The first hundred days of Donald Trump’s term as President have passed and a far from flattering assessment made by commentators. However, whether that’ll have any bearing on his support remains to be seen. He’s still talking the language that enthused many, even if the actions haven’t matched the rhetoric. I discovered that much when in the States for talks interspersed with a holiday last month. It’s a deeply divided land. Watching news programmes and even TV channels would have you believe that you were in a different country, if not a parallel universe at times.
Whilst I’ve often disagreed with the political actions of its government, the United States is a country I love. Despite the undercurrents of violence in the culture and epitomised in its gun laws, it still entices. Many of its cities are majestic, with New York and Chicago truly outstanding. This time Philadelphia was added to the list with its history and architecture beguiling. Its scenery and national parks can be breath-taking.
I find its people open and generous in spirit, and often in kind. The simple naiveté that’s often lampooned can be endearing. It’s brain power and contribution to humanity in its universities, institutions and economy is hugely significant for the world, and was something I experienced on a limited scale at meetings with Brookings and Carnegie.
I first visited the United States in 1979. It was not just a global superpower, but a go-to destination, even if as a young student, it was the Greyhound buses for travel and the likes of the YMCA for accommodation. I loved it then but was shocked at the extent of poverty and came back a committed European. I was persuaded that we really were two nations divided by a common language, as well as a belief in a welfare state.
I’ve been many times since then but this visit in the shadow of Trump’s election allowed for some reflection. The USA has changed in many ways, as has the world, not just in politics but in perception.
On the flight out, I read a book on the rise of Asia. The USA remains a superpower and its economy vital for the health of the world, even if it has been surpassed in size by China. Militarily it still dominates. But in other areas, the USA as with the western world is being overtaken by Asia.
That perception was evident on my arrival at Newark. The vista of Manhattan is still impressive on landing. However, having visited Shanghai and Tokyo amongst other Asian destinations, it now seems modest in comparison. The subway in New York is a shadow of its equivalents in Asian cities. The Amtrak train to Washington is a poor comparator to a Bullet train or Maglev. In infrastructure, the USA is beginning to fray.
For sure, the poverty in Asia is huge but in some ways begging in those countries is less obvious. Arriving in Los Angeles last year, I was met in a day by more distressed people on the streets begging than I had experienced in South East Asia. Certainly, mental health and a breakdown in family structures has a lot to do with it. But the perception, if not the reality, is far worse in the USA.
On this visit, the destitute within a stone’s throw of the White House was both stark and worse than before. A visit to Fredericksburg, Virginia, a small quaint town, was tinged by the sight of hordes of people seeking food and shelter at a central church. Inequality is now the worst it has been in the USA for 100 years, and it shows.
Politically, the country has moved to the right, though so has most of the western world. It was always further to the right, even if recent events have extended that position. On past visits, I recall a friend who had known Richard Nixon tell me that the impeached President had planned to introduce a modest health care proposal prior to his political demise. The same friend took me to dine a few years back with Wilbur Ross, now Commerce Secretary in Trump’s Cabinet. The mere mention of Obama care, similar to Nixon’s proposals, brought forth almost apoplexy. Yet the cost of the plastic surgery undergone by the billionaire’s wife would have covered the health care for many a poor community in its entirety.
The father of a friend I stayed with in Texas a year or so ago had been the campaign manager for Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was a Texas Senator before becoming President. At that time segregation, welfare reform and public education were the big issues pursued bravely by Johnson, in what was then a Democrat state. Now the state is solidly Republican and the issues are gun control, same-sex marriage and abortion.
I asked my friends about their political involvement now and they simply said they kept their mouth shut. It was hard to have a rational debate with zealots, yet the poverty there amidst the waste - whether in gas guzzling cars or flare offs from fracking - is truly appalling.
So America faces a huge challenge, made even bigger by Trump. It’s a Government of the billionaires, like Wilbur Ross, for their own further enrichment. Military expenditure is increased as welfare position is slashed. Areas like West Virginia that I visited are being left to rot and hence why many their bought into Trump’s rhetoric. Their hopes, though, will turn to dust as he beggars them and enriches oligarchs.
However, I still believe in America and in its possibilities and contribution to humanity. The American dream was always a bit of a myth but it’s an innovative and enterprising society. Under a quarter of Americans voted for Trump. He doesn’t represent the decency of most of the people and he’ll pass into history, though at huge cost to many. Despite its challenges, the world needs America to tackle issues whether global warming or globalisation.
America is bigger than Trump and it’ll come again.