You may know Salena Zito as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter-turned-Trumpland whisperer-turned-nationally syndicated columnist and cable news talking head.
You may not know her as a Harvard educator.
But earlier this year, Zito embarked — both figuratively and literally — on a crash course in which she led groups of students from the school, arguably the most potent symbol of Ivy League, East Coast elitism in the nation, into the kinds of towns described by President Donald Trump as the ravaged victims of “American carnage.”
And while Zito has been criticized for her coverage of the populist and nationalist uprising that gave us Trump, with critics calling her depictions of Trump supporters overly romanticized, overly distilled and excessively rose-colored, Zito says her Harvard course took any medium or messenger out of the equation.
In the age of information silos, ideological bubbles, culture wars and a widening rural-urban divide, Zito packed three groups of roughly 10 students into a van and took them straight to the small-town source.
“It was never about politics. It was about getting to know people outside the I-5 and I-95 corridors,” Zito told The Incline by phone Monday. “And my whole attitude is these kids are the best and brightest, and they’re gonna rule the world in 10 or 15 years, so wouldn’t it be great if they had a better understanding of what life was like outside of the coasts and can use that in their decision making when running the world?”
Of those students, Zito said “nearly all of them said they didn’t know what life was like outside the coastal cities and states,” and only one had grown up in a rural environment, while only one had ever fired a gun.
So they went to Londonderry, N.H., Youngstown, Ohio, and Chicopee, Mass., a town located just an hour-and-a-half drive from Harvard’s Cambridge campus but which Zito describes as being “light years away” in terms of shared experience.
Of those three, Trump won only Londonderry in 2016. But Zito said all shared traits common to the epicenters of the Trump movement — namely opioids, economic stagnation, job losses and demographic changes.
The Youngstown group also made a brief stop at St. Stanislaus church in the Strip District, according to Zito’s recent column about her Harvard class for the New York Post. (Hillary Clinton won Pittsburgh with 75 percent of the vote.)
Her column was titled “These Harvard kids got the lesson of their lives in the Heartland.”
After visiting in Chicopee with the police chief, mayor, small-business owners, waitresses, firemen and others, Zito, in her piece for the Post, wrote that she asked the students if they knew who most of those people they’d just spoken to had voted for in the last presidential election.
“None of the students had an answer. It hadn’t come up in their conversations and they didn’t know I had privately asked each person whom they’d voted for. So I let a minute pass and told them. Nearly every one of them voted for Trump. My students at first looked stunned. But then recognition crossed their faces.”
Chris Kuang, a 20-year-old junior at Harvard who’s studying applied math and economics, was one of those students.
He told The Incline by phone Monday that he’s an unaffiliated voter who cast his vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But with the dust still settling in the weeks and months after the “biggest upset in American political history,” Kuang said he felt he still didn’t understand, to borrow a cliche, how the other half lived and, in this case, why it voted the way it did.
“I felt Trump voters couldn’t be understood in simple black-and-white terms. I felt I didn’t really have a beat on the nuance of it until these trips,” he said.
Kuang is also the chair of the Harvard Political Union, America’s oldest collegiate debate society. He and the other students who took Zito’s course did so as volunteers for no college credit. He said the students rarely discussed politics among themselves.
The course itself was devised by Zito following a guest speech at the Pizza and Politics dinner with the directors of The Institute of Politics (IOP) at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“We had Salena at one of our directors dinners where we bring in guests to speak to students, and Salena talked a lot about her work reporting from the road,” Kuang recalled. “For a lot of the students it was a look at a different side of journalism, and we were interested in learning more about how she operated. That ultimately became the Main Street Project collaboration between the Harvard Political Union and the Harvard Political Review, a quarterly magazine written and published completely by students.”
According to the university, “Main Street and Back Roads of America: A Journalism Workshop,” gives students the “unique opportunity to experience main streets and back roads across New England and the Rust Belt with Salena Zito.” The university calls it an “immersion experience.” Zito’s title is “leader.”
To be clear, students don’t fly to these destinations. They hit the back roads in a van.
The course took the students to vo-tech schools and diners where they heard about outmigration and brain drains sapping local talent pools. Many went because, like Kuang, they had a sense that there was more to this story, more about this election that they couldn’t grasp from the comfort of home.
“I love New York and it’s great, but everyone kind of thinks the same,” said Sarah Shamoon, a 19-year-old social studies major at Harvard and native of the city who visited Youngstown.
“For me starting college, it was really important to expose myself to people who thought differently than I grew up around and than my peers did. I think we all went in [to the course] thinking one thing and left thinking something different.”
Shamoon is a registered Democrat but was not old enough to vote in the 2016 election. Before this trip, she said, she had never seen Ohio except from an airport terminal on a layover.
Malcolm Reid, an 18-year-old history and literature major at Harvard, also visited Youngstown and said that even though he has both Trump and Clinton supporters in his family, a more complete understanding of the forces at play in this past presidential election eluded him.
“I’m from Virginia, so I’m not necessarily bringing an urban perspective, but I still didn’t quite understand the issues I think [the Youngstown] region faces and it really does give you a lot of perspective,” he said. Given the existential threats facing towns like Youngstown, and given the president’s messianic campaign message, Reid said it made sense why Trump would find support in such a place.
But Trump didn’t win Youngstown. And critics of Zito’s approach to covering the presidency have long argued that her focus on the economic angst that fueled his insurgent campaign downplays the racial animus that arguably turbocharged it.
“I didn’t vote for the guy,” Zito said of Trump, explaining she doesn’t vote in elections she covers. She added of her critics, “I don’t know why people think because I understand his voters I support him. I’m just doing my job.”
Still, her course has drawn plenty of praise online from the likes of conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt and others who see it as a vital outreach in a time of rampant cultural and political tribalism. And, as one might expect, it’s also drawn criticism.
Zito, though, insists her course is above this fray, or at least designed to exist above the fray.
“The project built bridges of understanding for a bunch of Harvard students who come from [mainly] metropolitan communities and also for a lot of people who’ve heard about the liberal coastal elites, and just to have these conversations and say no one is really what they’re made out to be and that we have so much more in common,” Zito said.
So far, she’s conducted a workshop and 3 trips or classes for the Main Streets and Back Roads project, the last ending on Memorial Day weekend. And there are plans for more excursions with new students, and maybe some old, this fall.
“We’re gonna go further west this time,” she said.
Asked how long she plans to continue with the project, Zito answered, “as long as they’ll have me.”