In the lead up to the US elections, director Andrew Whyment, playwright Brad Birch and writer Adam Foster of London-based theatre company Squint hit the campaign trail, travelling almost 5000 miles across 15 states, to hear from American voters in bars, workplaces, colleges, campaign offices and homes, researching their new work, Fear & Loathing. As Donald Trump is inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, they share some of their experiences in a special feature.
Words and images by Adam Foster, Andrew Whyment, Brad Birch
“He’s got great energy. For his age, it’s incredible”, says the man in the Make America Great Again hat. He’s not talking about Donald Trump, he’s talking about Elton John, who’s currently being belted out across this auditorium in Toledo, Ohio.
“He plays Las Vegas, like, every week”, he says.
We tell him we saw the posters when we were there for the final debate. “He killed it,” says the man, a volunteer at this rally. And now he’s talking about Trump. It was perhaps the bitterest of the three bouts, with the pair descending into calling each other puppets.
The man we’re talking to has been to or volunteered at Republican rallies his whole life. But “it’s never been as exciting as this”.
We suppose he did kill it. Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States in the stunning culmination of a populist, polarising and often-poisonous campaign. The result – which has left pollsters and pundits scrambling – has been heralded by many as the most significant upset in Western political history. But given what happened in the UK on June 23rd, should we really be surprised?
We’re Squint, a London-based theatre company. The Kevin Spacey Foundation gave us their Artist of Choice Theatre Award to begin work on our new project, Fear & Loathing. Three of us – one director, two writers – criss-crossed the US travelling nearly 5000 miles through 15 states speaking to dozens of American voters in bars, workplaces, colleges, campaign offices and homes.
We wanted to see whether Brexit was an outlier or a sign of similar movements to come. We wanted to understand what change people want and why so many are turning their backs on established politicians. We wanted to have the conversations that we, and the parties we vote for, have failed to have.
We followed the final seven weeks of the US Presidential Election Campaign Trail searching for the voices that – to us – felt the most uncomfortable, unusual or downright outrageous. We asked three questions: “when was America great?”, “what is great about America today?” and “why do you want to Make America Great Again?”. The more we listened, the more new questions began to emerge. America, like Britain it seems, has never been more divided.
It’s seven weeks until Election Day and we’re in Beaumont, East Texas. To understand Trump’s momentum, we must first understand the voters he’s inherited; the Republican loyalists who vote for the party rather than the individual. If he fails to carry at least a large portion of this base then he’ll fail to win the election.
We’re sitting with Crystal, the manager of Rao’s Bakery which, like the GOP, sits deep within Beaumont’s history.
“It was established in 1941 by Jonny Rao, his buddies told him ‘hey you need to stop being a baker and go open up your own business’” Crystal tells us with pride. “The store that’s been open for 75 years has the same ovens, the same mixers, the same baker’s tables…the baker’s tables have been grandfathered in”.
Like a lot of people we meet across Texas, work is central to Crystal’s values, but she has her sights set higher. She recently started studying on a part-time degree program.
“I’m going to be in debt from student loans for $60,000 by the time I’m done. So education, it’s a must but it’s expensive. There’s a program for loan forgiveness. Now if that’s still around whenever I do get out, I’m gonna cross my fingers that I get accepted”.
It strikes us as strange that Crystal – a lifelong Republican voter and student of Political Science would be voting for the man and the party who will be trimming back on government programs like the one she’s talking about. We ask her, isn’t that the kind of thing that Trump plans to cut?
“Yes”. So in a way, you’re voter against yourself? “Yes”, she laughs, “but I’m picking the lesser of two evils. I’ll be voting party ticket.” For the greater good? “Yes. Because I’m a Republican, I don’t know anything about the Democrats”.
Crystal gives us our first taste of how politics for some in America is almost a religion. We also realise that in a two-party system, every voter has to compromise on something. This is something we find with almost every American we speak to, and perhaps goes some way to explaining how many voters put Trump’s misogyny and racism to one side on election day.
With six weeks to go, we visit a Benedictine community in Arizona on the outskirts of the Mormon town, St David. They are in a bubble. A bubble that is their right. A right that’s part of the national identity.
Pastor Henry is proud that the police can’t just roll up onto their property. We find this a lot in these largely rural states; demonstrations of freedom through distance between representatives of the state and one’s own property. But in the case of this Benedictine community, this right is used for surprising ends: to feed, clothe and protect illegal Mexicans crossing the border.
“They helped us build [the community]. Making ovens and bricks with the clay from the river”.
He tells us the story of one man who made it to their plot with a serious injury. He’d been shot in the leg with a salt bullet by a Rancher; neighboring landowners, defending their bubbles, but for very different ends.
Four weeks to go and we’re beginning to think we’re speaking to the wrong people. The third and final debate is over and Trump is trailing in the polls. Talking heads from the New York City based media are “analysing the data” and telling us “Trump doesn’t have enough ground game”. A Clinton triumph is forecast. But what we’re finding outside the cities of Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado are Trump signs, red caps and a whole lot of passion for change.
In Colorado Springs – the fourth most conservative city in America with a church on almost every block – Democrat support is less public than the last two elections.
Democrat supporters Debbie and Scott tell us over dinner that whilst their local Trump supporting bar is flying a huge banner, they’ve decided it’s unsafe for them to do the same in the window of the commercial property they own in the town centre. They’ve seen fewer stickers and signs for both candidates this year.
“I’m wondering if people are feeling the same thing we are…let’s not entice anybody, let’s not take a chance that you might get cut off sharply in traffic and have an accident because you had that Clinton bumper sticker. Those are truly the things that have run through my mind”. This wasn’t a concern in both 2008 and 2012 when they were door knocking for Obama.
Trump’s rhetoric has revealed the worst passions of some Americans who feel threatened by increasing multiculturalism in their society. But with two weeks to go, the most persuasive thing for voters we meet in the rustbelt states is Trump’s engagement with the decline of American industry. He has ignited the hopes of those who feel left behind by a new information-driven economy.
In America’s fastest shrinking city – Youngstown, Ohio – we speak to a barmaid, Shelly, whose father lost his well-paid steel mill job over a decade ago. Youngstown has seen its population shrink by two thirds since the 1960s. To Shelly, and many of her friends and family, it feels as though modern America has discarded Youngstown.
“My whole family worked in steel mills and lost their jobs…it’s still happening and it’s almost done. That industry is done”.
As a teenager, Shelly witnessed her father given twenty-four hours notice as the steel mill where he’d worked for twenty-five years upped sticks and headed abroad. His sudden redundancy, and the lean years that followed, left irreparable scars. Scars that influence how she votes today.
Is it any surprise that these voters turned to Trump and his pledge to Make America Great Again when their industries, quite literally, helped to build it?
At a Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania we hear a similar sentiment. Trump rallies, by the way, aren’t gun shows or KKK meets, they’re more like county fairs. There are pretzels and popcorn, cheese cups and hotdogs. There are kids and the elderly, families and young couples. Chants of “USA, USA, USA” start seemingly spontaneously and there’s excitement in the air. There’s hope.
Many here used to vote Democrat – traditionally the party of the blue-collar worker – but following Bill Clinton’s infamous North America Free Trade Agreement, a lot of Democrats feel that they didn’t leave the party, it left them.
“My husband worked at two factories – both of them shut down”, says Linda. “They took their business and went to Mexico. So now he’s making less than he made fifteen years ago”.
The white working-class man once formed the foundation of the American ideal, but now its members have seen their skills devalued, their masculinity delegitimised and their dignity decimated. For them, this is more than just a protest vote; it’s an identity crisis. But with evidence of Trump’s objectification of women dominating news cycles and sexual assault claims mounting against him, surely – we think at this stage in the campaign – women here must be doubting, as Clinton would put it, Trump’s “fitness to be President”?
Avital and Danielle – two theatre makers researching with us – grab a private moment with a couple of women at the rally and ask exactly this. With a roll of the eyes they respond with “come on girls, you know what men are like”.
Here in Wilkes-Barre – like in Texas – we’re meeting voters who are compromising on one thing in favour of the ‘greater good’; issues of personality rank low on the priority list when such huge economic promises are being made. It strikes us that this is not a compromise every voter in America has the privilege to make.
White Americans weren’t alone in turning to Trump. Like Farage before him, Trump created a platform for Americans of all colours, ethnicities, political affiliations, and socio-economic backgrounds to defy the political elite and “take back control”. For many voters it’s not about Left and Right, it’s about change.
“I myself was a Liberal before”, says one African American Trump supporter on Election Day, outside the Hilton Hotel where minutes earlier the President-Elect delivered his victory speech. “I voted Obama twice; 2008 and 2012. I supported him because I thought he was someone who would fight the establishment. What I didn’t know when I was younger was that the money trail is what’s important…and the people that bought Obama are the same people that bought Hillary Clinton. He [Trump] paid for his own campaign. He doesn’t owe anybody anything”.
Would Bernie Sanders have stolen votes from Trump if he had been the 2016 Democratic candidate? Some said “hell no, he’s a socialist!” but several said, “I wanted Bernie, I got Hillary, so now I’m voting Trump”. There are, of course, fundamental differences between Bernie and Trump’s vision of ‘change’. But both were perceived as outsiders intent on tearing down the dogged structures of the political elite.
Walking through the streets of Manhattan on Election Night, we reflect on our seven-week journey. Our mission had been to speak and give voice to the disenfranchised and ignored, but tonight, the gesture at the heart of our project has changed irrevocably. Trump’s supporters – like Leave voters – now form the dominant political ideology in the US.
Like Leave voters, Trump supporters were roundly condemned by many on the Left. They were described variously as racist, bigoted and infamously as a “basket of deplorables” by Clinton herself.
In the days immediately after the election we watched news pundits asking “how did this happen?”, “who are these people” and “are the numbers right?”. In the months since we’ve returned to the UK we’ve been countlessly asked “did you meet lots of mad people?”, “was it scary?” and “are they all racists?”. The double shock of Brexit and Trump have been decades in the making and the difficult questions that would have helped us to see it coming have been dodged for too long with this kind of trivialisation.
Squint’s projects have always begun with an attempt to empathise with publically vilified individuals or groups. With Long Story Short, we turned our attention to journalists at the time of the phone-hacking enquiry. With Molly, we challenged the notion of ‘evil’. With this project we feel more of a responsibility than ever to tell stories that bring us closer to the millions of voters who are choosing to Leave Europe or elect Donald Trump.
“We need to have conversations” offered one young Trump supporter in the early hours of election night as protests flared in New York, “but how do you do that when they just shout in your face?” Many on the Left have spent a lot of time denouncing Donald Trump and his supporters. Maybe that time might have been better spent listening to the people who voted for him? With our sights set on the first public sharing of Fear & Loathing in June, we’re trying to do exactly that.
The Squint team are currently continuing their conversations in the UK and will be travelling back to the US for more research in March.