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. So, someone from Alaska, without much political knowledge ( but — AUTHENTIC ), would an ideal candidate for national office? Haven’t we tried that already?

  2. People who are for Trump–I urge you to reconsider his “authenticity”. Just as Sanders was a complete fraud, there is real evidence that Trump is also a fraud. This govt. knows people are longing for exactly what JT is writing about so eloquently. They are using this desire for authenticity in a cynical way with Trump and Sanders. With this govt., things are never as they appear.

    I have never seen so many people, no matter what their political ideology, both so disgusted with the status quo and so terrified of what is happening in our nation and around the world. Pretty much everyone knows things are going in a terrible direction and that the economy is collapsing. Although you never hear this from the M$M, people still know this.

    Propaganda misdirects people as to the origin of the problems and this is really hampering our ability to take actions in the best interests of our nation. This propaganda is so powerful. I really don’t know how to get around it. Speaking as a leftist, I have been shocked by the number of kind, intelligent, thoughtful people who thought Sanders was (or still is) the greatest guy. I couldn’t see why people didn’t understand he was/is a fraud, even after he stabbed his own voters in the back, he’s still a nice guy. There is something really messed up about that!

    Most mainstream Democrats are paid to like Clinton or are so terrified of Trump, they refuse to acknowledge the fascists in their midst.

    Trump supporters are going to get Berned as well.

    Since our political class appears beyond hope, it is up to we the people to have an authentic desire for truth, even when that challenges long held ideology. It is up to us to want justice for all. These shouldn’t be words we mindless mouth, but actions we will take on behalf of every person.

  3. Professor Turley,

    Excellent article – I so enjoyed your posting your Alaskan adventures.

    Re: the Donald, he’s certainly authentic all right. I enjoy his exposing HRC as a fraud and a criminal. But I’m all about Jill Stein this election. She won’t win, but at least pull votes off HRC.

  4. This is a super article, and nice input by readers. I’m afraid it’s far worse though, I can’t believe how the democrats have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the Trump-Putin facade. The progressives just do not see what the possible fruit of their actions may be; it is so rotten, the whole thing (including all of here) could self-destruct. Isn’t there just a point in time where we ignore DC to the point that new systems of civilization arise, and DC just becomes background noise? I guess we could only hope.

  5. I would say a facade of “character or a moral core” is far worse. It’s been this way for so long that our culture has developed a co-dependent relationship with our government. Elect this person and IF they don’t turn out to be what you thought then elect someone else in 4 years. Our government is like my late, alcoholic mother; she was predictable sober but when she drank, all bets were off. I ran out of the house one particularly abusive night to the police station and reported her. They drove me back home and turned me over to her with a chuckle. That’s what’s become of our judiciary.

    The American people will cling to truth because it is predictable, not because it’s the truth they want to hear.

  6. Great essay. This election cycle has shown that the people are yearning for truth; ANY truth. It’s refreshing and it’s not ideological. I am a conservative but I could see myself voting for a liberal if that liberal spoke the truth and could be trusted. Trump and Sanders connect with people looking for a candidate that IS what they say they are. Clinton is the antithesis of truth. And that is the hallmark of Progressivism.

  7. This is the crux, JT: “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.” Sadly, I think that thought applies to not only politicians but to professionals in general from academic hacks to journalist lapdogs, corrupt lawyers and on and on.
    It is the northlands, not just Alaska, that tend to be peopled with genuine humans. My favorite place is Newfoundland/Labrador on the opposite side of the continent. There I’ve met the friendliest people ever encountered. Wandering about with my camera I’ve been invited in for a beer here, a tea there, then just a few weeks ago many beers, seal stew and a place to sleep for the night. No charge! That was in Fleur de Lys…
    G. Tod Slone, Ed.
    The American Dissident

  8. Great piece. And I’m thinking Mike is pleased. He’ll be selling human hands, hands over fist! There is something about Alaska that creates a visceral feeling of freedom. JT writing during his trip evoked the same feelings I had during my first visit. It drew me back 4 years later to visit other areas of Alaska. But, having been to Anchorage, Girdwood, Seward, Talkeetna, Denali, Juneau, Skagway, Haines, Whitehorse, and into the Yukon, I realize I have really just begun. My nest trip will be the Aleutian Islands. I have seeing a Kodiak bear in the wild on my bucket list. I’ve seen grizzlies in the wild in Denali, but I want to see those bigger, stronger, Kodiak’s.

    JT’s trip was perfect timing for his epiphany. If I’ve learned anything during my 6 decades on this planet, timing is everything. We have a good collection of people here. The people consumed by the duopoly, left right and center. But we also have a good share of free thinkers. I have traveled 48 states. Without question the highest percentage of free thinkers I have ever met was in Alaska. Yes, the geography is what brings you to Alaska. But, like every place I’ve visited, the people are often what you remember as much as the geography. Alaskans are genuine. Probably the most genuine in this country.

  9. This is why I’m planning a trip to Bolivia during the election. The Tinku festival will fulfill JT’s comment:

    “entering a camp of Hottentots following the anthropological rules for approaching the natives”.

  10. A system that is engineered and re-engineered and tweaked and re=tweaked to produce benefit solely for a tiny fraction of the whole is bound to collapse under the weight of its exclusion and no amount of lies, no degree of sophistication in double speak or packaging of the truth can prevent it.

    Authenticity will come in handy. Truth is, there is more creative power under that hollowed out stump for the growth of living things (including revolutions as Zoba the Greek used to say) than in all of our political and economic system. That’s authenticity and may our politicians be covered in it!

  11. The Democrats need the Republicans and the Republicans need the Democrats, but they don’t need anybody else.

  12. Our recent state primary had the most individuals running for Congress that I have seen to my recollection. Also were more political parties (which are self-declared by candidates) including an odd one listed for one candidate as the System Reboot Party. I strongly believe that the voters’ Contempt For Congress and voters wanting change is a driving force for much of this.

    But then I lamented on what unfortunately is as sad as it is predictable: that since our contemptible primary system only allows the top two candidates to advance to the general election, once again casting anyone other than a democrat or republican into a dust bucket of chads.

  13. To Squeeky, I would have to agree with you. I also cringed at the “No one would suggest…” part above. I have respect for Trump as what you see is what you get. And as Mike Pence said two weeks ago in Ohio, “You can’t fake good kids.” In contrast, I still don’t know who Barack Obama is and he has been faking the presidency and looking out for the American people for 8 years.

  14. @JT

    This is probably the best article of yours that I have seen. I love the Hottentots and ShamWow references!

    The only thing that sort of made me stumble, was this line, “No one would suggest that Donald Trump has particularly good character, but he comes across as genuinely, if not scarily, unrehearsed.”

    Well, I would suggest that Trump has a fantastic character. You see it in his children, and you see it in the way he respects the working people on his projects. I think the negative Trump stuff has just become a cliche, like a pretty coed, or a fine trimmed lawn. Well, all coeds are not pretty, and all lawns are not fine trimmed, and Trump does not have a bad character just because that is the cliche.

    Other than that, wonderful essay!

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

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