Bigotry lines the route through Trump country
Making a rare excursion from his 'metropolitan bubble', Donal Lynch takes a road trip through the Red States and is shocked by what he finds
If you'd asked me a few years ago, I would have confidently said I already knew "Trump Country". Back then that would still have meant martinis, models and skyscrapers - I had spent the better part of my 20s and 30s living in the shadow of Trump's Fifth Avenue building.
The Rust Belt and the Bible Belt seemed about as far away from my day-to-day life as Ballymun in those years. On my rare excursions out of the city in my work as a TV booker, I bonded with other journalists over the unsophisticated food and horrible coffee.
They nicknamed me 'the Donald' - mainly because they couldn't say my name properly - and I was everything my blowhard namesake raged against; a poor immigrant, a diehard liberal, a metropolitan elite, and seemingly out of touch with the political reality of my adopted homeland.
During election night last year, I left the American ambassador's party just after 1am. The worrying tallies were already rolling in but I felt quite sure that by morning, order would be restored. The conservative clown car was about to go off the road.
Instead, we woke to red chaos in America and I realised that my cosseted vantage points in Manhattan and Dublin had obviously not told me anything like the full story. Clutching my fading 'Bernie 2016' flag, hoping to relive that J1 sense of freedom and in a belated effort to try to understand what had propelled Trump to president, I decided I would exit my bubble and undertook a road trip across the southern states of America.
Along with a friend, I plotted a route from Texas to California, taking in towns which had almost without exception voted to rip up the existing political order. I didn't actually put the word 'gritty' in the SatNav but the route we took - starting in Austin and moving west toward the coast was not the scenic glamour of Route 66, but rather a Cormac McCarthy-esque journey along lonely highways lined with strip malls, evangelical churches and truck stops.
The drug epidemic and unemployment ravaged bleakness of much of the Old South is the first clue as to how a trite slogan like 'Make America Great Again' got such traction. I expected creaking colonial mansions and saw creepy, meth-ravaged clone towns with no pedestrians.
My travelling companion was another Bernie mourner, a Texan of Mexican heritage, who described his childhood there as being "like the movie Mask"; biker fires and hippy values. We do not have people like them but they would have an easier time of it here. America is a brutal country for the poor, a place where the lowest paid workers must do two jobs to make ends meet. His parents did not have health insurance and he grew up in an era when Congress had already begun dismantling the American welfare state. It meant, for instance, that he was not able to get hospital treatment for burns sustained as a child. He couldn't afford the exorbitant college fees and though we eventually wound up living on the same block of New York, I felt he had travelled further to get there than I had.
Texas, where he grew up and where I landed, has been called "a laboratory for White House policies", and the Lone Star State, which is home to an estimated 1.7m unauthorised immigrants, has enforced these policies as brutally as anywhere in America. This year, it passed a hardline measure known as SB4 that compels local law enforcement to work with federal immigration authorities to hand over migrants for potential deportation, in effect, banning "sanctuary cities". Trump wants a similar measure nationwide.
This is the state where Roe v Wade emerged from, but it has some of the strictest abortion laws in the union which will all but guarantee the closure of 42 abortion clinics, leaving only five designated as ambulatory service centres to accommodate a state that is larger than France. After Trump was elected, the Republican governor of the state, Greg Abbott, signed a bill into law that reduces the cost of a handgun licence. With a Trumpesque level of regard for the media, he joked about shooting reporters. Comments like this might give the impression that the entire state is populated by redneck hillbillies but in fact Texas, while reliably Republican, also has its liberal strongholds, which have been at the frontline of some of the country's culture wars. The so-called "bathroom bill", restricting transgender people from using the facilities associated with the gender they identify with, was passed in North Carolina but earlier this year foundered in Texas, where liberal Republicans opposed it.
We passed through Austin, where swarms of bats turn the sky black at dusk, and found a progressive college town where sporadic anti-Trump demonstrations have been held. Austin reportedly has more atheists than anywhere else in America - it is described as being like "a blueberry in the tomato soup of Texas". There is also a local sense of humour about the state's conservative image and Confederate past, which you might not get from the alarming news reports about the riots in Virginia last week.
As we passed through Seguin, another Texan town, one young man we met pointed to a monument of the patriot (Juan Seguin) on horseback in the town square. "When my wife moved down here I told her that was one of the symbols the Nazis brought to Texas," he told us.
"Did you spin her any other alt right yarns?" I wondered. "Well, the biggest one of all was 'until death do us part'," he replied.
The racism is not overstated, however. At a JT Leroy-esque diner stop on the border with New Mexico, the weary waitress told us that they automatically added a special service charge to parties of black people, and nightlife venues seem to be divided along ethnic lines. The racism bleeds into the class divides and xenophobia.
The Canadian author, Ronald White, once said that "socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires".
We took our trip before numerous Trump scandals engulfed the White House and well before real buyer's remorse had set it.
The poorest, lowest paid whites have been convinced that the poorest dark people doing the same jobs as them, rather than the super rich corporations, are what keeps them at the bottom rung of society.
It's tempting to view this as a peculiarly American problem but the bitter complaints from Trump voters we encountered sounded like many a lecture I'd received from Irish taxi drivers. Both invariably began with: "I'm not racist, but…"
As we travelled from the art mecca of Marfa (past the famous 'Prada store' - in reality an oft-vandalised installation, which looks like a mirage on the unending highway) to El Paso and on to Santa Fe, we marvelled as the blue mountains gave way to shimmering desert vistas.
On the frequent pit stops, we wondered if it's foreigners nicking their jobs or the atrocious food they have to consume that really has Trump's base riled?
There are obvious southern culinary delights - the barbecue is famous, for instance - but the general standard of food in the south is about the same as you'd get on a low-cost flight. Every cafe we stopped at had long-life 'cardboard' bread and UHT milk instead of the real stuff - enough to send anyone screaming into the arms of a demagogue.
Along the highways, we periodically passed sprawling prison complexes which even in summer are not air-conditioned - this is considered part of the punishment.
We drove through wide desert plains over mountains and into Phoenix, Arizona, glittering in the valley with a Technicolor moon glowing above it. Phoenix feels quite outdoorsy, surrounded as it is by hiking trails. It also served as the seat of sensible Republicanism - John McCain comes from here, and even though he brought us Sarah Palin, he now counts as the voice of reason for conservative America. Phoenix is one of the most conservative major cities in the union. Which is also, perhaps why Trump, at his lowest ebb, will hold a rally there this week - if he can rile Phoenix, then he's still got it, the thinking goes.
The final leg of the journey took us through Arizona and into California, where we pushed on towards Palm Springs, a small and spectacularly scenic town of wealthy retirees where the residents look like the inhabitants of the Dublin wax museum, before they did it up.
This is also the place that gave America's Got Talent its best Trump impersonator. He was recently eliminated - "fired", if you will - and the Hillary mourners we met in the town hoped the same will soon happen to the man himself.
And, as I sank into the swimming pool with the mountains behind me, I couldn't help feeling I would travel 2,000 miles for a comment like that.