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States of Change:
You are at the top of your family tree.Maybe you have siblings and maybe you have saplings (or grand saplings), but at this moment you are perched on the highest branches of a bloodline Redwood. A lineage that somehow survived storms and disease, war and pestilence, love and hate, generation after generation.
You are proud of your tree.
You would fight for your tree.I've been thinking about trees and bloodlines since Donald Trump won Wisconsin and America cracked in two.
But how much do you really know about your tree?
And how far down are you willing to climb?
I've been thinking about trees and bloodlines since Donald Trump won Wisconsin and America cracked in two.
Half of my Facebook feed cheered his victory and thanked God for this miraculous answer to prayer. The other half churned through the stages of grief and braced for end of the world. It was like watching the American family tree get struck by lightning, trunk alive, branches on fire.
My father was a liberal, atheist homicide detective who fled Milwaukee's inner-city chaos for the serenity of the Rockies.
I'm a local in small towns and big cities, a native to states red and blue, at home in the branches of so many different trees thanks to a family that broke before I could walk.
My father was a liberal, atheist homicide detective who fled Milwaukee's inner-city chaos for the serenity of the Rockies. My mother left him when I was two, found Jesus when I was four and one Saturday announced over breakfast "I had a dream from God last night."
We were under Divine orders to leave Milwaukee and move to the Bible Belt, she explained, so she could pursue a career in televangelism. "Tell your Dad I'll give up alimony and child support if he lets us go. Jesus will take care of us."My mother left him when I was two, found Jesus when I was four and one Saturday announced over breakfast "I had a dream from God last night."
A few weeks later we were headed south, modest U-Haul in tow. But God kept changing his mind. I went to 17 schools in six states as Mom followed her dreams. Literally.
She never made as it as the next Billy Graham but I found myself drawn to television, starting out in tiny meatpacking towns to big cities to networks in both Sodom (Los Angeles) and Gomorrah (New York).
Life as The New Kid turned out to be great training for this gig and this moment; when neighbors are strangers, fear and loathing rules the day and the American experiment seems doomed.
If we are to survive the most divisive presidency in generations, it's up to us to climb down our family trees and better understand how we got here. It's up to us to ask fellow countrymen "where are you from?" with a lot less fear and a lot more wonder.
My journey down the family tree and into the national divide starts with a scrapbook and a housing project.The tattered book of old photos and clippings was made as a retirement gift to one of Milwaukee's most decorated policemen in the tumultuous late 60s. As civil rights and fair housing marches erupted into fiery riots, the city tried to contain the unrest with blunt force. The tip of the spear was the Milwaukee Police Department's notorious "700 Squad," a proto-SWAT team led by a first-generation Croatian-American who sold his mom-and-pop liquor stores to become a cop at age 30.
I knew him as Grandpa. I knew him as Mom's dad, our patriarch, a larger-than-life grizzly bear who scared me as a boy and loved me as a man.
I knew him as Grandpa. I knew him as Mom's dad, our patriarch, a larger-than-life grizzly bear who scared me as a boy and loved me as a man. For years I avoided digging into his biography, afraid of what I might find. But in the age of Black Lives Matter, as history rhymes and repeats, journalistic curiosity trumps gauzy nostalgia and I wonder: did Grandpa do more harm than good?
The rows of brick, four-unit flats were built as Veteran's Administration housing in the 60's, and since Dad had served in the Army, my young single mom qualified for one of the cheap-but-tidy apartments on street lined with crabapple trees.
My third grade photo shows the kids of a blue collar melting pot; German, Polish, Irish and a few African American faces mixed in. Today, the color of the picture has completely changed. The factory jobs that drew millions of African Americans north vaporized. Those who could afford to fled for the suburbs and the black community was left with decades of sky-high unemployment in the State with the highest incarceration rate in the nation.
"Don't go after dark and don't get out of the car" was the advice of Wisconsin relatives "up north" when I told them I was going back to my old hood. It's reasonable advice for those who remember Frank Miller's war stories and hear the nightly tally of shootings and robberies that fill the newscasts out of Milwaukee. But when I knocked on the Berryland doors, there were hugs and warm welcomes.
A lovely woman named Joan Davis has lived in our old flat for 33 years. She admits there is crime around, but no one messes with her. A single mom like mine, she baked at a grocery store until a recent retirement and raised two good kids, including Sundra who grew up in my old room.
"What do think my worried relatives outside Milwaukee don't understand about this place?" I ask her. "Where we come from," Sundra replies. "What we've been through."
My Uncle Dan sits in the log cabin he built, beer poured, cigarette lit. Family stories are one of his favorite things. "How would you describe my Grandpa?" I ask. "That's a good question," he laughs. "That's complicated."One teen's photo stands out. It's the scowl. His name is Prentice McKinney.
As the youngest of four in the Miller clan, he worshiped Sgt. Frank and grew up to be a hunting, fishing, woodworking chip off the old block. "He was intimidating to a lot of people but everyone who got to know him would realize he'd basically give the shirt of his back to you. He was a very generous man."
Uncle Dan gave me the scrapbook years ago, along with a flip book of old mugshots. There are a few Hell's Angels types in the mix and a few white civil rights "agitators" but the book mostly filled with young, black men wearing sweatshirts inscribed "NAACP Youth Commando." These were the guys who marched closest to the slurs and punches, bricks and bottles that came with their protest strolls into the all-white south side.
One teen's photo stands out. It's the scowl.
His name is Prentice McKinney.
The scowl has been replaced by an easy smile. The anger remains.
"Remember him?" I ask, handing him a photo of Grandpa.
"Oh, yeah," he says without a second of hesitation. "Asshole. He was a real asshole. And the Tactical Squad was assholes incorporated."
Uncle Dan gives a wry smile when I tell him what Prentice thinks of Sgt. Frank. "I think it would be interesting, if my father was still alive…to show him that picture of Prentice McKinney and you might get the very same response."He makes the clicking sound of a pump action shotgun. "He said, 'Prentice, one of these has got your name on it.'"
He may be right. Or maybe Grandpa might have gotten more reflective with age. Maybe he would have started to wonder why those angry young men were so angry to begin with.
"I was raised in the city, not in the country," Prentice tells me when I ask for some life story. "I knew nothing of these rules that white people were superior." He tells me his parents left the Jim Crow south and raised him in a mixed Chicago neighborhood. He arrived in Milwaukee racially naive, but learned to hate the day his brother, just back from Vietnam, tried to buy their mom a house. "He's got his uniform on. Going to buy his mom a house! A white lady comes to the door and he says ‘We saw your For Sale sign' and she says ‘Oh, my. No! We don't sell to n--rs."
Soon after, he joined the NAACP Commandos, began marching and ended up in Grandpa's flip book.
"What distinguished the (Tactical Squad) is that they rode in a detective car and there was always three of them. And the guy in the back always had a shotgun. They didn't try to hide their presence. Wake up in the morning, look out the window and the Tach Squad would be there. Follow you down the street, follow you everywhere you want to go. One time, the guy in the back lays his shotgun out the window. Loads it," He makes the clicking sound of a pump action shotgun. "He said, ‘Prentice, one of these has got your name on it.' I said, ‘Well, I won't die by myself' and just kept walking. Terrified."
In 25 years on the force, Frank Miller never fired his weapon. It was a point of pride. Among his commendations is the case of a man who shot his girlfriend and was threatening to shoot himself. Grandpa left his own gun outside, sat down on the man's bed and over the course of an hour, talked him into surrendering.
"He had the ability to defuse the situation," Uncle Dan explains, "and yet people would say that he had an ability to create a situation, so you're always going to have two sides."
"Each generation gets a little smarter and a little more empathetic," I say. "But I wonder, with all the problems that still exist in Milwaukee, does history rhyme because of the way Grandpa and his guys did their job?
I ask that very question to Ed Flynn, Milwaukee's Chief of Police.
"The irony is," he says "I almost feel like it's come full circle during the life of my career."
Flynn describes how over his long career as an American lawman, policing reformed more dramatically than any other part of the criminal justice system.
"What we saw was 25 years of dramatic improvements in crime control that saved, to stay with the motif of Black Lives Matters, thousands of black lives. And so we got to a point that longitudinally, police were more selectively chosen, more carefully trained, more diverse, more restrained in the use of force. This is all documented-- and they had higher levels of integrity than in any preceding generation of police, as well as being better educated."
But then after a generation, he says, all of that progress was undone by the power of video and social media. Police-involved shootings remain statistically flat year over year, but just one of them captured on a smart phone can inflame decades of pent-up fear and loathing.
"I can show you, by every objective metric, verified by outside researchers, that…there have been declines in the uses of force by the police," Flynn says.Flynn is a self-proclaimed liberal, frustrated by the economic forces and lack of social investment that turns neighborhoods into war zones. "The answer isn't cutting preschool programs," he says "The answer isn't cutting after-school programs. The answer isn't blaming the victim."
"Every year for nine years, there have been declines in the number of citizen complaints made against the police for upsetting behavior. It doesn't matter. If I have one controversial shooting, it can blow up nine years of restraints in the use of force, because the power of the story takes on its own reality. It is a rallying cry."
Flynn is a self-proclaimed liberal, frustrated by the economic forces and lack of social investment that turns neighborhoods into war zones. "The answer isn't cutting preschool programs," he says "The answer isn't cutting after-school programs. The answer isn't blaming the victim." But he's frustrated that his young cops become political footballs when they are simply responding to the worst moments in society.
"We did not march for a day when African American men would be killing African American men," Prentice McKinney tells me, still holding a picture of Grandpa. "That's not what we marched for. There's no way in hell I'm going to defend that, OK? But If you take two tigers and you put them in a cage and don't feed them, one of the tigers is going to kill the other one. It's a matter of survival."
"We did get an African-American president," he says. "I cried the night he got elected. And then I got Donald Trump."
"Do you think Grandpa would be a Trump supporter?" I ask Uncle Dan.
"I do." he replies. "Because my Dad was a very macho person. I think Donald Trump would be right up his alley."
"Make America great again. I wonder if he means cops like Grandpa?"
"They're made from the same mold," he says.
Uncle Dan, who cast a ballot for Barack Obama in 2008, couldn't bring himself to even go to the polls this time.
It gets really disheartening every four years. I keep thinking we could do so much better."
It's the kind of place where a family on a cop's salary could afford a cabin, a pontoon boat and an ice fishing shanty. The holy trinity. The Wisconsin Dream.
Grandpa pounded every nail building his version next to a lake called Silver, in a town called Wautoma, in a county that voted for Reagan and Bill Clinton, Obama and Romney.As a Cheesehead-turned-New Yorker, I assumed Trump and Wautoma would go together like caviar and bratwurst.
But 2016 wasn't even close. Donald Trump took Waushara County by a two-to-one margin and for a kid who spent so much of his life among those salt-of-the-earth folks, this was nothing short of astounding.
As a Cheesehead-turned-New Yorker, I assumed Trump and Wautoma would go together like caviar and bratwurst. This is a place where owning your own bowling shoes is considered flashy, so surely the billionaire braggart would smack into a wall of decent Midwestern humility and leave a laughing stock. Wrong.
"He would fit in a lot better than Hillary," Mary Mueller tells me. "Look at how he fit in during the campaign. He saw what the people wanted."
In 1984, we were classmates at Wautoma High, and our biggest worries involved beer, bonfires and slow-dancing to Styx. Now as a C.P.A. on Main Street, she describes the economic angst that throttled a county of retirees, farmers and tourism workers.
According to most election postmortems, a combination of economic and racial anxiety led to Trump's rise in divided swing states like Wisconsin. When I ask Scott Steele about his biggest worries over Old Fashioneds at the Silvercryst bar, my former classmate doesn't hold back.
"The racial tension concerns me a lot," he says with a sigh. "And we live in Wautoma, Wisconsin so we don't have a whole lot of racial tension. But I think this community started feeling racial tension under Obama. And I don't know how or why that is, but it escalated since he took office, I think."
Maybe it is the drumbeat of grim headlines coming out of Milwaukee's inner city, the kind that had my Uncle Dan advising me to stay out of Berryland after dark from his cabin in Wautoma. Or maybe it's the war stories told by retired cops like my Grandpa Frank, but fear of African Americans in mostly-white Waushara County—and the mutual fear of white folks back in Berryland—helps explain the gulf between two Wisconsins.
Like Waushara County, most of the state was Obama blue in 2008. Now an increasingly conservative sea of rural red surrounds the urban islands Milwaukee and Madison.
But the most surprising demographic shift "Up North," comes thanks to Christmas trees and Mexico. The sandy soil around here is perfect for growing pine trees and for generations, Mexican migrant workers would travel north to sheer the conifers in the brutal summer heat.
These days, so many of them have made Wautoma home, one third of the students at my old high school are Hispanic. According to Principal Tom Rheinheimer, many of their parents were afraid to send them to school after Trump's election, for fear they would taken and deported.
"We're doing a lot of counseling," he tells me. "Just trying to help them make sure they know that they are safe here."
Illegal immigration is at the top of Don Nelson's list of grievances when I ask the retired veterinarian why he voted for Trump.
"People here believe that if you're coming here you should come here legally. Period," he says. But when I bring up Trump's vow to deport millions and the frightened kids at Wautoma High, his answer is surprising."One of the things that everybody missed—and for the life of me I don't understand how they missed it—is the absolute anger that's out here," he says. "You don't even have a clue. It comes from the fact that nobody is listening in Washington.
But when I bring up Trump's vow to deport millions and the frightened kids at Wautoma High, his answer is surprising.
"Well, most of them are actually citizens and they live here..and there's nothing wrong with them, they're good folks, they're good folks. If they're minding their Ps and Qs and they're not in trouble with the law, they're not gonna be in trouble. I think that's more blown out of proportion if you will – and I am sorry to say – by the media."
Don is a vocal fan of Fox News and the glint in his eye punctuates his words and as we stand in the spring chill off Silver Lake. "One of the things that everybody missed—and for the life of me I don't understand how they missed it—is the absolute anger that's out here," he says. "You don't even have a clue. It comes from the fact that nobody is listening in Washington. You see they listen to each other, they don't listen to us. Whether it is the fact that Obamacare needed to be repaired or replaced, something had to be done. Nothing was. I don't have great faith in the federal government, I'm sorry," he shakes his head. But as for Trump? "Well, I have faith in him. I have faith in him."
To a person, all of the Trump voters I meet around Wautoma express similar confidence. "Even if half the things he says can be disproven?" I ask Don. "It doesn't bother me," he says dismissively. "If he can do what he says he can do, save us money on our contracts and move that tax program along, that's all I care about."
"And as for all this talk about Trump and Russia?" I ask my old friend, Mary.
"No offense to news people," she smiles, "but it just seems like a lot of hype. I don't follow it as much as some people do because I just don't believe in it. If it's true, it will come out."
The Story of the Rich Young Ruler is important enough to appear in three of the four gospels. It begins with a pious young member of the 1 BC 1% coming to Jesus in search of eternal life."There is one thing you lack," Christ tells him. "Sell all that you possess and give it to the poor."
After seeing his radical financial advice send the ruler into an obvious funk, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
If there is a Heaven, Donald Trump's right to entry is up for debate.
But there is no doubt he threaded some kind of miraculous needle by convincing four out of five white Evangelicals to vote for a combative, thrice-married billionaire.
For decades, The Story of the Rich Young Ruler was buried in deep-brain storage, under piles of heathen distraction. But camels and needles came bouncing out one summer day in 2016, when I learned that candidate Trump had just packed the arena at Oral Roberts University.
His campaign stop there struck me as profoundly ironic because the Christian college in Tulsa is one of the many places I sat immersed in the Bible's greatest hits through the 1980's. Before ORU, there was Victory Christian School, where I got in all kinds of trouble for random sin but where many now see President Trump as an answer to prayer.
So to understand why, this Prodigal Son returned and reconnected with several former classmates, teachers and pastors. Aside from the occasional wedding or funeral, it was my first trip to church in 35 years and despite my "back-slider" status, I found overwhelming displays of warmth and love along with a deep frustration over how much they feel misunderstood.
"I just scratch my head and I think, "I know I'm not a bad person," Tracy Black tells me as we wander our old school. "I'm a good person. I give to my community. I volunteer. I help my neighbors. I love my kids. I love their friends. And then to be categorized sometimes as the evil Evangelicals—I just scratch my head and don't get it."
Though I've known many of these people for decades, it is the first time we've ever discussed politics; a reminder of that most of my years were spent in an oblivious bubble, surrounded by people who all think and worship and vote in lockstep.
There are always outliers, like my friend John who supported Gary Johnson's non-interventionist foreign policy or Danielle, who sat out the election rather than join her friends and family in voting for Trump."God's never had anybody qualified working for him yet. And he uses-- you know, he uses broken vessels not perfect vessels."
"I had great hope that he would get in there and bring something new to the table," she tells me. "But there was something inside me that was like, I need to be able to say that I didn't vote for him. And I can't explain that. And I really prayed about it."
Most here echo the conservative voters I met in rural Wisconsin; suspicion of Hilary, thirst for change, faith in a national CEO to cut America some better deals.
But when pressed on how they could condone behavior that would have gotten me kicked out of Christian school (and most politicians kicked off the trail), I was reminded of the "flawed vessel" theory of leadership.
"Look at the Bible," John Mason tells me. "I mean I think it's really cool that the Bible is full of very imperfect people. God's never had anybody qualified working for him yet. And he uses-- you know, he uses broken vessels not perfect vessels."
John was one of my favorite coaches back in the day, a jolly, back-of-the-team-bus raconteur who now writes inspirational best-sellers. "I mean you got the famous guy, Noah, and he does this amazing thing and then a couple days later he gets drunk and he's naked. Why is that included in (the Bible)? I think it's to show that God uses imperfect people."
By that logic, God could also use an imperfect candidate named Clinton, but around here, the Democrat's plank on abortion rights is an immediate disqualification. This was not always the case. In the 1950's, many Oklahoma Christians were populist Democrats and in the 1970's support for abortion was the official policy of Southern Baptists. Christians in this region didn't rally around "religious liberty" until the IRS tried to strip the tax-exempt status of whites-only schools like Bob Jones University.
After churches became more racially integrated and segregation waned, leaders like Jerry Falwell seized on the unborn as the new Christian rallying cry, almost a decade after Roe v. Wade. By the time Reagan took power, most Christian Democrats had moved to the GOP."Unfortunately, a lot of Christians are un-Christian," Scott Turner tells me. "Judgmental. Anti-gay. Not really loving your neighbor, or only loving certain neighbors."
The combination of an oil economy and God's rainbow promise to Noah shapes public policy. The Oklahoma legislature just passed a bill that would protect teachers who want to include alternative theories to evolution and man-made climate change.
But even in Tulsa, church attendance is down, which has many in this community debating the best way to lure Millennial souls back to church.
Despite the sweeping acceptance of same-sex marriage across the country, the LGBT "lifestyle" is still seen as a sinful choice in the majority of Evangelical congregations and there is resentment toward the "politically correct" scolds who would try to normalize homosexuality.
But even in Tulsa, church attendance is down, which has many in this community debating the best way to lure Millennial souls back to church. The strict dress and haircut codes I remember have relaxed. The back-beat during worship is much funkier than the days when we considered "Footloose" a documentary.
"Unfortunately, a lot of Christians are un-Christian," Pastor Scott Turner tells me.
"Judgmental. Anti-gay. Not really loving your neighbor, or only loving certain neighbors." He was a wild child when we were in high school together. Now he pastors a church of 2.000 in nearby Bartlesville. "I think we've gotten a bad rap and deservedly so for not continuing the mission of loving everybody."
"If Jesus was a long-haired, radical community organizer committed to free health care and redistribution of wealth, shouldn't more Christians be liberals?" I ask my friends during our reunions. The question always brings friendly, self-aware laughter but the answer has much to do with geography and history as it does with faith or denomination.
It is a question about a country known as the United States, but better understood as the Divided Nations of America.
Why can't we all get along?Why can't we gather round the fire and sing Kumbaya like our forefathers?
Why can't we make America harmonious again?
That's easy. We can't.
Because we never could.
We can't because it never was.
"One of the characteristics of Americans is that we don't have a good sense of our history," Colin Woodard tells me as we stroll Manhattan's High Line park. "We don't know our past. And that leads to all kinds of problems."
Colin is an award-winning journalist and author and his books "American Nations" and "American Character" are brilliant reminders that by the rules of human nature, this country is an impossible experiment."We the people" included puritanical English, libertine French, Scotch-Irish brawlers, Caribbean slavers and pacifist Quakers...
Humans are tribal creatures. We are naturally most content when surrounded by people who look, think and pray the same as we do.
America is a 241-year-old argument between people who look, think and pray in every possible variation.
"We the people" included puritanical English, libertine French, Scotch-Irish brawlers, Caribbean slavers and pacifist Quakers and this continent is an accidental, real-life "Game of Thrones;" built by people with very different definitions of "liberty and justice for all."
And the key thing is they didn't know that they were all going to be part of the same country!" Colin laughs. In "American Nations," Woodard redraws the map according to cultural values and immigrant streams. When he strips away familiar borders, the 50 United States of America become the 11 Divided Nations of America.
The land from New England to the upper Midwest he calls "Yankeedom," founded on a Puritan's passionate belief in teamwork. "They were coming on a mission to build a more perfect society on earth, that shining light on the hill and they were going to do it as a community and the individuals had to get on board with the program."
For these early Americans, the first thing they did after getting off the ship was to divvy up the land in lawyerly fashion, chip in to build a school and meeting house and build a society around the belief that We're All In This Together.
"So there's more trust in government because it's supposed to be an extension of ourselves," Colin explains. "Those are all things that are not true of other regional cultures, and in fact, are anathema to them, and in the historical experience of other regional cultures, wouldn't make any sense."
In fact, this kind of trust in authority made no sense to the people who first settled western Pennsylvania and spread the "nation" of "Greater Appalachia." These were Scots-Irish fighters and fiddle-players right off the set of "Braveheart." "Places where there was constant warfare for generations and generations, where if government came, it was usually in the form an army with lances trying to mow down your family. And they tended not to be farmers but herdsmen, so people can steal all your valuables very easily."
Their knee-jerk instinct? Get Off My Land. Unlike the folks in Yankeedom, these new Americans built self-reliant clans, wary of outsiders and downright resentful of far-away government.
This set up an intercontinental tension between "We're All In This Together" liberals vs. "Get Off My Land" libertarians.
"It's not just abortion," my friend Ralph says as he explains his vote for Trump. "For me, it's a bigger government, small government argument."
We're sitting in a Tulsa backyard, surrounded by some of the most generous people I know. They believe it is their Christian duty to give time and money to people in need, near and far. Ralph builds homes for the poor in Central America and works for a company with a "giving motive" instead of a profit motive.
But he is also the product of "Greater Appalachia," where they bristle at the idea of powerful people far away telling them what to do. "The bigger the government gets, the less control we have in our own life," Ralph says with a shrug.
If that is a guiding principal, deep in the cultural DNA, it becomes easier for a Christian to vote for candidate who is nothing like Jesus.
You may think that the borders of these cultural nations would fade over the centuries, as "The Bachelor" and Applebee's turns us into homogenized American mush. But the differences are actually getting more dramatic as Americans sort themselves by values.The not-so-Great Divide in Trump's America is only going to get worse. Unless we realize that we are all from different, but vital American nations.
When Mom left Yankeedom Milwaukee to live among Evangelicals in Greater Appalachia, she was part of a trend that shows up in red and blue maps after election day. It's why Thanksgiving becomes so fraught with tension after Junior moves to the Big City and can't fathom how Mom and Dad could possibly vote for X.
Too much individual freedom and we become a banana republic. Too much state control and we get North Korea.
"So logically if both of those lead to tyranny, what do you do? Well there must be a moment where those two essential aspects of freedom are in balance, are in equilibrium. They're two sides of the same coin. And you need to hit that 50-yard line to have that maximum potential for humans to be free. And that's really hard, right?"
It is really hard. Until America, no one even bothered to try. It's kind of a miracle we've kept it going for 241 years.
But if we are going to get past the "us vs. them" age of Trump and avoid Civil War 2, it is up to We The People to reach out to neighbors who have become strangers. It is up to us to figure out our place within the American Nations, how they clash and complement.
It's time to ask our countrymen "where are you from?" with a lot less fear and a lot more wonder.