Tuesday 17 September 2019

A humbling trek across Trumpland

Travel: Another Fine Mess, Tim Moore, Yellow Jersey Press, paperback, 368 pages, €16.99

Falling apart: Tim Moore trekked coast-to-coast across the US in his 93-year-old Ford Model T
Falling apart: Tim Moore trekked coast-to-coast across the US in his 93-year-old Ford Model T
Another Fine Mess
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

There is no doubt that America is now more polarised than ever before. That divide has been widened by the current mantra that anyone who votes for someone you don't like is not just guilty of having a different opinion, but is obviously both evil and morally inferior.

We can see it every day in this country whenever American politics is discussed - and is there a day in Ireland when American politics isn't discussed? - and, particularly, when Trump voters are mentioned.

They are all racists, bigots and guilty of every 'phobe' and 'ism', apparently.

It's an almost deliberately idiotic way of looking at things, and speaks of the contempt many people - even on this side of the Atlantic - feel towards Americans they have never met, or spent any time with.

Perhaps the best example of trying to understand this most widely maligned group came with JD Vance's breakout 2016 hit Hillbilly Elegy, which had the advantage of being written from the perspective of those who had come from precisely that background.

Tim Moore's latest travel book, Another Fine Mess: Across Trumpland in a Ford Model T, takes another look at this derided demographic from an outsider's perspective.

In many ways, with the obvious exception of war reporters, travel writers are often the most courageous people working in the business - they take it upon themselves to go where nobody else has ever really wanted to go, then write about it to open a window into parts of the world few of us ever thought about. But, of course, to separate themselves from each other, and to stand out on the groaning stacks of travel books which now clog almost every book shop, the good ones will use some sort of gimmick.

Perhaps the best example of that was the brilliant McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy, which saw the author stop at every bar which shared his name. Similarly, comedian Tony Hawks hit pay dirt when a lost, drunken bet led him to create Round Ireland With a Fridge.

The sheer exuberance and sense of curiosity of those books is mirrored here.

Moore is a travel writer of long-standing renown, and as gimmicks (the authors would no doubt call them hooks) go, this one is a cracker - get one of those old jalopies we all recognise from black-and-white movies and drive 6,000 coast-to-coast miles across America, and exclusively through counties and states which voted for Trump.

It's certainly a tall order. Apart from anything else, the Model T is an antique, the one he drives - 'Mike' - is 93 years old, he only has a few tenuous contacts to help him along the way and, of course, he is also a self-confessed "wise-ass Limey liberal", so not exactly the kind of person you'd expect to find pootling along rust-belt highways in a near century-old car.

But you don't have to have an interest in cars, or even the current asylum that is American politics, to appreciate this memoir or a man who has obviously been changed by the experience.

In many ways, the history of the car is the history of modern America, and Moore's ruminations on Henry Ford, the grandson of immigrants from Cork who would go on, as they say, "to invent the 20th Century", are fascinating.

For starters, no car has ever been as revolutionary as the Model T. The first genuinely affordable automobile opened up new horizons for people, particularly those living outside the big cities, who might only ever see another person at church every Sunday.

Ford knew you had to give people what they needed, not what they wanted, saying at the time, if he only gave customers what they thought they desired, "they'd just demand faster horses".

But the subsequent development of the highway system also managed to have the (largely) unforeseen consequence of creating ghettos as these vast roads circled around the inner city, forming a motorised border which has particularly destroyed places like the home of Ford itself, the city of Detroit.

As he struggles with the vast distances and the not-unsurprising problems presented by driving a car that is falling apart, Moore is frequently amazed by the kindness of those strangers who live in Trumpland.

The Model T has an iconic place in American folk memory and the author frequently finds himself at the mercy of the intrigued locals he meets - who never seem to let him down. A new car part, help with repairs or simply a place to stay when the journey becomes too gruelling are all offered willingly. If there's one thing to be learned from Another Fine Mess, it's that these are people you'd want on your side.

He also makes some valid points along the way. He's struck by the TV ads that serve as a metaphor for the creaking US health system. In between kids' shows, the commercials are for abundant quantities of sweet, processed food, while the ads on channels like Fox News are for diabetes and other health problems - as if the two things are entirely unrelated.

But perhaps the most telling passage comes from an encounter he has with a bunch of old geezers who are perfectly pleasant but who also voted for Trump.

As he says of their decision: "It wasn't anything he'd said, but something that Hillary Clinton had. In dumping half of Trump's supporters in a 'basket of deplorables', she had inadvertently confirmed a suspicion that... the Democratic establishment wasn't just ignoring them, it actively despised them."

That these people, who did indeed make America great, should feel so much fury at Clinton's sneering is no surprise. That they took to wearing MAGA hats was, in hindsight, inevitable.

Like all good travel books, this is as much about the author as the subjects and while he's frequently baffled by the views he encounters, he's constantly humbled by their innate decency - not something you hear much about when it comes to these hated rednecks.

A fantastic read which comes with a surprisingly moving conclusion, it's neither a history of the car, nor even the reasons why so many people voted for a man they so obviously don't like. It is, ultimately, a warm and witty tribute to the decency of ordinary folk.

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