This post is dedicated to Vincent.
One of the things you learn to love/begrudgingly accept about Americans is their complete lack of inhibitions. They’ll talk to absolutely anyone – forget “Tube Chat” – they’ll do Walmart aisle/filling the car up with gas/queuing for the bathroom chat – no badge required. In the time it takes you to order and pay for a cup of coffee they’ll have told you their name, shown you a picture of their pets and addressed you with terms of endearment normally reserved for couples who have been together longer than 6 months. We shared a table with two Texans on one of the Amtrak trains and, before our food had even arrived, we knew about their health problems and their recently deceased partners, “I’m Mary and this is Frank – Frank’s recently recovered from pneumonia but at least he’s still with us. Unlike my Ernie, god bless him, he died just 7 months ago – heart attack. So what are we all ordering?”
As a Londoner, it takes some getting used to.
In London the general rule of thumb for interacting with the public is: “don’t speak unless you’re spoken to and even then only respond if there’s absolutely no way of pretending you haven’t heard them. Although they’re probably mad so just try and avoid their gaze and hope they give up.” But we’re in America for nearly 6 weeks in total so I’m going to have to shake off some of that British reserve. So I’ve developed a strategy for small talk situations: I adopt a Louis Theroux style line of questioning which allows them to do the majority of the talking. Americans particularly love to give you their opinion so there really is no better place for a politics geek to be in the run up to the most important Presidential Election of our generation. In my best Louis Theroux manner, I’ve asked everyone we’ve met the same question:
“If you had to put all your money on it, who would you bet on being the next President?”
The first person I asked was the woman next to me on our flight from Hawaii who said that she, “disagrees with Hillary’s politics” but will vote for her – it wasn’t clear whether she was disagreeing from the left or the right but she was adamant that Trump shouldn’t win. “I hope common sense will prevail – he can’t win.”
An eccentric elderly woman took a shine to us on the Bart. She was sat in our carriage, reading her paper when she suddenly cried out in frustration, “BUT I WANTED BERNIE!” which, you have to admit, is quite an ice breaker. Like most Americans, when she heard our accents she wanted to know where we were from and finding out that we were on our honeymoon and travelling around the world was like hitting the jackpot. In the 15 minutes we travelled together we learnt that she was born in New York, but seemed to have spent half her life in San Francisco, she studied History at college, which is why she was so worried about this global lurch to the right, “ it’s a really bad sign.” The first election she voted in was in 1972 (Nixon vs. McGovern) and since then “the system has just got worse and worse.” Bernie Sanders, she explained, had been an opportunity for real change (he’s basically their Jeremy Corbyn – a Jewish, American Corbyn.) She wasn’t happy about voting for Clinton but she’d do it because the idea of Trump as President was “incomprehensible.”
There seems to be a general lack of enthusiasm for Hillary from most of the people we speak to. Generally their attitude is, “she’s not great, but she’s better than Trump.” Vincent was the only person we’ve met so far who passionately believed Hillary was the right candidate. Vincent was our cab driver (read: hero) the day I realised I’d left my passport in a drawer in a hotel in Oakland (a story for another time.) He’s smart, funny and pissed off that Trump had even got this far but he is fairly confident he won’t win, “We may have some stupid people here but I don’t think we are THAT fucking stupid.” He lives in San Francisco now but he used to live in Dallas where people are, “not as racist as you think” which has to be the least reassuring sentence known to man. He loves Texas but admitted that they, “hate Hillary. Like frothing at the mouth hate.”
Vincent was incredibly forthcoming with his views. He likes his politicians, “right in the middle – too left or too right and it gets crazy.” He believes paying tax = good, Snowden = traitor, Nationalism = bad. He shared my belief that countries need to stop worrying about being the greatest or the best and just need to start working with each other. When he dropped us off in Emeryville, Vincent gave me his email address and asked me to send him the link to my blog. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that I will always remember him for the immortal line: “Bill was the best president we’ve ever had, things got so much better and all they can talk about is that blow job. I mean, who HASN’T gotten head in the Oval office?”
Pretty much every American we’ve spoken to wanted to know one thing: “So what’s going on with your Brexit?” To which my standard response is, “It’s not my Brexit – I didn’t vote for it.” There’s a general fascination amongst Americans with Brexit because it was so unprecedented – just like the success of Donald Trump. The number of parallels between the two events is uncanny and it is the memory of the EU referendum that means I can’t confidently laugh off the idea of Trump being the next President. The two campaigns are built on the same premise: fear of immigration and a hatred of the establishment. The success of the Leave campaign gives Trump and his supporters hope, “They’ll call me Mr Brexit,” he declared proudly – which makes him sound like the shittest comic book hero ever.
Like Trump, the Leave campaign spoke in memorable soundbites that had little substance but told people what they wanted to hear: “Take Back Control”, “Make Britain Great Again” etc… They did a fantastic job at painting voting to leave as a decision that was rebellious, bold and anti-establishment, when in fact it meant handing more power to an un-elected Prime Minister who would carry out negotiations in secret. Remain voters shouted at their television screens in frustration at the blatant lies Farage, Gove and Johnson spouted. We tried to reassure ourselves that people would see through them – they didn’t. Why? Because Brexit, although risky, was a leap into the unknown. The Remain camp, rather than making a strong argument for the EU were making a lukewarm offer of more of the same: “Vote Remain and things will continue as they are.” That argument is only convincing if you are happy with how things are.
Watching the Presidential debate last week was all too familiar. On one side we had Hillary: experienced, talented and measured. On the other side, Trump: egotistical, bigoted and erratic. It was insulting that Hillary even had to debate him as opposed to, oh you know, an actual political opponent. Whether you agree with her politics or not, you cannot deny that Hillary Clinton is simply more qualified for the position of President of the United States; if this were a regular job interview Trump wouldn’t even have made the shortlist.
During the debate Trump did his best to appear presidential; gone was the ranting and jeering we’ve witnessed at his rallies. But the problem Trump has is this: when he isn’t ranting and shouting at rallies full of people, who already share his views, he’s actually not a very strong public speaker at all. He goes off on awkward tangents, stumbles on his words and struggles to make his point; it’s actually quite difficult to follow what he’s saying. When he can’t rely on shouting out soundbites or calling people names he is exposed as what he really is: an inexperience opportunist. But don’t worry. because he’s hired Nigel Farage to coach him before the next debate which means we can expect to see him in a blazer, drinking a pint of ale and banging on about an Australian-style points system.
But the fact that Donald Trump is inexperienced doesn’t matter. The fact he doesn’t pay tax, doesn’t matter. The fact he has been called out on being racist and sexist, doesn’t matter. He has been exposed as a liar time and time again, to his supporters, just doesn’t matter. A lie that makes people feel good is more appealing than a difficult truth – “The Post-Fact era,” they’re calling it. USA Today urge readers not to vote for Trump despite making no endorsements for 34 years? It’s the media conspiracy. Polls show Trump is consistently falling behind? Conspiracy. Trump fluffs his first head-to-head debate? His microphone was deliberately tampered with by the “media people” to sabotage him. If Trump loses, sadly all it will do is confirm to his supporters that the media are conspiring against them.
Like Brexit, voting for Donald Trump is like hitting that big, shiny, red button. You don’t really know what’s going to happen once it’s pressed – it could be terrible, it could be brilliant so if you’ve got nothing – it’s worth the risk. Clinton is offering the only thing a politician can genuinely offer: a plan for slow and steady improvement over a number of years. Trump is offering the world. He’ll not only make the country “Great” again, kick out all the immigrants and build a giant wall, he’ll do it whilst cutting tax to 15%.
One thing you can be sure of is pushing the shiny, red button will piss off the “sneering liberal elite” and, for some, that’s a good enough reason as any.