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America Is Divided. Evan Osnos' 'Wildland' Looks At How That Happened

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How did America become so divided? Why is there so much rage and fear? How did the gap grow so large between the wealthiest and everyone else? And why did we come so close to overturning the results of a presidential election? These are some of the questions my guest, Evan Osnos, grapples with in his new book "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." Osnos is also the author of a book about Joe Biden. He covers politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. He was the magazine's China correspondent from 2008 to 2013. His first book, "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China," won a 2014 National Book Award.

His new book "Wildland" reports on three different places that he's lived in. In Clarksburg, W.Va., coal country, where he started his journalism career working for a local paper, he considers what was gained and lost when some of America's wealthiest people tapped the natural resources beneath the homes of some of the poorest people in America. In Greenwich, where he grew up, he writes about how it became the hedge fund capital of the world and how that world of money affected American capitalism and politics. In Chicago, where he formerly wrote for the Tribune, he looks at the compounded effects of American segregation on health and wealth.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's always a treat to have you on the show. Since you've written about West Virginia in your new book and you have a long article about Joe Manchin that you wrote a few months ago in The New Yorker, I want to ask you about Joe Manchin, Democratic senator from West Virginia, now in his third term. In some ways, he controls the Democratic Party now. They need his vote to pass legislation including voting rights and infrastructure.

And he's insisting on bipartisanship when it's clear that that is not on Mitch McConnell's agenda. McConnell has made it clear that he basically wants to block the Biden administration agenda. He made it very clear that his goal No. 1 was to block Obama when Obama was president. So what is this bipartisanship insistence about, in your mind, when it's fair to assume that Manchin knows, as well as anybody else, that the Republican Party isn't into bipartisanship right now?

EVAN OSNOS: I think Joe Manchin is responding to a couple of pieces from his life. Number one, he grew up in a state that was all Democrats for a very long time. And as recently as the year 2000, the congressional delegation of West Virginia was fully Democratic. And over the course of just a couple of decades, actually, it's gone now fully Republican with the exception of him. And so he operates almost literally at home - his neighbors, you know, when he's home, the places that he goes, the people he sees.

And he doesn't look at the transformation of the Republican Party the way that I think many Americans do, which is that it has fallen into the grip of Donald Trump in ways that people find just bizarre. He actually looks at it, and he says, these are my - these are people I've known forever. I can understand the thought process that goes into their support for him. And so he is more inclined to imagine that he can persuade them. He can win them over - that he can figure out a way to try to get them to agree.

I will say something else, though, I think is important. To understand Joe Manchin, you have to remember he comes from a town called Farmington, W.Va., that has a population of about 300 people. And for a long time, they were all Democrats. And now today, most of them voted for Donald Trump. And so he doesn't go and feel as if Republicans are intractable or impossible to persuade. In fact, they are people he has literally known his whole life.

I think some people will assume that Manchin does what he does because he is looking for political survival, that, well, how could he get reelected if he doesn't do these things? I think there's something also a little bit deeper to it. On a deep level, he doesn't really want to be somebody who looks like he went Washington. I mean, he goes to elaborate lengths to try to show that he's still an authentic man of West Virginia. He lives on a houseboat in Washington, for instance, and likes to say that he could weigh anchor and leave any time. But the truth is that a lot of Democrats are - you know, will feel as if he is just wildly out of touch with where the Republican Party has moved.

GROSS: So, you know, his record - he's had some success in persuading fellow Democrats to moderate their bills...

OSNOS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...To suit his needs and his constituents' needs or what he thinks his constituents' needs are. But has he ever won over - you know, in the recent past, has he ever won over Republicans in the Senate?

OSNOS: No. He holds out hope for it, but we don't see examples of him being able to do it. I think he believes that, really, the role that he's playing is actually less about persuading Republicans to come over and join him than it is about preventing his own party from moving into a progressive direction that he doesn't think West Virginians would ever support. So he sees himself actually as much of a change agent within the Democratic Party as he does somebody who's going to be able to communicate with Republicans.

GROSS: You - I hadn't seen this myself, but you write that his website boasted that he voted with the Trump administration 74% of the time and that no senator, Democratic or Republican, split with their party more often than he did. So I'm sure Democrats weren't happy to read that on his website.

OSNOS: Yeah, he's proud of it. Look. He is this very strange, small species left in American politics. He's a Democrat in a sea of red in West Virginia. And the general understanding is that for the near term, there's probably no other Democrat who can win statewide in West Virginia. And so Democrats in the leadership, people like Dick Durbin of Illinois, have this very complicated relationship with him - or Chuck Schumer - because they say, well, he's driving us - I mean, I'm using - this is my words, not theirs. He's driving us slightly crazy. On the other hand, were it not for him, we wouldn't even have a chance to control the Senate.

And I think among practitioners, Terry, there's this interesting detail, which is that among people who are professional politicians like Chuck Schumer or Joe Biden, on some level, they just admire the fact that Manchin is able to get elected in West Virginia. And so even though he drives them nuts by standing in the way of things that they're trying to solve, there is a piece of them that also says, well, were it not for him, we'd be in the minority.

GROSS: You write that there's been a lot of pressure on Manchin from the right, including from the Koch network of foundations and businesses and activist groups. So what is that pressure like? And what impact do you think that's had on Manchin?

OSNOS: They, at some points, have called for things like protests in the state capital of Charleston, trying to pressure him to be more responsive. And look. He knows this. He follows it. Manchin is a kind of a sleepless character. He's constantly on the phone. He's always talking to people and - even more so than most politicians. He's got a bit of a kind of limitless political hunger. He - I think there is a way in which he doesn't like to show anybody that he's responsive either to pressure from the left or pressure from the right.

And in a curious way, Terry, he is a bit of a puzzle to people who are trying to make him change positions because they find they'll go in. They'll talk to him. They'll - he'll sound like he might agree with them. But then in the end, he ends up doing exactly what he wants to do. And oftentimes, he's sort of impulsive, and he'll do it at the last minute. He'll change his position a bit. But in some ways, the most important interactions in Washington are the ones between Joe Manchin and Joe Biden.

And at one point, I remember Manchin saying to me that - he said, you know, I won't always do what Biden wants me to do. But when it came to the stimulus bill, which was just this huge, historic piece of legislation early on in the Biden administration, he said Biden asked him outright. He said, can you do this for me? And Manchin said, I will because I think you'll lose momentum as president if I don't. And there's a deeper lesson in there, which is Biden knows that. And he knows that he has this - he always has this option up his sleeve. But he can only use it a few times, and he can ask Manchin outright.

There was once a moment in public when Manchin said, I want Joe Biden to be a successful president. And it sounds like a throwaway line, except what he's hinting at is that there may be moments, when push comes to shove, yes, he will demand a lot. He'll drive Democrats crazy in the things that he wants and dragging down some of the ambitious goals that they have for change. But when the final votes are counted, he may be there, and they're counting on that. And if they're disappointed, if they're wrong, he will go down in history as the person who stood in the way of the Democratic Party's opportunity.

GROSS: I want to ask you about an ad that Joe mentioned, a TV ad back in 2010, and it has to do with basically - literally shooting legislation. Can you - could you describe this TV ad?

OSNOS: Yeah. In 2010 he posted something that turned out to be kind of a landmark in political advertising. People had been holding guns in political ads for years, but he took it a step further. And in his television ad, he said, I'm going to take on Washington and this administration, meaning the Obama administration. He is, after all, a Democrat. And then he lifted a rifle to his shoulder, and he said, I'll repeal the bad parts of Obamacare, and he said, I'll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill because it's bad for West Virginia. He was appealing to West Virginians' suspicion of climate change legislation.

And as a result of the ad, in which he fired a bullet through a copy of this cap-and-trade bill, it kind of created a bit of an arms race in political advertising. Pretty soon you saw other candidates shooting legislation. And there was one particularly memorable Republican candidate for Congress in Arizona who took the Obamacare bill and shot it with a handgun and a rifle and a semiautomatic rifle and then eventually ran it through a wood chipper. I mean, it was like - there was a way in which the symbolism of guns and politics and animosity had become fused in this particularly bizarre expression of American politics. And I - you know, this is the kind of thing that, coming back from abroad, I sort of looked at and had to do a double take and say, really? How did we start doing this? When did this happen?

GROSS: Did you ask Manchin about that ad?

OSNOS: I spoke to the person who came up with the ad, actually, one of his advisers. And he remembers they were not doing all that well in the campaign. It was late at night, and they were on a call. And this adviser - you know, he was from New York City. He says, I wouldn't really know the right end of a gun if I was - if it was sitting in my lap. But he said, can we shoot a bill? Can we - it doesn't matter what. Let's just shoot a bill. I think that's going to be the way that we're going to endear ourselves to voters. And people laughed at the idea originally. They said, no, no, we're not going to do that. And then he said, no, no, seriously, can we do it? And then they said, well, sure. And Manchin loved the idea, and they went ahead with it.

GROSS: So Joe Manchin spent a lot of his career as a coal broker in the energy world. I'm not sure what a coal broker means, but who benefited from that company? And did coal miners - did working people benefit from the kind of work that the company did?

OSNOS: As a coal broker, Joe Manchin's job was partly about lining up buyers and sellers. And so he operated very deeply in the coal industry. And, you know, I think you would hear different answers to the question of who benefited. Some workers would tell you, well, without coal brokers, then there's nobody to pay my salary. But the truth is that he was also - fundamentally, he was oriented to want to see the coal companies succeed. He wanted to see that economy as a part of West Virginia's future.

And I asked him once - I said, you know, do you think that your own business interests have clouded your judgment on things like the environment or workers' protection? And he responded - he sort of bristled at that suggestion. He said, no, no. He said, I can separate these things. This is not a case in which my judgment is clouded. A lot of people in West Virginia, particularly Democrats, would disagree, and they feel as if he has very much been an agent of a period in which politics was dominated by the interests and the power of energy companies. And I think that's part of the reason why you see a lot of young people in West Virginia who kind of roll their eyes at the era of Joe Manchin's dominance of the state. And they want to see new blood, people who can envision a different way of earning a living.

GROSS: Tell us more about the questions that drove this book, the things you wanted to learn from reporting on three cities - Greenwich, Conn., Clarksburg, W.Va., and Chicago.

OSNOS: I think, in some ways, what really fascinated me was not only the degree of distance and seclusion and separation. In some ways, we know that. We know that we're polarized. What really surprised me was the degree to which places were impacting each other in ways that they didn't even know day-to-day.

And I'll give you an example. I was really struck by the fact that, in Chicago, there was this very clear long-running effect of the financial crisis, particularly in predominantly Black neighborhoods. I met a man named Maurice Clark, whose family had taken a subprime loan, and the mortgage rate had gone through the roof. And eventually, they had lost their house. And he had walked me around the neighborhood and had said to me, you know, in Black neighborhoods in Chicago, he said, the financial crisis never ended. It's still going on.

And I was struck by the fact that some of the people who had been primary architects and beneficiaries of the subprime mortgage period in American life lived in my hometown of Greenwich, Conn. It just fascinated me that people like Dick Fuld, who was the chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers and had made something like $300 million over the previous seven years leading up to the financial crisis, and Chuck Prince, who'd been the chairman and CEO of Citibank - and Citibank had received the largest bailout of any bank in American history. And I was struck by the ways in which you had these two places from my life that were experiencing a phase of American history in such radically different ways. And I needed to understand those connections. So in a curious way, Terry, it was actually not the distance between the places that fascinated me. It was the connections between them.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He reports on politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. His new book is called "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos. He reports on politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. His new book, "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury," examines how America became so divided and angry and close to overturning democracy.

Two of the places that you write about are such interesting contrasts because there's, you know, Greenwich, Conn., which is the hedge fund capital of the world, and Clarksburg, W.Va., which is a struggling town. It's coal country. They've lost jobs. They have lost other businesses. They've lost population. How did they each go in terms of voting for Trump?

OSNOS: Yeah, that fact actually gets to one of the things that is a surprise when you look now at the Trump phenomenon. At the time, it was sometimes described that Trump was like a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and that was never actually quite right. What we realized is that it was actually a joint venture between elements of the Republican establishment and this more populist frontier of the Republican Party that Trump had activated.

But they responded to him for very different reasons. One of the things I found in Greenwich in talking to Republicans there who voted for him - you know, people would say to me that they felt as if he was going to protect their economic interests or their taxes or things like that. And I think there was also a degree to which Greenwich is a place that has been at the heart of the Republican establishment for a long time. It was quite literally the hometown of George H.W. Bush, and his father had been a senator from Connecticut.

And over time, that Republican establishment had gradually made its peace - in fact, had supported the rise of people like Ted Cruz and eventually Donald Trump, who represented this much harsher and cruder edge of the party. And I - look; I think the honest answer is that it wasn't - it didn't come out of nowhere by any means. It was, in fact, this quite steady accumulation of policy choices and the decisions that were made along the way to promote the kinds of politics that Trump represented.

In West Virginia, people were responding to Trump for something very different, which was - Trump went down to West Virginia, and he put on a coal miner's helmet and said to people at a rally, I'm going to put you back to work; you're going to be working your asses off, as he said. And you know, I remember talking to a coal miner named David Efaw afterwards. And you know, I said, honestly, did you believe that that would happen? And he said, look; I have no illusions about who Donald Trump is. He voted for him. He said, but I voted for him only because he was the only one who was offering me a deal, offering me something. I mean, I'm paraphrasing here. But he was saying to him, I will bring back this industry.

And look; the reality was that industry was not coming back. And over the course of the next four years, West Virginia lost an additional 6,400 coal jobs. So Trump's promises were an illusion. But there was a degree to which he was paying political attention to West Virginia in a way that people had not in a long time. And there was a desperation because of the degree of the falling away that West Virginia had experienced over the last 20 or 30 years that when somebody came along and did that, it was electrifying, and people gravitated towards him.

GROSS: So did Trump do anything that actually improved the lives of people in Clarksburg, W.Va?

OSNOS: Well, for a period of time, he created a regulatory environment that would promote the exploration for natural gas. And so some people did benefit from that. There were jobs that were created that hadn't been there before. But it's a Boom And Bust Economy in oil and gas, meaning that jobs can appear very quickly and then disappear very quickly when prices drop or the rules change. And I think to his critics in Clarksburg, people would tell you that what frustrates them is that there has been nobody in politics, Trump or anybody else, who has begun to create any kind of durable economic foundation, something that will last beyond the next boom in oil and gas. And so they find themselves still captive to this fragile economic model instead of putting in money into education and putting into the kinds of new technologies that might be there for decades to come.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he covers foreign affairs and politics. His new book is called "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL, ELVIS COSTELLO AND BURT BACHARACH'S "VAMP DOLCE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos. He reports on politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. His new book, "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury," examines how America became so divided and angry and close to overturning democracy. He reports on three cities that he's lived in, Greenwich, Conn., which became the hedge fund capital of the world, Clarksburg, W.V., coal country, and Chicago, which, like so much of America, is still dealing with the legacy of slavery and segregation.

You not only profiled Joe Manchin for The New Yorker, you wrote a whole book on Joe Biden. So Manchin and Biden have worked together since 2010, when Manchin was elected to the Senate. Biden was already serving as vice president under Obama. And now Biden is president. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of their relationship?

OSNOS: Yeah. They actually sort of understand each other in a way because, let's be honest, these are two Catholic Joes in their 70s, both white men who came out of a certain kind of politics in which, for Biden, in Delaware and for Manchin in West Virginia, they both imagined that they could speak to Republicans and Democrats and cut deals across the aisle. They're both back slappers of a certain kind in politics. And there was another piece of it, which was that during the Obama administration, Obama and Manchin never had much of a relationship. Manchin can tell you. He can sort of remember the few times that he spoke to Obama personally. And he has a bit of a - I think, a bit of a chip on his shoulder about it. Whereas, Biden was assigned, in effect, either formally or informally, to talk to Manchin. And so he would be the one who would call Manchin during the Obama years. And they struck up something of a rapport.

Biden's a big believer - I've heard him say to me and others a lot over the years that you - don't try to get into the head of another person's politics. They will often be pretty smart about their own, local political reality, that if somebody feels like they have room to move on an issue, then they might - you might be able to get them there. But telling them that they're wrong is probably not going to - it's probably not going to work. And he's used that. Biden's used it in Baghdad and in Ukraine and, ultimately, in his dealings with somebody like Joe Manchin. And so one of the things he's always done is when he deals with Manchin, he's always been very conscious of not trying to tell him what his political space is and what his political reality is. He's trying, in some subtle way, to try to lead Manchin to a different destination without making him feel like he's being muzzled.

GROSS: So what are you looking out for now in the political landscape with Joe Manchin and the Democratic Party?

OSNOS: Well, I think there in a way is this moment in which Joe Biden is pulled between these two very different political conceptions of what the Democratic Party is. You have Bernie Sanders on one end, who is pushing for an expansive vision of what the Democrats can do at this moment. They control the presidency, both houses of Congress. And this moment is fleeting. And that's why Bernie Sanders, who is the chair of the budget committee, is pushing for this $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that would cover improvements to child care and elder care and things like that. And then you have Joe Manchin, who represents also the Democratic Party but is pulling Joe Biden in the other direction.

I think one of the ways that Biden became president was because he figured out a way to make two very different kinds of politician, Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin, both feel as if he was listening to them. Bernie Sanders provided a pivotal endorsement for Biden when he was running in 2020. And the reason he did so - he said explicitly - was because I always felt as if Biden would hear me. He didn't always agree with me, but he would hear me out. And Manchin says something similar. And what's fascinating is they're coming from completely different places.

And so this is actually the moment that is sort of testing what Biden has always said he believes, which is that if you get people in a room, no matter how much they disagree with one another, that if you can start by identifying and establishing some of the things that they agree on, then eventually you'll have a firmer footing on which to talk about the things on which they disagree. And that moment has arrived. I mean, this is happening now. Really, over the course of just the next few weeks and months, this will be the period when we learn whether Biden's presidency is going to be remembered for having made major breakthroughs in what the state can provide for people, particularly vulnerable people, or whether it falls short because of the divisions within the Democratic Party. What's remarkable about it, Terry, is how much of it really does rest on these relationships, these dealings between these three men at the top of the Democratic Party.

GROSS: In your writing, you had an interesting set of bookends to the Trump presidency. When Trump announced that he was going to run for president. You, at the time, were covering the far right. You were writing about white nationalists. And you happened to be talking to white nationalists at that time. And they were telling you why they were so excited at the prospect of Trump running for president and possibly even winning. And they knew that Trump might not define himself as a sympathizer with them. But some of the causes that he was espousing, like anti-immigration, was at the center of their beliefs. White nationalists don't want immigration. White nationalists don't like Muslims in America. And then, at the end of the Trump presidency, you covered the January 6 attack on the Capitol. I was wondering if any of the people who you spoke to when Trump announced, any of those white nationalists ended up being at the attack on the Capitol on January 6.

OSNOS: Well, I will tell you the thing that surprised me most, actually, about having been through that first experience and then being at the Capitol on January 6 was that those white nationalists who I'd met at the beginning of the Trump phenomenon, you know, they were, in some ways, the kinds of people you would expect to be involved in white nationalism. They were young, angry white men. And when I was at the Capitol on January 6, almost five years later after that first moment, what really surprised me, Terry, was actually the fact that I was talking to people like grandmothers, people who had jobs and worked in more conventional parts of American life, that they had actually been drawn into this world that Trump represented. That was actually almost more chilling to me because that represented an expansion of this set of ideas beyond the most fevered fringe to this group of people who, frankly, I did not expect to get drawn into Trump's lies and the fantasies that he was promoting. And that was more alarming.

GROSS: You've reported from so many places. Have you ever reported from a place where lies grew in very fertile territory, where conspiracy theories grew, and then truth won out in the long run? Does, like, truth ever win out once conspiracy theories and lies get so deeply rooted in a culture?

OSNOS: It worries me, honestly, Terry. I think it is really hard to bring people back into some sense of faith in a system, but it's actually not impossible. I think one of the things that has encouraged me over the course of the last couple years is the idea that fact-checking as a concept, as a discipline, has become valorized. I mean, we talk about fact-checking now as something larger than just checking if a politician is telling the truth. It's actually sort of taken on almost more like a belief system, that there are facts and that they are worth checking and that there is a method by which you can ascertain if somebody is telling us lies.

I had a moment in China that stays with me when - this is a place that has had a state-backed propaganda system for decades. And a lot of people grow up in China more or less assuming that what the state is telling them is not true. And once, a Chinese journalist friend asked me if I would give a talk to some other friends about fact-checking and the way we do it at The New Yorker because we have this pretty intensive, almost fanatical commitment to that process. And when I showed up for the event, I expected a couple people to be there, friends of his. And there were hundreds of people there, young people, especially young journalists who wanted to learn about fact-checking.

And I talked about the process and how we go about it and how we often will re-interview people to make sure that we get the details right. And later, somebody wrote up the transcript, and it now circulates on the internet to my astonishment that this - it has nothing to do with me. It was just this idea that there is something deeply appealing and almost human about wanting to find the truth. And I think in order for the United States to find its way back to that, part of this is - look. Let's be blunt. There are some people, the hardest core of Trump's supporters, who will never be persuaded by reason. They have decided that they are his and his only.

And - but there are other people who are looking to be persuaded of the truth and of fact. And I think part of the way you do that is you hold your people in power to a greater, higher standard. And instead of allowing this slippage over the course of decades in which people became more and more comfortable lying to the voters and to the public, it requires you standing up earlier and saying, no, no, stop. You've disqualified yourself from public life, from public service. You simply can't lie that way. And there is a moment - it feels to me now that there are people who are now alert to the risks of it and aware of it in ways that they weren't before the pandemic and before our president tried to subvert the election.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He reports on politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. His new book is called "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL KEAGGY AND HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos. He reports on politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. His new book "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury" examines how America became so divided and angry and close to overturning democracy.

So I'm going to change the subject here and get to something that you write about in your new book, which is that your great-grandfather was shot in Chicago on the South Side in the early 1900s. First, briefly tell us the story of how he was shot.

OSNOS: Yeah. Albert Sherer was his name. And he was coming home late at night with some other students, and they were at the University of Chicago in 1905. And the other students went one way, and he started walking alone. He lived with his parents. And some young guys stepped out of the bushes and pulled out a gun. And at first, he thought, well, this is a - maybe this seems like a stunt because they were so young. They were teenagers. But it was a real holdup, and they shot him. They shot him in the chest. And when he fell, they shot him again, and they ended up going through his pockets and just coming away with a few cents. Eighty cents is all they found.

And he was reported in the newspaper as having been fatally shot. I remember finding this copy of the Chicago Tribune. But he wasn't fatally shot. He survived. And the president of the University of Chicago - the school had only been around for a short time at that point. And it was a big story in Chicago that a student had been shot. And the president of the university wrote him a letter while he was still recovering in the hospital and praised what he called his large promise of usefulness, which is a phrase that always - it sort of stuck with me, the - just the sense of support and belief that he was shown.

GROSS: Was this a story that was talked about a lot in the family?

OSNOS: Yeah, it kind of lurked in the family memory - not much. I just had heard about it. And it was a long time, actually, before I decided I wanted to understand a little more of what happened. And so I contacted the University of Chicago. It turned out that when my great-grandfather died decades later in the '70s, that his son, my grandfather, had taken these bullets which had been pulled from his body and had put them in an envelope.

He didn't know what else to do with them, and he mailed them to the University of Chicago. And he said, these are for you if you want them. And they put them in the archives. And so I - when I called the university, I said, you know, I just wondered if they had anything about this shooting. And they said, well, sure, we actually do. So I went, and I went to the archives and held these bullets in the palm of my hand.

And it just - it really sort of forced me into this period of thinking about how those lives, the - both my great-grandfather's life and the people who had shot him, how they had encountered one another and the course of their lives after that. And I - it was just kind of rattling around in my mind for years. And I always wondered what it might tell me.

GROSS: Yeah. So you researched the story of the young man who shot your father, and then you tracked down his granddaughter, who didn't know about this story because when this young man, at an older age, got out of prison, he changed his life. He changed his identity. He changed his name. So she didn't know about this part of his past. Was it a hard decision for you to tell her? Like, did you know when you approached her that she didn't know?

OSNOS: No, actually. I assumed that the family did know. I guess I'd sort of always imagined that this was something that they might have heard about. And I was calling actually because I thought maybe I would learn something about his life. And to the family's credit, they were incredibly generous about wanting to learn about this thing that had happened in the past. There was just this extraordinary event where he had gone off to prison and had come out and had gone to prison again and had come out. And then at a certain point, it just changed his life - changed his name and started over again and had become a successful person and - that started a family and had a job and had a life and was able - partly because this was the era before the internet, he could just close the door on what had happened before.

And look. The blunt fact is that the - he was a white man who was coming of age in the post-war years and was able to make a life for himself. He was - there were advantages that he could have. And I think there was a way in which I came to want to understand how his life was juxtaposed against people coming out of prison today and the failures, in many ways, that we have as a society in creating the possibility for redemption that - it's so difficult.

Some of the people I write about in the book - in particular, Maurice Clark - they come out of prison, and they don't have the luxury of being able to start over again. They can't disappear. The internet doesn't allow it. And the law, in many cases, is stacked against them. And so I wanted to understand how that had changed because sometimes we assume that things have always been broken.

And part of this whole project was for me to say, no, no, things have been flawed, certainly. But if we don't identify specific points along the way - policy choices, cultural choices that we made that actually have disadvantaged people - well, then we're actually not really in the position to be able to fix them. And so we have to find those points.

GROSS: So one more question - you had written after January 6 that democracy in America had come closer to failure than many Americans ever imagined. Now that Robert Costa and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post report in their new book that Vice President Mike Pence spoke with former Vice President Dan Quayle to ask Quayle whether there was any way of stopping certification of the presidential election, do you feel like you didn't realize how close democracy came to failing in the U.S.?

OSNOS: Absolutely. You know, there was this realization that I had after January 6 that there was these really slender moments that saved the democracy - something as fragile as the secretary of state of Georgia refusing to give in to Donald Trump's bullying - that things as almost ludicrously fragile as those individual decisions - the people who refused to stop counting votes even though there were protesters outside threatening them - that - and then now we know, of course, that it was also Mike Pence's conversation with Dan Quayle that might have persuaded him from not subverting the results of the election.

You know, if anything, what that showed me was that this process that I've been describing in my book was even more acute than I realized, which was that the political reality we inhabit now - the fragility of it, the moments of fury and instability - are the result of choices that we make as people, as individuals, not only some of the people who find themselves at that moment of the highest possible stakes, but the decisions we make in our own lives about how we behave as consumers and buyers, as managers, as citizens - who we vote for. These things have just grave stakes. And if there was one thing I had hoped to try to understand was how our individual choices end up contributing to the systems that define our lives. And I think this this election turned out to be a somewhat terrifying but I hope illuminating example of that.

GROSS: Evan Osnos, it is always such a pleasure to have you on our show. Thank you so much.

OSNOS: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Evan Osnos covers politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker and is the author of the new book "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." This is FRESH AIR.

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