“I really didn’t appreciate all those outside people coming into my neighbourhood, my city and causing problems, looting and carrying on. I had a three-hour commute to work because they shut the whole place down. It’s a pandemic and we’re shutting down churches, but not this?”
My massive family lives all over the US, and between them hold wildly different political views. One uncle carries a cherished copy of the US constitution wherever he goes. A cousin is more likely to be found burning the American flag in the West Bank. Some have marched against the endless wars. Others have served for decades in the military.
But I could always count on them for one thing: an accurate prediction of who was going to win the next election. When we gathered in North Carolina each summer before the vote, I’d seek out the handful of swing voters among us and I’d be left in no doubt. Kerry was headed for failure in 2004. Obama would take the White House in 2008 and keep it four years later. They’d never let me down.
But in 2016, weird things started happening. My late grandmother in South Carolina had dutifully voted for every Republican since Eisenhower. Now, she was voting for her dog. My young cousin from Seattle – who I quote above speaking about the Black Lives Matter protests there – had originally backed Bernie. Then he voted for Trump.
Even though the national polls weren’t wrong, most pundits missed these subterranean shifts – thereby failing to predict the only result that mattered: the Electoral College.
This time round the polls again say the Democrat will win, by a far wider margin. But even if this is correct, what are we missing? What forces are continuing to move beneath our feet?
I’m travelling across the key swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania and into the Republican heartland of Kentucky to try and find out. (You can follow me here for live updates.)
Here are some things I’ve learned already.
Many Trump voters are highly educated. Many are atheists; many more back legal, safe abortions. Many believe in climate change. They support gay marriage and a range of other rights for LGBTIQ people. They visit a variety of sources for their news, and many fact-check them.
Top among their reasons for supporting Trump is that he’s the first president in their memory who hasn’t started any new wars; instead, he’s brought troops home. They think something should be done about climate change, yes – but they place a premium on US ‘energy independence’. Above all, they don’t want their country to rely Saudi or Russian oil.
While many think abortion should be safe and legal, they tend not to support federal government funding for it. And, here’s the crux of it: they don’t think the government should be funding much of anything at all.
Again and again they’ve told me: “Trump did what he said he’d do.” That has meant tax cuts and increased military spending while taking an axe to the rest of government. And global isolationism.
I recently spoke with Brian Hughes at American University in Washington DC. He’s an expert on far-Right militia movements. What he told me rings true not just about the extremist fringes – but also about the myths about freedom that are woven deep into the soul of (White) America. For centuries, he points out, ‘freedom’ has meant the right to exploit and colonise ever-expanding frontiers of land, resources and people:
Millions across the country say they want the government out of their lives, because for them this ‘freedom’ from overweening government (or from Communists, terrorists, China) echoes those foundational myths about what it is to be American.
It explains why so many of the White Americans I’ve spoken to insist that Black lives do matter to them; that they support racial equality. Yet they will vehemently deny that structural racism exists. As Craig, from Florida, put it to me: “My ‘white privilege’ didn’t knock on the door and hand me a pile of cash, a degree, a car, and solve all of my problems. I was on my own, and I joined the army to make something of myself.”
Trouble is, there are no more frontiers. Many of the same people who deride government and cherish ‘freedom’ also want their president to provide jobs that aren’t coming back. They want affordable healthcare. And they want wide-ranging protections from the ravages of globalisation.
It’s often been said that Trump gives voice to the rage and insecurity of a slowly dying empire. That’s true. But he’s also not been terribly good at it. He has no answer for suburban mums other than to beg for their votes. I’ve spoken with Republican-backing Wall Street executives whose economic interests lie squarely with voting for Trump but can’t bring themselves to. Yesterday in New Jersey I met a lifelong Republican voter who’s voting for Biden just to stop the madness. (He pointed out that Trump’s a terrible businessman too, as anyone from ‘Jersey knows – his casinos “all went bankrupt”.)
People from all walks of life have said to me over the past weeks and months: “I didn’t leave the Republican Party. The Republican Party left me”.
The danger now seems less that Biden loses, and more that a far-Right leader who’s much more competent than Trump emerges within the next four to eight years. A leader who will capitalise on the long-lasting damage caused by the pandemic, and who’s smarter about leveraging myths of American ‘freedom’ to oppress and exploit others. Someone who more successfully pigeonholes the Democrats as the party of the rich elite, which is what they’re increasingly becoming. As Biden infamously told wealthy New York donors at a fundraiser in June, “nothing will fundamentally change” if he’s elected.
Last night I met a woman from Halifax, Pennsylvania. She’s a hardworking mum and a registered Democrat in this critical swing state. Who’s she voting for? The Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen. Because: “Fuck ‘em all”.