Friday 13 December 2019

America's politics of anger is now nearing its boiling point

A supporter of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump displays a campaign poster
A supporter of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump displays a campaign poster

Ruth Sherlock

The American people have had enough and are turning on their government.

At a recent debate on the presidential campaign trail, Donald Trump summed up America in 2016. "I will gladly accept the mantle of anger," he said. "People are very angry because our country is being run horribly."

Many people outside the US have struggled to understand the transformation of Mr Trump from billionaire property mogul and television star to perhaps the next Republican presidential nominee.

It happened because, more than any other candidate, he recognised that vast swathes of America are not just annoyed with their government - they are close to boiling point.

The bubbling discontent covers a myriad of issues including poverty, border protection and immigration, the mistreatment of military veterans, and spiralling health care costs.

At its heart is a fundamental breakdown of trust in government. For many Americans, Washington seems a long way away, populated by venal politicians with their snouts in the trough who have left the rest of the country behind.

Two days after he was re-elected in 2012, Mr Obama was at a town hall event in New Orleans. A young boy there asked him: "Why do people hate you?"

Mr Obama later pointed out that: "I was elected president, so not everybody hates me!" But he accepted that "watching TV, it seems that everybody is just getting mad all the time".

When he moved into the White House seven years ago, Mr Obama's approval rating was 69pc. It has been heading south ever since and currently stands at 48pc. At times, it has been as low as 38pc.

For presidential candidates of either party, the greatest insult is being labelled "part of the Washington establishment".

It's so bad even Hillary Clinton has tried to claim she is "not part of the establishment". That takes some chutzpah from a former first lady, senator, and secretary of state.

Voters are deeply disillusioned with a perceived elite that runs America but does not understand it. Many voters now see America as a plutocracy rather than a democracy.

According to a CNN/ORC poll in December 2015, an astonishingly high 85pc of them disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, and 75pc say they are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed.


A total of 25pc say they are "very angry" about the way things are going in the country, 44pc are "somewhat angry" and only 14pc are "not angry at all".

Among Trump supporters, 97pc are dissatisfied with the government, and 91pc are "angry".

Who is to blame? Republicans blame what they see as a partisan president. Democrats blame an intransigent Republican-controlled Congress for refusing to compromise.

According to Phillip K Howard, founder of Common Good, a group that wants to simplify government, Washington has become a "profoundly sick and dysfunctional political culture separated by the Beltway from the rest of the country".

It has "mutated into a perpetual tug of war where political leaders get up in the morning not trying to do anything constructive but just make the other side look bad".

The politics of anger is being fuelled in parts of America where wages have stagnated, causing Americans who were once in the middle class to sink into the "working poor".

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Centre, fewer than half of the population are middle class, down from 61pc in 1971.

The median net worth of families today is barely higher than it was 30 years ago.

The decline is not limited to the country's poorer states such as Mississippi and West Virginia. Even in leafy New England, behind the white picket fences of picturesque homes, poverty is on the rise.

In Exeter, home to the Philips Exeter Academy, the Eton of America, more than 2,000 people in a population of 13,800 are "food insecure", according to the local St Vincent de Paul community centre, and there has been a 177pc increase in distribution from food banks in the last two years.

In Manchester, the biggest city in New Hampshire, one in five children is reliant on food banks for nutrition.

I visited one of the many food banks in the city, watching as dozens of people - many of whom have jobs and work up to 60-hour weeks - waited patiently for their turn.

"Family homelessness is the fastest growing homelessness in the country. Families are not making it," said Pati Frew-Waters, executive director of Seacoast Family Promise, a shelter that takes in working families.

"There are jobs available but you can't make it on the wages they pay. Fast food restaurants will pay just over $7 an hour. You have major companies paying a pittance, truly a pittance."

Craig Welch, director of the nearby Portsmouth Housing Authority said: "We have about 500 families. Around here there has been no wage appreciation. These folks are working but this is the life of the working poor."

John Kasich, the Republican presidential candidate, said he had been shocked to discover on the campaign trail how bad life was for some Americans.

"People come to my town halls and they cry," he said. "Some of these people have traumatic stories and they have nowhere to go. No one is listening to them."

Donald Trump's supporters see his billions as insulation against the influence of big donors and lobbyists that are part of the Washington "establishment".

On the flip side of the coin, voters are also flooding to self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders, who rails against the "billionaire class" and Wall Street, because he also challenges the status quo.

At a rally in Iowa, Mr Sanders, who is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential race, asked his audience: "I want to hear: what is it like to live on $10,000 a year social security?"

A woman called Carrie Aldrich stepped forward, took the microphone, and started crying.

"I've been living on less than that," she said. "I can't pay bills. You're ashamed all the time.

"When you can't buy presents for your children it's really, really hard.

"I worked three, four, five jobs, always minimum wage. I have a degree, divorced, and it's just parents have to support me. It's just hard."

Mr Trump vows to bring prosperity by cutting taxes, negotiating better trade deals, and sending illegal immigrants home.

Mr Sanders says he will do it by raising taxes to pay for increasing the minimum wage, providing healthcare for all, and free college tuition. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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