August 17, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
The problem with refusing to listen to messages or engage in debates on issues that make us feel uncomfortable is that gradually the messenger becomes more and more extreme.
One of the things I have found helps me to write blogs (and now a book) is to be open to conversations with anyone about anything, because you never know what might come up.
So, whilst considering the situation in Charlottesville this past week I was reminded that on the tube to Heathrow Airport the other day I was sat next to a man from Iowa who was very interested in Brexit but also had a story to tell me about the conversations he had with people in his very small town back in the USA about why they were voting for Donald Trump.
He personally was not a Trump voter, because, he said, he just knew that he didn’t share his values and couldn’t bring himself to do it. This despite being a corn farmer who would benefit financially from any protectionism Trump’s ‘America first’ strategy might bring. But his town was full of Trump voters, and in the run up to the US election there was a lot of talk about politics in the local bars, on the street and even in the fields.
He said to me the main issue for the people he knew was this: For many years politicians had pointed the way ahead to the ‘American dream’. This dream involved wealth and prosperity, but for people in his town, simply a more comfortable life. But the dream had always seemed out of reach, over the horizon, over a hill too high to climb by themselves without a little bit of help.
The people in his town worked hard, many for more hours than many of us do. They are all white, and what we in the Uk would understand as working class or lower middle-class. In Britain we might expect them to be interested in what a left-wing party has to offer them in terms of government support to achieve their aims. Sure enough, many of them had voted Democrat for years. But in this election they voted Trump.
The reason for this, according to the man I spoke to, was that they felt that the democrats, and the estaliblishment that they represented (which, by the way, included many ‘normal’ republicans who were career politicians) had constantly ‘pushed them to the back of the line’ in the American dream. In their view, ‘they’ were constantly pushing forward other people, be they of different colour, sexual orientation, nationality, whatever it was, it wasn’t them. Well, some Trump voters had had enough and wanted something different. And, a bit like with some people who voted for Brexit, they didn’t really care what that something different was, as long as they could be sure it was different.
I have just finished reading ‘Shattered’, a superb book about the inside of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In it, the realisation dawns on her team that Trump has something they were going to really struggle to compete against. They represented a figure in Hillary that was the establishment incarnate – First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State – and someone with no real message about why they wanted to be President, and what they would do when President, apart from that they just really wanted to be President. Trump was the anti-establishment incarnate AND he had a clear message about what he wanted to do when President. This mattered to people who voted for him far more than what he said about women, immigrants or anyone else. They wanted change in their lives and he offered it.
What I have learned from speaking to people when writing my book is that we in London especially have very little time for people in Britain like those my train friend from Iowa had spoken to. We dismiss their struggles as a result of them being lazy, and we dismiss their view of where they have found themselves in the line (as a result of globalisation) for achieving their dreams as the views of racists, bigots and homophobes. So we stopped listening. In the UK they found someone (Farage) who would listen to them, didn’t dismiss them, and pointed them towards the only democratic mechanism (a referendum) that could have a chance to create change (for better or worse). So they voted for it.
Meanwhile, in the USA, they found someone who would listen, and who didn’t dismiss them (e.g. “I love the poorly educated”), and promised change. They believed him. And they voted for him.
I see all over social media people bemoaning the fact that it was Trump who they voted for, with his ‘extreme views’. But which ‘mainstream’ politician in their right mind would speak up for white people, to try to explain or address their frustrations? They would be shot down, with people calling for them to be sacked for whatever they were doing. It can’t even be raised in a debate, because instead of being shown to be ‘wrong’ the person who raised it would be denounced as ‘wicked’. So the political space on this issue was left empty, and people further to the right have stepped into it. All because people have appointed themselves the guardians of what can and cannot be debated and what questions can and cannot be asked.