Talking to Americans: Democracy in the Trump era

Morning mist Heart Lake, High Peaks region. Photo by Karl Nerenberg

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Dave is a retired Ohioan with a booming voice and hail-fellow-well-met manner. We met this last August on a hiking trail in the Adirondack High Peaks region of New York State. He was resting while his son, Kevin, ran up and down a steep and rocky mile-long spur trail that leads to the summit of 4,100-foot high Mount Phelps.

Dave let Kevin do the daunting, uphill, mile run solo -- but Dave is no slouch. He and his son had both just climbed the highest of the high peaks, Mount Marcy, at 5,343 feet. Dave figured the mountain they call the cloud-splitter was enough of a workout for his aging knees for one day. 

That evening, my wife and I ran into Dave at the basecamp lodge. After supper, the conversation somehow turned to politics, despite my profound apprehensions. I had misgivings because in the 2016 election Trump did very well in Ohio, winning more than 50 per cent of the vote. And with his loud, blustering manner, Dave looked a lot like a typical Trump Republican to me.

I needn't have worried, however. Dave has no affection for Hillary Clinton, but he has even less for Trump. He voted for the Libertarian Gary Johnson, in what was as much a gesture of protest as solidarity with the wonky libertarian ideology. 

Dave's politics are something of a hybrid between what Americans call an independent, and that vanishing breed, the moderate Republican. He admires Ohio's notionally moderate Republican governor, John Kasich. The governor launched his political career tilting to the right, but is now making news by joining forces with Colorado's Democratic governor in an effort to rescue Barack Obama's beleaguered Affordable Care Act. Kasich portrays himself as a pragmatic, get-things-done guy, which appeals to Dave.

Blue-collar Trump supporters want a retrograde male leader

Listening to Dave one gets a sense of the cultural and political Sturm und Drang that is raging -- sometimes out in the open and sometimes beneath the surface -- in the American heartland.

Dave's member of Congress, David Joyce, is another moderate Republican, ranked the most bipartisan member of Congress by the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. Not surprisingly, the congressman has found himself in the sights of the Trump wing of his own party. Dave, the voter, receives regular, angry phone calls from organized pro-Trump groups denouncing David Joyce. They want voter Dave's support to replace the champion of bipartisanship as the Republican candidate in the 2018 midterm election.

Dave will have none of it.

"Joyce wants to do what's best for the people," Dave opines, in his blunt way. "What's wrong with that?"

Twenty-eight-year-old Kevin is a self-identified Democrat, who works for one of the biggest breweries in the U.S. He deals a lot with unionized workers and is bemused that they could support a billionaire candidate whose policies are entirely inimical to unions and the workers they represent.

Kevin told us it was impossible to reason with those blue-collar Trump supporters. The connection they felt with Trump, the sense they had that the dyspeptic billionaire could be the vehicle for their free-floating sense of disaffection, had little to do social class, not much to do with race, and was not even significantly connected to a new version of U.S. ultra-nationalism.

Trump, Kevin suggested, appealed to working-class voters' nostalgia for the male can-do and bluster that once characterized America, at least in myth if not reality. Trump, in those blue-collar supporters' eyes, is a take-charge guy, akin to the swearing, ranting, old-school football coach, who goes into the locker room at half time, with the team down three touchdowns, and gets the boys so fired up they roar back in the second half to win the game. (That actually happened in last year's Super Bowl. The winning comeback team was piloted by Trump friend and supporter -- and sometime cheater -- Tom Brady.)

Attacks on the right to vote that few notice

The Ohio father and son share a contemptuous skepticism about the current occupant of the White House. And yet, they still have faith in the fundamental fairness of U.S. democracy.

When our conversation turned to the issue of voter suppression they were both more than a bit surprised at some facts we put on the table. We pointed out, for instance, that a huge number of Americans, disproportionately African-Americans, are permanently disenfranchised, simply because they once served time in prison.

"That's nonsense," Dave said. "Folks are denied the right to vote while they are in prison, not after they've served their time."

We assured Dave that in many U.S. states convicted felons can be denied their right to vote for years after their release. In fact, in a number of states, including the third most populous, Florida, people who have served time for criminal offences are denied the right to vote for the rest of their lives.

Dave refused to believe it. He was adamant and would not budge.

"We don't do this in America!" he bellowed.

Son Kevin decided to settle the matter. He hauled out his smart phone and quickly checked the facts.

"Yes, we do," he told his dad.

When, however, we broached a related topic, to wit, the efforts some states, notably North Carolina, have made to discourage young and non-white Americans from voting -- by, for instance, placing polling stations in inconvenient places and severely cutting back on advance polls -- Dave would have none of it.

Line-ups and inconvenience be damned, the retired Ohioan shouted. If folks want to vote, he said, it is up to them. The states, in his view, do not have to make it easy for people to exercise their franchise. The rules are the same for everyone, whatever their skin colour. It's all a matter of personal motivation and commitment.

We had a taste of this debate in Canada during the Harper era. Remember the Fair Elections Act and the efforts of Harper's ministers, especially Pierre Poilievre, to undermine Elections Canada? The Harper Conservatives were amateurs compared to the Republicans south of the border.

Trump is now ratcheting up efforts to suppress the vote, after claiming his loss in the popular vote last time was due to (non-existent) voter fraud. He has set up a Commission on Election Integrity that is busying itself trying to get its hands on all kinds of information about voters, including past voting records. At the same time, Trump's Justice Department, which is supposed to uphold the civil rights and voting rights acts of the mid 1960s, is pressuring states to "purge" their voters' lists.

The right to vote was a fundamental focus of the early days of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. Today, state governments and the Trump administration are working hard to roll back the hard-earned gains of that time. They have already had considerable success.

Here is just one example.

In the last election, tens of thousands of voters in Wisconsin were denied the right to vote based on new stricter ID requirements. The result: turnout in the upper Midwest state was the lowest in 20 years. In Milwaukee, heartland of Wisconsin's African-American community, turnout decreased by 13 per cent. Trump narrowly carried Wisconsin in 2016, the first time a Republican had done so since Reagan's landslide in 1984.

Mainstream Americans -- even those who do not like Trump, such as our hiking friends from Ohio -- seem to be maddeningly indifferent to the glaring flaws in their electoral system. And, for the most part, the U.S. media, of all stripes, take almost for granted a so-called democratic system where there are a patchwork quilt of voting rights, which vary from state to state; where it is routine that people must line up for hours to exercise their franchise; where voters are obliged to individually take the initiative to get themselves registered to vote; and where the officials who control the state-by-state electoral apparatuses are partisan political appointments.

This article is the first part in a two-part series on American views about politics.

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

 

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