Saturday 22 October 2016

America remains great, and Americans will vote for a candidate who knows it

After travelling through the US, Dan O'Brien is convinced that Trump's vision of America won't win out next month

Published 02/10/2016 | 02:30

Only five weeks to go: US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Michigan. Trump is currently slightly trailing Clinton in the polls - but anything could happen before November 8 Photo: Jewel Samad/Getty
Only five weeks to go: US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Michigan. Trump is currently slightly trailing Clinton in the polls - but anything could happen before November 8 Photo: Jewel Samad/Getty

Over the past week I've been in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. Every place tells a story.

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In the enchanting Appalachian mountains, from where I write, coal was once king. Things change. The loss of mining jobs from the 1970s onwards left an already relatively poor part of this huge country even farther behind in the prosperity stakes.

However, if America is great for anything, it is its capacity for reinvention. In recent years the area has received a shot in the arm from a mini-boom in fracking, a technology developed almost exclusively in the US. Although there is no shortage of controversies surrounding this method of extracting oil and gas from an environmental perspective, it has improved the fortunes of the region. That broadly reflects the nation as a whole, if for different and multiple reasons.

The US unemployment rate is now below 5pc, an unusually low-level by historical standards and well below most European countries. There are now almost 152 million people at work across the country, the highest number ever recorded. And one doesn't have to look far to see evidence of this - there are job vacancy signs in shops, restaurants and even (distractingly) on the backs of many of the trucks that ply the nation's highways.

However, an altogether less benign observation could also be made from travelling in these states. It is striking how many clearly unwell people there are to be seen. People walking slowly and carefully and with aids of various kinds, aware of their own fragility; ill people in a semi-dazed state, clearly on strong medication (but not strung out - more on that anon); and, most generally, people who just look beaten down and defeated by life. Nowhere in Europe, including the most crisis-hit country, Greece, have I seen so much visible human affliction.

The observations of one person are of limited value, and can be down to mere chance, but a raft of data tends to support the view that more Americans, albeit still a minority, are in a bad place.

Some groups are more affected than others. Middle-aged, white (non-Hispanic) men are among the worst affected. For well over a decade, more American men aged 45 to 54 has been dying - it is extremely rare for mortality rates to rise anywhere in the rich world, as better health care and diet have made death in middle age ever less likely. Among the same age group of Hispanic men in the US, for instance, the mortality rate has continued to fall and is now not far off half the rate among equivalent white males.

One contributing factor in this is opiate addiction, the prevalence of which has soared across the country in the past decade. It is very much a nationwide phenomenon, not one confined to the urban under-class. Death rates from drug overdoses are higher in rural and "medium metropolitan areas" than in the big cities, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. In all three types of areas, the overdose death rate has tripled since the beginning of the last decade.

The surge in hard drug use marks the US out from its rich world peers, but it is different in other ways too. America is an outlier in an even wider phenomenon that afflicts men - that of the long-term decline of working-age males who work. It particularly affects low-skilled men, something we in Europe have been far better at preventing, despite the universality of the factors that are likely to be causing it - openness to competition from cheaper developing world labour and the sort of technological change that has led to many low-skills jobs being automated.

The decline of work among men, and among low-skilled men in particular, is no doubt feeding into other ills such as the rise of income and wealth inequality in America. In the Financial Times, Larry Summers (among other things a former Treasury Secretary and President of Harvard) recently wrote that "a society where large numbers of adults in the prime of life are without vocation is unlikely to provide opportunity for all of its children, to maintain strong communities or have happy, cohesive families. As we are seeing this fall, such a society is prone to embrace toxic populist politics".

That brings us to the Trumpian elephant in the room.

Many of these negative trends in America inform the Republican candidate's narrative of a country not only in precipitous decline but one on the verge of lapsing into something much worse. From within, Trump claims that crooked career politicians are making America ungreat. From without, he says friends and foes alike take advantage of an enfeebled US while Mexicans and others threaten to pour across the border in such numbers that the country will be inundated.

The vision of a collapse akin to that of imperial Rome is certainly not what is to be observed in the four states I have visited over the past week. While there are plenty of negative things happening in the US - those discussed above, and others besides - America remains a great country.

Apart from its recovering economy, one could point to the fact that US corporations are among the most innovative in the world and that America's global military preponderance remains unchallenged. However, it is not only by the traditional economic and military measures of big power status that the country is (still) marked out as a great nation.

Arguably more important is that life for most people has become better in most ways, despite the minority for whom it has become worse. Improvements in recent decades have been greatest for those who often in the past got a smaller slice of the American dream than the most privileged.

The rise of women to the top, although far from complete, continues. In politics, businesses, the law and other walks of life, more and more women are in leadership positions. Even in that most male-dominated profession - central banking - a glass ceiling has been broken. The current head of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, is the first woman to lead that entity (and it is very likely that she will have another woman moving into a neighbouring building - the White House - come January).

The life chances of minorities in America are also on an upward trend. Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Google. Satya Nadella is his counterpart at Microsoft. Indra Nooyi is the global boss of Pepsi. If these names at the pinnacle of corporate power don't invoke images of white guys, it is because none of them is a white guy.

Nothing illustrates better the decline of white dominance than the man who currently lives in the White House. That Barack Obama not only won the presidency in 2008 but was comfortably re-elected in 2012 is the most potent symbol of the decline of institutionalised racism and the widening of opportunity in America.

That, in turn, is partly to do with education. That is yet another positive trend - Americans are better educated, at every level, than they have ever been, and educational achievement continues to rise.

Then there is crime. Although much has been made in campaigning of the recent publication of crime figures for 2015, which showed an uptick, the broader picture over more than two decades is of a huge decline in murders, muggings and robberies. Those of a certain age will recall that places such as Times Square in New York were no-go zones at night in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now people take their young children there to watch the bright lights and eat ice cream on warm evenings.

Despite the many changes for the better, the ones for the worse have been front and centre in Americans' minds for most of this century. A big majority - greater than two to one - has consistently told pollsters that the country is going in the wrong direction. The size of that majority has not shrunk with the improvements in the economy over the past four years.

That might augur well for Trump, but Obama managed to get re-elected with two thirds of voters believing the country was on the wrong track.

There may be lots of discontent in America, and there is certainly no shortage of discontent with Clinton, but Trump's vision on a country in decline, and his absence of plans to turn it around, won't make him the winner next month.

Sunday Independent

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