Drive-by counties

Apologies, I’m going to take a brief detour from the travel blog to share a political observation. Every state I have visited since I got off the train in Texas last week voted for Donald Trump in the election last November: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina.

And yet, every city I’ve visited in those states – San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville – voted for Clinton. I’ve been hopping from one blue island to the next, rarely dipping my feet into the scary red sea in between.

It’s no great insight that urban areas vote Democrat and rural areas vote Republican. As I speed through the conservative countryside on my way to the next liberal stronghold, there are occasional clues: a large sign in Texas saying that ‘God will punish Democrats’, a Confederate flag flying in Mississippi and the occasional NRA t-shirt or bumper sticker.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans (Trump won Louisiana by 20 points), ACLU volunteers feel comfortable standing in the street asking passers by to help them “resist Trump”. If they swapped places with gun rights t-shirt wearers in small town Texas, I’m not sure either of them could guarantee their safety.

It’s just as true in the western blue states. Driving down the Pacific coast through Washington, Oregon and northern California just a few weeks before the election last year, I was overwhelmed by the number of Trump yard signs. These three states voted Democrat almost entirely because of the liberal populations of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and LA, leaving their rural voters as politically isolated as a liberal in Alabama.

I am reminded of a conversation I had in a bike shop in a small town in New York state in 2007. The shop owner asked us what we thought of the US so far. As a cocky 22 year old, I assumed that a NY cycle shop would be a safe place to make a joke about then-President George W Bush. He didn’t laugh.

After Trump won, commentators talked about “fly over states”, those states that journalists only ever see from 40,000 ft as they cross from LA to NYC. But if we zoom in and switch from plane to car or train, our flyover states become drive-by counties: the rural districts between the big cities of California, Texas or Ohio.

Anyway, these thoughts led me to nod along to something on (#fakenews) CNN the other day about how the liberal bias in the US print media (perceived or real) is probably an urban/rural thing. Journalists for the big newspapers tend to be people interested in living in New York or Washington, and as we (both in Britain and in America) increasingly choose to huddle around opinions we already agree with, this leads to journalists with backgrounds that are less representative of a wider America.

To paraphrase President Obama’s 2008 victory speech, America is not a collection of red states and blue states, but a fragile union of blue cities bobbing in an ocean of red.

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Following through on a Trump

I wasn’t going to blog about the election result; plenty of people with better informed views have already written thousands of words about President-elect Trump. However, the last 24 hours have been quite troubling and, if nothing else, I’d like to clarify my own thoughts by writing them down. This year, the world – in particular both my own country and the country I’m currently calling home – has embraced right-wing populism in a way that reminds me too closely of my GCSE History topic about Germany between the wars.

This evening, my usual cycle route home was blocked by a long protest march along Market Street. Thousands of mainly young people – probably many of my students – marched noisily, angrily and peacefully against the president that their country had elected, but that more than 90% of this city had rejected.

Their protest against a duly-elected leader of a democracy is obviously futile. But it wasn’t about achieving anything, it was merely a faucet of emotion, releasing the anger and upset that had been simmering all day. It was also the first time I’ve ever seen a protest which hasn’t been hijacked by the Socialist Workers’ Party, so that’s something.

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This morning, while waiting at a pedestrian crossing, a woman turned to me and said, “Nobody is happy today”. I made my way into school to find that a lesson had been cancelled and replaced by an assembly. One-by-one, students and staff took to the microphone to talk about how the news made them feel.

One or two cried, some were angry, a few spoke hopefully of how this result might spur young people into becoming more engaged in politics. Students from sexual, ethnic and religious minorities spoke of their fears for their safety, especially if they leave the liberal bubble of San Francisco to go to college in another state.

Watching these inspirational young people was a timely reminder that Trump, no matter the damage he may seek to inflict, does not represent the future of America. His politics were rejected by the young and by the growing non-white populations. This is an interlude, not a coda.

I woke up this morning with the same sick feeling I’d felt twice before in the last 18 months: first after the surprise Tory majority in May 2015, then after reading about Brexit in a Glastonbury tent. Much has been made about how both Trump and Brexit – and the abandonment of the centre ground by both the Conservatives and Labour – are signs of the death of liberalism. This is, of course, nonsense.

48% of Britons voted to remain a part of the EU. More people voted for Clinton than Trump (let’s shout this loud and clear: Trump was right about the system being rigged). These were not landslides. Liberalism isn’t dead, it’s just met its match.

Those of us on the liberal-left, who would now be called the elite by billionaires and stockbrokers, have a fight to both deal with the economic root causes of the rise of right-wing populism and also to firmly reject the bigotry that rides on its coat tails.

Millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic are legitimately pissed off. Their jobs have gone and will mostly never come back. Some have gone abroad, some are no longer needed. Last night, as I took an Uber home from a depressing party organised by the Democrats, I reflected on the likelihood that the car would be driven by a robot within five years.

There are 37,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in San Francisco alone (a city 10 times smaller than London). What are these guys going to do when the computer takes over? Is anybody’s job safe? Who says every classroom will need a teacher in 30 years time? According to a US government report, those earning under $20 an hour have an 83% chance of losing their job to a machine eventually.

Maybe, like the Luddites, we should smash the looms. Ban Uber, stop the march of the robots and AI. But here’s where the divided nation comes in. I’m a middle class professional with disposable income and I like this stuff. I like that I can get home from the city at night for under $5 by sharing my Uber with two strangers that an algorithm has determined are going in the same direction. I’d like it even more if it cost me $2 because I’m paying for a computer to push the pedals and turn the steering wheel.

There’s a robot vacuum cleaner buzzing around me right now. People like me love this stuff. It makes life easier, often more affordable and lets me use my leisure time more productively.

So, both Brexit and Trump were about half of a country reasserting itself and pointing that things aren’t going quite so well for them. Leaving the European Union will do little to address this, and Trump’s trickle-down economics certainly won’t. But that doesn’t matter: both campaigns, for the first time in decades, spoke to the concerns of these populations.

There’s no obvious solution beyond better education, to ensure that future generations are prepared for the world that’s coming, not the one that’s been. Maybe a guaranteed basic income can help those left behind.

Taking a leaf from national socialism, both these campaigns harnessed the power of scapegoats: Romanians, Muslims, Mexicans. I suppose it’s far easier to blame these outsiders for your problems than it is to make the more complex arguments about globalisation.

Sure, there are legitimate concerns about immigration, not just about the economic impacts, but also the cultural effects on local communities. However, it’s very easy for these debates to become racially charged, especially when Farage, Trump and Le Pen speak so frequently at the pitch of a dog whistle. And guess what? When you start being racist, when your campaign is supported by the BNP or the KKK, liberals like me will walk away and ignore you again.

My biggest short term fear about Trump is that those American racists who have felt compelled by political correctness (a.k.a. being polite) to keep their mouths shut, have now been given a permission slip to let all this pent up bigotry out. Racist incidents spiked after Brexit, and a French-speaking colleague has already been abused on public transport, shortly before the election.

Well, that’s nearly the end of this stream of consciousness. As today went on, despair and anger gave way to the hope that actually Trump was saying most of the really awful stuff for effect, like the childish troll he is. Or maybe the saner Republicans in Congress will rein him in. Or perhaps he’ll be impeached, except that would put Mike Pence in charge: a less odious human, but a politician with some quite repulsive views.

Who knows what will happen? America (or at least slightly under half of the slightly over half who voted) has just rejected the most qualified candidate ever in favour of the least experienced candidate ever, a man whose record of abuse would exclude him from most jobs. We live in interesting times.