Everglades City, Florida. Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017.
I promised myself that I would spend the week of the inauguration camping and birding in the remotest parts of the Everglades, free from the news and distractions and aggravations of the assumption of power of the person (and his minions) who poses the greatest threat to American democracy since at least the Civil War. However, this traumatic event is like a mosquito bite that I know I should not scratch and nevertheless continue to do so. And so here I sit, on a terrace overlooking the water leading into the wild and unpopulated Ten Thousand Islands, at a local seafood joint called Triad Seafood. Everyone around me in this surprisingly busy restaurant in a tiny little town at the very edge of civilization in Florida is in a good mood and they are all drinking at midday. I have a lemonade as I am in no mood to celebrate and I still plan to head off into the wilderness of the Everglades after lunch. Everyone seems to be getting the Stone Crab, but I am feeling distinctly contrarian and order the fried shrimp instead. It is very good, straight from the water that morning and lightly fried to retain the fresh shrimp flavor. The scenery is beautiful. I should be enjoying this. I am not. I cannot wait to get back to the birds.
I did not come here to pick a fight or to spy on people; I was passing through from one campground to the next and I came to eat some local seafood after the steady diet of sandwiches that I have been eating and will continue to eat at my campsite. I suppose my curiosity about who these Trump voters are overcame my sense of foreboding. In a county whose results are almost exactly opposite the vote in Massachusetts for President, I suppose it is unsurprising that the bulk of the crowd seems to be in a highly excited state at the prospect of “our President” (I actually heard this phrase used) finally arriving after years of being ruled by an “illegitimate” president (this is a Fox trope that Trump himself promulgated vigorously during Obama’s term). It strikes me that the sentiment is the same in Boston, only almost the exactly the opposite: there the sense is that the first President to represent Urban America is being replaced by an unqualified, egomaniacal, and frankly dangerous man elected by a rearguard action of grumpy old white men from post-industrial Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. For it is abundantly clear that had turnout in Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee been as high as the turnout in the surrounding areas, Hillary Clinton would be the one being sworn in on this sunny yet dark day.
A friend of mine told of how he was cross with his parents for voting for Donald Trump and told them he thought they belonged to the “worst” generation, the generation following the so-called “greatest” generation who fought in World War II. This strikes me as a particularly perceptive comment on what may in fact be going on. I too think the generation many call the “baby boomers,” roughly born between 1945 and about 1960, seem to be hell-bent on taking the country down with them as they sail off into the sunset. To me, born in the mid 1960s, the aforementioned boomers are part of the so-called “Me” generation, a phrase I remember well from my childhood being applied to the young adults in the 1970s. It includes both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. From my perspective, the sooner we are rid of this generation, the sooner we can embrace the multicultural and diverse country we have become while the previous, mostly white, and strikingly less well-educated generation continue to fight their culture wars. Barack Obama was perhaps too early for the country; many people outside the major urban centers seemed unprepared to deal with his ‘divergence’ from what they expect in a president, specifically his skin color. Future generations will surely look back at the frankly racist attitudes of people with shock and dismay and probably a good deal of bewilderment at the rhetoric of these last and the next (at least) four years.
“He’s a good man” I hear one Trump advocate offer to the approving crowd, a sentiment I honestly had NEVER previously heard. This type of statement flat out astounds me. One can say many things about Trump: he will be tough, he will advocate for ‘real’ Americans, he is a businessman and will bring his deal-making ability to the White House to good effect. These are all sentiments that can be argued about as they have a kernel of truth in them. To say, however, that Trump is a ‘good man’ is beyond comprehension to me and reminds me of the Blackadder episode with the crazy Sea Captain who opines about a particular nautical topic “opinion is divided on the subject: I say yes, everyone else says no!”
The people to my immediate right are visiting from some other parts of the south and are clearly affluent and are also very, very happy about the new president as they continually make toasts to Trump and to ‘Making America Great Again.’ I am sorely tempted to jump in and spoil their fun with some barbed sarcasm, but I am also keen to dispel the notion that all northerners are rude and ornery. We are, but I am a guest and feel that it is not my place. Had they made a defamatory or derogatory comment about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton I would have thrown manners to the wind; in the event they were merely celebrating their victory in much the same way they might celebrate a winning football team.
Collier County, whose main town is Naples, is the county that makes up the southwestern corner of Florida, just above the Everglades and on the opposite coast directly across from Miami. It is one of the fastest growing counties in America, but at present has about 360,000 people in almost 2,000 square miles of land and an additional 300 mi² of water. The county directly to the east, Miami-Dade, has almost 2.7 million people in almost the same area (1898 mi² of land and 573 mi² of water). Demographically, the two counties could not be more different. While Collier County is 65% White (not Hispanic), Non-Hispanic Whites make up only 15% of the population of Dade County. Self-identified Hispanic residents make up about 67% of Miami-Dade, while the number for Collier County, at 27% is smaller but rapidly increasing. Blacks make up a little under 20% in Miami, but only about 7% in Collier County. Finally, 30.1 % or 3 in 10 people in Collier County are over the age of 65, twice the percentage for Miami-Dade (15.4%), and more than twice the percentage of over 65’s in the United States of America as a whole (14.9%). According to exit polls, Trump won 65+ voters by 53% to 45%, losing the rest of the voting public by an even larger margin than his 3 million vote loss indicates.
Voting results from the 2016 election reflect the differences in demography. Trump took 61.1% of the vote in Naples and the surrounding Collier County, while receiving 33.8% of the vote in Miami-Dade County to Clinton’s 63.2%. I won’t even dignify Trump’s idiotic claims of voter fraud with a whole entry as it is an exercise in futility to tilt at these insane windmills, except to point out that 59% of the voting age population of Collier County voted in the election, while only 46% of the voting age population of Miami-Dade County voted. In order for “millions of illegals” to have voted in such numbers to have swayed the popular vote as is claimed, one requirement would at least be to have the accused areas (that is, the big cities) show much higher turnouts than Trump supporting areas. Had Miami-Dade voted merely at the same rate as Collier County, there would have been 300,000 more voters from Miami-Dade County. Had they broken the same way as the actual turnout, Clinton would have gained essentially 200,000 of the new votes to Trump’s roughly 100,000. Clinton lost Florida by 100,000 votes. You do the math.
By the way, this is a pattern repeated in just about every large city in America: big city turnout was strikingly low compared to nearby suburban and rural Trump counties. If anything, the suspicions about voter fraud should be reversed: Why are the numbers in cities so low and how is it that so many people turned out in counties like Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, the county that had the largest population decline of any county in Pennsylvania in this century and yet had the highest number of votes cast in 12 years? The answer is fairly easy to discern from the data, and there is no need to flirt with voter fraud allegations to explain the results, but the fact is, voter fraud claims by Trump are flat out stupid and unsupported by the evidence and Trump himself is a fucking liar.
My interest in Collier County is primarily related to nature, which is found in abundance here. I visit the Corkscrew Audubon Sanctuary, a wonderful preserve of old-growth Bald Cypress, as well as the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where I see more birds in five minutes than I often see in a week of birding around Boston. Other places I visit include Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Collier-Seminole State Park, and of course immediately south in neighboring Monroe County, the vast Everglades National Park. For those who might be interested, I ended up seeing 108 bird species in my week in Florida, including such new United States Life list birds as Limpkins, Yellow-throated Warblers, and flamboyant Painted Buntings.
I am, however, incapable of ignoring the demography of any place I visit and ‘putting the faces to the demography’ as it were, by looking around me as I travel from place to place. Collier seems extraordinarily White to me, in a mid-western kind of pale, blond way. As it happens, at least part of the explanation is that most of my fellow campers are ‘snow birds’ from Middle America visiting for the winter and staying in campgrounds to save money. One pleasant woman I speak with at Koreshan State Park Campground is from Carbondale, Illinois and is very friendly in the typical Midwestern way. She too is a Trump supporter I learn with no effort, and I am on the point of asking her why, but decide again that it is not worth being rude.
As I chat with her I learn that she has been at the campsite for six weeks. This strikes me as unusual because the limit is two weeks. I assume she is the volunteer camp manager and ask her if that is so, especially as she seems to know everybody and is open and talkative. She tells me she is not and that she and her husband booked separate reservations in alternating two week increments to cover the whole season. I start to look around all the campgrounds I visit and start to notice the same thing: older, predominantly mid-western campers who seem to have set up shop for months at their camp site. Suddenly I realize why it is so hard to find reservations at many of the best Florida campgrounds.
It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of people who divulged their voting preference were Trump supporters. Thus I come away with one striking conclusion. The same people who seem to think that ‘minorities’ are feeding at the government trough, are themselves abusing the system in large numbers to have a cheap winter vacation in Florida. Unsurprisingly, I never saw a single black person at any campground in southwestern Florida. In the argument about ‘takers’ I am increasingly inclined to support the view of my friend about the “Worst Generation”.
It is in the Publix grocery store that I see the most racially mixed population: the staff of the market are mostly black, with a few white and Hispanic employees in the mix. I also discover the location of many of the Hispanic people of Collier County on my journey to Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Sanctuary, about 30 miles inland from the coast. En route I pass new development after new development, and the construction workers and landscapers seem by appearance to be predominantly Hispanic. The only people waiting for buses at the bus stops in Naples are Hispanic, very occasionally black. Just east of Corkscrew is a vast agricultural area centered around the town of Immokalee, which was made famous by an investigative report from the 1960s entitled Harvest of Shame. Today, the mostly black workers of the time have been replaced by Hispanic workers, but still remain impoverished. Along the coast on my way to Lover’s Key State Park I pass through coastal residential areas. Almost everyone but the workers in this wealthy residential area is white.
Halfway along the Tamiami Trail, the road connecting Naples to Miami which crosses mostly wilderness areas, is the Shark Valley Visitor Center of Everglades National Park. This is just inside Miami-Dade County and the difference from Collier County is immediately noticeable. Visitors here are of every race and many nations. Bikers have driven out from Miami to do laps on the almost completely flat Shark Valley Trail, a paved 15 mile loop through the Shark Valley Slough. The bikers are mostly young, very fit, and are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and many other combinations as well. I feel much more at home in this environment, which seems not so different from Boston. In Naples and other parts of Collier County, the blacks and Hispanics seem to be primarily in service industries. Here in Shark Valley, the bikers and families I see that appear to be locals seem to represent all walks of life. Miami-Dade is not Nirvana, but the divide between different groups seems less stark.
One campground I visited was much more diverse: perhaps unsurprisingly it was Flamingo Campground, at the end of the road at the southern end of Everglades National Park, 40 miles down the road from Miami. Here I saw mixed race couples kayaking, I saw Hispanic families picnicking, I saw Chinese American families taking selfies dangerously close to alligators. And yes, I saw older whites from the Midwest with their RVs here for the winter. I am not suggesting that ALL old white people from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, or even Florida are intolerant or that they are all Trump supporters. Clearly the voting data suggests otherwise. However, it is true that in Flamingo, not in Collier, I saw what to me is the true America.
I am told by the pundits that I live in a bubble, that the urban centers of America are blind to the plight of the people living in ‘real America’. Driving around Collier County I realize they have it exactly backwards. The largely overweight people from the Midwest I encounter in the campgrounds are in fact the ones in the bubble, driving from their small Midwestern towns to a campground full of people primarily just like them. The residents of the ubiquitous golf course/housing developments are living in a bubble of their own choosing. They live in a closed environment, where the only foray they make is to the grocery store or a nearby restaurant, driving everywhere and yet seeing nothing save mall after mall, development after development. Naples is not a proper city; it is an overgrown gated community. Sure these developments exist in Miami as well. The difference is that Miami is an actual city and at some level anybody living there is forced to interact with the city and with its diversity and its complexity. My neighborhood in Boston is primarily White, but I have only to get on the Subway or take a walk or play golf at nearby Franklin Park to see that True America, the America of the future, is here and not in Naples, Florida.
The United States of America of the twenty first century IS principally an urban nation. The evidence is beyond dispute. It is the rest of country which is living in a bubble, from where the only contact they have with the world outside their bubble is mediated by Fox News: hence the ‘carnage’ that Trump espouses seems true to people for whom the nearest city is the place where you get shot. I realized at one point in my travels that this driving and driving from one mall type area to another mall type area is what many people who do not live in big cities experience all the time. It became clear to me that it would be incredibly easy never to visit a big city in this type of lifestyle and therefore to have their image of cities be entirely acquired from the media that streams into their consciousness rather than from direct experience. Of course there are major problems in every city in America; on balance however, the profile promulgated by Trump and his ilk is misguided at best and venal at worst.
Perhaps the clearest expression of the appeal of Donald Trump was a comment I overheard in one of the campgrounds in Collier County. The group opposite me, who kept a fire going well past curfew, and were quite loud until one of their neighbors asked them to shut it down had a long conversation over beers which included the phrase that to me distills the essence of the Trump appeal, a sort of zero-sum world view in which the sense of being left behind is palpable: “What’s yours is yours what’s mine is mine.” They went hunting the next day. ME ME ME MINE.
The first campsite I stayed at was at a place called Koreshan, in Estero, Florida. This beautiful site was donated to the state by the last survivor of the utopian community that founded the place in the late 1890s. The details of the beliefs of this community are both interesting and pretty exotic (let’s just say it begins with the conclusion that the earth is hollow and that we live inside it and ends with the notion of reincarnation which required NOT burying the body, but rather leaving it in place!). I got to wondering as I wandered the grounds at dawn how it could be that people from all different walks of life would choose to come to what was, at the time, an exotic wilderness, plagued by mosquitoes and lacking in readily available food or shelter. That the community thrived for a time is not in doubt as I stroll the well-manicured Victorian gardens surrounding the lovely buildings they erected: a schoolhouse, a theater, a print shop from where they published a newspaper, a general store, a carpentry shop, a bakery, and many other buildings.
That they were celibate of course played a major role in the demise of the community. But many drifted away, disillusioned perhaps at not finding what it was they were searching for. I am at once amazed by the labor and by the vigorous intellectual life documented and discussed in the brochures and waysides and appalled that seemingly intelligent people could believe what to me is utter nonsense and that worse, they would give over everything they owned to go to the middle of nowhere to found a ‘New Jerusalem’. Yet the message I take away is that people are looking for the truth or for meaning in their lives and once found, will work vigorously to bring to fruition their goals.
Unfortunately people are also taken in by salesman and hucksters just as frequently. The leader of this organization, a man named Cyrus Teed, to me appears to dangerously straddle that line between true believer and fraud. He died early in the life of the community and the largely matriarchal leadership ran the place tolerably successfully for a few decades before the decline began. Perhaps it is just as well: Teed changed his name to Koresh, apparently a version of the name of Cyrus the great of Persia, which somehow also implied Messiah (I am happily unclear on the finer theological points here, but it appears that something similar occurred with the infamous David Koresh). We have a new Messiah; he is a huckster and a fraud and sadly, people taken in him by him will suffer the consequences as will people who are not fooled by his vacuous promises. Let’s see how happy things are at Triad Seafood in a few years.
Robert Is Here Fruit Stand, Homestead, Florida, January 23, 2017.
On my last day, I leave the Everglades and pass through a primarily agricultural area for a few miles until I reach an overgrown fruit stand with a large sign proclaiming ‘ROBERT IS HERE.’ This local institution is almost a mandatory stop for visitors to the Everglades and for locals and is particularly famous for the fruit milk shakes that they make with a striking variety of fruits. As I wait in the long line to order and then wander the premises while waiting for my drink I can’t help but marvel at the amazing variety of fruit on display: guanabana, papaya, grapefruit, key limes, mamey, coconuts, mangoes, avocados, sapote, bananas, jack fruit, and so on, all really fresh and smelling wonderfully. What seems to be an entire extended family works there as do many other workers, many Hispanic. A young black man comes in while I am waiting who clearly worked at the store at some point and one of the women from the family greets him with a big hug and they have a long and friendly chat about what he has been up to lately.
The crowd here is as diverse as the fruit; if there was a racial group not represented while I was there I would be surprised; all ages, all races, all religions (even women wearing hijabs). No shooting occurred while I was there, there were no terrorist attacks or race riots. There was much good cheer and some very happy kids of all ages enjoying their delicious milkshake (strawberry papaya for me thank you) as they meandered the grounds of the exotic farm animal pens in the rear of the building (including emus, which I did not count as a life bird!) Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump might have found something to carp about: perhaps the Chinese woman in front of me got an ounce more ice cream or maybe the little Hispanic girl that bumped me did not say excuse me fast enough. I found the experience rewarding and a healthy reminder of what makes the United States of America so great. Robert Moehling is in fact here, working as hard as any of his staff with a big smile on his face.
One of his family members, perhaps a son or even a grandson (there is a strong resemblance) is working by the counter. He is a big White guy with a hipster look, including a funky beard, a slick hat, and tattoos all over the place. He is laughing and chatting with his co-worker, a young Hispanic guy in a white tank top and hairnet who could easily be mistaken for a cast member of Scarface. Directly behind them on a column near the counter is a photograph of a smiling President Barack Obama visiting this place at some point during his presidency. I will hang on to this image every time a new menacing Trump directive or tweet is released, to remind me that the situation we currently find ourselves in is Not Normal! Resist!