I have to admit, it stopped me cold Tuesday morning when I heard one of the hosts on “Fox & Friends,” Steve Doocy, describe West Allis, Wisconsin, the community Donald Trump was visiting that day as ”the heart of the Rust Belt.”
I’m not disputing that designation, though I could think of about a dozen far better contenders — like Detroit, Chicago or Gary, Ind. But Doocy's TV hype isn’t what stopped me in my tracks.
What made me put the paper and my coffee down and start paying attention to the screen was the fact that I grew up in West Allis and lived there until I was 17 — playing baseball on Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion teams that were the pride of the community as they went on to win regional and national titles.
And as I watched the coverage from Wisconsin on all the channels, I got angrier and angrier — and the low-level burn that had me feeling conflicted and edgy as I watched media coverage of the election for last two years finally came into focus.
I resent — no, I hate — the way the national media covers places like West Allis, Wisconsin. And in understanding that hate, I better understand how Trump won and how utterly misguided Hillary Clinton’s campaign was when it came to reaching voters in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, the states that gave the knife to her presidential hopes the final twist on election night.
Because Trump was visiting Wisconsin for one of his victory rallies Tuesday night, “Fox & Friends” had Pete Hegseth, who was identified on screen as a “Fox News contributor and U.S. Army veteran,” at a restaurant there Tuesday morning talking to residents who had voted for Trump.
As co-host Brian Kilmeade put it in his introduction, “Here’s Pete Hegseth, he is now eating amongst the people at Johnny V’s in West Allis.”
Maybe it was the phrasing of “eating amongst the people,” as if Hegseth were an anthropologist sitting around a campfire somewhere in an Amazon rain forest with a tribe little known to the outside world, that got under my skin.
But as Hegseth asked one woman to show off her sweatshirt announcing her love for Vice President-elect Mike Pence, I realized that even Fox, which is far closer to being in touch with the people in that diner than any other cable channel or network, was patronizing the hell out of them.
Hegseth was in blue jeans and a checked shirt like he was in the chorus line of “Oklahoma!” All that was missing was a piece of straw in the corner of his mouth. He joked, of course, about the giant stack of pancakes served at Johnny V’s that he couldn’t come close to finishing. And then, he asked the denizens of this strange place called West Allis why they voted for Trump and how they thought the president-elect was doing.
I can’t recall one political report I saw in the last two years from a breakfast place in New York, Washington or Los Angeles with reporters dressed like they were auditioning for “Hee Haw,” marveling at the locals’ capacity for pancakes. But in Wisconsin, Michigan and lord-have-mercy Iowa, that is all they do. Pancakes and pork sausages and all the bacon you can eat.
Why is that? Are these recurring images the result of concepts or pictures in the heads of TV news executives — aka stereotypes — that they send their reporters and camera people out to find over and over again?
Do any of the executives in Washington or New York who are in charge of political coverage ask themselves that? Do they think these people in places like West Allis are rubes and hicks and somehow less entitled to being treated in a non-stereotypical manner than they and their fine, fine reporters and anchors are?
The coverage suggests that’s exactly what they think. And being connected to those places and people, it makes me angry. And I say that even as I have also become one of the people who now writes about and observes them from an East Coast perch, and then goes on cable TV on Sunday mornings and talks about them.
I have not been back to West Allis since I was 18 except for funerals. But I do have family and friends back there — many of whom have voted straight Democrat since they were old enough to vote.
They voted straight Democrat in my family because it was a Democratic alderman in West Allis who got my father a job in the city sanitation department walking behind a garbage truck after he was laid off in the recession of 1958 from his job running a crane in the Harnischfeger foundry.
My father spent his life working for the city and retired as its safety director. We felt that job saved our family.
Some members of my family who still live in Wisconsin voted for Trump this time around.
And it wasn’t just the promise of jobs that made them switch. It was the fact, they say, that someone at least acted like he was paying attention to them, and heard their pain when they talked about living pay check to pay check and fearing that the job could end with two weeks' notice at almost any time.
The final straw for some was that Clinton was unwilling to even stop in Wisconsin during the final week — as if they were not worth a couple of hours of her time.
And if so many in the press were not so out of touch with these folks, they would have reported it as the gaffe it was at the time — or, at least, they would accept it now and truly start trying to understand these Americans instead of patronizing or mocking them.
But instead, we’re still stuck on, “Let them eat pancakes.”
And then, let us gently poke fun at how much they eat and the sweatshirts they wear.