How Trump Is Transforming Rural America – The New Yorker

In Grand Junction, people wanted Trump to accomplish certain things with the pragmatism of a businessman, but they also wanted him to make them feel a certain way. The assumption has always been that, while emotional appeal might have mattered during the campaign, the practical impact of a Trump Presidency would prove more important. Liberals claimed that Trump would fail because his policies would hurt the people who had voted for him.

But the lack of legislative accomplishment seems only to make supporters take more satisfaction in Trump’s behavior. And thus far the President’s tone, rather than his policies, has had the greatest impact on Grand Junction. This was evident even before the election, with the behavior of supporters at the candidate’s rally, the conflicts within the local Republican Party, and an increased distrust of anything having to do with government. Sheila Reiner, a Republican who serves as the county clerk, said that during the campaign she had dealt with many allegations of fraud following Trump’s claims that the election could be rigged. “People came in and said, ‘I want to see where you’re tearing up the ballots!’ ” Reiner told me. Reiner and her staff gave at least twenty impromptu tours of their office, in an attempt to convince voters that the Republican county clerk wasn’t trying to throw the election to Clinton.

The Daily Sentinel publishes editorials from both the right and the left, and it didn’t endorse a Presidential candidate. But supporters picked up on Trump’s obsession with crowd size, repeatedly accusing the Sentinel of underestimating attendance at rallies. The paper ran a story about vandalism of political signs, with examples given from both campaigns, but readers were outraged that the photograph featured only a torn Clinton banner. The Sentinel immediately ran a second article with a photograph of a vandalized Trump sign. When Erin McIntyre described the Grand Junction rally on Facebook, online attacks by Trump supporters were so vicious that she feared for her safety. After three days, she deleted the post.

In February, a bill that was intended to give journalists better access to government records was introduced in a Colorado senate committee, which was chaired by Ray Scott, a Republican. The process was delayed for unknown reasons, and the Sentinel published an editorial with a mild prompt: “We call on our own Sen. Scott to announce a new committee hearing date and move this bill forward.” Scott responded with a series of Trump-style tweets. “We have our own fake news in Grand Junction,” he wrote. “The very liberal GJ Sentinel is attempting to apply pressure for me to move a bill.”

Jay Seaton, the Sentinel’s publisher, threatened to sue Scott for defamation. In an editorial, he wrote, “When a state senator accused The Sentinel of being fake news, he was deliberately attempting to delegitimize a credible news source in order to avoid being held accountable by it.” The Huffington Post and other national outlets mentioned the spat. When I met with Scott, he seemed pleased by the attention. A burly, friendly man who works as a contractor, he told me, “I was kind of Trumpish before Trump was cool.”

“We used to just take it on the chin if somebody said something about us,” he said. “The fake-news thing became the popular thing to say, because of Trump.” He believed that Trump has performed a service by popularizing the term. “I’ve seen journalists like yourself doing a better job,” Scott told me. He’s considering a run for governor, in part because of Trump’s example. “People are looking for something different,” he said. “They’re looking for somebody who means what they say.”

In late February, shortly after the exchange between Scott and Seaton, an entrepreneur named Tyler Riehl started a campaign against the Sentinel. He wrote on Facebook, “If I’ve learned one thing from Donald Trump’s election it’s that we can ignore the political pundits telling us we must play nice with the press—even when they’re crooked and dishonest.” Riehl announced a five-hundred-dollar reward for anybody exposing “local media malfeasance,” and he fashioned a hundred newspaper delivery boxes decorated with a “Ghostbusters”-style icon that read, “FAKE NEWS.” Riehl distributed the boxes at a rally called Toast for Trump, which was dutifully covered by the Sentinel, along with a fact-checked head count (a hundred and twenty).

In Grand Junction, I learned to suspend any customary assumptions regarding political identity. I encountered countless strong working women, some of whom believed in abortion rights, who had voted for Trump. Cultural cues could be misleading: I interviewed one gentle, hippieish Trump voter who wore his gray hair in a ponytail. An experience like leaving a small town for an Ivy League college, which might lead some people to embrace more liberal ideas, could inspire in others a deeper conservatism. And so I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that Tyler Riehl, like me, was a former Peace Corps volunteer.

He had served in Slovakia. “Every time you get to look at how somebody else lives, it gives you perspective that’s useful,” Riehl told me. In 2000, he was sent to a village in eastern Slovakia, where he advocated for bicyclists’ rights. Riehl told me that living in a post-Communist society strengthened his appreciation for freedom, truth, and the virtues of small government. Now he was applying that idealism to his current campaign. “I do unequivocally state that the Sentinel is full of fake news,” he said.

Some residents found these attacks deeply misguided. “I think there’s a lot of emotion involved, and people are bringing opinions from the national debate into the local arena,” Bill Vrettos, a consultant with the Alternative Board, which advises businesses, told me. He described his politics as “radically middle-of-the-road,” and he didn’t believe that the Sentinel was slanted. In his opinion, a small-town newspaper plays a different role from that of a big publication, and he mentioned a recent incident in which two high-school students had killed themselves within a twenty-four-hour period. Before the Sentinel reported anything, Seaton, the publisher, had organized a meeting with school officials, mental-health experts, a suicide task force, and the father of a boy who had killed himself. The experts warned about copycat suicides, so the newspaper kept the deaths off the front page.

I met with Seaton at the Sentinel’s downtown office, where a conference-room wall is decorated with two framed front pages that reported the news from historically tragic dates: September 11, 2001, and May 2, 1982. The building has a three-level Goss printing press that is capable of turning out a hundred and fifty thousand issues per hour, because it was purchased in the early eighties, when people once again thought the oil-shale industry was about to take off. The current circulation is around twenty-five thousand. Seaton is from a Kansas-based family that owns eight newspapers around the Midwest; in 2009, they acquired the Sentinel. “I come from a long line of Republicans,” he told me. “My great-uncle served in Eisenhower’s Cabinet as Interior Secretary.” But he admitted that he finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile himself to today’s conservative movement. “The Party is too accommodating of elements that I would consider fringe, bordering on hate groups,” he said.

Seaton formerly worked as a corporate lawyer, and he believed that he had a valid case of defamation against Ray Scott. But he had decided not to proceed with a lawsuit. He worried that Trump uses the term “fake news” so often that its interpretation might change by the time a case reached judgment. “Maybe those words have lost their objective meaning,” Seaton said.

During the election season, it’s common for some people to cancel their subscriptions, but last year the Sentinel lost more of them than usual. That’s one of the ironies of the age: the New York Times and the Washington Post, which Trump often attacks by name, have gained subscribers and public standing, while a small institution like the Sentinel has been damaged within its community. Seaton didn’t know how to handle the fake-news accusations, although he had considered inviting Tyler Riehl to shadow a reporter for a day. He had also thought about doubling the reward for local media malfeasance. That five hundred dollars still hasn’t been claimed.

How Trump Is Transforming Rural America – The New Yorker