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Searching the hearts of voters

by
18 November 2016

Pat Ashworth reports from New England on Trump supporters’ priorities and principles

PA

Stuck: Trump supporters think that they have found someone who can fix their problems

Stuck: Trump supporters think that they have found someone who can fix their problems

THERE are things below the surface in the United States which can still surprise the onlooker. Staying with friends during election time last week, I found myself sitting in a bus shelter in Hartford, Connecticut, eating pizza on the hoof while waiting for entry to the house of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

There were four of us, all white and of a certain age. As cars went by, their occupants pointed and smiled. A black woman wound down the window and waved. I waved back. “Four white people waiting for a bus? That doesn’t happen here,” my hosts said in explanation.

So race remains an undercurrent, I observe — even in a state such as this, which went resoundingly to the Democrats; even here, in the very shadow of the abolitionists.

I lingered over the colourful book illustrations in the Beecher Stowe library. “Uncle Tom, would you like to be back in Kentucky with your family?” the saintly and fragile child, Eva, says, cushioned in the big man’s arms.

”I would, Little Eva, but I can’t,” he says with what looks like a breaking heart.

 

IT HAS been an unsettling couple of weeks. Not full of the razzmatazz I had expected: no, even on election night itself, there was a curious lack of all that, a reticence in some places that was almost furtive.

In busy Boston, the city that fought the battle for “no taxation without representation”, a noisy contingent of baseball-capped Trump supporters, all older men, stood on a street corner and yelled to cars to hoot in solidarity. A couple did so, and one passer-by muttered, “Dump Trump” in response; but, for the most part, people walked by without glance or comment. Since then, though, it has livened up, becoming the stage for more protests against the President-elect in the days since the vote.

What was drawing huge crowds in the city, however, was a gang of break-dancers on the marketplace outside Faneuil Hall, a “cradle of liberty since 1743”. Agile, rubber-limbed, they tumbled, spun, and walked on one hand, but it was the patter that was remarkable. This was an audacious, non-politically correct delivery, and the audience relaxed into it with palpable relief.

”Stand back because he’s now going to run at 80 miles an hour — something we black guys only do when we’re being chased by the cops,” the leader says.

They select people of every age and colour: “We need an Asian guy — come on you, Asian guy,” they say, pulling a bashful Korean out of the crowd. And telling kids to stay away from drugs and guns, they assess the smiling, sheepish line-up, and declare that this is humanity, here is humanity, we are all just humanity — before impossibly leapfrogging over a line of bodies, to deafening applause.

 

I REFLECT that that is the most honest, most uplifting thing that I witnessed in a fortnight of saturation TV coverage. I remain astounded at how the oft-quoted “white Evangelicals” and “churchgoers” were able to express strident views on issues such as abortion, but seemed too constrained to acknowledge the gospel imperative to love your neighbour, welcome the outcast and the stranger, and bring good news to the poor. How could they hold in tension all that they knew about Mr Trump, square that with the gospel, and vote for him?

This hit me most powerfully as I watched one of the final and most telling television ads sponsored by Hillary Clinton. Called “Role Models”, it showed in close-up the faces of children silently watching and listening to Mr Trump’s worst pronouncements: defaming Mexicans; mocking people with disabilities; boasting “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and wouldn’t lose any voters;” telling opponents that they could “go fuck themselves”. A question was posed: what principles did people want our children to live by?

This should be a question for the Churches. Who are these white Evangelicals, 81 per cent of whom voted for Mr Trump?

A woman described in a newspaper report as “a lifelong Democrat, a church-going single mother who practises yoga and doesn’t eat meat”, voted for him because she thought him “a strong leader who would get things done”, and because it was “nice he was taking care of the vets” [veterans]. Others saw the thrice-married Mr Trump as a “good father with a beautiful family”.

 

NO ONE should discount the valid reasons why people voted for Mr Trump. David Brooks, a respected columnist for The New York Times, put it neatly: “It is true that those voters were willing to tolerate a lot more bigotry in their candidate than I’d be willing to tolerate.

”But if you were stuck in a jobless town, watching your friends OD on opiates, scrambling every month to pay the electricity bill, and then along came a guy who seemed able to fix your problems and hear your voice, then maybe you would stomach some ugliness, too.”

Christians quoted in The Washington Post believed the election to have shown the underbelly of the toxic relationship that could develop between politics and religion.

Seeing Mr Trump as the antithesis of Christian behaviour, many now fear lasting damage done to the perception of Christianity in the United States. There is much heart-searching for the years ahead.

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