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Notes from the Divided States of America

Lunch at a diner in Decatur City, Iowa. Photo/Getty Images

A political earthquake has occurred in the US with the election of Donald Trump. Rebecca Macfie is on the road in the Midwest talking to people about why they voted the way they did, and what happens now. 

James Jones lowers his eyes to say grace before tucking into his railway burger. He’s on his way home to his family and community in Denver after visiting his beloved 103-year-old godmother in California. The morning after he steps off the train is Martin Luther King Day, and he will march in remembrance.

In a few days, Donald Trump will be President Trump. I’m heading for the Midwest with the aim of listening with my own ears to how individual Americans backed a man seen by much of the world as an alarming buffoon, who abuses his critics, defames whole populations, is defying any expectation of dealing with conflicts of interest, and joked on TV when admitting he had been called a sexual predator.

And I want to hear how Americans who are appalled by the very idea of Trump as president intend to go forward, defend their values and pull themselves out of the pall of depression that has fallen across the liberal left in the US since the election.

Read more: Trump's America: 'Anyone who is not white American is gonna take a hit'

Jones is not one of those who voted for Trump, but he describes his response to the incoming president as more cautious than appalled. He has a simple question for Trump: “What does he mean ‘make America great again’? What great times is he talking about? Is he talking about times of slavery? Is he talking about times when education was being denied? What great America is he speaking about?”

James Jones. Photo/Rebecca Macfie

The day before we met, Trump had unleashed a Twitter storm against one of Jones’ heroes, civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis – a man widely admired as a politician of integrity. Lewis was a leader of the 1965 freedom march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which was met with teargas and batons by state troopers. Lewis’s skull was fractured fighting for the rights of people like James Jones.

But the gravitas of Lewis’ historical role in achieving voting rights for black Americans is no protection from a Trump assault. The president-elect was affronted by Lewis’ damning comment in an interview that Trump was not a “legitimate” president because of evidence that Russia meddled in the election to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances. He is boycotting the inauguration.

Lashing back on Twitter, Trump called Lewis’ Georgia district “crime infested”; Lewis was “all talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”.

For more on President-elect Trump, read 'The Trump Revolution', a special report by Paul Thomas, Jon Johansson and Ben Stanley with illustrations by Anthony Ellison, in this week's issue of the Listener.

This stuff is raw for Jones. “John Lewis spilled blood so that I could vote.” The rights and opportunities won through civil disobedience led by the likes of Lewis and Martin Luther King still feel fragile to him. His own nephew - a young man seen as a ray of hope for San Diego’s black community, who had excelled at school, been accepted into Cornell medical school on a scholarship and dreamed of coming back to serve his community - was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 1994.

Now America is to have a president who told a protester he wanted to “punch him in the face”, and who ordered a black supporter to be thrown out “in the cold” from a rally. Jones’ eyes well with tears at the violence of Trump’s words.

“We don’t want war on the streets of America,” says the 67 year old. He says he is doing what he can for the values he believes in, and his religious faith keeps him from despairing at the political turn of events. He describes himself as a community activist. He teaches kids skills that might get them work, such as painting houses and fixing fences. “I want everyone to understand where we came from and where we are headed…It’s been a long and poignant 67 years. I’m still here, trying to make a difference. Still trying to make America great again.”


In America, people are talking a lot about whether they’ve been in a bubble and about the labels used as political shorthand. The liberal urban bubble that was deaf and blind to the concerns of those who responded to Trump’s sloganeering; the white working-class, non-college-educated white males who flipped to Trump because they’d been left behind by globalisation; the fly-over states that felt ignored. In a seismic political shift, we look for verbal summaries to make sense of what appears incomprehensible. But the labels often dissolve into irrelevance and internal contradiction when you sit across the table and ask why someone voted the way they did.

Ernie Fawkes, for instance, is a white, Californian, college-educated, retired male teacher who believes in public schools and a safety net to help the vulnerable to get back on their feet. He was a union member during his working life, is a devout Christian and a registered Democrat. He volunteers at a mission for the homeless, helps out at a local school and is a caring neighbour. When it comes to medical care, he thinks a national public health system run by a mix of public and private sector would be “awesome”.

And he voted for Trump, who promises to get rid of the Affordable Care Act – an act that threatens to strip 20 million people of healthcare coverage.

Fawkes’ motivation? He wants smaller government and more fiscal discipline, and he thinks Trump is more likely to deliver it. He was appalled at the revelations of Trump’s predatory attitude towards women – “we should be above that” – but he excused it and exercised a form of moral relativity. “[Hillary Clinton] knew her husband had been with other women, and she didn’t divorce him.”

What about Trump’s inadequate response to dealing with his business conflicts of interest? “They all have conflicts of interest,” Fawkes says. “Trump is no worse than anyone else. He’s maybe more honest about it.”

But to be fair, he says, “We didn’t have much to choose from.”


Ben Covington. Photo/Rebecca Macfie
I arrived in Iowa in the middle of an ice storm that was sweeping through the Midwest. The footpaths and some roads were like skating rinks. I had a ticket on a Greyhound bus to take me to the small university town of Ames, but no one seemed to know if it would run in the treacherous weather. So I asked a 27-year-old white college-educated male, who had also stepped off the train, if I could get a ride with him in his car.

Ben Covington accepted my proposition with generous good humour, and after he spent some time chipping his car out of its casing of ice, we were on the road and he told me about himself. He has a masters degree in agricultural systems technology and works for Iowa State University helping companies such as John Deere develop precision agricultural equipment. 

He’s thoughtful, kind and intelligent. He drove carefully up the interstate highway, then took me for a tour around Ames, drove me to a shop and waited while I bought an electrical adaptor, and deposited me at my hotel door. 

Covington voted for Trump – although his preferred Republican contender was Ted Cruz. He’s not unduly bothered by Trump’s lack of experience in public office (“go back in history and there have been a lot of businessmen in the presidency”), or his treatment of women (“the Clintons have skeletons that are not that great”). And if the Russians did interfere in the election, surely the finger could be pointed at the Obama administration (“I would hope the US president would be able to stop that if it happened”).

Will Trump build a wall to keep Mexicans out? “No!” he says, laughing. “I think he says these things to get people talking, to spark a question more than anything else.”


Katie Holmes, an environmental science student at Iowa State University, had organised 11 students to meet me so I could hear something of how young people see the election.  

Twenty-year-old kinesiology and health student Bailey Hoch is a Republican, like her family, but with “libertarian leanings. I’m a fiscal conservative.” She caucused for Marco Rubio in the primaries. Presented with Trump versus Clinton, she says, “I hated them both. I had to really search within myself for what decision I would be able to live with….I honestly feel we got the two worst candidates possible.”

But to Hoch, Clinton was the worst of the worst. “I could not have voted for Hillary Clinton. To me, she embodies everything that’s wrong with government. The power of special interests, she is out of touch with American people, she doesn’t know what it is to start a small business.  She ran for office for her own gain – she rode on the coat-tails of her husband her entire career, and that doesn’t represent American women. There were so many scandals around her. I had no trust in her. The scandals such as Benghazi, and the Clinton Foundation is really shady in my opinion. I didn’t feel she was looking out for the important issues and she was in it for herself.”

Hoch voted Trump, but says she “struggles with him, with the content of his character, because I really do think he is just such a jerk”. But she went with him in the belief he would surround himself with competent people. “I think he could potentially run the country in such a way that it could become more prosperous and turn it in a direction that I would like to see it go, regardless of his more inappropriate leanings.”

Michael Tupper. Photo/Rebecca Macfie

Michael Tupper, a 21-year-old studying agricultural science and business, comes from a successful corn, soy, cattle and hog farm in Iowa. He’s sharp, articulate and already being primed for a life of civic leadership. His family is Republican but he voted for the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

“I know that every member of my family basically said there had been 17 better Republican candidates than Trump. What it came down to for them was they could not stand the policies of Clinton. If the Democrats had put up a candidate that was better than her, it’s not inconceivable they could have voted for that person to keep Trump out.”

The outcome of the election was more about Clinton losing than Trump winning, Tupper thinks. He has deep distaste for Clinton, who he sees as “obsessed” with power. “Public life in this country was supposed to be a burden, not a life’s career, and you were supposed to have a citizenry that was willing to give up their lives for two years or six years to go to Washington and serve in the public’s interest. And when you look at Clinton’s career, moving from one thing to the next – from First Lady to Senator, and all the money in the world to throw into an attempt at the presidency, and then she weaselled her way into the Obama administration as Secretary of State, and then was basically hand-selected as the next Democratic candidate by the party for this presidential election. Everything about her rise to power looks as if there is something shady about it…So I believe her motivations are wrong.

And Tupper claimed Clinton “is probably the worst Secretary of State since the 1800s. The Middle East is in a worse state than ever.”

Trump, a “showman”, exploited the trend towards celebrity presidents, according to Tupper. “Basically, stardom can’t be beat... A lot of the talk was of how racist or bigoted he was – but he does not believe any of that. The only reason he says it is to get a cheer from the crowd, which does raise some questions about American society.”


Isaiah Baker. Photo/Rebecca Macfie
Isaiah Baker, the grandson of immigrant grandparents who arrived in the US in 1965 with $27 in their pocket, and whose parents went on to become doctors, is searching for a new form of activism fit to heal a divided country. He’s worried about ideological bubbles, labels, polarisation and the decay of civic discourse.

He’s only 20, but he speaks like someone much older. He has turned off Twitter and Facebook because they perpetuate the echo chamber effect of having views you agree with repeated back to you, and reinforcing existing biases.

He backed Democrat Bernie Sanders in the primaries, and voted for Clinton despite deep reservations. “She represents the Democratic party that my generation just can’t align with. She is very much in favour of the status quo, not pushing the agenda left. And I see her agenda as not helping marginalised people here or abroad. With almost every foreign policy decision, she made America’s position in the world worse. But easily she was the lesser of two evils.”

Trump is “pure evil”. Baker tells me in his home state of Minnesota, which has a large population of Somali immigrants, he witnessed Trump actively foment racism. “He was there saying ‘Somalis are bad’, and people were cheering.”

The polarisation of politics was already occurring, but Trump capitalised on it. “He has recognised that polarisation as something he can win from. He has degraded our politics so much, in such a short period of time.”

The election result brought “anger and sadness”. Baker attended “Not My President” rallies and found it helpful to be alongside vulnerable groups that feared for their future. But it’s time for action now. “I can stand around and chant. I want to work with people. I want us to talk. There is a shared American world view, if we can get out of our bubbles and talk together. So I want to work to get more Democrats elected, but also talk to people of all backgrounds and ideologies. I am interested in restoring politics to something that happens in the public sphere. I want to move away from these contrived debates, and I want to be able to have voters talking together. That’s what politics is. It’s getting people together, instead of politicians coming through town and talking at us. It’s all celebrity politics now and no discussion.”

Samuel Freestone, a 20-year-old environmental science student, has swung from his Republican family roots to become a Democrat. Climate change is his No 1 concern, and now America has a president who has called climate change a hoax. It’s not too much to say that the election result has changed Freestone’s life. “Every day is now a fight. It’s not going to be enough to lie on the ground and accept what’s happening. If we don’t act and stand up for fundamental rights, we are going to lose them.” He now considers himself as an activist, and sees it as part of his role to fight “anti-intellectualism” with evidence – going door to door, protesting, pressuring congressmen.

With Trump’s election, he says, “nothing is certain any more”.

Next stop, Michigan.

For more on President-elect Trump, read 'The Trump Revolution', a special report by Paul Thomas, Jon Johansson and Ben Stanley with illustrations by Anthony Ellison, in this week's issue of the Listener.