Jeremy Elwood & Michele A'Court: America under Trump
OPINION: Husband-and-wife comedians and commentators Jeremy Elwood and Michele A'Court share their views.
We're back from the USA, and unsurprisingly, the first question we've been asked is "how different is it under President Trump?"
Well, at least for people who look and sound like me, not very.
The topic certainly came up, with many Americans asking, after the repetitive "what's New Zealand like?", a newer question – "what do you think of our new president?" They genuinely seemed as confused and bewildered by him as we are.
Only a handful expressed outright support for Donald Trump. Some were predictable; the couple from a small town in Alabama who hope that businesses might return, and were clearly no fans of Barack Obama. Others were more surprising: a 28-year-old Hispanic Uber driver with a degree in political science who argued, very eloquently, his three reasons for voting Trump: being a conservative Christian, a huge fan of The Apprentice, and not trusting Hilary Clinton. He wasn't the first who said that if the Democrats had put up a different candidate (usually Bernie Sanders) they would have voted for him rather than Trump – they wanted change, and they really didn't care too much what form it took.
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So, Trump hasn't destroyed the US, at least not yet.
However, he also hasn't fixed the ongoing problems that plagued his predecessor. The boarded-up shops. The fact that you cannot open a local newspaper without finding a story about a shooting by page three. The overwhelming homeless population, the vast majority of whom are African American.
I was particularly surprised at how buried those particular divisions are. With the exception of a passionate on-stage speech by Stevie Wonder (who has earned the right to say whatever the hell he wants) discussions of ongoing race issues were conspicuous by their absence.
That was all the more startling after our most emotionally powerful day of the trip, one spent at the National Civil Rights Museum, housed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr. This absolute must-see museum takes an unflinching look at the terrible, and all too recent, history of racism and hatred that still bubbles away just below the surface.
Across the South, there is an ongoing standoff over the removal of civil war era monuments. We were thinking of going down to one, out of curiosity, until we read that the pro-monument groups were also taking advantage of their right to openly carry assault rifles, at which point we changed our mind. Since we've been back, they've added burning torches to their arsenal.
Beneath the bizarre distractions of Trump's first months in office, there remain deeper divisions that are written in blood and tears, and refuse to go away. Not all walls are physical.
Before we left for our month in America, I asked Jeremy to keep an eye on me once we got to bars in Tennessee and Louisiana. I can get quite mouthy after a couple of cocktails and, given they're both Republican and open-carry states, I didn't want to inspire an armed brawl over their new president.
But the closest I came to any kind of fight was walking out of a jazz club after marauding swing-dancers (who neither drink nor tip the band) decided to put on a show in front of the singer who, to be frank, was already putting on a show. "It's like going to a play and having your view obscured by jugglers," I protested – though quietly, because it's rude to talk during a set.
I've been enthusiastically visiting America for twenty years. Back in the 1990s, the people I met – wait staff, retailers, whoever was sitting on the next barstool – seemed only vaguely aware other countries existed. During Bush Junior, there was an air of defensiveness about which foreigners might be friend or foe; and under Obama more than a little pride about their place on the world stage.
I'm not sure what I expected under Trump – swathes of "Make America Great Again" trucker hats, perhaps, and spontaneous chants of "Build the Wall" and "Lock Her Up". Instead, it was like that old joke: "But enough about me. What about you? What do you think about me?" Curiosity, frequently tinged with embarrassment about who they've put in charge.
Trump is wrong to call it "fake news" but he's right that the mainstream media is full of criticism of his governance – and we're talking the Houston Chronicle and New Orleans' Times Picayune, not just the dailies from traditionally liberal states.
Occasionally we met people who "voted Trump" or "against Clinton" or "for change" but almost no "Trump supporters". But these were city folk, outside of the Rust Belt – from Chicago, not Detroit.
Then at Faulkner House - New Orleans' iconic bookstore at the address where young William wrote and drank on the cusp of fame in 1925 – I picked up the latest release from Joan Didion. Didion travelled through the South in the 1970s, interviewing locals and making observations about class, race and gender - and how markedly unenlightened and unevolved attitudes were from those where she lived in California. And her realisation that, while much of the country was embracing desegregation and women's reproductive rights - and expecting that eventually the rest of the country would "catch up" – they had not.
It made Didion despondent 45 years ago. And reading her notes in 2017 makes me fearful – not about America, but about all of us. The world isn't different under Trump, it's what parts of it has always been.