Wednesday 9 November 2016

Fear and loathing in las Americas

I am American. By blood, I am more American than I am British. I live here of course, I’m officially British too. The UK and Europe (cough) are where I identify most strongly with and where I’m raising my family. But I also have a blue passport and I pay US taxes. My forebears are Mormons from Utah and immigrants from Yorkshire. They prospered and spread far and wide across the land, living and propagating the American dream. Today I have relatives from Maryland to California, from Ohio to Arizona, from Oregon to Pennsylvania. When I travel there I am welcomed home.

Over here we poke fun at America. Hicks, rednecks and good ol' boys. Obsessed by guns and allergies. Fifteen different kinds of milk. Neurotic, fat, stupid and uncultured. There is an element truth to all stereotypes, but almost all Americans that I have met are kind, decent and honest people. They are friendly and welcoming, when they say “have a nice day” they genuinely mean it. It is a magnificent country, beautiful and diverse. Blessed.

America, what have you done?

I have never been prouder to be an American as eight years ago. It nearly reduced me to tears as Obama accepted. This morning I was close to tears again. Distraught. What has my second country done? Fear and frailty have triumphed over common sense and decency. Traditional politics has failed. Just like Brexit here, the disenfranchised have stormed to victory on the back of a message of intolerance and a considerable amount of hot air. Just like Brexit, it no longer matters what is true and what is not – voters don’t care. People hear what they want to hear, and if you have conviction and pander to that, no matter how absurd or divorced from reality it might be, they’ll listen and they’ll believe. Donald Trump exploited that.

In a way both decisions, awful though they are, are triumphs for democracy. Whether I like it or not (I don’t, in case you were still on the fence about that), the USA will soon have a leader with a scary world view and all the grace of a toasted cheese sandwich*. But that’s what the majority of Americans wanted, they wanted change, they didn’t want traditional Washington D.C. and its elite. Americans are nice people, I can’t stress that enough. But large segments of their society are clearly hurting, and unfortunately that same demographic are also very conservative, narrow-minded and ill-informed – a dangerous combination. The Presidential election was a chance to vote for change and they took it. At least they sort of voted on their issues, something that didn’t happen for Brexit. Brexit was ultimately only a vote against the establishment and not really about EU membership. UK voters failed to distinguish between an election and a referendum. Referendums are one-offs, final, whereas elections come around again and you get a second chance. The Brexit decision that all the over 65s voted for doesn’t allow the young people whose entire lives it will ultimately affect that second chance. At least in America there’s an opportunity to vote for change in four years time, and that’s the only positive I can currently see.

It is scant comfort. The soon-to-be leader of the free world is a monumental cretin, a rich and volatile bully with a dangerous lack of experience and an incoherent/non-existent strategy. Just like Farage here, he has made it OK to be racist and bigoted again. Whilst many who voted for him are decent people with decent views who simply didn’t trust Hillary Clinton, he has also given voice to a small segment of under-represented society that have frankly appalling views. We should all be mindful that views like this were once over-represented, and look what happened then. The swing to the right has been as dramatic as it is terrifying. Hatred. Remember what Yoda said about that? Low-level racism and outright xenophobia have become acceptable again, and just like Brexit the polls got it wrong on the US election too.

I don’t know why we are all so surprised. The Leave voters and Trump voters actually find their choice mildly embarrassing, and rightly so. The surprise would have been if they had had the conviction to stand up and publicly state that they didn’t actually like their Polish neighbours very much and that yes, they were going to be voting to leave the EU. Instead they stayed silent or lied when asked, and after voting went back indoors feeling faintly smug that they had socked it to the establishment. It is obviously a lot more complicated than this. I am just a bird blogger and I don’t understand large parts of the dynamics that have led us to this point, both here and across the Atlantic, but I think it can be boiled down to a few key themes. Disenfranchisement, anxiety and resentment. The world is too big. I do not understand what is happening. It was better before.

It is the failure of successive governments – globally - to address this that has led us to where we are now. It spans every facet of government. Education, health, trade agreements, the environment, everything. Everything is interconnected in a massively complex web, and knowing where you stand in a world that moves faster than you or anyone else can stay current with has been a huge and incomprehensible shock. Voters – and the demographics are very telling – want a return to simpler times, to straight-talking leaders, and to an improvement in their lot in life. Trump and Farage, who let us not forget appeared on stage together, are the winds of change. The fact that neither of them has a scoobydoo is irrelevant.

They lied through their teeth.

Trump literally made it up as he went along. He could have said anything, frequently did, and it did not matter at all in the end. He was the outsider, the alternative, shouting long and loud what people wanted to hear. That the rhetoric was mostly and shamefully untrue ultimately meant nothing, we live in a post-factual age. There will not be a wall built along the Mexican border, that exists only in la-la land. 11 million immigrants will not be sent back to their home countries, it's simply not feasible. Muslims will not be able to be banned or monitored, it’s unconstitutional – the same constitution that preserves the right of citizens to own machine guns, and which regularly results in mass shootings of innocent people. But that’s what people wanted to hear so that’s what he said. They didn’t want to hear about liberalism and the reality of globalisation. I can’t remember who it was that said during the EU debate that the world was sick of experts, or even what side of the political divide that they were on, but they were dead right. Common sense, science, empirical fact and the truth have all gone out the window. Trump and his ilk saw that and they capitalised on it. The traditional politicians didn’t see that and they, to use an American phrase, have been run out of town. They played it wrong and they lost.

And ultimately we have all lost. All of those smug brexiteers behind their lace curtains in middle England are probably just as confused and scared as they were before, as the level of uncertainty in the world is now off the scale. There are no easy answers to the issues that are worrying people, and electing Trump doesn’t change that for Americans either. The only thing that has changed is that we will now have a dangerous buffoon in the White House next year, an unstable, uncontrollable and uncompromising man who is not fit to hold office. This is America’s new leader, the one on whose personal sanity we all in part rely, and he is a car crash waiting to happen. Sensible things like climate change deals could be ripped up, human rights will be trampled over, diplomacy will recede and militarism will increase. He will have a global impact, possibly in very very negative ways, but that irony is lost on the isolationists who voted for him. But that’s OK, because it’s America first from now on, and who cares about the rest of the planet? Or indeed the planet itself. All the jobs are coming back, all the foreigners are getting kicked out, and it will be like it used to be back in the 1950s when life was good.

Except it won’t as that isn’t the way the world works any more. American manufacturing will not come back, as when the same voters who have just sent Trump to the highest seat in the land realise that they have to pay more for their trucks, fridges, TVs and almost everything else they currently enjoy at prices cheaper than they have ever been, they will be up in arms. Hang on, we didn't vote for this! The vast majority of all the things that this odious man has said and promised are complete fiction, just like most of the empty promises made by the Leave campaigners. Remember that bus promising EU contributions shifting directly to the NHS? It’s that, but a lot bigger. Trump won’t make America great again, he’ll push America off a cliff. Just like the true implications of Brexit are only now beginning to be hinted at, job losses and financial black holes, inflation and rising prices, America can only begin to imagine the tragedy that could now unfold. God Bless America, the greatest nation on earth! Wait, whaddya mean we’re at war with eight countries? This is Britain, we’re independent, free at last from the shackles of Europe! Wait, why is my summer holiday more expensive now, and why can’t I find a cleaner? What do you mean Walkers Crisps cost more?

And that’s without considering the human cost. This impacts relationships and families. This impacts where people can go and what they can do, it restricts individual progress and mutual cooperation. It wrecks dreams. I am sounding preachy I think, but consider the opportunities now unavailable to my children following the decision to leave Europe. Think of the doors that are now closed. The answer to globalisation is not to retreat and become more insular, it is to understand it, embrace it, and make it work for you. Brexit and President Trump are steps in completely the wrong direction, and the UK and the US are rapidly heading back to the 1970s. They have set themselves back 40 years.

Elvis left the building a long time ago, reality has now followed.

*croque monsieur


  1. Superbly considered and written. All any of us can do now is cross our fingers...

  2. As another American living in Britain I'm in shock, even more than with Brexit. You have so eloquently expressed so many of my emotions. I don't feel any better but I understand more.

  3. One of your finest Jono. Sadly...

  4. Really good post.... About a horrendously bad state of affairs. God knows where it will end.

  5. Jono - "Do nothing, nothing changes! Do something and things will change, but not always how you had envisaged!" I feel that this is the basis behind both "Brexit" and the election of Mr Trump. The ordinary guy has had enough of contrived politics, driven by greed and self aggrandizement. This democratic process, be it a referendum or election, allowing an underlying murmuring to become recognized as an entity, but far too late for the establishment to have taken steps to soothe the discontent at source.
    I genuinely fear for the safety of the entire world, as a result of Trump's election - he is the most powerful man on the planet and a complete goon - only in America can such dreams become reality?
    Brexit? We'll never leave Europe - it's a geographical thing, all we've done is left some cozy club. I don't work in finance, I have no desire to chase the dollar or build an empire. All this doom and gloom, surrounding the UK economy, is highly biased by financial pressure from greedy bankers who are no longer able to manipulate a system to their advantage - Fujifilm SIS are doing very nicely, thank-you, despite the Brexit vote; and so are many other companies within the UK sector. Job losses, dearer holidays, higher house prices - all these thing occurred whilst we were in the EU - what's so different now? As a nation, a global populous, we move forward into unknown territory - let's hope that the lessons of the past have enough gravitas to prevent the same mistakes being made again? - A great, thought provoking, post mate - Dylan

  6. I'm no fan of Trump (or Farage) to put it mildly and have had to scurry around to get an Irish passport by way of insurance post-Brexit (I live in Italy). There are two sides to this. Not just the numpties who voted Trump. Let's look at the 'log in the eye' of the Democratic Party. There was an article in today's equivalent of the FT by Luigi Zingales, an Italian economics professor. I translated it:

    "Why Hillary Clinton lost - by Luigi Zingales - November 10, 2016

    In 1972 Nixon’s Republican Party manipulated the Democratic primaries with the Watergate espionage to help McGovern, a candidate who had no chance of beating Nixon in a head- to-head to win the nomination. Tricky Dicky won the election.
    Rigging the Democratic primary this year was the Democratic Party itself. As the emails revealed by Wikileaks showed, Debbie Wasserman Schultz - the chairman of the Democratic Party - instead of being an impartial arbiter of the primaries, had become a major supporter of Clinton. What's more, again via Wikileaks it was revealed that a journalist friend passed Clinton questions before a debate with Bernie Sanders. The Democratic establishment teamed up against a candidate who stood a better chance of winning against Trump.
    Why did they do it? Because there was a common feeling that the presidency was owed to Hillary Clinton, as if the United States was a monarchy. She was due it for having stayed alongside her husband Bill, despite the constant betrayals. She was owed it by Obama, who after having beaten her down in a race down to the wire in 2008, had embraced the Clinton clan, to the point of discouraging his Vice President Biden, a candidate with a better chance of winning, from participating in the primaries. She was due it because it was right that a woman become president, despite Hillary Clinton’s main claim to fame had been as a "wife". Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel became prime minister on personal merit, not as the wives of prime ministers. Why should the United States deserve any less? Should gender quotas (with which - in some cases - I agree) also apply to the position of US President?
    Wasn’t she the most experienced candidate? Undoubtedly on paper she had a lot more experience, but had messed up the most important decisions she had taken from the vote in favour of the invasion of Iraq to the decision to invade Libya and on to the one that left the American ambassador in Benghazi without protection, whose body ended up being dragged through the streets of the Libyan city.

  7. Contd.

    "How did the Democratic Party commit such a blunder? Because it thought it would win the elections with money and not with votes. Hillary Clinton has raised $687 million against Trump’s $ 307 million. With the support of CEOs of large companies (all in her favour) and not that of blue-collar workers. With the consent of the mainstream media, not realizing that Americans' confidence in the media is so low that any attack on Trump was free publicity in his favour. More than won by Trump, this election was lost by Hillary Clinton and the democratic establishment that supported her.
    The Democratic Party has also wrong because it chose a candidate deaf to the suffering of the average American, a candidate who did not “feel the burn” (“feel the Bern”), as the slogan invented as play on words. On top of the $139 million earned in the last seven years, on top of the the fabulous wedding reception of his daughter, paid - according to WikiLeaks - by the Clinton Foundation, on top of meeting with the most repressive rulers of the world, who poured money into the Clinton Foundation in the hope of obtaining favours, Hillary Clinton could not identify with the pain of those blue-collar workers which she had described as “deplorable”. And they could not identify with her. Hillary Clinton was the worst candidate the Democratic Party could choose in a year like this. And that was clear to anyone who doesn’t only pass their lives in the fine living rooms of New York or of Palm Beach golf clubs, reading the New York Times and watching CNN, nicknamed the Clinton News Network. The Democratic Party was the victim of the media bubble that it had created around itself and in which it lives. Doing so it not only put itself up for defeat, but condemned the world to at least four years of the Trump presidency.
    The US Democratic Party needs to undertake serious self-criticism. But we need to the criticise ourselves too. We cannot reduce everything to this populism. It's called democracy. If in a democracy the majority of citizens do not see improvements in their living standards for many years in succession it will finish up voting against the rulers, against the establishment, even if it means taking risks. This is the courage of despair. Don’t forget it."

    1. Makes perfect sense. Many believe that Sanders would have beaten Trump, but I'm not convinced he would have made a better President. The Democratic Party are in a complete mess – and there's no Obama to rescue them – or us...

    2. Very interesting Paul. The DP does indeed have a lot to answer for. As I said, political failure – years of successive regimes dictating to a huge group of people – has a lot to do with this.

  8. cheer up Jono!

    1. It was only a quarter of the electorate. It isn't anywhere near a majority of Americans.

    2. As an American commentator said yesterday, the founding fathers saw that Trump would happen so constructed a system of checks and balances.

    3. Much the same that is being said about Trump was also said about Reagan and many now consider him amongst the greatest of presidents. I'm not saying Trump will be another Reagan, but maybe best to reserve judgement?

    1. On 2, I very much hope that you are right, and that all these years later they are still effective.

  9. An insightful piece. My only complaint is that like so many you lump the over 65's all together. At 73 I have many friends in the age group and very few voted out. On the other hand I live in a Kent village where nearly all voted out. Pam (my wife) and I felt quite intimidated in the polling booth.

  10. I enjoy reading your stuff [and mostly agree] but the "over 65" comment was a generalisation too far! Not one of them in my sphere voted out, in a wide range of intellects. Facts, which all your birding records are based on, need checking. Then I'll believe you! Trump will probably be "trumped" by the establishment. Great website!

  11. Thanks for all the comments. I am torn between “I can’t believe it”, “why didn’t we all see this coming?” and “the Democratic Party have a lot of soul-searching to do”. My parents did for instance, and they are dismayed with the result. My mother – American – well, you should talk to her after this one. She is devastated that this might be how the US is for the rest of her life. Anyway, yes I am aware that some older folk did in fact vote remain – when you write something like this, sometimes what you need are sweeping generalisations. You try and avoid them if you can, but it can disrupt the flow and I spent hours writing this post. The demographics for Brexit - well there are varying stats out there with quite different numbers, but all seem to agree that there was a sharply generational divide. As I said, I am a bird blogger not a journalist, and this is a piece from the heart and I am not holding it out to be anything else.

  12. "From the heart" on Armistice Day. You can't argue with that in any way. Generalisations accepted!

  13. 16 comments, a record? The people have spoken: more politics, fewer lists!

    I believe you referred to our very own Michael Gove What a muppet.

    1. Ah Gove, that sniveling little wretch. Politicians like that put me off politics. Actually most politicians put me off politics...