to focus locally because you get a texture and a level of detail that you can’t do at the national level. I’ve always been a big believer in this, and it’s always been a strategy of mine. The first book I wrote was about the town I lived in in China as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1990s. I did this in Egypt and in China, and I’ve done it here in the United States. There’s always going to be other dynamics in other places—it’s a big, complicated country—but I think it’s very useful to do this kind of thing. And also just so you can kind of see what from the national mood is trickling down. That’s really important at this time.

 

You told me you thought the letters about your story reflected some common progressive prejudices or “delusions.” Want to respond to the responses?

First of all, the delusion is that this was an article about the white working class. I think there was only one person I quote who could be described as working class. And actually, there was nobody in the story who’s described as white. There are a lot of white people, but that’s not really the terms of the story.

The sense of that letter is, this is getting over-covered, there’s too many stories like that. I think that is statistically wrong. I think you can analyze what’s getting written about and find that places like Grand Junction aren’t getting written about enough. The other [letter], which said that I had deliberately not reported on the progressive wave happening in Grand Junction, I thought that that was delusional. I don’t think there’s a progressive wave happening in Grand Junction. I didn’t see any evidence of it. In that county, they had 86 percent voter turnout. Very high participation. Trump got like 64 percent of the vote. In six months, I didn’t meet a single Trump voter who regretted it. There was a Women’s March, but that kind of thing can be over-emphasized. So I just thought that people want to believe that something’s happening that’s not happening, and I think they have to wake up.

 

There was quite a bit about distrust of media and coastal elites in your story. You write for a publication called The New Yorker. Was it tough to get people to talk?

One of the big problems when you go to a place like Grand Junction and you write for The New Yorker is a lot of people don’t trust you. It was a big issue. I’m very sympathetic to reporters who are trying to do this kind of story, because people don’t want to talk to you.

Matt Patterson [the former magician] would tell me “everybody thinks you’re doing a hatchet job.” And I didn’t make any promises to him about what I was doing. I said, “I’m trying to get to know this place and what people think, and that’s really my only agenda. You can look online and see the kind of stuff I do.”

There’s nothing you can do about it, it’s just the way things are. And even though I live in Ridgeway—I live in Colorado, my daughters were born in Grand Junction—that’s not going to put people at ease. So I did what I could. There was one person who actually asked to be removed from the story during the fact-checking process. I explained to her the fact-checking is there to check the facts, not to renegotiate the terms of the interview.

 

It’s better not to have too many assumptions and to be aware of just the fact that there may be some major differences from what you expect or from what you’re accustomed to or from your comfort zone

 

I’ve always wondered how often people must try to re-do their quotes or manage how they’re portrayed during The New Yorker’s famous fact checking process.

It’s a much bigger problem overseas.

Somebody in Egypt really freaks out when they get a call [from] an Arabic speaker from the US. Another issue is that in a lot of cultures—this was true in Egypt and in China—people think it’s kind of impolite or inappropriate to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember,” so they get certain details wrong and I’d have to go back and establish [the facts]. There’s cultural issues as well with this. But in a place like Grand Junction, you get somebody who starts to get wary because [the fact checker] is asking certain questions that are in the story and they start to imagine what the story involves. The fact-checking department is very attuned to this, obviously they go through it a lot.

In this case, once the person started to get upset about it, I said, “I’m going to keep her in the story,” and the fact-checker and my editor of course agreed, and I said, “But I’ll write and explain that—it’s more appropriate for me to do that rather than the fact-checker.”

But it’s a tough climate, the “fake news” thing and the general distrust of the media.

 

You previously reported on a Trump rally in Grand Junction with a heavy anti-media emphasis. Did you encounter much of that in your post-election reporting?

In Egypt, I really did feel a lot of physical violence. I broke a couple bones in my foot at one of these violent political events in the Tahrir [Square] fallout.

I didn’t feel that kind of stuff [in Grand Junction]. Even at the rally, it’s not like it scared me, but it bothered me because it’s almost like a first step on the way to some of the stuff I was seeing in Egypt. And all these terms like “fake news,” the Deep State, this is the kind of paranoid conspiracy theory stuff you get in the Middle East. The first time I heard a politician refer to “fake news” was at a Muslim Brotherhood rally—that would have been 2012.

It’s not like this is new stuff. People shouldn’t be proud of it or think that it’s a useful tool. We are adopting this stuff from societies that have really negative traditions of education and information and governance. It’s not something we should be adopting.

 

Do you have any parting thoughts about the local newspaper there, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, and its troubles in the Trump era?

By the standards of the day, it’s been a pretty successful paper. The circulation is quite high given the population. It wins a lot of awards for its coverage. It’s a good paper, no question.

[Attacking a newspaper] doesn’t do damage at the national level the way it does at the [local level]. You destroy your local paper and you don’t have anything that serves that role. You’re at the ground level there—and when you’re hurting your own institutions, there’s nothing that’s going to come in and help you.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.