Thursday 23 February 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Our close ties to Trump's heartland

Eamonn Sweeney

Fans warm up for ‘the freewheeling carnival of white working class culture which is NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Fans warm up for ‘the freewheeling carnival of white working class culture which is NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

What an unbelievable result. Who'd have predicted it? Everyone utterly under-estimated the electorate's desire to thumb their nose at the elite who've been lording it over them. They had a democratic right to do so of course but still, what were the voters thinking?

Lee Keegan and Austin Gleeson as players of the year?

In other news, Donald Trump won the American presidential election, giving the Clare village of Doonbeg its biggest moment on the international stage since local man Pat McDonald, representing the US, won gold in the 56 pound weight throw at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. Trump's win was pretty surprising too. Though I did predict it in last week's column, my line advising anyone who'd lost a bet on a county final to recoup their losses by backing The Donald was cut.

One thing which struck me throughout the election campaign is how distorted and partial the picture we get of America is. We consume so much American culture, all those glossy magazine articles, all those HBO box sets, those wistful comedies about friends sharing flats and lives in New York, those big novels by 'the latest publishing sensation' about 'the way we live now'.

It turns out they weren't teaching us as much about America as we thought. Because in all those novels and comedies and dramas we're never shown why someone might vote Republican, let alone Trump. His rise went unpredicted and his supporters unportrayed, except in an occasional episode where they're members of a militia plotting to poison the local water supply.

The men and women in all those small rural counties whose votes got Trump past Clinton are invisible in the American culture offered to us. With one exception. When you watch American sport you get a much broader picture. There is the NFL with its fidelity to and showcasing of the flag and the military, College Football with its hallowed local traditions and its powerful red state teams (the last 11 national champions come from states which voted Trump on Tuesday), and the freewheeling carnival of white working class culture which is NASCAR.

There is also the omnipresence of religious faith and feeling in all of these sports. Mocked he may be in other arenas, but in sport God, in his specific American Evangelical incarnation, is invoked to an extent which can seem bewildering to the neophyte.

A more general bewilderment was evident in the media coverage of the election on this side of the pond as the dust settled on Wednesday and Thursday. Who are these people? What are they doing? The world of the Trump voter seemed to be a mystery to most commentators. The initial reaction seemed to be that this was a reaction against financial hardship. Blasted factory towns out of Springsteen songs were invoked and some on the Left tried to claim this as in some weird way a victory for them. They did the same after Brexit. When you never win anything yourself anymore, you have to claim other people's victories.

In reality, Clinton trounced Trump among voters earning $50,000 or less. Every other income category favoured the winner. The sad news for liberals is that this revolt has more to do with culture than economics. And if you're looking for both a sympathetic and enlightening portrayal of those who said no to Clinton and yes to Trump, the best ones are to found in some of the great books on American sport.

There's Warren St John's Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer', a tale of a year on the road following the University of Alabama football team; John Feinstein's 'A Season on the Brink' about the University of Indiana basketball team and their legendarily volatile coach Bob Knight, who campaigned hard for Trump this past year; 'Friday Night Lights' by HG Bissinger about high school football in Texas; and a personal favourite of mine, a little known book about NASCAR stock car racing entitled 'Fixin' To Git', written by a man named Jim Wright who is both a sociologist and a huge fan of the sport in question.

Whereas most books on the white working and middle classes of these reliably Republican states give the impression that the author is holding a pair of tongs in one hand and his nose with the other, these books examine the culture with sympathy and imagination. Maybe that's easier to do when you're writing about sport, given that most people are at their most open when they're following their favourite team. None of the writers skim over the faults of the milieu, a tendency towards occasional racist epithet being a particular bugbear. But they also find the people they meet to be open, friendly and lacking in pretension.

The people feel familiar to an Irish reader. Whereas English readers might be absolutely perplexed by the importance attached to sport in a small community in 'Friday Night Lights', this is perfectly understandable to anyone who's ever followed a local GAA team on a run to the county final and beyond. The communities portrayed, in fact, seem a lot like the one where I grew up in South Sligo and the one where I live in West Cork.

The NASCAR fan and the man who follows road bowling, trotting and coursing seem to have quite a lot in common.

There's no getting around the fact that Trump was a deeply flawed candidate. But one reason his voters supported him is their feeling that they are condescended to by the cultural mainstream. Jim Wright makes this point neatly when, skewering a Sports Illustrated article for its gross caricature of the NASCAR audience he notes, "Billy Bobs? Klan picnic? Slobbering bubbas? Does anyone but me detect a hint of ethnic or class derogation here? A condescending stereotype? Imagine a story about basketball players and fans that began . . . oh, never mind."

Perhaps the only sympathetic TV portrayal of Small Town America is the series of 'Friday Night Lights' which unabashedly hymns the joys of community and family without ever getting mawkish or dishonest about it. The marriage of high school football coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami has been described by Daniel Mendelson of the New York Review of Books as "One of the finest representations of middle class marriage in popular culture." He's right. It's the kind of marriage which normally only figures on TV when the writer wants to heavy handedly point out that it is in fact a sham masking secret unhappiness. But the Taylors' marriage endures. In 'Friday Night Lights' people screw up and make mistakes but in the end they have to crack on with life. It is the best TV series ever made about sport and one of the best ever made about anything, and most of its fictional characters would probably have voted for Trump on Tuesday.

The voters who turned the tide Trump's way weren't toothless war veterans squatting in abandoned steel mills, they were that most unglamorous of things: people working hard to get by, raise a family and contribute to a community. It may seem pretty prosaic but it's how most of us live. Quite a few of them didn't even like Trump: 61 per cent of the electorate told exit polls they were dissatisfied with the Republican candidate, but some of those voted for him anyway. We vote less for political candidates themselves than for the hopes, beliefs and fantasies we project onto them.

If you want to really understand the heartland of America you might be better off reading a Sports Illustrated article - occasional blind spots notwithstanding - rather than one from the New Yorker. Time and again they underline how important to so many people a love of religion and family and community are. Working hard and raising kids may not be as hip and cutting edge as moving to Brooklyn and battling transphobia one tweet at a time, but it's just as valid a way of spending your life.

The art historian John Ruskin wrote that "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts - the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art." In this more demotic age they also write it in the book of their sport. It's certainly one place to look for the solution to Tuesday's mystery.

So is the NASCAR track where, in the words of Jim Wright "People still eat animal flesh with gusto and junk food like there's no tomorrow, smoke cigarettes one after another, guzzle beer by the buckets, pinch their women on the ass and take a child's delight in watching big, powerful American V-8 gas hogs run around a race track at 200mph." Doesn't sound like a bad day out to me. Wright said he "learned more about America, who she is and where she's headed from a season at the tracks than I ever learned from the New York Review of Books." In the same way All-Ireland final day is probably a better reflection of Irish life than any amount of Citizens' Assemblies.

Now that the rest of us have learned where America is headed, perhaps we should spend some time finding out where it's coming from. If you want to believe everyone who voted for Trump is a racist redneck monster, be my guest. It's certainly easier than thinking. But if you want to know what really drove them, it's ESPN rather than CNN you should be watching.

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