2016 US Election

A trip to Trumpland

A Democratic blue sky at dusk over Clinton Street, Defiance, Ohio, on the eve of the 2016 US Presidential election. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

In late June 2015 I caught a lift with two friends out of a music festival in rural Oregon. On our way back to Portland reality slapped us in the face with the news Donald Trump had announced he was running for President. ‘No way’, said one of my friends. ‘No way will he win the (Republican) nomination, and no way will he ever be President’.

I don’t recount this conversation to discredit my friend; he is a well-informed US citizen with a deep knowledge and an open mind on political and social issues facing his nation. I hark back to it because we (and pretty much everyone we spoke to over the next 24 hours) agreed wholeheartedly. Donald Trump the leader of the free world? What kind of sick joke is that?

Yet here we are. A scenario which was completely inconceivable to tens of millions of people around the globe is now a reality. Donald Trump, a billionaire businessman who has never held elected office, has been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. Straight to number one, with a bullet.

In the 18 months since that day in Oregon, my life-long fascination with US politics has reached a zenith. I watched on as Republicans engaged in something between soul searching and complete implosion over the increasingly inevitable endorsement of Trump – while the Democratic party’s own maverick, Bernie Sanders, looked like he might possibly make the post-Obama Presidential race another battle between two old white men. In the end it was Hillary Clinton was was entrusted by the blue side, and much of the rest of the world (excluding Russia, it turns out), with preventing a Trump administration.

But as the count progressed into the early hours of November 9, the bleeding heart of Middle America created an ever-expanding crimson wound on every channel’s interactive election map. A big red ‘fuck you’ to Clinton, the establishment, globalisation and those coast-dwelling liberal elites who think they can take the US further away from policies which will ‘make America great again’. Despite winning the popular vote, the archaic and uniquely American electoral college meant Hillary was defeated, leaving her glass ceiling unbroken and probably a whole wardrobe of pantsuits unseen.

After much of the population on the East and West coast discounted fleeing to Canada (perhaps because that country’s immigration website crashed in the hours following the election), much of America seemed to enter a long period of naval gazing. A litany of articles and debate spewed forth from the media – which almost exclusively failed to even consider a Trump victory – mostly about how they successfully predicted a Trump victory. But, among the guff, there were insightful pieces about how the result had forced many Americans to re-evaluate their country and their place within it. Valuable introspective journalism which delved into why a seemingly regressive and paradoxical figure like Trump could win election in the same nation that, not only elected Barack Obama, but endorsed him for a second term.

The answer, it seemed, lay in the Rust Belt; the states in the upper MidWest and North East characterised by declining heavy industry and decreasing population. Due to the quirks of the electoral college, voters in these areas have proportionally more power than heavily populated states like California and New York, and they made it count. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan were all won by Trump by a margin of 1.2% or less. Had these gone blue, it would have been Hillary being sworn in, rather than having to politely watch her adversary from a position beside husband and former President Bill. Trump stuck with his right-wing populism when many Republicans thought he needed to appear more moderate to win the election. This appealed to non-university educated whites who turned up in droves and gave him crushing victories in the MidWest.

The ubiquitous ‘Make America Great Again!’ yard sign in rural Ohio.

I was at the heart of one of these triumphs on election night in Columbus, Ohio – a state where 81 of the 88 counties voted Republican. Support for the Democrats in the three major population centres of Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus brought the overall margin back to 8.6% but, under the electoral college system, all 18 votes still went to Trump. I had been shooting an assignment in Chicago the weekend prior to the election and stayed in the MidWest to try and understand why this part of America had been coined ‘Trumpland’.

There was much post-election talk of ‘bubbles’. The media had apparently been in one, along with many mainstream politicians, but I realised I was also bubble bound – along with all my university-educated, city-dwelling liberal American friends. Three days chatting to Ohioans reinforced to me just how distinct the idealogical split is between urban and rural areas in the US. The media portrayed many people in small-town America as left behind by globalisation, but just because its citizens aren’t constantly online or willing to relocate due to the market forces which caused their former employers to shut down, doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant. The election result emphatically proved that.

Even many staunch Democrats were uninspired by Hillary but, in rural Ohio, the hate for her was palpable. Craig Dortell, a Texan selling jerky by the side of the road near Xena, south of Columbus, hadn’t voted since endorsing George W Bush in 2000, but repeated something I heard countless times on my journey.

“I’m glad he (Trump) beat Hillary Clinton. She’s been caught in too many lies.”

There was something about the way he said ‘lies’ – the emphasis his Texan drawl placed on the word – it summed up the overwhelming impression I garnered from people that Hillary couldn’t be trusted. When pressed as to why, there were lots of vague references to ‘emails’ and her ‘sly’ behaviour, but almost no specific examples. One chap in a Cincinnati bar shared that, while watching the presidential debates, he noted her mouth ‘puckered like an asshole’ at the point she finished speaking – apparently eroding his faith in her as a potential President.

There is no way to measure exactly how much impact The FBI re-opening an investigation into ‘newly discovered’ Clinton emails 11 days from the election actually had on the result – but it definitely reinforced an existing impression among voters I spoke to that she was inherently dishonest. Trump’s campaign was full of inconsistencies and he constantly contradicted himself but, even when this was reported, people didn’t seem to particularly care. Portraying Hillary as a criminal and saying he’d try to put her in jail certainly seemed to have more impact.

The whole ‘Teflon Don’ phenomena was well summed up in an interview with native Ohioan J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, a great book for those seeking to understand more about middle America.

‘No one seems to understand why conventional blunders do nothing to Trump. But in a lot of ways, what elites see as blunders people back home see as someone who finally conducts themselves in a relatable way. He shoots from the hip; he’s not constantly afraid of offending someone; he’ll get angry about politics; he’ll call someone a liar or a fraud. This is how a lot of people in the white working class actually talk about politics, and even many elites recognise how refreshing and entertaining it can be,’ Vance said.

Kevin Krupp, of Fitchville, Ohio, has never been registered to vote. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

This relatable behaviour, and the perception of Trump as a successful businessman, definitely appealed to people I spoke to. While in the tiny Clark County town of Selma I noticed a yard full of signs including; ‘Women For Trump’ and “Deplorable And Proud’. I knocked on the door and, while the middle-aged female resident wouldn’t give her name or pose for a photograph, she was happy to talk. When I mentioned Trump’s misogynism and the video where he is recorded saying he ‘grabs women by the pussy’, her reaction confirmed Vance’s observation.

“Hell, that’s how men behave,” she said. “I’ve been grabbed more times than I can remember – you don’t like it – then you fight back.”

The off-handed way this woman spoke about sexually aggressive behaviour shocked me, and she seemed willing to accept it as ‘just the way things are’ through her support of Trump. Vance, who freely admits to being of Hillbilly stock, also said somewhat starkly in his interview that; ‘there was not enough individual decency to make plain Trump’s indecency. We are not so good a people as we thought’.

Another common theme in my conversations was a resentment of ‘the establishment’ and a feeling non-city dwellers had been discounted by those in the halls of power. Vance again;

‘To me, this condescension is a big part of Trump’s appeal. He’s the one politician who actively fights elite sensibilities, whether they’re good or bad. I remember when Hillary Clinton casually talked about putting coal miners out of work, or when Obama years ago discussed working class whites clinging to their guns and religion. Each time someone talks like this, I’m reminded of Mamaw’s (Vance’s grandmother’s) feeling that hillbillies are the one group you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon. The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honor, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders. If nothing else, Trump does that.’

Whether Obama was outing himself as a liberal elite or not, there’s no denying guns and religion sure are important to millions of Americans. Vietnam veteran John Henderson was the first to vote in the town of Danbury on Lake Michigan in northern Ohio, and ain’t nobody taking his cache of weapons without a fight.

“I think he’s (Trump) the man for the job. He’s tough. We need somebody tough, somebody rough. Get the job done,” he said.“
Freedom’s my issue, I don’t want to lose it. I’m a veteran, and I fought for it, I want to keep it – along with the second amendment.”

The equation in John Henderson’s head was simple; Trump=guns=freedom.

Trump voter John Henderson, pictured in Port Clinton, Ohio. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

An elderly smoker I met in the aptly named town of Defiance in North Western Ohio had been saved by a life-saving operation he received under Obamacare in 2015, but the condescension Vance spoke of was still evident.

“Nobody’s gonna come out here and tell me I have to have health care. That should be my choice – I know the repercussions of my actions – and I’ll live with them.”

It also became clear to me as I travelled through the countryside how appropriate Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan was for this part of the US. Not so long ago this was America’s thriving industrial heartland, but the decline of the coal and steel industries meant cities that were booming as recently as the early 90s are now beset by poverty, blight and drug-related social issues. In many cases one company would be a small city’s major employer and this lack of economic diversity had dire consequences when its factory closed or relocated.

On the drive from Columbus to Cincinnati I drove through Dayton, a city of 140,000 formerly known for automobile production, foundries, and printing plants. It has lost more than 15% of its population since 2000 and looks withered, worn and unwelcoming. According to the Brookings Institute, one in four children in Dayton live in poverty.

In the words of The Greater Ohio Policy Center; ‘with accelerating blight and population loss, metropolitan fragmentation, and a disconnected state government more interested in restricting access to abortion than in increasing access to education and jobs for low-income households, Ohio faces a race to the bottom of states in terms of opportunity and quality of life.’

In March 2015 Clinton talked about being the only candidate who had real policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy into traditional fossil fuel states. In the process she said; ‘we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business’. She later visited coal country to explain that in killing off coal she had a plan to stimulate jobs in renewable and clean-energy, but her initial comments proved extremely damaging in areas where people were angry, depressed and financially desperate.

When Donald Trump says; ‘I’m going to make America great again’, put things back the way they were when you had a regular job with a good income, a nice house and you were proud of yourself and your country, you can see why voters wanted to believe it. It was a simplistic message with little substance or policy behind it but, in times of crisis, people tend to stick with what they know.

The significant support for third-party candidates also played its role in the end result, more in the demise of Clinton than the rise of Trump. Many admitted to political fatigue, were disillusioned with the lack of constructive debate and quality of the potential leaders endorsed by the main parties.

Terry Smith, a truck driver I met in West Jefferson, voted for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. “I knew I was pissing away my vote, but I couldn’t condone either of the other choices,” he said. “That these are the two candidates it got down to, that’s sad. I’m really disgusted that’s who we had to pick from.”

Truck driver Terry Smith, pictured in West Jefferson, Ohio. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

Not picking at all is also an option, of course. Many people I met had not voted for several elections or, like Fitchville farmer Kevin Krupp, weren’t even registered. Turnout overall was its lowest for 20 years, somewhere in the vicinity to 55%, and I found the apathy for the general election most evident as I travelled through Amish country in Eastern Ohio. The Amish are conservative Christians who don’t watch television, drive cars or use the internet – or talk very openly to random Australians enquiring as to their political leanings.

No one would go on the record, but I did manage a few meaningful conversations, enough to learn that as long as their way of life wasn’t threatened the Amish had little interest in who occupied The White House – although the fact a woman could be in charge did raise a few bushy eyebrows. As I drove west toward Columbus, I realised that it’s actually quite a small minority of the American electorate that makes an informed decision on who becomes President, if they take part in the democratic process at all. This seems particularly undemocratic, but I’d learned a few lessons about trying to force things (like affordable health care) on people in the land of the free.

Of course, most Americans live a distinctly un-Amish lifestyle, and are active participants in the new media ecosystem we find ourselves in where truth is becoming an abstract concept. Obama told David Remnick of The New Yorker that in this environment ‘everything and nothing is true’ and the not-so-distant past when the White House press corp were the main conduit between the President and the public may as well be ancient history. Trump has thrown an IED into the traditional structure and has Washington’s finest political scribes feeding off Twitter scraps like a flock of unruly pigeons.

Remnick quoted David Simas, Obama’s political director, in the same article; ‘Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago—about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women—his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices. Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change’.

Obama, whose unflinchingly measured approach apparently even frustrates the former First Lady at times, has dramatically altered his rhetoric since Trump’s victory. While on the campaign trail with Clinton he frequently referred to his own legacy being at risk. He told a rally in North Carolina; ’all the progress that we’ve made these last eight years goes out the window if we don’t win this election’. There seemed little direct endorsement of Hillary and much talk of continuing his own good work.

He was much less enthusiastic about writing off the hallmark achievements of his administration in the final weeks of his Presidency, of course, but it’s hardly a backflip of Trump proportions.

I have always been tickled by the story of Bill Clinton’s outgoing staffers engaging in some frat house behaviour during the transition of power to George W Bush in 2001. This allegedly included leaving obscene voicemail messages, defacing bathrooms and, most amusingly, vandalising computer keyboards by removing the ‘W’ keys. One wouldn’t expect such hijinks from Obama’s aids, but Trump’s rise makes me wonder if the good grace and understanding that has typified his administration is actually something most Americans relate to.

Measured discourse is certainly not the way disputes are resolved in the rural Ohio illustrated in J.D Vance’s book, or in a society which records more than 13,000 gun-related deaths per annum. I drove back to Chicago wondering if Trump was in fact a more fitting President for the resentment I experienced in middle America.

Clinton voter Jo-el Hemphill, pictured in London, Ohio. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

A week later I attended a community event in Berkeley, California, run by Urban Habitat – an organisation which works to increase the power and capacity in communities of colour and low income in the San Fransisco Bay area. The keynote speaker, Guillermo Mayer, works for a non-profit law firm and advocacy organisation and admitted that the well-prepared speech he had written for the event was thrown in the trash once Trump won the election.

His oration was powerful, emotional and from the heart. Having moved with his family from Mexico aged 10, he has experienced first hand the significant challenges and stigma Latino immigrants face and warned those in the room that Trump’s election would make the work of community building even more critical. He urged people not to be silent, and that the political shift from left to right meant the marginalised were now more vulnerable than ever.

Many hope Trump labelling illegal aliens (an abhorrent term) rapists and criminals was simply bluster made early in the campaign and his rhetoric will soften once in the White House – but people like Mayer aren’t buying it. His speech expressed genuine fear that such discourse could give rise to divisive forces and underlying racism which have lain dormant under a more compassionate administration.

This experience offered crucial balance to what I had seen and heard in Ohio. It seemed to me some of the communities I saw in the Rust Belt were in critical need of groups like Urban Habitat that could provide meaningful support rather than welfare handouts. I also noted how starkly different the societal, racial and economic challenges of the two communities were, tried to multiply these contrasts across the vastness of America, and instantly felt sympathy for any President trying to meet the needs of each – not to mention managing the complexities of foreign policy.

As Trump settles into the Oval Office his greatest challenge is perhaps preventing his nation becoming more divided than it already is. The collective shock at his own election, and other global events such as the Brexit vote, have shown that perhaps we don’t know ourselves as well as we think. Before we accuse our leaders of being out of touch, perhaps we need to emerge from our bubbles and connect with our brethren. Start talking to and not past one another. Listen and learn rather than rant and rave.

But then a university-educated, city-dwelling, latte-sipping, liberal-minded environmentalist probably would say that, wouldn’t he?

This passage written by Native Kansan Sarah Smarsh for The Guardian provides a suitable dismount.

‘If you would stereotype a group of people by presuming to guess their politics or deeming them inferior to yourself – say, the ones who worked third shift on a Boeing floor while others flew to Mexico during spring break; the ones who mopped a McDonald’s bathroom while others argued about the minimum wage on Twitter; the ones who cleaned out their lockers at a defunct Pabst factory while others drank craft beer at trendy bars; the ones who came back from the Middle East in caskets while others wrote op-eds about foreign policy – then consider that you might have more in common with Trump than you would like to admit.’

An important reminder that analysis of others begins with analysis of the self – something I think it will be important to remember over the next four years.