Brian Alexander’s Glass House belongs to a new and still fairly accidental genre: the on-the-ground Trump explainer, a nonfiction book illuminating the desperation driving white small-town Americans, as told by a native son. The vanguard title in this pack is J.D. Vance’s surprise success Hillbilly Elegy, a portrait of the dysfunctional, self-defeating working-class white culture in Appalachia and Rust Belt Ohio, published last spring. Although Vance mostly avoided making political recommendations, he’s a conservative and a regular contributor to National Review and has been knocked, somewhat unfairly, as an unmitigated bootstrapper. Glass House’s subtitle, The 1 Percent Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town, hints at the book’s difference from its best-selling predecessor. Alexander’s book is less personal, less tortured, a work of journalism far more willing to indict forces larger than the stubborn, delusional pride of the white working class. This book hunts bigger game.
Alexander grew up in Lancaster, Ohio, a town celebrated in a 1947 Forbes article as the quintessential American town, the “epitome and apogee,” as Alexander puts it, “of the American free enterprise system.” The magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief B.C. Forbes (father of Malcolm) held up Lancaster as a shining paragon of what the nation could achieve without the meddling of “left wingers,” although his belief that union activity there had been subdued was incorrect. Lancaster had a pretty, historic downtown (Civil War generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Thomas Ewing were born there), and a thriving civic culture fostered by the glassmaking industry, in particular a glassware company called Anchor Hocking. In Glass House, Alexander begins by tracing the history of a young couple who moved to Lancaster two years after the Forbes story ran. The young man took a sales job at Anchor then moved up in the company, while his wife volunteered to raise funds for the hospital and campaigned for levies to build new public schools. Back then, Lancaster parents felt no qualms about letting their kids run around on their own recognizance. Anchor Hocking vice presidents drank alongside factory workers in Old Bill Bailey’s tavern. People worked at Anchor Hocking for 40 years and retired on sound pensions. Lancaster, Alexander writes, “really was about as close to the clichéd image of the all-American town as you could get, outside of a Hollywood movie set.”
It is also, as a local saying has it, “the whitest town in America.” The Ku Klux Klan, during its resurgence in the 1920s, had a thriving presence there, although with hardly any blacks to terrorize, it had to content itself with harassing Catholics. This also meant that when Lancaster—like so many Middle American small towns—began to collapse economically in the late 20th century, its citizens didn’t have a racial scapegoat at hand. Today, Anchor Hocking is a ghost of its former self, although it’s still hobbling along. Gaunt, tattooed drug addicts roam Lancaster’s streets in pajama pants. Old-timers deeply wedded to the idea that Lancaster is a town specially endowed with the essence of American decency tell themselves that the riff-raff consists of “outsiders” drawn by the (fictional) bounty of Lancaster’s social services. The cops and aimless young people Alexander profiles in depth in Glass House can testify otherwise. The head of Lancaster’s Major Crimes Unit begins to cry while telling Alexander about fending off the pleas of distraught families while arresting people he played high-school football with.
Glass House reads like an odd—and oddly satisfying—fusion of George Packer’s The Unwinding and one of Michael Lewis’ real-life financial thrillers. Alexander pings back and forth between portraits of despairing and bewildered Lancastrians and the labyrinthine corporate history of Anchor Hocking. Unlike many other heartland industries, glass manufacturing, by virtue of the fragility and weight of its product, has some built-in resistance to outsourcing and imports. Anchor itself has remained a viable economic enterprise, at least in theory, throughout its history. But beginning in the 1980s, the company fell victim to a near-fatal combination of bad management and private-equity financiers emboldened by the new Reagan administration’s embrace of unfettered free-market capitalism. First, the company became the target of “greenmail” by corporate raider Carl Icahn. (Greenmailers stealthily buy up stock in sleepy companies, then threaten to make trouble unless they are bought out at a premium.) Icahn’s gambit inspired an Anchor executive to capture a division of the company in a leveraged buyout and relocate it to Tampa, forcing many of its employees to choose between their jobs and their community.
What followed was a long, complicated, and sickening ballet of financial sleight-of-hand in which one investment firm after another bought Anchor with borrowed money then loaded the debt back onto the company, pushing it to the brink of bankruptcy (and, on one occasion, over the brink). Aiming to quickly flip the company at a profit, Anchor’s various owners forced cost-cutting measures and concessions from the union. They neglected vital renovations and repairs to the manufacturing plant, a dangerous omission when it comes to machines designed to work with molten glass. Anchor’s facilities became increasingly out-of-date and incapable of making items it had once profitably produced. Pensions were replaced with 401(k)s, and eventually employer contributions to those accounts dwindled to nothing. Employees’ portion of their health insurance premiums ballooned to the point that many could no longer afford to make them. (One of Alexander’s sources estimates that some workers would have seen their take-home pay reduced to $10,000 per year if they bought into the health plan.)
Private-equity vampires didn’t just suck all the value out of Anchor to line their own pockets. They also casually imposed changes that devastated Lancaster, such as moving the company headquarters out of state. Vice presidents no longer drank beer next to factory workers or paid municipal taxes, and their wives were no longer around to raise money for schools and the hospital. It was not lost on Lancastrians that the new overlords considered their once-celebrated home as a hickburg with third-rate shopping. The series of companies that owned Anchor exploited the town’s desperate desire to save the hundreds of jobs the plant provided, obtaining free land from the city as well as, in 2003, a 100 percent tax abatement that took $50,000 away from Lancaster’s public schools. All to appease a billion-dollar equity firm whose top executives bought multimillion-dollar apartments on Central Park West and traveled by private jet. Some of the biggest donors to Lancaster’s local politicians are the predatory lenders of the short-term loan industry, who make payday advances to poor Lancastrians at 636 percent interest.
Alexander’s account of Anchor’s rare ups and many downs documents most closely a yearlong period during which a new CEO, Sam Solomon, took charge of EveryWare, an amalgamation of Anchor and a couple other houseware brands. Solomon—who immediately recognized that Anchor could become profitable were it to get out from under the outrageous debt heaped on it—dreamed of turning EveryWare into a $300 million dollar company. Solomon is also black, as was the CEO who succeeded him, although race doesn’t seem to have figured much in either man’s experience with the company. They both belong to a wealthy, educated, highly mobile professional class that finds the adherence of Anchor Hocking workers unfathomable. “I mean,” says Solomon’s successor, “two decades for me is … staying in place is a structure I have …” He literally cannot find the words to describe to Alexander how strange it seems to him.
Some of the younger Lancastrians Alexander profiles—particularly a winningly maverick amateur artist and musician who refuses to own a cellphone or otherwise truck with “the System”—do talk of escaping what to them feels like a dead-end community. Others are too entangled in addiction or simply don’t want to be separated from their extended families. But Alexander speaks with others who feel a deep bond to Lancaster, including a woman with a college degree who works two jobs (as a drug education teacher by day and as a waitress by night) to the tune of about $36,000 per year in total. When he asks her why she didn’t leave in search of greener pastures, she “looked at me with wide, pitying eyes and said, ‘This is my town’—as if my asking the question meant I’d been deprived of the quiet power of belonging to a place.”
This rootedness is alien not only to cosmopolitan liberals; Alexander quotes at length a blistering essay by National Review correspondent Kevin D. Williamson, who accuses the white working class of being “in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. … they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.” But Williamson also insists that local “culture” is entirely to blame for the plight of towns like Lancaster—presumably the same local culture that Forbes once found so admirably American. Alexander could not disagree more about that. “The ‘vicious, selfish culture,’ ” he writes,” didn’t come from small towns, or even from Hollywood or ‘the media.’ It came from a 35-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ ”
Yet, maddeningly, the original champion of this exploitation—Ronald Reagan, with his embrace of Milton Friedman’s free-market gospel—and the politicians claiming to carry on his legacy remain heroes to the benighted residents of Lancaster, a longtime redoubt of moderate Republicanism. Parroting the doctrine of personal responsibility, they admire the leaders who unleashed the jackals of Monomoy Capital Partners, Cerberus Capital Management, and a half-dozen other parasites on Lancaster. Those firms, their executives, and their $1,200-per-hour lawyers, Alexander writes, “didn’t bear any personal responsibility. They didn’t get a lecture or a jail sentence. They got rich.” By the end of Glass House, as Alexander works his rhetoric up to this fiery pitch, all the preceding chapters in which he carefully detailed the arcane financial engineering that enabled private-equity financiers to strip Lancaster of its hard-earned wealth and ultimately its soul pay out like gangbusters. The case he makes is damning.
Will Lancaster itself ever recognize this? Perhaps books like Glass House—for more like it are surely on their way—will someday make a dent. Alexander presumably finished it before the ascendancy of Donald Trump, and most of the Lancastrians he spoke with seem to have favored Ohio Gov. John Kasich. (The few people he met who voted for Obama told him they generally kept that fact to themselves.) When push came to shove, however, 59 percent of Fairfield County voters voted for Trump. Carl Icahn, the billionaire financial buccaneer who opened season on Anchor Hocking, is one of Trump’s key economic advisers, and Stephen Feinberg, founder of Cerberus Capital Management—one of the firms that gutted the company to line its own pockets—is another. Many of the town’s residents, marinating in conservative cable news, remain in deep denial about what caused the decay of the local economy and how bad it’s become. “Their pro-business bias blinded them,” Alexander writes, “to how … Cerberus picked their pockets.” But not quite all of them. When Alexander asks Eric Brown, the head of the Major Crimes Unit, what happened to destroy the “social contract” in Lancaster, the policeman responds, “Corporate America is what happened.” No one can blame him for crying about that.
Glass House: The 1 Percent Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town by Brian Alexander. St. Martin’s Press.
Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.