Not a yooge difference

As a Bronx native I’ve spent the campaign quietly weighing Donald Trump’s New York accent against that of Bernie Sanders. I can declare a split decision. Trump has the better vowels: His yooge obliterates Sanders’s yooge, the perfect measure of dismissiveness without dwelling on itself. But Sanders has the better consonants: when he says speculation, each syllable is a saliva receptacle. What is especially great about both of these accents is that no New Yorkers speak like that anymore, not even in deepest Canarsie. The city is too diverse; its population changes too constantly. Accents so extreme could only be preserved in environments where their bearers did not regularly interact with other New Yorkers: Burlington, Vermont, in one case, and a quartz penthouse in the other.

Trump’s favorite bureaucrats

A few days before the New Hampshire primary, I happened into a Donald Trump rally in Exeter, at the same town hall where Abraham Lincoln once delivered a speech when he was running for president, in 1860. Trump’s rallies have become notorious, for their rowdiness and nativist anger and general atmosphere of menace, but having been to several I can report that the scene is not always quite this bad. A lot seems to depend upon Trump’s mood. Sometimes you get Benito Mussolini, and sometimes it’s just an amiable drunk who keeps forgetting that he’s in the quiet car.

This day in particular Trump was in a ruminative mood; possibly his recent loss in the Iowa caucuses had chastened him. He spent a great deal of time talking about the hotel project that his real estate company is developing in the Old Post Office Pavilion, the gorgeous and ornate building, capped by an actual clock tower, a few blocks east of the White House. The renovation was running ahead of schedule and under budget, Trump said, and he made a case for its social impact: hotels, he said, employ more people than offices do. He suggested that he had been surprised to win the project in the first place (he intimated that the Hilton hotel corporation, rival bidders, had outsized political influence with the Obama crowd) and then mentioned that he’d been extremely impressed with the bureaucrats from the General Services Administration (GSA) whom he’d worked with. “Extremely professional. They’re unbelievable. They’re very talented people.”

When it comes to hotels in Washington, I’m basically pro glitz. The bars and lobbies in the capital are almost uniformly stultifying, as if they’ve been designed for the uncle of the Portuguese ambassador. So Trump’s progress report, which promised something different, was good news to me. But Trump’s enthusiasm for the men and women of the GSA triggered for me a very specific memory from about a decade ago when I was an editor at the Washington Monthly. One late night when I was going over Charlie Peters’s Tilting at Windmills column with him, we discussed an item in which he had reported that the Department of Justice contained the most prestigious of all bureaucratic jobs in Washington. Idly, without considering what I was getting myself into, I wondered what was the least prestigious. With the exactitude of an eye surgeon considering a cataract, Charlie ranked every agency in Washington according to its bureaucratic prestige. “And finally,” he concluded, having listed every existing agency, and possibly some expired ones, “the General Services Administration.” If Donald Trump can find it in himself not only to praise bureaucrats but to praise bureaucrats from the least prestigious wing of the entire federal government, perhaps all will not be lost in the Trump administration.

Like asking an enemy for the map of the minefield

There are these hints scattered through the archives of the New York tabloids that in his own mind Trump has been a political figure, of a sort, for a very long time. In 1984 he told the Washington Post that if his country needed a volunteer to take care of nuclear negotiations with the Soviets he was ready and willing. “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to know about missiles,” Trump said. “I think I know most of it anyway.” This summer many reporters suspected that Trump had nowhere near as much money as he claimed, as has sometimes been the case in the past. When he turned out to be a legitimate billionaire, the word was that he had lucked into it, by the sheer geographic accident of having been born into a trove of buildings in a city, New York, that has during the past quarter century been the site of a historic boom.

But David Segal of the New York Times, in a magnificent study of Trump’s deal to acquire the Plaza Hotel, made a compelling case that the tycoon really was a remarkably adept deal maker. At a key moment, Trump sized up the attorney charged with negotiating on behalf of the seller, recognized a young man eager to make a splashy deal, forewent all of the torturous negotiations over contingencies, and simply asked the lawyer to tell him everything that was wrong with the hotel. “It was like asking an enemy for the map of the minefield,” Segal writes. Trump got the hotel. He also got the lawyer, a man named Tom Barrack, to deal with a troublesome tenant at the Plaza, an older woman named Fannie Lowenstein, who stood in the way of Trump’s condo conversion of the iconic hotel, by promising her free rent for life and throwing in free furniture and a Steinway.

The oppo researcher’s trash can

One irony of the present campaign is that what might be the most buttoned-up political operation in history, Hillary Clinton’s, must now be busily preparing to oppose the most xenophobic, vulgar, and freewheeling candidate in modern memory. Whole teams of ex-Rhodes Scholars and promising Yale 2Ls are carefully highlighting old New York Post articles and busily assembling dossiers. The material they discard must be amazing. What does an operation like the Clinton campaign do, for instance, with a candidate who has praised his daughter’s figure to television hosts and said, “If I weren’t married and, ya know, her father . . .” It’s amazing to think that Joel Benenson and Margolis are thinking that one through.

But the sheer volume of Trump’s public record means that many heinous episodes (his whole New York experience, more or less) would be, in a general election campaign, outlined in only the broadest strokes. We would hear about the four bankruptcies, but probably not about the separate lawsuits New York City and New York State brought against Trump in the mid-eighties, alleging that Trump had resorted to extreme tactics to try to harass rent-stabilized tenants out of his buildings—not just normal slumlord stuff like “drastic decrease in essential services” and “threats of imminent demolition” but “instructing employees to obtain information about the private lives and sex habits of tenants.”

Trump’s response to the Central Park jogger case, in which he took out a full-page ad in the New York Post to denounce as “crazed misfits” the accused, several young African American teenagers who ultimately turned out to be entirely innocent, would likely fly under the radar. More striking still was an anecdote supplied to the New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten by a former busboy at Trump’s Showboat casino in the 1980s: “When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor.” This has not made news in the campaign. Neither has the lurid Marla Maples affair, in which he took his chauffer’s girlfriend, a Georgia ingénue, as his own, and which ended with a spectacular divorce and his twelve-year-old son quoted in Vanity Fair as saying, “You don’t love us! You don’t even love yourself. You just love money.” That son, Donald Trump Jr., is now a partner in the family real estate organization.

At a Jeb Bush event this winter, I ran into an older couple from Brooklyn who told me that though they were too moderate to vote for Trump they had a warm feeling about him. When he first bought the Plaza, Trump staged a promotion in which any couple who had ever been married at the hotel could stay at it again, for the rate they’d paid on their wedding night. It so happened that this couple fit the bill, and they had saved their receipt in a wedding scrapbook. They got the room, and the cheap rate, and together with the other couples a reception in the grand ballroom. We mostly use the term “Jacksonian” to describe angry, populist political impulses. But Trump has spent much time dwelling in a particularly Jacksonian emotion: the vulgar and liberating thrill that comes when the outsiders finally occupy the cultural citadel.

Vermont gun owners shoot blanks

One black mark on Bernie Sanders’s record, for most progressives, is his general support for the right to bear arms—the five votes against the Brady Bill that Hillary Clinton is fond of pointing out, the vote to immunize gun manufacturers from suit after Sandy Hook, and others. Sanders has suggested that, having headed out of Brooklyn, he deferred to the broader culture of Vermont, where gun ownership is so ingrained that for many years the Green Mountain State was the only one in the nation where you were allowed to openly carry a firearm without licensing or registering it. The gun owners’ lobby was often said to be especially powerful.

But how powerful, and why would it be more powerful in Vermont than in any other rural state? I got curious. It turns out that the gun owners as a group are not especially organized in Vermont: they do not even keep formal track of which legislators vote for and against them. I called up Jim Douglas, who was Vermont’s Republican governor between 2004 and 2012, and he told me that among the hundreds of groups who lobbied in the capital the gun groups did not stand out. The key, it seems, is that until 2012 there was literally no organized gun control group in the state at all. The idea that state legislators know their own constituents better than congressmen from distant corners of the country sounds good in theory, but in practice the local bodies, often composed of part-timers, are less resourced and less ambitious. The gun question in Vermont seems to have been trapped in a feedback loop: No one—including, to his discredit, Bernie Sanders—ever really challenged the gun lobby, and so everyone assumed it was unassailable.

The soft bigotry of Ivy League football

This fall, I went with some neighbors to the Harvard-Dartmouth football game. To go from watching the NFL and Division I college football to seeing the Ivy League version includes some shocks. The game has a different geometry. Punts flutter quickly to the ground. Long passes basically don’t exist at all. It is a slower, muddier struggle. It makes you wonder why the colleges bother.

But no, really, why do they bother? Think about this system as if it were invented from scratch. The richest and most powerful people in American society come from a small group of private northeastern colleges that are extremely competitive and growing only more so. Admission to these places is extraordinarily difficult. And yet eighty spots are reserved for young men (no women) willing to play a game that exposes them to a likelihood of long-term brain damage whose exact dimensions are unknown but almost surely greater than zero. Most of these men would not earn admission to these colleges if they were not willing to play this game. But the men admitted to the elite colleges to play this game are not the very most talented young men who play this game—those young men tend to go to less academically rigorous colleges. They are, instead, young men who are pretty good students (good enough to meet the lowered bar for entry) and pretty good at the game. Disproportionately they come from wealthy northeastern places. Simply playing the game gives them an extra boost after graduation: from the Northwestern sociologist Lauren Rivera we know that the two most important factors the leading investment banks, consultancies, and law firms consider are the prestige of a candidate’s university and whether he played sports there.

Heroin’s strange road trip

As the candidates moved through New Hampshire this fall, treatment centers for the heroin epidemic suddenly became a common stop, as if they were diners or county fairs. Chris Christie and Jeb Bush have been particularly attentive, showing up and listening to middle-class parents talk about watching their children die, and to treatment staffers telling stories of middle-of-the-night drives across state lines to find an addict an open treatment bed.

Beneath the misery is a mystery. No one really knows why deaths from heroin and prescription opiates have spiked so precipitously, but the scale of the change is remarkable. Four times as many Americans died of heroin overdoses in 2014 as had in 2010. It seems to be part of a larger pattern. The married Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (a Nobel laureate) published a pair of studies this year finding that death rates for white middle-aged Americans were escalating while rates for every other demographic group were declining, both here and abroad. The anomaly, Case and Deaton found, was largely due to opiate addiction and suicide. These factors are so amorphous, so essentially literary in nature, that the temptation has been to see at their root a literary experience: the collapse of white privilege or working-class certainty, for instance, the inward turn that mirrors for depressives the anger that is manifest in the Trump movement. But it’s hard to say whether that’s true. In January there was a remarkable bipartisan Senate hearing on the issue that covered the bases but produced no decisive insight. Americans have been taking many more opiate pain pills, perhaps because doctors have been overprescribing or perhaps because we were underprescribing that class of drugs when they were more rudimentary and less helpful; people who become addicted to heroin tend to have long histories using prescription opiates first, and there has been more heroin moving into the country.

Complicating things further are the geographic particulars of the epidemic. The CDC, long worried about overprescription, has traced the patterns of painkiller scripts and found that they are most concentrated in the South. The deaths from prescription overdoses, meanwhile, are concentrated in Appalachia and the Mountain West. Heroin seems to have started flooding into the United States right around 2010 (seizures at the border began spiking then), and almost immediately the deaths starting rising too. But heroin deaths are concentrated most heavily in New England, and second most in the Midwest. The epidemic has, so far, bypassed demographically similar spots: Upstate New York, the Plains states. In individual stories you often see the line through the cases—a pain prescription, an addiction, a switch to heroin, a death—but the picture of the epidemic generally is not so clear.

One theory, advanced by the author and former Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones, is that the shape of the epidemic may largely be the result of choices made by drug traffickers. Quinones focuses on a network of distributors from the Mexican state of Xalisco, who, at least in his account, are largely responsible for distributing a cheaper and less pure version of the drug, called black tar heroin, around the country. Quinones suggests that this network is low-profile and nonviolent (its members decline to carry guns). For this reason, he argues, it has targeted those regions where there are fewer drug dealers already operating—places like rural New Hampshire, and Ohio. The Xalisco network has largely avoided African American neighborhoods. The story of the Xalisco boys, in which a whole region is said to be co-opted into a drug operation, echoes the case of Marietta, Arkansas, during the crack epidemic, in which much of the population of this Delta town moved to Detroit in the employ of a drug supply chain led by four local brothers (Larry, Billy Joe, Otis, and Willie Chambers).

Quinones’s account is compelling. It could explain, for instance, the uneven spread of heroin through the country. But the Xalisco boys are probably only part of the story. The Case/Deaton data suggests that middle-aged white people are engaging much more frequently in a whole array of risky behaviors for reasons that we don’t totally understand. Deaths in car accidents, for instance, have been spiking in this group and not in others. So have suicides. Another theory is that the people using heroin now are naive drug users—they tend not to be from places or families that have much experience with addiction, and therefore they are less scared. Surely there are other factors too, yet to be uncovered. So many of the policy fights during the Obama years, especially after the financial crisis abated, have been essentially political: the experts mostly agree, and the drama is whether the politics can support the scholarly consensus. It is bracing to see a bipartisan group of senators who want only to turn to the experts, and yet the experts don’t really know what is happening at all.

Has America’s luck run out?

On the Sunday before the Iowa caucuses, the New York Times Book Review devoted its cover to a warm review by Paul Krugman of a book by Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern who in his eighth decade has abruptly become the leading declinist of our time. Gordon’s thesis is that the great boom of the past century in the United States was a unique event, due largely to what is generally called the Second Industrial Revolution: certain structural changes that can happen only once. You cannot air-condition the South a second time, he is fond of saying. I spent some time with Gordon when his ideas first began circulating, and though I thought his ideas fascinating I also secretly suspected that their bleakness owed something to the man himself, a married but childless academic past seventy who spent his time in a vast house looking out forlornly at the fog of Lake Michigan.

But lately I’ve been revising that opinion. One prevailing mystery in this campaign is why the country is so glum. The economic statistics, with unemployment below 5 percent and wages finally rising a bit, seem on the whole, all things considered, relatively bright. The emotion in the country is much darker. Hillary Clinton, in particular, seems unsure about how to navigate this. One possible answer is that the poignancy of the financial crisis left most people skeptical that the recovery is anything but fleeting, or temporary. Another is that they sense what Gordon does, that the long arc of the country’s financial well-being is not certain to bend toward prosperity, that our history depends upon vast good luck that our future may not get.

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Ben Wallace-Wells is a staff writer at the New Yorker and was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2003 to 2006.