In the middle of a speech two weeks ago, Donald Trump paused for a moment of reflection. Since he’d been campaigning for a year and a half, he said, it must mean that he’d finally become a politician.
Unfortunately for him, not a very good one.
By all accounts, Trump has slipped badly in the polls. Whether the result of a carefully-orchestrated offensive or a case of mutual indignation, the army of women groped by Donald’s small hands seems to have turned the most important group of voters against him – and even traditionally Republican states may be up for grabs.
In his latest appearances, Trump seemed frustrated, angry, alone. In last Wednesday’s debate, at least to this observer he seemed more composed and prepared, but the media were quick to suggest that the electorate would never accept a candidate unwilling to abide by the final results.
But on a recent car trip through the swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, a Danish journalist-friend and I gathered evidence that suggested otherwise. Virtually everyone we talked to – that is, every white person – supported Trump. Not enthusiastically, and several weren’t planning to vote at all – “Is this the best the country can offer?” said one; “You gotta be kidding!” said another – but no one had anything good to say about Hillary.
The prevailing mood was at best nostalgic for better times, at worst darkly bitter.
The most revealing conversations were with people in areas of Western Pennsylvania that used to be major sources of coal and natural gas. In among the hills, we drove past some coal-processing plants, but the deep mines were gone and, what was left we were told, were strip mines, easier to manage, requiring fewer personnel and producing much more pollution.
The towns along the way were not destitute, but the buildings were old, shabby wood-frame structures covered with aluminium siding to keep them standing until the termites ate their way through the beams. Except for the occasional MacDonald’s or gas stations, there were no new buildings at either end of town, where construction usually goes on. Some people were enormously fat or painfully thin, and the men, with long, untidy hair and scraggly beards, looked right out of the hillbilly reality shows popular on TV. Everyone had bad teeth.
But these people were friendly and eager to talk. Sometimes it seemed like the more personal reasons they had for supporting Trump, the kinder they were. Their motives were much more emotional than logical, among them the usual fear of foreigners coming into the country to take away jobs, welfare recipients squandering hard-earned taxes, abortion, and the danger of ‘outside influences’ who had contributed millions to the Clinton Foundation, influencing Hillary as President.
And guns. They were terrified that Democrats would take away their firearms. An elderly waitress in a diner in central Pennsylvania was particularly candid: “My husband and I live far out in the country. We don’t have friends. Our friends are dead. We just have acquaintances, and we don’t talk politics with them. So if we had a break-in, the only police we could call would be state troopers, and it would take them hours to get out to us. So we have to have guns. It’s not good to have guns in homes with people with mental problems, we know that, but we also have to defend ourselves.”
President Barack Obama at a rally in Cleveland, Ohio, speaking on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Photo: Elisabet Svane.
It wasn’t hard to see why she felt vulnerable. In the twenty-first century, what will happen to her, her town, the neighbours that she doesn’t feel close to? If the remaining coalmines close, if fracking for natural gas and oil becomes illegal or no longer economically viable, how will they survive? Trump’s vow to resuscitate local mining and Clinton’s call for retraining programmes seem equally unlikely. For the first time in history, large sections of the population who support themselves through physical activity are simply not needed. No wonder they’re bitter and scared.
African-Americans were warier of talking with us. A motel clerk wouldn’t comment on Trump, but said that he’d vote Democratic because they were forward-looking: they’d nominated the first black President, and now the first female President. An African-American man staying at the same motel would only say that when he got into the voting booth, the Lord would tell him how to vote. But as he pulled out of the motel, he gave me a DVD of Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next because it was an example, so he said, of someone “looking for the positive things in life.”
In Cleveland we went to a rally where the President spoke on behalf of Clinton. It was a surprisingly small crowd, only a few hundred people, and we could get fairly close to Obama as he came in and left. When he entered, we could see him only from behind, a boyish man, dressed casually, loose-limbed and energetic, who looked like he was heading out to the nearest basketball court.
He gave a rousing speech, but the most memorable moments were when he touched on what he hadn’t accomplished and the need for young people to retain their idealism. On his way out, we could see his face. He was definitely not a kid. He looked older than his years. And very, very tired. One had a clear sense that the job was simply too big for any one person.