By the time you read this, it will be Election Day across America. I’m in New York, the city that never sleeps unless you happen to fancy a decent meal post-11pm in or around Times Square on a Friday night. The vibe of the city isn’t the Presidential Election; you’d barely know that there was a an election even happening from wandering the streets unless you’re actively looking for it. After a few days of walking through the city, I’ve seen plenty of Trump and Clinton t-shirts on sale in souvenir shops – but very few signs of the political parties actually campaigning. A homeless man holds a sign “Give me a dollar or I’m voting Trump”, and he gets dollars. It’s the most blatant example of political bribery I’ve ever seen, though hardly a common phenomenon. It may be a trick, a hustle like so many others in New York; the man may not even be registered to vote.
I’ve seen one ‘I’m voting Hillary’ badge, one Trump car window sticker, and one Trump poster in a house. That’s it, and I’ve been looking. Clinton will win New York by 20 points, potentially more. It’s not a swing state and nobody is really campaigning.
Speak to middle-class New Yorkers and you get the impression that they dislike Clinton but hate Trump. I hear it said that “he’s the kind of guy who wants to build a wall to keep out people who use tunnels”, and it generates a ripple of laughter. Most seem to wish the election would hurry up and be done already, but they don’t live in swing states. They have nothing to moan about. I’ve found New Yorkers who will enthusiastically vote for Gary Johnson, but none who’ll admit to plumping for Trump. I’m not surprised; those who vote Trump in New York will predominantly be from out of the city, in the rest of the state. “Will you be voting for Clinton or (pause)…Johnson?” is usually enough for a chuckle and a nod. Most hate Trump so much they’re voting for Clinton rather than take the non-risk of voting Johnson in a safe Democrat state.
I don’t get to see the rest of the Empire State, but I do spend a little time in New Jersey. It’s much more balanced. Clinton may win it 55-45, perhaps a tad more on a good day, so it’s not quite a true swing state but it’s much closer and the full spectrum of opinion is represented. Indeed, it has a Republican governor, Chris Christie, who’s been one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders. It’s here where the huge division becomes apparent. “Hillary Clinton has done nothing for this country”, opines one enthusiastic Trump supporter. She’s the only non-Republican I’ve met this week who’s backing Trump, but she’s determined to tell me all about it. “He’s a businessman. He knows how to make money, that’s what we need in America right now.” I don’t say a word, allowing her to continue in full flow. Her evangelical fervour is interesting, because she starts defending Trump against random accusations that I haven’t made. She begins excusing Trump’s business bankruptcies and explaining that he’s not been charged with anything over the alleged sexual assaults. Meanwhile, she continues with a flourish, Hillary…
She recites some valid criticisms of the Clintons, and I can’t disagree with any of them. Ultimately, she’s pro-Trump and anti-Clinton; let down and abandoned by the system for so long. Voting for Trump is her protest. For her, Trump couldn’t make things any worse than they are now. In general I think it’s intellectually lazy to make straightforward comparisons between Trump and Brexit on the grounds that both are anti-establishment. Indeed, I think sometimes the media are deliberately overplaying it to associate Brexit with Trump in people’s minds. Let’s not fall for it hook, line and sinker. But in some circumstances, there’s a kernel of truth to it. This is one of them. She’s the ultimate ‘let down by the establishment’ voter. If she were in the UK she would have voted for Brexit for the same reasons that she’s voting for Trump.
I soon meet the polar opposite, also a working-class middle-aged white woman, but of very different political persuasion. I’m standing in a line (I would say queue normally, but I’m just reminding Mr. Obama of how it’s said in America) and out of nowhere, the lady behind me starts cursing Donald Trump. She’s been misinformed about the news: she’s been told that Clinton has been charged over the recent FBI investigation, whereas in truth they’re not pressing charges. She’s terrified of President Trump. Three times I hear Trump described as the ‘anti-Christ’. Strong stuff indeed. She’ll be unwelcome at her family Thanksgiving dinner later in the month, claiming ‘unless she can prove that she’s voted Trump, they won’t let her sit at the same table’. Passions are running high, setting family member against family member. An African American just ahead of us in the line shouts out that she’ll have to be ‘off to Canada’ if Trump wins. It’s a theme I’ve overheard frequently from Democrats, but I doubt that many actually mean it. Besides, there’s no guarantee they’d be allowed in: Canada has immigration laws, after all.
I can’t say that I’ve found a true Hillary supporter anywhere. I’ve found plenty of people who are going to vote for her as a means of voting against Trump. The same is true of many, but not all, of those who I’ve met who will vote Trump. A Clinton vote is usually an anti-Trump one, whereas a Trump vote is only sometimes an anti-Clinton one. Both major parties have blundered in their choices of candidate in my view. Clinton scared most of the credible candidates off, and Bernie Sanders was never really on course to stop her. Trump won by splitting a crowded field and winning a plurality of votes in primaries, aiming for the Republican base. It’s a good tactic for winning primaries, but rarely so good for winning a Presidential election.
I feel both Clinton and Trump find themselves incredibly lucky in the opponents that they’re facing. Everyone is voting against something, whether real or imagined. Some Trump voters are voting for Trump, but even most of them are going Trump because they hate Democrats, ‘crooked Hillary’, the establishment, because they’re against more gun control, and much more besides. Clinton voters are voting against [their perceptions of] Trump, racism, bigotry, sexual assault, threats to Roe v Wade, and again much more besides. Johnson voters are voting against both.
Tension and ill-feeling are running high at the moment; I can’t help but wonder – had the pro-Trump and anti-Trump women I’ve just described both been standing next to each other in the same queue, just how heated would the argument have been? America is polarised, and whoever wins today I can’t see that changing.