Girl at motel desk in upstate Oregon: “Nationality?”Me: “UK”. Girl: “Where’s that?” Americans aren’t particularly engaged with abroad at the best of times. Most don’t own a passport while there is an irrational fear of the unknown among many, a sense that abroad simply means trouble.
Hence the introductory speaker to Donald Trump in South Carolina describing the property tycoon as: “The man who’s gonna build a wall to keep out all those people who are trying to harm us. The man who’s going to make America great again.” The irony was unintentional.
Imagine Nicola Sturgeon being introduced that way at an SNP conference; or David Cameron saying he’ll build a wall at the white cliffs of Dover to keep out EU migrants. Actually, some Tory MPs might rather like the sound of that, so let’s not give him ideas.
I’ve been in the Pacific north west of America watching the black farce of Mr Trump grip and split the American nation. To the consternation of liberals he has steamrollered through the primary binge of Super Tuesday, batting aside republican rival Marco Rubio’s claim that he is a “con man” and trundling over accusations from other prominent Republican politicians that he is a former bankrupt who employed illegal immigrant labour to build Trump Tower.
These are serious charges that might in the past have been enough to destroy a presidential candidate. To the amazement of the world, The Donald just carries right on. He is expected to win the Republican nomination and stand against Hillary Clinton for president November (the tide is shifting away from Bernie Sanders).
Most sensible Americans expect and hope she will beat him. But they aren’t sure. No one has seen anything like this before. It seems bizarre to describe the overweight, carrot-skinned, bizarrely-coiffed Mr Trump as charismatic but, at one level, it is undeniable. He has star appeal and not just because of his television appearances as the belligerent boss in the American version of The Apprentice.
The thousands of mainly working class Americans who turn up to his rallies are treating him like a right-wing version of Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, songs like Born in the USA and We Take Care of Our Own could be Trump slogans
The news networks can’t get enough of him. Republican debates have become slanging matches, almost pub brawls.
The press and the networks are only now realising the story potential of Mr Trump, with all the doubts about his wealth, his tax returns, his many failed ventures such as the Trump University, which was no centre of higher learning but took thousands of dollars from gullible Americans seeking an easy route to success.
Mr Rubio pointed out that the ads for the Trump presidency echo the vainglorious pitch made for Trump University: how he was going to have the “very best professors” and “do nothing but success”. He’s just going to fix everything, no problem, and it’s going to be “beautiful”.
As revelations about his university scam emerged, I was speaking at some genuine universities in the Pacific north west, in Portland and Seattle. They understand abroad here, even to the extent of being interested in what has been happening in Scotland. These wet northern states have something in common with us: a sense of remoteness from the centre, a degree of regional vanity and a tradition of liberal politics.
Oregon and Washington have legalised recreational use of marijuana and were in the vanguard of legalising same-sex marriage. They have some interesting tax policies too, with Oregon state scrapping VAT and increasing income tax, while neighbouring Washington State has scrapped income tax and loaded the burden on property taxes. But I digress.
It is fair to say that the Pacific north west is not Donald Country. In Powell’s bookshop in Portland, one of the biggest in North America, people were half-seriously talking about emigrating to Canada.
Mr Trump is regarded by liberals as a kind of white-trash demagogue, an American Mussolini. A parody account on the internet had Mr Trump retweet quotes from Il Duce including: “It is better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.”
Mr Trump is a throwback to something unseen in US politics for more than a century. For most of the 20th century, working class Americans bought into an industrial version of the American dream organised by unions with close links to political parties. That has all gone.
The well-paid and secure industrial jobs are history, inequality has reached levels unseen since the 1920s and the unions have ceased to matter. This has left an alienated cohort of white working class men without any sense that they matter either.
Indeed, they are almost becoming invisible. On the TV news and daytime programmes you see all racial groups represented – Hispanic, Afro-American, Asian-American – but young white men are conspicuous by their absence. There are only silver-haired anchor men looking like refugees from Hollywood.
The surplus white men have been looking for someone to express their anguish and confusion, and Mr Trump has emerged as their unlikely champion.
He has pressed the key populist buttons. He has condemned the banks and Wall Street and accused the Washington political establishment of being in the pockets of corrupt plutocrats. He says he is going to increase jobs by stopping companies like Apple manufacturing their products abroad. He is the first presidential candidate to preach autarky, or self sufficency, since the 1930s.
He has identified an enemy within: the Mexican migrants he says have brought drugs and crime into America. He is going to build a 1,000 mile wall, from sea to shining sea, to keep them out. And he wants the Mexican government to pay for it; fat chance.
The enemy without is Islamic State and the Muslim world in general. His most egregious promise so far has been to bar Muslims from entering the US until “we know what is going on”. All he needs is a military uniform and the authoritarian picture would be complete.
Democrats think he can’t win. Ms Clinton has swept up the Afro-American vote and when Mr Trump wins the Republican nomination we will see women, Hispanics and other minority groups swooning into her arms.
The only problem with this analysis is that Mr Trump seems to be gaining much wider support than just among the red necks, gun fanatics and redundant car workers. He seems to be attracting support among higher-income groups and better-educated Republican voters. So how do you like them apples?
Travelling round America, it’s hard to reconcile his hateful politics with the friendly and open American people you meet along the way. Can they really all be crypto-fascists? Of course not: but enough are sufficiently afraid of the future to want a strong man to come along and sort things out. And we know where that can lead.
From Herald 3/3/16