The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, beware: Americans have a deep, enduring love for the Postal Service

(The Washington Post photo illustration)
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President Trump has branded the Postal Service “a loser,” “joke” and “scam.” It’s a first-class source of his mail-content. ¶ He routinely disparages the Postal Service because it loses money and, by his own admission, he doesn’t want to dramatically increase the number of people who can vote by mail. Trump, it should be noted, votes by mail. Critics think he’s gone postal. ¶ Many also think he’s messing with the wrong government agency. ¶ Know who dislikes the Postal Service? Almost no one. ¶ Sure, people don’t enjoy waiting in line, but that’s true almost anywhere. Millennials don’t patronize the Postal Service, according to its inspector general; one in Texas claimed to New York magazine that mailing stuff causes him anxiety. And dogs have been known to yap and masticate their displeasure. ¶ That’s about it. The Postal Service is a massive infrastructure delivered on an intimate scale. It brings us prescriptions, news, checks, condolence notes and birthday cards from Aunt Marge. It is our original information superhighway, dating back to dirt roads and the Pony Express.

Our mail system has a 91 percent approval rating, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in April. In these fractious times, nothing has a 91 percent approval rating. Trump might as well have attacked kittens or pie.

The Postal Service appears to produce heightened dopamine levels in many supporters, an ardor that they would never express for, say, the Federal Reserve.

Postal stans rhapsodize about its sprawling history, its enduring enrichment of our daily lives. “I’ve always adored the post office,” says Liza Barrie, a post office advocate in Tappan, N.Y. She even adores “that post office smell that we can all identify.”

Evan Kalish, 33, a millennial super-patron in Queens, notes, “There’s a romance to the idea of the post office.”

To battle Trump’s attacks, Postal Service champions are producing art in its honor. They’re composing love letters to letter carriers and baking cookies for them, too. They’re producing patriotic videos, including a two-hanky charmer from Norman Lear’s People for the American Way. They’re writing letters to help save it — remember writing letters? — including a Facebook group with 5,300 members. They’re purchasing stamps.

They perform tributes to its importance, including one by Ben Gibbard, who co-founded the band Postal Service. They’re updating classic ditties to become “Stand by Your Mail.”

Fictional postal characters are embedded in our cultural landscape: bar stool fixture Cliff Clavin on “Cheers,” antagonizing Newman on “Seinfeld,” stoic Agent K in the Men in Black franchise, speedy Mr. McFeely in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

The mail service inspires literature: Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” and Charles Bukowski’s “Post Office.” (He worked as a carrier and sorter.) It lends itself to movie titles, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (after the James M. Cain classic noir) and the dead-letter flop “The Postman,” whose star, Kevin Costner, decried the Trump administration’s actions, saying, “That’s criminal. And it spits on 200 years of freedom.”

Actually, it’s spitting on 245.

“You see the mail everywhere, the buildings, the workers, the trucks,” says Steve Hutkins, a retired New York University literature professor and Postal Service champion. “It helps bind the country together.”

We take the Postal Service for granted because of that ubiquity and because of its extraordinary ability to do precisely what it is was founded to do for as little as 35 cents. (Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, that’s the cost to mail a postcard anywhere in the nation. He told Congress last week, “I’ll submit that I know very little about postage stamps.”)

We take the mail system for granted, that is, until it’s under attack, a frequent occurrence in recent history. Now, it is again, when its critical role in our democracy, ironically during the age of the Internet, has rarely seemed so vital.

During a once-in-a-century pandemic when 75 percent of the country is eligible to vote by mail in a highly contentious November election, the USPS has warned 46 states and the District of Columbia that it cannot guarantee all mailed ballots will arrive in time to be counted, potentially disenfranchising millions of voters. More than half a million mailed ballots were disqualified in the primaries because of missed delivery deadlines and voter errors. (A USPS representative declined to provide interviews for this story.)

On Aug. 21, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified before a Senate committee and expressed support for voting by mail. (Video: The Washington Post)

Under DeJoy, a top Trump donor who assumed the post in June, the Postal Service has instituted new policies — including limiting overtime and extra trips, and stricter dispatch times — that have produced backlogs of mail.

USPS is telling people their mail is being held ‘at the request of the customer.’ It isn’t true.

Fervent supporters, including Cher, protested at 800 locations last month. They launched the hashtag #SaveTheUSPS, which is surging on social media. Yard signs proclaiming residents proudly vote by mail freckle the nation.

Trump’s crusade is partially rooted in his pique with Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. He claimed the billionaire was “ripping off” and “getting rich” from the Postal Service, and proposed doubling the commercial giant’s rates.

The president has threatened to veto emergency funding. Which may ignite more protests and support.

Our mail service, founded by first postmaster general Benjamin Franklin a year before the republic and embedded in the Constitution, is based on a radical notion: that mail would remain private and secure, and the system would underwrite the dissemination of news to better inform and unite what was then barely a nation.

Carriers have prevailed through far more than snow, rain, heat and gloom of night. The Postal Service, which is not funded through tax dollars, has survived multiple threats, including a 2006 mandate, orchestrated by the Koch brothers among others, to require pre-funding retirement benefits up to 75 years into the future, thus threatening its existence. It has endured repeated calls to be transformed into a profitable business, something advocates point out has never been demanded of the Defense Department. The entire federal government is operating at a $2.8 trillion loss.

Known as the Post Office Department until 1970, the mail service was a slush pile of political patronage for much of the 19th century. Management has constantly clashed with union employees. It has lost revenue to private carriers. First-class mail volume has declined precipitously — though parcel deliveries have escalated during the pandemic.

“It is the one positive contact most people have with the federal government,” says Mark Jamison, a retired postmaster in Webster, N.C., noting how mail carriers routinely check on the sick and elderly.

People complain about misplaced correspondence but the true marvel is how much mail gets delivered promptly, a mind-boggling 472.1 million pieces every day, some addressed in indecipherable chicken scratch. And it performs services the public might not expect. It was agents from the U.S. Postal Service Inspection Service, the nation’s oldest law enforcement agency, who arrested Stephen K. Bannon on fraud charges aboard a 152-foot yacht off the Connecticut coast.

Columbia University professor Richard John, who wrote a history of the Postal Service, says, “It’s part of our DNA as a self-governing people. It’s a testament to our collective identity.” When properly funded and working to full capacity, “it’s a daily miracle,” John says. “To attack it by saying it’s a joke shows almost an inability to acknowledge what made America great.”

Winifred Gallagher, author of “How the Post Office Created America,” notes that “it’s a transportation system. The post office created the first roads. It created this communications superpower,” she says. “For poor people, frail people and especially for rural people, the post office is so important.” In many rural areas, Gallagher notes, the post office is the town, a place where citizens routinely meet.

Our Postal Service delivers almost half of all the planet’s mail. It’s ridiculously affordable. “The fact that the post office charges you 55 cents to mail a letter from Key West to Fairbanks, Alaska imagine what FedEx would charge you,” says Gallagher. Which is precisely why people wait in line at the post office, not always happily but willingly.

The USPS, with 630,000 employees, has long been a gateway to the middle class, allowing workers with a high school education to purchase homes and envision retirement. It was a great deal before the New Deal, and remains one of the rare mammoth national employers that extends health care, pensions and union protection, with a median annual salary of $52,060 a year. It’s a historic early employer of Black people, women, veterans and the disabled. Today, 28 percent of the workforce is Black.

Abraham Lincoln was a postmaster in Illinois, and Harry Truman served as one in Missouri. William Faulkner, Richard Wright and Walt Disney worked for the post office. John Prine, who died of covid-19 in April, was a letter carrier in suburban Chicago, producing the 2011 archival album “The Singing Mailman Delivers.” He once said, “I always likened the mail route to a library with no books.”

Kalish, the fan in Queens, works as a “crossword constructor,” but his life’s mission is “collecting” post offices. In the past decade, Kalish has toured 10,154 postal facilities. His goal is to visit all 33,000. Because of the pandemic, his last trip was in February.

“It’s depressing the daylights out of me,” he says. Kalish adores the architectural wonders from the Works Progress Administration, when 1,100 locations were built. Philatelist Franklin D. Roosevelt admired them and played a role in designing the one in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., near his estate in Hyde Park.

“Passports, tax refunds, every important document has been entrusted to the security of the system,” Kalish says. “The Postal Service treats everyone equally. The price of a stamp is the same price no matter how far you’re sending it.”

In July, Barrie, a former UNICEF official, helped launch Stand by Your Mail, “the people’s postal rescue campaign” to forge support among fellow supporters.

“To me it’s really about connection. At a time when the country is so divided and there’s so much insecurity, the post office is a critical institution . . . so the assault on the Postal Service is really dangerous and destabilizing,” Barrie says. “I think what we’re doing is patriotic, reflecting on what parts of our heritage are worth preserving.”

Hutkins, the retired NYU professor, started a campaign in support of the Postal Service during a previous crisis, the one in 2011, when officials announced plans to close 3,700 locations due to plummeting revenue. Ultimately, most were spared.

He believes the local post office could serve an even greater role in our communities. “They could provide office services, banking services, social services, broadband and food banks,” he says.

The impassioned response during these latest developments comes as no surprise to him. It also sparks optimism.

“The energy for defending it accelerates when the attacks accelerate,” Hutkins says. “The fact that it’s been around for so long, has gone through so many crises and is still here, gives me so much hope.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the new Postal Service policies and resulting mail backlogs. The relevant section has been clarified. This version has been updated.)

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