A holiday on the cusp of history

WE were in the US, visiting family and friends in California, during the presidential election. My daughter lives in Sacramento, the capital of the state which has the biggest population, grows the most food – from organic dairy to peaches, olives and vines – and is home to Hollywood and the film industry, and the technological powerhouse of Silicon Valley.

No surprise then that California is one of the states that remain resolutely “blue” (the American political colour coding system being the opposite of Europe’s).

Largely protected by the liberal, open-minded, outward-looking spirit of the West Coast, the Trump victory came as more of a shock, more of a bitter disappointment – and more frightening – there than almost anywhere else in the country.

Election time is always a strange time to be in the States, but this felt epoch-making, long before the votes started to be counted. It was critical and historic at so many levels – the possibility of the first woman US president; the potential that this would be the first occupant of the White House with no background in traditional or mainstream politics or public office; the unprecedented level of personal insults and unfettered use of social media; the rise of an angry under-class that feels ignored, belittled, deprived of their traditional means of employment, and determined to make their voices heard; the clash of the old established order with an energised campaign that played on fears and offered undeliverable promises that were never more than soundbites and headline snatchers.

It brought the bubbling racism of American society like foul scum back to the surface, exposed a shocking level of misogyny, played on fears of every kind, from “she’ll take your guns away” to the spectre of Russian hackers plotting with the Trump campaign to put a man in the White House who would be a friend (some might say puppet) of President Putin.

Mr Trump’s elevation over the various “impossible” hurdles of the primaries and the Republican convention to become the GOP candidate, represents the triumph of reality TV over reality. He taps into a world he knows inside out, the vast swathe of the American public that gets its “news” from supermarket tabloids or local affiliates of national channels that support their preferred party, and that has no interest in national, let alone international news – beyond who is running for the School Board or Sheriff. He is a man whose campaign style was to say the unsayable, mainly by Twitter, whose oratorical tic is to say the same thing over and over again, in shorter and shorter sentences down to words or phrases that stick in the listener’s mind – “prosecute [Hillary]”, “take your guns”, “build the wall”, “make American great again.” Soundbites aren’t policies but they found willing receptors in millions who feel forgotten, ignored and despised by the elites of Washington, New York and the West Coast.

Of course you know what happened. Like Brexit, Trump’s triumph (whatever the numbers, he won on the Electoral College system) came as a stark shock to many and the immediate aftermath was awful as people not born in the USA and millions of legal or undocumented Latinos and their employers feared for the future. Look behind every restaurant kitchen door, into every field and orchard, along every Main Street or behind every successful businessman or woman and you will find an army of hard-working, skilled and often poorly paid people from Mexico and Central America. These are the people who literally keep the businesses, the kitchens, the hospitals, the airports and the wheels of industry turning in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida and many other states.

There were reports of frightened children asking their teachers: “Will my dad be deported?” “Will I be taken away from my moms/dads?” “Will I still get my medicine?” Even in the calm and well-run suburban school that my grandchildren attend there were children in tears the morning after the election. Now, you can criticise parents who spoke openly of their fears of a Trump presidency – but you have to understand the real fear it has brought to people who have felt safe in “our great country” and now feel rocked from their moorings.

Yet it shouldn’t have been a surprise, any more than the Brexit vote was. It is part (albeit the biggest part) of the increasing phenomenon of the backlash against the “Establishment”, the political class and the media, by people who feel that they have no hope and no stake in society, who have responded to the siren promises of manipulative white multi-millionaires who promise the earth and will deliver only goodies for their cronies.

Many live in communities where the traditional industries have died – whether it’s America’s rust belt or the closed shipyards, mines, car plants or steel works of the North East of England. Some are driven by right wing or evangelical religious beliefs, are Creationists or climate change deniers. For some it is their devotion to the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms. Many of the men who work with my son-in-law believed that Hillary Clinton would take away their guns.

In the first few days after the election, we met people who had been crying for days, a gay couple fearing that they will lose the benefits of Obamacare for their child, who has a life-limiting congenital condition, people who are naturalised but feel cut adrift from the country they thought had welcomed them.

There were suggestions that California – maybe with the other “blue” West Coast states of Oregon and Washington – could secede from the Union or even join Canada. The Canadian immigration computer systems crashed under the weight of inquiries from people desperate to leave the US. The atmosphere was febrile to the point of hysteria and the fear was contagious.

It may be that many of the fears will prove ill-founded, that Trump used whatever means and threats he could to get into the Oval Office and will actually be more businesslike and less bullying.. But his appointments – Pence, Bannon, Flynn, Sessions – do not inspire confidence.

Calmer voices are now talking of the importance of fighting for the values that are held by so many (the majority), and supporting governors and mayors who seek to block the worst of the new president’s divisive and damaging policies. If we believe that misogyny, sexism, racism, anti-semitism and rampant anti-Muslim rhetoric and threats are obnoxious and dangerous, if we believe that protecting the environment is one of the most important challenges of the 21st century, if we believe that openness and compassion are more important than building walls and allowing free range to global corporations, we all have a duty to make our voices heard and to take every opportunity to speak, write and act against them.

So here is a final and more optimistic thought from one of America’s finest writers, the great William Faulkner, (1897-1962) the Mississippi-born Nobel Prize-winning novelist and poet: “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and trust and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world do this, it would change the earth.”

Fanny Charles