‘Trump Diaries’ podcast evades the ‘soap opera’ to tell a people’s history

Ted Eytan, via FlickrImage via Ted Eytan/Flickr.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP drives journalism unlike any US president before him. Trump’s tweets send newsrooms scrambling to publish reaction pieces. His policy decisions and statements spur flurries of news analysis. Scandals new and old dominate headlines. But something’s lacking in a lot of Trump Administration coverage. Journalists often fail to show how the Trump presidency touches people’s everyday lives, and what that impact means as time passes.

The tentatively titled “Trump Diaries” podcast may offer a corrective. It taps US residents from across the political spectrum to show how the Trump presidency affects them in ways big and small, and then follows them as their stories evolve over time. The show is currently under development by a nationwide collective of journalists from the worlds of public radio and podcasts. So far, there’s a pilot done, with more episodes on the way. The producers are seeking donations and applying for grants, but “also talking to some of the usual suspects in podcasting” to give the program a home, says Project Director Jesse Dukes. Though he was mum on who he’s pitching, Dukes, 40, says he’s talked to his bosses at WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago, and they are a potential partner.

Dukes describes the project as “an ongoing longitudinal, people’s history/documentary project.” A pilot for the podcast will premier on March 15 at the Public Newsroom, an initiative of City Bureau, a non-profit journalism lab based in the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

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Dukes got the idea for the podcast after Trump was elected in November 2016, as he observed people’s intense reactions to a Trump presidency and wondered how the same people might have viewed the prospect of having Trump in the White House a year prior.

“Donald Trump was elected, and many people I knew were shocked or surprised by that, and I knew people who were happy about it, but even people I knew who were happy about it, they were still shocked and surprised by it,” Dukes says. “They still felt like his election represented something different, a new kind of presidency, and also suggested that there were frustrations and fears and anxieties in this country that … had been simmering under the surface for a while.”

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Dukes sent an email to about 100 people, including friends and colleagues, to ask what they thought about the idea and if they wanted to get involved. What emerged was a 15-person team of journalists, radio producers, documentary filmmakers, academics, and oral historians. They have been interviewing people since Trump was elected and following up with them every few weeks to see how their experiences and perspectives are evolving as the Trump presidency ensues. The goal is to put out 10 episodes a year. Each episode will span about an hour, and will tell the story of the previous year from one or two people’s perspectives.

Participants include Alexander, a young Afghanistan War veteran at Ohio State University who identifies as socially progressive and worries about how the Trump administration is affecting the way other countries view the US. They also include Irtefa, a Muslim-American woman working on a doctoral degree in anthropology in Charlottesville, Virginia, who has concerns about the impact Trump’s policies could have on attitudes about race and healthcare where she lives. And there’s Marjorie, 78, a pro-life Catholic matriarch who supports Trump but voted for Barack Obama twice. (More on her later.)

Some stories focus on the more tangible effects of Trump’s policies and political agenda—for instance, how policy debate twists and turns play out in the life of a young woman with DACA status. Other stories focus on how the charged political atmosphere permeates people’s’ relationships with friends and loved ones. The podcast isn’t so much about the Trump presidency as it is a way of showing the Trump era from the perspectives of people who aren’t necessarily famous or powerful.

“So much of the news right now is about what’s happening in the White House,” Dukes says. “There’s this sort of ongoing soap opera of the Trump presidency, which includes things with real political stakes, like budget impasses and DACA and stuff like that, but also includes a lot of things like who said what and what did Bannon call Don Jr. and that sort of thing. This is about the people”

 

Talking about politics, and talking to people across political difference, feels a lot harder now and a lot more fraught, and the divide feels starker and deeper than it has in a long time. I’m personally interested in seeing how people navigate that.

 

DELANEY HALL, 35, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the senior editor of the 99% Invisible podcast and part of the Trump Diaries production team. She says that one of the most prevalent themes in the reporting so far has been the struggle between Trump supporters and Trump critics trying to get along with each other.

Hall has conducted six interviews over the past year with a small business owner in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who goes by the pseudonym “Adam,” in the program. She says he’s a thoughtful conservative who voted for Trump, but is reluctant to come out as a Trump supporter (hence the pseudonym). At the time she began interviewing him, he was engaged to a liberal woman, “and the election put this huge strain on their engagement,” Hall says.

“They’re now married, and they’ve sort of been navigating this new political reality together,” Hall says. “Talking about politics, and talking to people across political difference, feels a lot harder now and a lot more fraught, and the divide feels starker and deeper than it has in a long time. I’m personally interested in seeing how people navigate that.”

The pilot episode debuting on March 15, “Angel + Derek,” tells the story of two friends, both evangelical Christians, who occupy different sides of the political aisle.  

Angel, the conservative, is a teacher and pastor at a Hispanic church who claims a spiritual intervention in the voting booth spurred his vote for Trump. His parents were undocumented immigrants from Mexico who were given amnesty in the 1980s by the Reagan administration. Derek, a middle-school science teacher who lives in southern California, identifies as progressive, supported Hillary Clinton, and is so frustrated with the political system that he plans to run for office himself in 2018 and join his local school board.

The piece examines their friendship, and what they do and don’t talk about. It concludes with a phone call between the two men as reporter Elizabeth Nakano listens at Angel’s side inside his church. Nakano says she had spoken with the two men for 11 months and watched them grow further apart politically, but avoid talking about their differences. So she asked them to tackle their diverging views head-on.

In a clip provided to CJR, Derek lays out a biblical belief for his pro-immigration stance: “the Bible calls us to love our neighbor, not to deport them and break up their family.”

Angel replies: “I don’t want to see families broken up…I would like to see sort of like what happened with my family, an opportunity given to individuals as long as those individuals are law abiding citizens.”

Derek responds with a point of clarification: “There are actually law abiding, wonderful people who are getting arrested, and I have students, and their dads are getting deported.”

“And as he was talking,” Nakano narrates, “Angel started to look really uncomfortable and pained…his face dropped, and he actually shifted his weight and started to lean away from me.  And so, that part of the conversation wrapped up pretty quickly, and the call did too shortly after that.”

Nakano later asks Angel about his discomfort.

“Even though I did vote for Trump… it pains me to know of families that are being torn apart,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here had my parents not come here. It’s hard because that’s where it’s not a political thing for me, it’s more personal experience. I took advantage of the fact that there was an opportunity, and to know there are families out there that are gonna be broken up, that’s very harsh, whether I voted for Trump or not. That’s beyond politics.”

 

While Marjorie avoided discussing Trump’s own sexual assault allegations much, she’s now less sure of the worldview she had about women in power, because the movement showed her how pervasive male abuse of power is.

 

DUKES SAYS THAT most interview subjects’ political positions and perspectives haven’t changed much yet over the course of a year. He speeculates that’s due to how bubbled and partisan our media consumption can be.

But there are some exceptions.

Reporter John Fecile, 29, interviewed Marjorie, the 78-year-old woman from Maine who voted for Obama twice but then flipped for Trump in 2016. Over the course of a year, checking in with Marjorie about once a month, Fecile says Marjorie grew exasperated “as it became clear Trump wouldn’t get much done,” and that the passage of the Republican tax plan was a boost to her spirits. But her shift in views isn’t about legislative agendas; rather, it’s occurred at the intersection of gender, politics, and power.

Marjorie says she didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton because she didn’t think women should run for higher office—because many of the woman bosses she’d had in life were “bitches,” according to Fecile. But then the #Metoo movement came along and shook her up, causing her to remember an incident in her teens when she was attacked and nearly raped by a classmate, something she hadn’t talked about for years. Marjorie began discussing the incident with her husband, friends, and another woman who had been assaulted by the man, a now-deceased resident of their small town who never faced repercussions. Fecile says while Marjorie avoided discussing Trump’s own sexual assault allegations much, she’s now less sure of the worldview she had about women in power, because the movement showed her how pervasive male abuse of power is.

“I’m not sure she’s going to change her vote, but she wasn’t a fan of Roy Moore and watched with approval as men in power were taken down by the movement,” Fecile says.

Max Green, 27, a freelance producer at WBEZ working on a full-time contract, says a lot of podcasts spend a lot of time with sources, but the idea of trying to capture a shared experience in the Trump era between many different types of people is intriguing.

He says the production team and reporters have a strong interest in being nonpartisan. But a slight majority of the participants lean liberal, which they’re trying to balance out.

“I’ve had the experience of reaching out to people who are more on the conservative end of the spectrum and maybe aren’t interested in working on a project that is kind of rooted in public radio, or interested in opening up their lives in that way,” says Green. “And maybe there’s something to be said for people who are on the liberal or progressive end of the spectrum being more trusting of a media-based project. That said, I think that’s a pretty subjective, case-by-case thing that comes up.”

Green interviewed a woman who lives in Appalachia and spoke about how her community has been othered by the rest of the country and criticized as a group that heavily supported Trump, for allegedly voting against their own interests.

The eastern Kentucky woman, Kelli, is a progressive, but her town and region were staunchly for Trump. She was a journalist, but was irked over the year Green interviewed her to see that engaging with the people around her about politics was not actually an effective vehicle for improving the community.

So she left journalism and is now focused on health awareness in her community, with plans to get a yoga certification and set up free to classes in hopes of providing a remedy for pervasive problems of drug addiction and a lack of mental health services.

“She envisions a future where the type of work she’s doing now is an investment in her community,” Green says.

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Adeshina Emmanuel is a Chicago-based journalist focused on race, class, inequality, social problems, and solutions who has been published in The New York Times, Ebony, Chicago Magazine, and by ATTN.com. He's a former reporter at the Chicago Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times, and DNAinfo Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @Public_Ade.