Reflections on the second presidential debate and the momentous days around it.
Last Sunday I came across two young men taking a photo of a car bumper in downtown St Paul, Minnesota; not the impressive, sleek, black and chrome, five litre speed-machine itself, just its bumper. What caught their attention was a picture of Hillary Clinton accompanied by a crude, one word expletive in capital letters. They walked on, laughing.
But no way is this a laughing matter. Not in a million years! I’m in the USA for ten days and the more I see and hear the more this truth presses home.
Hours later, from that same Mid-West city, I watched the second presidential debate and the analysis that followed. Trump did better than I thought he would. He was more controlled than at his first outing. If, at least for the moment, you can pass over the fact that much of what he fired at Hillary Clinton was re-hashed, already discredited, blatant fallacy, he left a better impression than I expected.
And so said many of the commentators in the post-match post-mortem. Probably a win on points for Hillary Clinton, but no knock out, when perhaps we might have expected it to come.
This after all has been the weekend of the leak of the lewd tape from 2005. The weekend of Trump’s begrudging, half-hearted apology for comments that quite simply enthuse in the crudest terms about sexual assault.
The questions from the floor were varied and good. Voters asked about policy. Rarely did they get much of an answer, but in amongst the personal jibes and deflections, both candidates did tell us something of where they stood on the big issues of the day and what they might do about them.
So what do ordinary voters make of it?
I’ve talked to several. They come from Minnesota, from Florida, from Colorado, from California, from Illinois. They are worried about immigration, first and foremost. They fear Islam and they sense the US is losing its great skill of assimilation which has served it so well over the centuries and the waves of new-comers the continent has welcomed. They are deeply suspicious of the political elite and Hillary Clinton, precisely because she represents the political class. They know that experience should be seen as a good thing, but they find it increasingly hard to accept the compromise because there’s such a gulf between the powerful and life for ordinary citizens living out their lives away from the limelight.
And without exception they are embarrassed. Most, not all to whom I’ve talked, are Republicans. This is not where they wanted to be.
“So what are you going to do”, I ask. There’s an awkward silence; then, “abstain, probably”, they reply. They are largely church goers and church-goers had hoped Trump would somehow come good: “He’s no saint, but neither’s Hillary”. The latest revelations and Trump’s responses these past few days are the last straw.
Then I find someone who, embarrassment notwithstanding, Christian faith unsullied, is still inclined to vote Trump. And they call Joseph Schumpeter to their defence. We are overdue the “gale of creative disruption” if capitalism is to rejuvenate. Trump is rich enough, independent enough and egocentric enough to usher the phenomenon in.
However distasteful we might find Trump’s persona, I’m presented with the argument that the United States needs Trump’s assault on the establishment and the political correctness that attends it. My friend is himself an immigrant. He grew up in a communist state. He has personally experienced state persecution and faced death threats. He is fierce in his defence of liberty and to him Hillary Clinton is principal underminer of an essential foundation of a good society. She is the one who is “dangerous”.
On the same day, another friend, a black Christian leader, is outspoken in his distress that white Christians have been so slow to distance themselves from a presidential candidate he calls “the same racist, sexist, egomaniac that has been there all along”.
The divisions grow wider. Trump speaks to an almost all white crowd near Pittsburgh the day after the debate and warns about “other communities” that could hijack his victory. “It’s so important that you watch other communities because we don’t want this election stolen from us.” The spectre of electoral fraud is raised. Talk of a “stolen election” has been introduced a while back but it is now being repeated with increasing intensity. Renewed efforts are being made to delegitimise government and the entire democratic process in the minds of the electorate. The Trump campaign might have short term electoral gain in view, but long term there can be no winners.
There’s one type of person I’ve hardly come across. “Where in all of this are the peacemakers” I ask myself? After all, Jesus Christ did call them “blessed”, didn’t he?
Hardly come across, I said, because there is an exception, an octogenarian Christian leader, nearer ninety than eighty, with whom I ate dinner a day or two back. He began his own reconciliation work in Rwanda, in the 1990’s, immediately post-genocide and refined his approach in the crucible of that troubled area of central Africa in the years that followed. Today, his programmes roll on, still needed in Africa, but also so much closer to home. We spoke of one just weeks’ away, in Minnesota to be precise. There’s hope, yet, after all!