The US is in the thick of election season, and at no time in my life can I remember the domestic political atmosphere in the country being so heated. News programs and social media feeds are flooded on a daily basis with Trump-said-this or Hillary-did-that, with a lot of focus on personalities, hairstyles, and scandals surrounding e-mail servers, disputed court rulings, and the like. While this is no doubt interesting and entertaining, it strikes me as lacking in substance and overshadows what I think are some deeper issues at play in the country.
Certainly the personality and image of a leader as powerful as the US president is important, and certainly Trump and Clinton have two very different personas and agendas on display in the election. Both candidates have come under intense scrutiny and criticism, and both have their fair share of hard-line supporters and sworn enemies. But what interests me personally is less the candidates themselves than the broader political, economic, and social forces in the US that will shape them – issues like the state of the economy and growing inequality, the changing demographic picture and race relations, and the security situation in the country. These are major issues that the next president – whoever that may be – will confront as they make policy-decisions and try to steer America in their intended direction.
Such issues are, of course, vast and complex, and I do not feel particularly qualified to express illuminating views on them on my own. I am by no means an expert on US politics, and I admittedly do not follow the day-to-day events of the US nearly as closely as I do for other countries elsewhere in the world. In fact, I’ve spent most of the past two years living and traveling outside of the US, and have therefore not had the kind of exposure to the election campaign or the issues that are being debated in them that most Americans experience on a daily basis. But it is this extended time away from the US that drove my interest in reconnecting with the country, particularly at what is now such an important and sensitive time, with the presidential election quickly approaching in November.
And so, while visiting family in Dallas in the beginning of June, I decided to do a little exploring. I wanted to see a bit of America, talk to a few of its people, and get some of their views on issues I knew too little about. I decided that I would embark on a road trip to the South, a part of the country I didn’t know very well and one relatively quickly and easily reached by car from north Texas. Politically, the South is usually a stronghold for Republicans, and Trump swept the southern states in the Republican primaries. I was curious if I could find some insights on what drives his appeal and popularity in the region beyond the strong personality and unequivocal rhetoric well covered by the media.
To be clear, this letter is not intended as an endorsement of Donald Trump. Personally, I am repulsed by his racist and sexist rhetoric, and am very skeptical of the feasibility – or even the sincerity – of some of his proposed policies. But to simply criticize him for his personality and what he says is too easy and, I think, missing a bigger point. The fact is that Trump has appealed to millions of people and has won the ticket of a major party without having any previous political experience. This is something that cannot be denied, and the broader forces in the country that allowed for and facilitated his rise should be considered and taken seriously. Whoever becomes the next president – whether Hillary or Trump – will have to face these evolving challenges one way or another, as will the rest of the more than 300 million people who live in this country.
As for my itinerary for the road trip, I had some vague notions of certain places and cities I wanted to visit, but no fixed route to get there or specific agenda in mind when I arrived. Mostly I just wanted to wander around the South a bit and see what I could learn. I ended up spending most of my time in five Southern cities – Texarkana, Little Rock, Memphis, Jackson, and Shreveport – while driving through and occasionally stopping in countless smaller towns in between them.
In the coming essays, I will share some of my encounters and experiences along the way.