American Politics And The Search For Authenticity In A Trip To Alaska

IMG_4605Below 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

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35 thoughts on “American Politics And The Search For Authenticity In A Trip To Alaska”

  1. Autumn,

    Love your peeps comment!

    Bernie was for some really bad stuff long before he ran in this election. You’d need to assume he was blackmailed since the 90’s as an explanation for why he took some rather heinous positions since that time. People always said Obama was being blackmailed as well. But again, he was into heinous work long before he entered political life.

    I think we need to look at the long picture of these two men’s lives. Consider also, if Bernie had come out and said they are threatening x,y and z, his supporters would have been at the gates of the White House, in mass. I wish they would mass at the gates right now on behalf of the things which need doing!

  2. @Roland

    Jill not Hill voter here in SC. She is not on the ballots in all states though. I have my peeps in NV working on it so she can be on the ballot there. Johnson is pro TPP so no vote for him by Progressives.

  3. This is not a binary race. This is not a binary world. There are 2 other candidates. Why isn’t anyone talking about them? Gary Johnson, Libertarian, & Jill Stein, Green Party. “Vote your conscience.” Even if it is the best dirty shirt.

  4. @Jill

    I too have read Black Agenda Report Glen Ford as well as Chris Hedges warning that Bernie was a sheepdog. However, having seen him live and followed his speeches and the amazing surrogates he attracted I do not believe this theory. I honestly think they (Clinton machine) threatened to

    kill Jane or the grands

    OR criminally prosecute him because of donations – we all know it was an organic movement – hell we’d get notice that he was gonna be in town 12 hours before! So he did not a team of accountants vetting all the contributions and I’m certain some people (hilbots) donated too much on purpose or foreigners sent in contributions

  5. Professor T,
    Thanks for sharing your pics!
    You have proven the old axiom of photo composition that you shouldn’t stick your subject in the dead center to be false with your opening image! Works great!
    Thanks for sharing

  6. BB,

    I looked at Sanders record very carefully. He hasn’t been a nice guy for a very long time. It wasn’t the case that he was a good man who just got caught up in some bad things which were out of his league. He’s been breaking bad for a long time now. For one thing he fully supports the “rights” of presidents to kill anyone, anywhere on their own say so. A person who thinks that isn’t a nice person and they do not support the rule of law.

    Not only did he fail to seek justice for his voters who were disenfranchised, he told them to shut up. Any person with integrity would have made a genuine attempt to get those votes counted. They would have protested other people being disenfranchised and walked out of the DNC to show he did not accept the illegal treatment of voters.

    That’s not expecting too much. The US is in a state of emergency. If he had to Bern his career in defense of justice, so be it.

    As to Trump, his branding is that he’s the new maverick in town. If you look at his actual relationships to people in power, they tell a different story.

  7. Note, I’m quite aware that Sanders has been in politics for decades; however, he hasn’t been going for the big ring for decades.

  8. Jill, I don’t see Sanders or Trump as sell outs; more as having limits in character. Speaking of which, I don[‘t see Professor Turley’s comment about Trump’s character as a “slam”. Getting near the ring is potent stuff. Hillary is totally burned out. One corrupt crispy critter. Perhaps Sanders and Trump simply haven’t had the same exposure.

    That isn’t to say Sanders’ over-the-top concession at the convention wasn’t deeply disappointing; rather, that sell out, particularly in the sense of being all part of one big cynical game, is probably too strong a term. His sincerity and enthusiasm during the primaries was too intense and particularly self surprised to be fake. He was truly not expecting the level of response and hope that he got from the public. He got caught up in it utterly. Perhaps it’s as Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism says, paraphrasing, We expect to much of them. (she said this about Warren).

    Personally, I am more disappointed in Elizabeth Warren. Right or wrong, I get the feeling she is an example of really selling out even if on one level she imagines it’s simply a tactical move.

  9. Jay,

    I think you misunderstand this article. JT isn’t asking for people to vote for this man. He’s pointing out that people desperately want authenticity from those who wish to be leaders in our society.

    The “leaders” we have now are completely managed, packaged and branded for voter consumption. These branded #$$-holes are the people destroying the earth, the economy and the rule of law. Whether they are packaged as small town fellers or well known city-folk, it’s all the same– they are losers shilling for the oligarchy!

  10. “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)”

    I imagine he’ll be getting a cease and desist order from Bentonville later today.

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