It was a tea party of sorts.
Izzy, our seven-year-old was on a play date with her friend Jessie and, as a result, Jo and I were on a play date with her parents. Come for an early dinner, they said: around four. That’s teatime for us, of course, but Californians do everything early: breakfast at 6, lunch around 11, hitting the freeway jams home by 3, drunk by sundown. Well, we and our friends were anyway.
The wine we brought with us was uncorked the second we crossed the threshold. Soon we were into our second bottle. That’s when the trouble started.
Living on the other side of the world from my comfort zone, I was worried that our life would be too hermetic down here in Orange County. Aside from the in-laws down the road, we thought we’d have to rely on the sea for company – at night we can hear the waves down the valley at the end of our garden. Actually it’s not the sea, it’s the ocean, and I’m told that we don’t have a garden, we have a yard.
Most days we can stroll in the sun down to the beach to watch whales gliding past on their slow route north; there are shopping malls on every major intersection where you can park for free; and we have a house that, although it could well have been airlifted from the set of Desperate Housewives, has every modern device known to technology, most of which appears to work most of the time. It even has a central vacuum system, which is the sort of thing that they used to show us on Tomorrow’s World back in the 1960s and never really arrived in Northumberland. Instead of a hoover, you just plug a pipe into the wall, and suck the dust of the world away. It’s just a year since we moved here and already we have been sucked into the central vacuum of Californian life, no trace of our heritage left other than the giant Union Jack flying over our garage doors and my Newcastle United shirt that I devoutly wear on match days.
But making friends? At first we thought it was going to be tough. But, thanks to Izzy, we live in a social whirl. Our daughter attracts little friends like the peaches on our fruit trees entice hungry birds. These children all seem to have pleasantly friendly parents, who then get added to our own guest list. Every play date brings us a new smiling, friendly couple, eager to join us for wine at four and dinner at teatime. Our social diary is full.
To a couple, they are all delightful. We go to movies and restaurants together, we barbecue and talk about food and schools; the women talk about their husbands and their doctors, the men talk about cars, soccer and wine. Men are also supposed to talk about college basketball, but as I still haven’t worked out the rules, let alone stayed awake through a single game, they very politely avoid the subject when I’m around. They are also gracious about Newcastle United, now that we’ve been relegated from the Premier League. They share my pain.
They are dentists and doctors and teachers, financial advisers, advertising executives and entrepreneurs. We take our kids to soccer on Saturdays; we discuss the merits of different brands of tequila and which Mexican joints serve the best tacos. It’s all pretty normal, suburban stuff.
But, the other day, Jo and I made a terrifying discovery. Some of these new friends aren’t what they seem.
It was just as the Chinese takeaway arrived and we were opening the third bottle of wine. By then we had regressed to a juvenile state, laughing at anything anyone said, the girls happily watching movies at the other side of the room.
That’s when I made a joke about Donald Trump. It wasn’t particularly funny, just a comment about his latest gaffe, some blatant lie or other he’d made at a rally. I said how thrilled our new friends must be, now that they’d finally found someone who was going to make America great again.
“You must be very proud,” I said.
Getting Americans to grasp the concept of British irony, let alone recognise it, has been one of my toughest challenges. Jo quickly learnt the “stop with the irony” glare at dinner parties. “Button it now,” it glowers.
But Jo was going with the flow – I was safe.
And when they replied: “We’re excited. We can’t wait for The Donald to be president, and for Crooked Hillary to go to jail,” I laughed uproariously. They clearly got the joke.
Except that through my drunken haze, I realised that something in their tone wasn’t quite right. Could they be – serious?
They were. They hooted with derision when I said that the bragging buffoon had already made America the world’s laughing stock, that the man was a bully and a bankrupted fraud, a Putin-lover without knowledge, morals or style.
They shook their heads: I was deluded, I was being conned by the liberal, lying media, I didn’t really know Trump. He was a successful billionaire businessman, he was going to turn the economy round, he really was going to get rid of Obamacare, and illegal Mexicans, and Muslims and all the other horrors that clouded their perfect, manicured life in Orange County.
That evening we learnt more about American politics than we’d ever learnt on our wall-to-wall CNN and Fox News channels.
Back home in the UK, every friend we have seems to be fairly well-read, media-savvy and liberal (even our most right-wing friends are still pretty liberal). All of us, left, right and center, however polarized we might think our political views, we generally agree that some sort of concern for the poorest in society is an important function of any civilised democracy. We may disagree about the level of the minimum wage, or the amount of income support we should pay people, or the amount of tax that should be levied to pay for our public services, but at least there’s a broad consensus that helping others to a certain degree is pretty central to our nation’s moral philosophy. That night in our friends’ house, we realised that this consensus simply does not exist in America.
From the outside, some people tend to view all supporters of the bigoted, narcissistic, racist, misogynist Trump as ignorant, uneducated, extreme hate-purveyors, the US version of UKIP supporters, a product of a creaking and inadequate state school system, rednecked, dangerous, gun-toting, blinkered fools. A “basket of deplorables”, as Clinton called them the other day and regretted almost immediately, “racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”
She probably meant people like Kathy Miller, who yesterday resigned as chair of the Trump campaign in one Ohio county, after she said in an interview that there was “no racism” in America until Obama was elected, and that “if you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault. You’ve had every opportunity.”
Or North Carolina congressman Robert Pittenger, who said on the BBC’s Newsnight on Thursday night: “Black people hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”
Surely our quiet, affluent, gated community, with its manicured lawns, pools and $100,000 Tesla electric cars, couldn’t be hiding real life Trump supporters like these?
Well, apparently, like wife beaters, Scrabble players and Baptists, they are all around us. And, yes, to me and Jo, these Trump supporters are just as narrow-minded and their views as unpleasant as we thought. Except that, to our surprise, they haven’t just blindly lapped up the rhetoric from Fox News; they aren’t actually a basket of deplorables; they are intelligent people, they have reasoned it out, and they actually think Trump’s views make sense. They don’t hate anybody, they just hate what the politicians in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats, have done to their lives. And they can’t wait for Donald Trump to stick it to them.
These Trumpeters aren’t from an ignorant white underclass, blue-collar victims of a rust belt destroyed by cheap imports and misguided international trade deals, living in a vacuum caused by the destruction of a great industrial past that is never going to return. Nor are they white supremacists or weird extremists. These friends of ours are, basically, charming, ordinary people. Until I foolishly mentioned the T word, we could have gone on in blissful ignorance of each other’s political beliefs. Now I wanted to suck my words back into their central vacuum. But the cat was already out of the bag, and the wine was still flowing.
The girls had picked up our conversation and were joining in the fun, jumping on the sofa, Jessie screaming “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and Izzy shouting back “Hill-a-ry!”
“You must agree that Obamacare is a disaster,” said our hosts, repeating their hero’s mantra.
“Don’t you think universal health care is a good thing?” asked Jo, with a look of wide-eyed naivety.
“Why would we think that?”
They stare at her, genuinely bemused.
“I’ve worked hard to pay for this house, and my family’s insurance, and since Obamacare my premium has doubled. All because I’m paying for someone else’s hospital bills? They should pay their own. It’s the survival of the fittest.”
I see real tears welling up in my wife’s eyes.
“So do you think poor people who get sick should just…die?”
“I think they should have gotten off their butts to get jobs to pay for their own health insurance. My job is to pay for me, my wife, and Jessie, not for the rest of society.”
“We already support the rest of society,” added his wife. “I take my old clothes to the charity shop, the ones I can’t sell, and we go to fundraisers. Why should I have to pay for other people’s health insurance too?”
I looked across to where our two girls were still bouncing on the sofa. As our voices rose, I saw Izzy giving Jo a single nervous glance. “Button it now,” said the look. But Jo had already lost it.
Her voice rose two octaves, face reddened, a tear welling in one eye, as she pointed to their luxurious, all-mod-conned home: “Don’t you believe that if you enjoy this lifestyle you owe it to society to give something to those that don’t, that we have a collective responsibility to support each other?”
They paused, looked at each other, and then laughed as if we were simpletons.
“Do you know, I don’t think we’ve ever met any liberals before.”
And they were serious.
“Why, I bet you two even believe in global warming.”
At which point I fell off my chair, and Izzy and Jessie came running up, tears in their eyes.
“Stop arguing Mummy, Daddy,” they said in unison to all four of us. But it was too late.
Back in the UK last month, in all the media coverage I read and watched about the UK’s NHS problems, I didn’t hear a single voice saying the National Health Service should be abolished, or that people should get off their arses and buy their own health care. Anyone who’d expressed an opinion like that would have been consigned to the outer regions of Planet Weird along with fascists, Nigel Farage and other nut-jobs.
And yet here in affluent white Trumpton, some people have a completely different view of social justice to our own. I don’t remotely agree with them, of course, but that night I began to realise why a large number of wealthy white people in a nation that has built its economy on can-do, are now afraid of people who can-not.
They feel threatened by the people on the other side of the freeway who, whether by race, background, or just plain misfortune, haven’t made it in America and are now being offered a free ride, where before everyone had been forced to pay full fare. For them, the Land of the Free doesn’t mean their land should be free. Or the food, or the healthcare either. ‘One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’, is not the same thing as ‘we’re all Americans, so we should help each other’. Far from it. These are the surprisingly large chunk of the American population that believes, even in 2016, that a welfare state is, fundamentally, an anti-American concept.
To these people, America is about being given the opportunity to arrive, legally, on these shores and seize the extraordinary opportunities the country offers with your bare hands; not its welfare benefits. And anyone who wants to change that status quo by, for example, allowing the people to enjoy the spoils of the American dream without working for it, is the enemy.
To these Americans, freedom and handouts don’t belong in the same sentence. Liberty means freedom to create your own life by your own hard work and without having anyone else to support. Welfare should come from charity, not taxes; charity is a very useful tax break. As to the environment, their idea of saving the planet is to find new sources of cheap fossil fuels to keep their cars running, not to protect the Earth from the hollow threat of extinction put about by the evil conspiracy mongers of climate change.
That’s why they really don’t like liberals. Liberals have made America a worse place to live, and this is why these friends of ours are prepared to ignore Trump’s racism, bombast, ignorance of foreign affairs and the danger he poses to world security, and vote for him to put the clock back to the 1950s and “make America great again”.
They certainly didn’t listen to any of my arguments that their California dream will disintegrate without the (largely illegal) Mexican workforce who keep their lifestyle going and who toil harder than any group of workers I’ve ever seen; that it’s the drug companies conspiring with the insurance companies that makes America’s healthcare so unaffordable and prescription drugs ten times the price of any in the world; that it’s a powerful lobby hijacking a redundant second Amendment to sell the guns that kill tens of thousands of innocent Americans every year; that every credible scientist in the world believes in climate change, and that, of all states, California will be most affected by any change in environmental policy; or that all Americans are immigrants who live in a glorious cultural melting-pot that everyone should celebrate; or, finally, that lifting people out of poverty is actually good for society, and for the economy as a whole.
It’s all alien speak to them. So from now until November 8th they’ll shut their ears to Trump’s toxic rhetoric and to the pleas of the liberals and only listen to one phrase: ‘It’s a disaster’. They’ll nod their heads in agreement and cast their votes, and laugh at people like us, who try to dissuade them. As far as they’re concerned, we’re just the liberals who caused all the problems in the first place. And it is a disaster that needs to be made great again.
That evening, possibly two friends fewer (we have yet to find out) but a whole lot wiser, I learnt that there’s really no point in arguing with them. These people will never see the reality of the regressive road they’re seeking to force their country down. Not until it’s too late. There’s no way I can change their minds, not even after three bottles of wine and a Chinese takeaway.
And besides, I’ve learnt another lesson: never discuss politics with a Trump supporter at teatime.