State of Disunion

The ‘Don’t Cares’ Have It?

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My first awareness of America as a child was through toy vehicles.

A friend up the road from my home on the outskirts of greater London had some enviable examples. They were bigger and brasher than my British models: a black and white American police saloon with impossibly grand fins, a white Ford Mustang sports car with a red interior and a Thunderbird 2 fantasy transporter aircraft, among others. (Aficianados of the 1960s Thunderbirds children’s TV franchise will know that, like me, it was made in the UK, but for commercial reasons it was effectively, as its maker Gerry Anderson acknowledged, ‘an American show’.)

Fantasies die hard, and in recent weeks I had my own American dream to be a guy driving alone in the desert en route to something on a spectacular scale. It was an added fillip that I would be there in the run up to decision time in one of the most divisive election campaigns of recent times.

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I was visiting my brother, partner and family in Nova Scotia and while basing myself there decided on Phoenix, Arizona as my American target. It was truly temporary; there’s a kind of madness or arrogance to think you can explore any sizeable part of America properly in three days, as I did. All the more since only the middle day was complete, the other two being largely eaten up by the four- or five-hour flight from Canada (via Philadelphia).

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The goal was the Grand Canyon – reachable with three or four hours’ non-stop driving from my northern Phoenix Airbnb location. In the event I added further hours by stopping at the small, tourist-friendly town of Sedona in both directions.

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But here was the real revelation for me in the States this time (I’d been to New England and Georgia previously): for all the heat of the Trump/Clinton dust-up that we’ve been treated to for months, I met not one person on my American stay who volunteered any preference for either main candidate. We talk of compassion fatigue in matters of charity; this was passion fatigue.

The only conspicuous enthusiasm I came across was as I drove into and out of Sedona on the way to the canyon – and that was on the radio. Rabid right-winger (or conservative commentator – take yer pick) Sean Hannity was fulminating on 97.1FM The Big Talker about how, with 13 days to go to the election (as it was then), America needed to ‘wake up’ and embrace Donald Trump. As the underdog his election couldn’t be taken for granted (one thing most of the audience would agree with Hannity on). He then proceeded to go through numerous states – quite handy to develop relevance for his audience across scores of stations where his show is syndicated – explaining how precarious things were for the Republican candidate. Also, inevitably, an opportunity was never missed to dis Hillary (emails, Clinton Foundation, yatter, yatter).

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About an hour from the canyon (above), by which time Sean’s show had been rolling a good couple of hours, he welcomed onto the airwaves someone described as a friend of the show from Britain, and on a scratchy mobile phone came the unmistakably strident tones of Nigel Farage. 5,000 miles from home, I was being introduced to the three-time leader of the United Kingdom’s Independence Party (UKIP). If I was in any doubt that Brexit – Britain’s upcoming exit from the European Union – has some international significance, this was the moment to dispel it. The very justification for Farage’s presence on numerous American radio stations was his success in agitating for Britain’s EU withdrawal and his part in delivering it. Trump fans are quick to seize on the parallels between their man and Farage, the latter an apparent underdog who broke through. They wish.

Ah, yes – Trump. What is left to say about this Twitter-tirade-made-flesh, a product (and purveyor) of extreme anti-social media? A joke, and yet a non-joke, putting two fingers up to the Establishment, yet (as I write, with 24 hours to go) still in with a chance of becoming the Establishment. The apotheosis of celebrity culture (describing himself on that tape as a ‘star’, even as he bragged about committing one or more sexual assaults). It’s easy to forget we have been here before, though – minus the reference to (or reality of) assaults.

I’m surprised former President Ronald Reagan – B-movie actor, in power from 1981-89 – isn’t mentioned more in this connection. But Trump has his work cut out, thanks to the electoral college – he would stand more chance under proportional representation.

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Also, he’s not necessarily liked among those you might expect to be his natural supporters. One extravagantly bearded truck driver from the Midwest (above) I met when I finally made it to the Grand Canyon self-described as a ‘red neck’, but said he wouldn’t vote for Trump as the property tycoon only cared about the big guys. Our trucker would have wanted to support Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon who had been in the running as a Republican candidate, but dropped out. He then nominated – you’ve guessed it – one Donald J. Trump. So my new redneck friend (along with my Airbnb host and many others) wasn’t going to vote.

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I drove south from the canyon after a couple of hours in a real (not toy) car, but it wasn’t a fin tailed native wonder from my youth – it was a Japanese Nissan. On the eve of the 2016 election as I write, it would be possible to find poetic images of the sun setting on American democracy that might sound a little contrived, but since Trump has promised to contest the result if it doesn’t go his way, and with even a successful Clinton starting with a negative poll rating, it’s perhaps not such a stretch.

Anticipating my cinematic drive through the desert – not quite man vs the elements: I had AC and GPS/satnav – I had imagined the soundtrack to be Ry Cooder on a slide guitar, à la Paris, Texas. In the event, the podcast Radiolab I was listening to on the journey back provided that kind of music played by a lesser name. It accompanied the story of a small Nebraska town so divided it pushed for a petition to end its own existence. The reporter offered this as a possible image for the state of the union, for the entire USA.

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With the sun setting I reflected that no matter how great the United States’ misdemeanours – from the treatment of the indigenous peoples to Vietnam to drone assassinations – there will always be something so intoxicating about so much of Americana for me and millions of others.

Okay, so I didn’t get to drive a Ford Mustang for real. But the affluence and sense of plenty it hinted at had drawn me again to its homeland.

America got me as a young boy, and didn’t let go.

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