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I have several friends who voted for Donald Trump.  After Trump won the election I did the only productive thing I could think of: I invited one of them over for dinner.

Does that sound crazy?  We live in particularly divided times.  The online dialogue about the US election has been divisive at every level, with Nazi comparisons and vicious trolling flying around like confetti.  My friend and I sparred online in our discussions of events, though thankfully we were more polite to one another than some people are.  We have never compared each other to Hitler, which in the current climate makes our discussions oddly courteous.

But this is part of the problem, isn’t it?  Online discussions are a terrible phenomenon.  Email and Facebook are terrible means of communicating as they strip out the personal aspects of a discussion and reduce it to mere ideas.  Offence is easily taken.  We infer the worst intentions from comments, get defensive, and arguments ensue.  So dinner it was, sitting and eating together, discussing things face to face.  And here is what I learned.

  1. Not all Trump voters actually like Trump. My friend – a white, middle-aged, Christian man from a southern swing state – does not. He finds him crude and offensive.  So why did he vote for him?  Because he dislikes Clinton more than he dislikes Trump.  It really is, for him, the lesser of two evils.  The thought of electing a politician widely thought to be corrupt, duplicitous and incompetent was enough to make him switch to Trump.  Interestingly, he would not have voted Trump if Sanders had been the alternative.
  2. A lot of American people feel left out, sidelined by what they see as a sweeping, liberal agenda that perpetuates intolerance in the name of tolerance. The social and political mainstream automatically condemns anyone taking an alternative point of view on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, unisex bathrooms, or immigration. Whether Donald Trump is likely to take a different stance on these issues is not important: what matters is that he is outside the establishment, refuses to subscribe to the liberal narrative, and enables their anger to be heard.
  3. Oddly (to me, at least) Trump is not seen by everyone as an aggressive candidate. My friend perceives him to be less interventionist and therefore less likely to embroil the USA in the mucky scuffles of recent years: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on. Trump as less warlike than Clinton?  It sounds baffling, but that is how some people perceive him.

What mattered more than all of this was the simple act of meeting and talking in person.  This enabled me to see my friend as a human, not as an abstract collection of ideas and motives.  I saw him smile when I joked.  I saw the pain on his face when he discussed abortion.  The simple act of sitting together made me soften what I said to him (and he to me, I think).

I still disagree with him and I am profoundly shocked and worried by Trump’s victory.  But in an increasingly divided world, and one that is separated and made more remote by the technologies that were intended to improve communication, I found it a helpful and uplifting experience.  Politics cannot be boiled down to black and white issues, to anonymous and intangible ideas and policies.  People, actual flesh and blood human beings, are involved at every level.  Whether or not we agree – in fact, especially if we don’t agree – we have to listen to one another, lest our divisions grow even more stark.

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I think I can remember precisely when I fell in love with America.  I was driving on a highway somewhere in that enormous country of yours when I noticed small signs at intervals along the side of the road.  Each sign bore the name of a particular group which had sponsored that section of road – the local chamber of commerce, the boy scouts from a nearby town, a group of veterans.  At first I found that odd.  In the UK the government would take responsibility for the roads rather than leaving it to citizens to tidy and maintain the highway – but then I realised how wonderful it was that local people would take the responsibility for doing it.  It demonstrates pride, social investment in services, a sense of public spirit.

I’m really very fond of that country of yours.  You are wonderfully kind and hospitable people.  Your land possesses astonishing natural beauty.  You have produced some of the great thinkers of the world, some of the greatest politicians, some of our most cherished inventions.  America saved the world from Communism, saved Europe with the Marshall Plan, and gave us Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and The Simpsons.

Of course it isn’t an entirely rosy picture.  I cannot understand your obsession with guns – where else in the world would half the population defend the wide availability of weapons which cause 30,000 unnecessary deaths a year?  Nor, as a Christian, do I appreciate your invention of the mega-church and the celebrity pastors, who all too frequently bear as much resemblance to the humble Prince of Peace as I do to an armadillo.  And then let’s not forget that it was Americans who put cheese into a spray can, a crime which surely ought to have involved the International Criminal Court at some point.

So it is with sadness that I look upon the mess you seem to have brought upon your own heads.  At first this increasingly bitter election campaign made me feel angry – how dare Donald Trump speak like that; how dare Hillary get away with being so duplicitous – but now I just feel sad.  Whether one or the other wins, almost exactly half the country will be seething with rage.  Whoever wins, everyone seems likely to lose.  How did it come to this?  How did the nation of Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Thomas Jefferson descend to such a level of crudeness and vituperation?  What was once intelligent debate has turned into insult.  What was once public discourse has turned into slander and abuse.  At one point two candidates for the most powerful job in the world were arguing over ther size of their genitals.  I hate to think what George Washington would have made of it all.

Somebody will win this election, but that is not the point.  It is what comes after the election result that concerns me.  Where do you go from here?  What comes next?  More division?  More political insult and division?  More cynicism from people angry – justifiably so – at the self-serving, squabbling élites who refuse to utter a single word unless it has been weighted, fine-tuned, and presented to a focus group in order to maximise its impact?  Or will you look back at 2016 as the moment you came close to the edge – and changed your nation for the better?

The system is broken.  Everyone says it.  I think so, too.  The two-party system naturally leads to separation and an entrenchment of dogmatic belief.  Politicians have become adept at spin, at the cynical manipulation of truth to fit their own ends.  Small wonder nobody wants to trust a politician.

But here’s the thing: you and I are part of the system.  We are, all of us, a part of society.  We are involved.  We can change it.  Ordinary people can change it.  That is what has always happened.  Did Lincoln throw his hands in the air at the evils of slavery and blame the system?  Did Dr. King sit in an office moaning about civil rights?  Did Eleanor Roosevelt resort to writing newspaper columns criticising the lack of cooperation between the nations of the world?  It is not enough to complain about the bad things in the world; we have an obligation as conscientious humans to improve them.

You chaps have always been good at that.  The Berlin Wall was bad; you managed to have it knocked down.  The world was not enough; you sent men to walk on the moon.  Slavery was bad; you fought a war to end it.  The situation which faces you is bad too.  So stop bitching and do something positive about it.  That, surely, is the American Way.

Most of the rest of the world wishes you well.  I certainly do.  Although seriously, cheese in a spray can?  What were you thinking?

With best wishes

A Sweaty Pilgrim

Over in the USA a bunch of ranchers were recently holed up in a wildlife refuge in Oregon, railing loudly against government interference.  Others are stocking up on guns: concerned by possible restrictions on the purchase of weapons, many people are buying rifles and pistols, resulting in the share prices of weapon manufacturers reaching new highs.  On the other side of the political spectrum people are railing against inequality, highlighting the plight of the American poor who drink poisoned water while men in suits take home unimaginably large salaries.

The current political situation is dominated by two men: one who criticises Muslims, who promises to ban refugees, and who pledged in a campaign speech to “bomb the shit out of Islamic State” – while the other, Bernie Sanders, is angry about inequality, about a culture based around the pursuit of wealth; one of his supporters said in an interview “I’m mad…you have to show some level of anger”.

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It’s not just America.  In my town in the UK the organisation Britain First recently held a “Christian march” through an area of town populated largely by immigrants, including many Pakistani Muslims.  The anti-Muslim organisation Pegida is growing in strength throughout Germany and also the UK.  The National Front is on the rise in France.  Attacks on Muslims in the UK are increasing.  The political spectrum is diverging sharply, with an uncompromising left-winger in charge of the opposition and a welfare-cutting right-winger in charge of the country.

I wonder if this era will, in hindsight, be defined as the age of anger.  Everyone, it seems, is angry about something or other.  Political disagreement is nothing new, of course, but the breadth and depth of anger felt by ordinary citizens around the world feels different.

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I wonder if technology is partly to blame.  We live in increasingly segmented lives, cut off from one another by smartphones and laptops, expressing our opinions and sharpening our ideas through Facebook.  We seem to spend less and less time actually talking to people, and once the variety and individuality of human beings have been removed, people become one-dimensional caricatures: a right-winger, a gay rights campaigner, a liberal, a Muslim – all targets for dislike and anger, if you happen to disagree with them.

Or perhaps there is something deeper at work: the death of ideas.  Throughout history popular discontent has been followed by a proposed solution.  Anger at the inequality of 18th century France led to the French Revolution.  Anger at the injustice of imperialism led to independence and nationalism (as with the foundation of the Republic of Pakistan, for example).  Anger at the aristocracy led to Communism.  Anger at religion led to the state-sponsored atheism of Soviet Russia.  Anger at warfare led to the foundation of the United Nations.  Our present era is still unequal, still stained by warfare, still haunted by abject poverty and lavish wealth, and yet – and yet we have run out of ideas.  We feel a sense of pain, of simple wrongness, at the state of the world, and yet where do we go from here?  Tyranny?  Several steps back.  Organised religion?  Led to the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, to Islamic State.  Communism?  Nice idea, doesn’t work.  Nationalism?  It tore the world apart in the 20th century.  International cooperation?  It didn’t prevent the Rwanda genocide, nor the Vietnam war, nor the Balkan genocide of the 1990s.  Democracy?  Hamas were democratically elected, and Donald Trump may be as well.  Capitalism?  Doesn’t seem to promote equality, does it?

I wonder if modern angst stems from this simple fact: that we can see ever more clearly that the world is imperfect, that we deeply believe that it ought to be perfect, and that we have run out of solutions.  Inequality and strife lie at every turn, so we withdraw into our technological bubbles and feel a profound sense of unease.