How broken faith in American institutions is creating a ‘rising sense of fury’

When journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Evan Osnos moved back to the U.S. in 2013 after working abroad for 10 years, he was struck by the anger and fear seeping into American political culture. He recently spoke with Judy Woodruff about the reasons he set out to understand why the country had changed. It's the focus of his latest book,"Wildland: The Making of America's Fury."

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  • William Brangham:

    It was the anger and fear seeping into American political culture that struck journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Evan Osnos when he moved back to the United States in 2013.

    He'd been living and working abroad for 10 years, first in the Middle East and then in China.

    As he recently told Judy Woodruff, Osnos set out to understand why the country had changed.

    It's the focus of his latest book, "Wildland: The Making of America's Fury."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Evan Osnos, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Evan Osnos, Author, "Wildland: The Making of America's Fury": Thanks, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the title of the book, "Wildland," fitting in many ways, that the country does feel that way, I think, right now to many of us.

    You went back for this book to three of the places you have lived, Clarksburg, West Virginia, where you worked as a as a beginning news reporter, Greenwich, Connecticut, where you spent time growing up, Chicago, where you work.

    And you talked to hundreds of people to try to get a sense of the trajectory of their lives, how they're experiencing this. And what comes through is often the destructive forces at work out there. I'm thinking particularly that hedge fund manager in Greenwich.

  • Evan Osnos:

    Yes.

    Well, one of the things that I was really struck by was the way that the things that were happening in one place were impacting the politics in another place, to a degree I hadn't expected.

    Take Greenwich, for example, where I grew up. It had experienced huge growth in wealth in the early years of this century. The average CEO was making hundreds of times what the average front-line worker was. And when I went to West Virginia and I spoke to people about how they thought about the American system, coal miner there said to me, he said: "Do you know any man who was worth 400 or 500 times other men?" He said: "I don't."

    And that sensation, that feeling of somehow things being off was deeply felt, to a degree I don't think we appreciated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You give us the stories of these individual lives, but there's a lot of data in here to back it up, the discrepancy in wealth in this country, the role of money in politics.

    It gives the book a foundation, I think, so that you're reading human stories, but you're also learning a lot about this country.

  • Evan Osnos:

    Well, there were statistics that staggered me, frankly.

    I mean, take, for example, the fact that, if you live in McDowell County, West Virginia, if you're an adult male, your life expectancy there is 18 years less than your life expectancy over the border in Virginia, in Fairfax County.

    And the fact that these are two parts of one political community gives you a window into some of the underlying stresses that are pulling us apart.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there is the theme of politics that runs through this.

    And along the way, Donald Trump appears, runs for president, is elected, and, of course, so much controversy around him. But you see the forces that he's bringing out in these communities and in the lives of the people you talked to.

  • Evan Osnos:

    Yes, in a way, I suppose I was writing about Trump before he was even on the scene. I didn't know it yet.

    I was writing about this rising sense of fury in American politics. And when he arrived, I thought I was writing a book about somebody who was never going to be president. He became president, and then I realized, actually, that was, in the end, the kind of confluence of all of these structural forces I'd been writing about, politics, economics, technology.

    But, ultimately, it's also how we relate to one another as citizens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think you came away, Evan Osnos, with — from all of this reporting you have done, with a better understanding of why Donald Trump has the following that he has in this country?

  • Evan Osnos:

    Yes.

    I think, in the end, I was struck by the fact that, fundamentally, Americans have broken faith with institutions, at the core. I mean, these are — it applies to universities and government and the law and politics. And that's a process of restoration that takes more than just four years to get back to it.

    It's not just enough to get rid of one president and to put another in place. As we're seeing right now, these divisions endure. This is a generational project about restoring credibility by restoring opportunity to people, making them feel as if it's possible again to be heard and to make their way in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are stories of people trying in their local communities to make a difference.

  • Evan Osnos:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, there are some uplifting tales here, but they're not the majority of the…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Evan Osnos:

    In a way, I was really struck.

    I didn't go out looking for either successes or failures. What I was trying to do was document the country as it really feels to be here in this period. I mean, frankly, I was writing so that, later, my kids could read about what it was like to be in the United States at this period.

    And, in a way, I came away encouraged by some things, some really impressive projects. To just name one, something as simple as taking kids from very segregated neighborhoods in Chicago, bringing them across town to another part of town and making them feel as if the whole city is theirs, that can transform their sense of themselves.

    And I came away quite encouraged by that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But is there enough of that kind of thing going on in our local communities, in our cities across the country?

  • Evan Osnos:

    There is this tension going on, because there is a nationalized political conversation. And that grinds us down.

    I mean, there's an amazing fact, which is that Americans today have an easier time naming presidents and vice presidents than their own governors of their states. And it wasn't always that way. Historically, you used to know your local officials better than you knew national politics.

    So, part of the lesson that I drew from this is, it's time to reinvest in the places we know. I mean, reinvest in your local newspaper, in the institutions that actually connect you to your neighbors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

    And I — and I think many people look at that and they say, it's admirable, but is it going to be enough? But you're saying, in the end, you have hope?

  • Evan Osnos:

    I'm saying it's actually not hope; it's work.

    Like, we have work to do, but it's not as if it's mysterious. There's very definable reasons why we ended up in this mess. And, for that reason, we can also begin to address them, things like fundamental income inequality of a scale that we haven't had since the Gilded Age, things like the decline of reliable news in a way that people feel they can go online and read something they trust.

    These kinds of things are not, in the end, impossible. And part of the process of addressing them is laying it out on paper.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Washington still has a role to play in all this, but you're saying it's got to be more than that?

  • Evan Osnos:

    It is, yes.

    I mean, one of the clear takeaways I had was that, to understand Washington's dysfunction right now, you have to get outside of Washington.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Evan Osnos.

    The book is "Wildland: The Making of America's Fury."

    Thank you. Thank you very much.

  • Evan Osnos:

    My pleasure. Thanks, Judy.

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