Below is my recent column in USA Today on the anger of voters with the two mainstream presidential nominees and my recent trip to Alaska. Below are some pictures from the visit to Mike Carpenter’s trading post on the way to Denali National Park.
On most days, a grizzled old man hawking a human hand would a tad off-putting. However, standing before Mike Carpenter at his trading post in the remote area of Alaska, I realized that I had found just I was looking for. A genuine person.
Recently, I had set out to put just about as much distance between me and Washington, D.C. as possible. It only took 4477 miles and days of driving, but I have actually found wonderful people who are both direct and honest. Real people live here and you can actually see what is happening in this country — and this election — that has so mystified pundits back East. Watching the Republican and Democratic conventions unfold, Washington increasingly feels as like an American Versailles where the elite enjoy the spoils but little of the support of the citizenry.
It is easy in Washington to accept the cynicism and corruption of the beltway as a natural state of man. Reality is managed in Washington for a public that is viewed as gullible and childlike. Politicians are packaged and repackaged to fit the latest results from focus groups and polls.
Despite decades in Capitol, I finally had enough with the denizens of the DC. The politicians, reporters and Beltway bandits. So, when I was offered to speak to a group in Girdwood and, grabbing one of my sons, I went North to Alaska.
I am obviously not alone in burning out on our political system and the artificiality of our leaders. Voters are in full revolt except for the hardcore Republican and Democratic bases. The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders reflected this desire for authenticity.
Ironically, voters are not necessarily demanding a good person … just a real person. No one would suggest that Donald Trump has particularly good character, but he comes across as genuinely, if not scarily, unrehearsed. Trump’s habit of saying shocking things only reaffirmed to voters that he is exactly as he appeared.
The result was a massacre of GOP politicians who openly sought any image or issue to appeal to citizens. Jeb Bush seemed at points to be virtually begging voters to just tell him who he should be. Marco Rubio plummeted when he actually tried to become Trump for around 24 hours with comments about his manhood and hand size. No one bought it . . . or him. Trump is not necessarily a good person but is viewed as a real person.
On the Democratic side, the campaign of Hillary Clinton has been remarkably open about managing every aspect of Clinton from her appearance to her positions — everything is malleable and managed. The campaign regularly discusses new “tweaks” of Clinton’s image or “reintroductions”, including discussing how they were going to try to make her funny or self-deprecating or grandmotherly or hawkish or dovish.
It not only has not worked, it often comes across to normal people as just creepy. In a coffee shop, Clinton often has that look of entering a camp of Hottentots following the anthropological rules for approaching the natives.
However, it is far, far worse than people imagine. Surrounding these people are hundreds of cynical people who view politics with the same lack of content as a Sham Wow commercial: a series of pitches to appeal to a nation of chumps. It is an easy view to embrace. You are part of the elite that packages events or people for public consumption. Truth and integrity are images that come out of a test tube in a political lab.
Call it a lingering residue or faint memory, but I have increasingly longed for something that is actually real. That was what brought me in a Jeep traveling deep into Alaska when I passed a trading post that looked like a shack entirely composed of thousands of pieces of junk. Called “Wal Mike” (as a take off on Wal-Mart), the trading post and long running post office sells everything from fresh eggs to washers to mastodon bones. The collage of junk has a certain genius to it — more art than science. Elk antlers are tangled up with old gas pumps, dried moose brains, old albums, and miscellaneous tools. The bathroom is an outhouse with a hallowed out stump.
However, the greatest find in this mountain of humanity’s castaways is Mike Carpenter, 72. He has operated this trading post for 52 years — before the road was laid to Denali. Missing a few teeth and wearing bear claws, Carpenter is, in a word, genuine. No one put him together or his post. He and it are as you see them. Within seconds, you know the man. We walked around his place as he pointed out his first truck, a 1942 Dodge entangled with junk that adhered like the barnacles of human flotsam.
Carpenter is a character of his own creation. You take him or leave him for what he is. What is truly tragic is that most of our leaders have lost that ability. It has been so long since they were actually themselves; they no longer remember who that was.
As I visited with Mike and drank a Coke that seemed to have expired around 1968, I found myself rediscovering the concept of authenticity at its most extreme. In a jar was a human hand he acquired and pictures of people he pulled dead out of the ice. He said “no one looks for them,” so he finds them and brings them back. I guess I know how that feels.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. Follow Jonathan Turley on Twitter: @JonathanTurley