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American dreams

Understanding how that man became President

THREE YEARS AGO I was privileged to intern for a Democratic congressman in the United States House of Representatives. As with most interns my tenure was unspectacular, although I did learn a number of important things.

I learnt that, as an Australian, my almost unshakeable penchant for standing on the left-hand side of an escalator could single-handedly bugger up peak hour traffic on the Metro. I learnt that the Senate side of the Capitol Building has the only decent coffee in the entire Capitol complex and its surrounds – finding errands to take me to the Senate side became an ongoing preoccupation. I learnt that there is an entire genus of lapel pins that can be used to identify senators, representatives, Republicans, Democrats and White House staffers. Unfortunately, my attentiveness to this resulted in me greeting every new person I encountered by staring at their chest.

I also learnt that all politics, even at the national level, are first and foremost local politics. The will of the electorate – expressed in a daily barrage of letters, cards, phone calls, emails and faxes – was of far greater importance than notional party policy. Party discipline, insofar as we know it in Australia, doesn’t really exist in America. The relationship between the House, the Senate and the president reminded me of nothing so much as a six-hundred-sided brawl. ‘Robust democracy’ was the polite euphemism I used to describe my impressions; privately, I thought the bloody-minded individualism was a national obsession with cutting off the nose to spite the face. I came away baffled at how anything could get done, yet appreciating the framing of the Constitution that required a genuine, meaningful majority for laws to pass. Nonetheless, I returned to Australia grateful for a parliamentary democracy and a constitution that merges the executive branch with the legislature.

 

COME 2016 AND I was a fervent watcher of the US presidential campaign. I downloaded daily podcasts, read all the papers I could get my hands on, followed the polls and watched all the primary debates (often while hurling abuse and popcorn at the computer screen). My early bet had been on Rubio, dismissing Trump as a circus clown playing for his own ego and self-promotion. Boy was I wrong. About the Rubio part, at least. After Rubio crashed out, followed by a succession of establishment and anti-establishment candidates, the realisation dawned on me: that man would be the Republican nominee.

On the evening of the election I pulled together friends and colleagues, and staff from the US consulate, for a massive party. I had hoped, as we all had, that we would be celebrating the first female US president. Why did it matter so much? Australia had a female prime minister back in 2010. The UK is onto its second. Germany fares well under nearly a decade of female leadership. The Scandinavian countries continue to make the world look recalcitrant with their even-handed embrace of women and minorities in leadership roles. Many African and Asian countries have had female leaders. But perhaps more than any of these countries, domestic politics in the US matter – to Australia and to the world. A female president would be undeniably momentous, just as the Obama presidency had been. While symbolism alone cannot change deep-rooted, underlying discrimination, it’s an important first step and rallying point for real progress.

Yet almost immediately it was clear that the ballot results were running towards Trump. Attending the US consulate’s Election Watch party, I took my Clinton badges, acquired streamers and balloons, and watched in mouth-agape horror as the results rolled in. It’s early days, I tried to reassure friends via text. Polling hasn’t closed yet. Exit polls don’t catch mail-in voters so don’t take them too seriously. But I knew, just as the room knew, that this was not good. The British Consul-General stood silently next to me, occasionally shaking his head. He’d already seen this happen in his home country and he knew what was coming. It never got better. Later that evening, as I was introducing the US Consul-General to speak on the importance of the Australia–US alliance, Trump was claiming victory. The guests gripped their wine glasses tightly, spoke more quietly and clung desperately to the Consul-General’s words reinforcing the enduring relationship between Australia and the US.

 

ALMOST AGAINST MY will, I travelled back to Washington DC to watch Trump’s inauguration. For many weeks I had thought to stay away: I could not stomach the prospect of that man assuming the presidency. And yet, somehow he had won. Protesters were calling Trump illegitimate, claiming the result was rigged by Russia and pointing to his loss in the popular vote. Listening to this, I couldn’t help but think that the Electoral College had done precisely what it was intended to do. As much as the outcome disgusted me, the system had worked: it had expressed the will of the smaller states and of rural and regional communities, giving them a voice against the tyranny of the majority popular vote. What I did not understand, for the life of me, was how on earth that man could represent the will of the majority of states in the Electoral College.

I didn’t join the crowds attending the inauguration. With all due respect to Sean Spicer and his alternative facts, even a smallish crowd makes me uncomfortable. Instead, I went for a jog around the Capitol Building and observed the amazing production that was the ceremony. There is no spectacle on earth quite like the peaceful transfer of high office in such a powerful country. Coincidentally, as the US presidency changed hands for the forty-fifth time, the fragility of this process was being highlighted in the Gambia, where the outgoing president had refused to accept electoral results and neighboring countries had to send in their militaries to forcibly displace him. The fact that the US inauguration proceeded smoothly, despite the intense loathing Trump inspires, was a reassuring reinforcement of democratic values.

Spotting Trump supporters was as easy as looking for a red baseball cap, or any sort of red accoutrement. Unsurprisingly, the people streaming towards the inaugural parade route were predominantly white, but they were generally happy and courteous. The bigotry I had expected to see only surfaced occasionally, hinting at the proudly non-PC campaign Trump had run. In a jarring moment, I jogged past an older white man wearing a red T-shirt stretched across his large belly, with white lettering that read ‘Black people are racist bigots too’. On the whole, though, the election’s winners – with the notable exception of Trump himself – could afford to be magnanimous.

Near my hotel I jogged past one of the main staging posts for the Trump campaign, located adjacent to a number of Republican clubs. The Trump campaign bus, festooned with balloons and surrounded by merchandise stalls, sat parked in an Exxon gas station. I sniggered at the unfortunate imagery. At the height of the Secretary of State confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon, with swirling accusations about Russia’s influence on the election and Tillerson’s relationship with Putin, you simply could not dream up such maladroit placement. Yet there it sat, with an apparent total lack of irony.

I joined a group of people in my hotel lobby to watch the swearing-in. I shoved down my own personal distress, holding back tears at Clinton’s continued grace and bravery, and attempted to listen with an open mind. I doubt I succeeded. The number of people in the lobby slowly increased. Listening to their commentary was instructive, as it highlighted a trend that I was to encounter time and again across the country: Trump was a bigot, a liar, a conman and a boastful lecher. Whatever the merits of his speech, they were drowned out by their visceral loathing of him as a person. The logic of this groupthink drew a straight line from his loathsome braggadocio to his inherent illegitimacy as president, and neatly elided the question of how it came to be. How could some forty-two million people see all the same flaws but hear a message sufficiently compelling to garner their votes?

When Trump spoke of the rusted-out factories standing like tombstones across the country, a fellow watcher snarled, ‘Has he said anything that’s actually true yet?’ I wondered how often this well-dressed, well-spoken young man made it out to the rust belt. Because as much as I loathed Trump, my heart sank listening to his inaugural speech. I had been to Trump’s political heartland not long before the inauguration – and he wasn’t wrong.

 

I SPENT CHRISTMAS of 2016 in a college town just outside Detroit. On Christmas Day we drove three hours north to Saginaw, passing through the infamous town of Flint with its poisoned water supplies. My brother-in-law, a Michigan native returning home for the first time in twenty years, spoke matter-of-factly about the loss of manufacturing and jobs. That was just how it was. Upon their move back to Michigan, my sister had been pressured by her husband’s family to sell her perfectly functional Mazda 3 and buy a good American car. Driving a foreign-made car and living in Detroit constituted a serious social faux pas: it was clearly ‘not done’.

My first American Christmas saw a good fifty people gathered in a flimsy, one-bedroom home. My brother-in-law’s grandmother promptly adopted me, and brought out my Christmas present. We were ‘kitchen people’, my sister informed me – distinguishing us from ‘lounge-room people’ and ‘garage people’. An astonishing procession of food appeared throughout the day. My tiny new grandma, knee-high to a grasshopper and approaching ninety, had spent days preparing this feast. All my offers of help were promptly refused and I was left to be fed, peered at and often cheerfully ignored amid the general chaos. The hospitality was overwhelming and her simple gift of body wash and moisturiser to an almost a total stranger was poignant. Her poor financial circumstances were glaringly apparent, yet I was a guest and therefore I was welcomed.

Driving away from Christmas lunch, I remarked on the frankly shithouse condition of the roads in the area. The explanation was familiar, and pointed to one of the biggest problems besetting modern America: an excess of government. This concept, explored by Francis Fukuyama in Political Order and Political Decay (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015), is not about big-versus-small government; it is about the effectiveness of the governmental system. Applied to the US, it is about the byzantine layers of governments, counties, departments, agencies, laws, regulations and courts that give rise to an impenetrable thicket of checks and balances. It is the Madisonian ideal gone mad. Achieving co-ordinated policy development and implementation under these circumstances seems like a pipe dream.

This intractability manifests in an unimportant road in suburban Saginaw that is split down the middle by the boundary line between two counties. Since neither side could agree on taxation and maintenance policy, let alone co-ordinate maintenance implementation, the road soon earned the dubious distinction of being the worst in an already poorly maintained township. It made me rapidly grateful for driving a great big American truck, despite my previous scorn for them as unnecessarily large, gas-guzzling Yank-tanks that were destroying the environment and clearly compensating for something.

When Trump spoke of the ‘American carnage’ of crumbling infrastructure and unemployment, he was not speaking to the well-educated liberals in a funky DC hotel. However much the commentariat savaged his speech the next day, he wasn’t wrong. And the people whose lives bore the reality of his words surely heard his message, felt it resonate – just as they heard others criticise him for those words. I wondered how much more disenfranchised these people felt when their truth was spoken and then, en masse, disavowed.

As vile as I found Fox News to be, I was beginning to understand how Trump could garner a devoted following by calling the press liars. He had, in essence, touched the third rail of American political life. He called out the fact that, by so many measures that mattered to the average man and woman, America was no longer the greatest. For the vast majority of citizens, it is not the fabled land of opportunity anymore.

 

THE NIGHT OF the inauguration provided its own discomforting studies in inequality. The best and brightest, the powerful and the playmakers donned their black ties, sequins and fur coats to celebrate at DC’s spectacular inauguration ball. Meanwhile, police swamped the streets, shutting down entire blocks to ensure the safety of the wealthy and privileged while they partied. I saw many of the predominantly white attendees ferried into the secure zone by the hard physical labour of black bicycle-taxi cyclists. On street corners outside the security barricade, vendors hawked Trump memorabilia promising to ‘Make America Great Again’. To a man, they were black.

The Women’s March the next day provided a much-needed antidote to the disquieting scenes of the night before. Not just because it represented a bold renunciation of the politics of fear but also because it was done, in the main, with joyous good humour. The Women’s March meant something to me that no amount of #IStandWith or #JeSuis could match. I’ve long been a silent cynic about the value of clicktivism, wondering if anyone still cares about #Kony2012 or the Boko Haram girls. But the half-a-million-plus men, women and children (and at least one pink-beret-wearing polar bear) were a testament that this cheerfully aimless mob cared enough to do more than just click a button.

On the day of the march it was apparent that any number of reasons motivated attendees. Women’s rights, refugee rights, civil rights, gay rights and climate change activism were mixed with commentary on Russia’s meddling in the election and a broad-based repudiation of Trump’s denigration of ‘the other’. As much as the march spoke out against Trump’s rhetoric of fear and ignorance, it spoke equally about what attendees stood for. The question that has consumed the liberal base in its aftermath is, will it last? And can that energy be harnessed to drive a Democratic resurgence?

I think a different question ought to be consuming the liberal base: if the modern Democratic Party is allegedly the party of the working class, the advocate of the poor and disadvantaged, then why did this populist uprising swing against it? Given it was President Obama who orchestrated the auto-industry bailout, saving one and a half million jobs in the heart of the rust belt, why did Michigan turn red for the first time in twenty-five years? Given the US has recovered ground to 4.8 per cent unemployment, down from nearly 10 per cent in 2009–10 at the height of the Great Recession, why does the undercurrent of resentment and disenfranchisement still boil furiously?

 

I FOUND MY answers in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. By any stretch of cartographic logic, this piece of land should belong to Wisconsin. Or Canada. But rationality is often the poor cousin of self-interest when it comes to drawing lines on maps. I wondered what shenanigans lay behind this particular piece of absurdity. The locals of the UP, Yoopers as they call themselves, seemed to feel the same way. My host, a retired German diplomat with a PhD in chemistry, sported a hat declaring himself a member of the UP Border Patrol of America’s fifty-first state. His gregarious American wife was an avowed Democrat who, when introducing me to all the neighbours, was careful to tell me of their political and religious leanings. Knowing how a person voted was just as important as knowing their pet peeves when it came to maintaining neighbourly relationships.

On an introductory tour of Cedarville, population seven hundred and eighty, I was introduced to anyone who stood still for three seconds. Again I was struck by the warmth, hospitality and kindness of these people – so at odds with the hostility and nativism aroused by Trump during his campaign. Yet in the main street, a Trump flag flew proudly beneath the Stars and Stripes.

I was taken to the thrift store and food pantry, where my American host volunteered. She introduced me to another volunteer, a woman nearing sixty whose face had been disfigured by lupus.

Under President Obama, the Affordable Care Act extended health insurance to twenty million people who previously had no cover; it was an immense step towards a healthcare system that doesn’t distinguish based on wealth. Even allowing for this expansion, this woman was still unable to afford proper medical treatment. And despite this, she was volunteering at the local thrift store and food pantry to help those in need. I felt horrified, not by her appearance but by the frightening reality it represented: how was she not one of those in need? How was it possible that there could be millions more people who were so poor as to make her condition seem acceptable? Standing in a tiny country town, predominantly closed for the winter, where unemployment was persistently stuck between 17 and 20 per cent, I was struck dumb at the poverty that seethes below the surface of the world’s so-called only remaining super power.

In that woman’s face, I could see how people had found their voice in an orange-hued caricature made famous by D-grade reality TV. President Obama may have nursed the country back to almost full employment, brought about monumental changes to healthcare for the poor and fought to raise minimum wages, but in a broken system this all seems woefully inefficient. That this volunteer was still better off than many highlighted just how badly the American dream had been fractured. I admired her, while at the same time her face, with all it represented about the inequalities of her world, sickened me.

 

IN A COUNTRY where a safety net that compensates for life’s cruelties is virtually non-existent, it is shockingly easy to slide, one misfortune at a time, into inescapable poverty. For people walking this thin and unforgiving line, their focus is simply survival. The ever-present spectre of illness, debt and dispossession has forged a deep, sullenly burning ember of rage. When Democrats agonise about the injustice of President Obama’s achievements being ignored, when they point to his many achievements and his economic record, they miss the point. If full employment results in hundreds of thousands of people living below the poverty line, if a restored economy leaves forty-two million people facing food insecurity and hunger in a first-world country, and if massively expanded healthcare leaves people unable to afford treatment, then something is vilely wrong.

Under these circumstances, when a populist appears who disregards all the norms of political convention, hammers opponents on all sides with abandon and rails against the inequities of a system perpetuated by both parties, of course it will resonate. When survival is at stake, it’s easy to see how people can disregard the many, many objectionable qualities of the new President Trump, placing their hope in his vows to destroy the system that has so badly failed them. And if that involves having someone to blame – pinning it as mankind so often does on ‘the other’ – so much the better. Yet when the sheer wealth and vested interests of Trump’s cabinet is considered, his promises to ‘drain the swamp’ appear heartbreakingly false.

The sad irony is that under President Trump, who heard and gave voice to the disenfranchised rage of millions, the swamp monsters now hold all the cards.

 


From Griffith Review Edition 57: Perils of Populism © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review