‘We didn’t elect him to be a saint, we elected him to be a leader’: my latest American focus groups

Last December the voters of Alabama did something they had not done for twenty-seven years – they elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. The extraordinary result prompted some to wonder whether the political tide could be turning, even in the Republican strongholds of the South. Last week I held focus groups in two neighbouring states, Tennessee and Mississippi, to take the temperature in the region, and to assess the current mood of American voters, especially those who had put Donald Trump in the White House.


Blue tsunami?

Phil Bryant, the Governor of Mississippi, was sanguine about the Alabama upset when I interviewed him in Jackson, the state capital. “I think it was an anomaly. The conservative side of the Republican party picked Judge Roy Moore. Who is very conservative.” Not only that, “he had this strange penchant, apparently, for dating fourteen year-old girls when he was thirty.” Once the voters learned of this “he was done as a candidate. That race was lost immediately that information became available.” That, he argued, made the result a one-off. “I do not think it’s something where you’ll see a wave of Democratic movements across the South.”

Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen, who also spoke to us for our Ashcroft In America podcast, conceded that the circumstances were unusual: Moore was “a seriously questionable human being and therefore candidate.” But the advent of President Trump had produced a “surge of enthusiasm” among Democrats once again eager to turn out and vote. “You’re also seeing Republicans who have got buyer’s remorse, some of whom decided to stay home or decided to vote for a Democrat to put a check and balance on a president who they’re embarrassed by.” This, he argued, would continue in this year’s Congressional elections: “There’s going to be a blue tsunami in November.”


‘I wouldn’t want to be married to him’

In our groups, “buyers’ remorse” was confined to those who had voted mainly against Hillary Clinton, rather than for Donald Trump. Across the country this amounts to a significant chunk of the electorate, as we found during the campaign, and one that could make a big difference given how narrowly he won some states. But we found that those who had voted enthusiastically for Trump were still on board – often citing the economy and the stock market as evidence of his success – and were prepared to overlook his private conduct, however regrettable they found it. Stormy Daniels, an “adult actress” (as some in our groups delicately called her) claims she was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair she had with Trump in 2006, but even our God-fearing Southern voters were unbothered. “I want someone to work on our economy and protect our shores. I don’t care about the rest of this stuff, because that’s all between them and God. I’m not going to be that moral compass for him;” “I wouldn’t want to be married to him, but other than that…;” “One of the worst presidents we’ve had in recent times was probably Carter, and he was one of the most moral presidents… We’re pretty much resigned to having mediocrity of moral character in our politicians;” “We didn’t elect him to be a saint, we elected him to be a leader.” After all, “it’s not like he was in the Oval Office with a cigar and lied to Congress.”

Some of our Democrat-leaning participants were bemused by Trump supporters’ attitude to his personal foibles. “If President Obama had three different wives, and kids by different wives, and he cheated on those, and his wife was an immigrant, he would have been crucified… At what point do you look in the mirror and say, ‘gosh, I may be a hypocrite’?”


‘I feel a lot safer with him’

Many in our groups were not sure what to make of the suggestion that Russia had been responsible for the nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain. To some, it seemed a bit too neat: “The poison that was used was specifically developed by the Russians, and I think that’s a little, maybe, suspect. Why would they use a toxin everybody knows only they developed?”’ “I don’t really trust the media, so to me, there’s got to be another story. There’s got to be something else that’s really going on.”

Few were especially troubled by President Trump’s apparently close relationship with the country: “I come from the days of the Cold War, and as a kid it was ‘oh my God we’re gonna get nuked’… I’m not saying we’re going to be best buddies, but let’s find some neutral territory and see if we can’t identify some mutual goals.” If Trump’s approach was surprising, maybe it was “one of those things where, you know, keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.”

Whether people thought Trump had been complicit in or even aware of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election depended whether or not they had voted for him. His opponents thought the unsavoury truth would eventually emerge, but for his supporters the inquiry into Trump campaign links with Russia was a “witch hunt” and a deliberate tactic by the president’s rivals: “It’s because they’re afraid of him. The more mud you can stir, the easier it is to keep him from doing his job.”

The prospect of Trump having face-to-face talks with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, however, inspired a combination of hope and trepidation even among the president’s supporters: “I think it could probably go either way…;” “Trump made a post about him being fat and ugly, or something – his Twitter needs to be taken away – and that North Korean dictator is also insane, so put them in the same room… it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

But some saw the development as a vindication of Trump’s approach to North Korea and foreign affairs more generally: “They stand up, they act tough, and if we don’t push back they get their way a little bit more. When we pushed back, he kind of fell back down and said, hey, I’ll talk to you.”

The same principle applied to the president’s threatened sanctions on steel and aluminium: “He’s not gaining room in NAFTA, so he’s coming up with these tariffs. And it’s not so much against steel, it’s just a play to reorganize NAFTA.” Whether or not the threat was merely tactical, “the plan is to bring back to America as many jobs as he possibly can.”

While some who had gone off Trump since the election (or never liked him to start with) thought the rest of the world found him “laughable”, there was also a view that his unstable image worked to America’s advantage: “I think they probably don’t know how to take him… Some of the things he says are absolutely ridiculous, but I also think that because of that, it makes him unpredictable, and other countries could be somewhat nervous of what he could do.” This contrasted with what they saw as the more conciliatory approach under President Obama, when “people weren’t, like, scared of us.”


‘I’m tired of watching these stories’

“My favourite story of history is when Napoleon came over here to take over America he realised we all had guns, and he ran back home, and had six, nine months to get back home before everyone realised he had left, because we’re all armed.” This particular episode, recounted by a man in one of our Tennessee groups, is not one I remember being taught at school. Even so, it encapsulates how many Americans feel about their right to own firearms, and the responsibility that comes with it.

Governor Bryant made the same point (albeit on rather firmer historical grounds) when I put it to him that most people in Britain are baffled by the American attitude to guns. “I think if you go back to the very beginning of the United States and the revolution, and I’ll be sensitive here, but it was because Americans had guns. Most of those were used for protection and hunting, as they are today.” Moreover, he argued, they have always been a guarantee against the emergence of a dictatorship. “So it is part of the culture of America to believe we have the right to bear arms, and that shall not be infringed upon by the government.”

The Governor told me he owned probably fifteen guns himself, and most of our focus group participants in both Tennessee and Mississippi – normal working people from a range of social backgrounds – owned at least one, often more. They were all committed to the Second Amendment and regularly argued that if guns were illegal, the only people still to have them would be the criminals. Nevertheless, they were more open to the idea of reforming gun laws than might have been expected, including raising age restrictions and expanding background and mental health checks. There was some resistance: “the problem isn’t the people who are going to follow the law and go through the right channels to get a gun, the problem is the people like this guy who goes and shoots up a school. If the laws are different, is that going to prevent him from doing it?”; “If you raise the age it’s just like a pack of cigarettes. I can get you to go buy it for me.” Yet there was a feeling that it was time to try something: “Can we knock it after we’ve tried it? Because meanwhile, we have seventh graders on the street wondering is the next bullied kid or sinister person gonna be at their school;” “I think enough people see these stories and think, ‘I might not agree with it, but if you think you’re doing something to prevent that from happening, give it your best shot, because I’m tired of watching those stories’.”


‘Changing the flag wouldn’t change people’

Mississippi’s flag is the only one in the fifty states still to incorporate the Confederate battle cross. After an attempt to change it was defeated at the polls fourteen years ago, the emblem sharply divides local opinion. For most of the white voters we spoke to, “they should leave it alone. It’s history; “The Confederate battle flag represents three hundred and forty something thousand dead Americans. Never flew over a slave ship, never represented slavery. It’s there, it’s history, it’s my family history.” Some put the debate down to outside agitators: “It’s activists that come down from the North and start everybody up… I guess if I was a black person and I looked at that flag and thought, hey, they put that up there because they hate me – but I truly don’t believe the ones down here thought that until a lot of people came down here and put it in their heads.” But the African-American voters we spoke to wanted a change: “We need something new, something fresh, something that represents everybody. That’s from a negative time period – oppression, supremacy, slavery.”

Not that a new flag would solve every problem: “Changing the flag wouldn’t change people… It’s not going to make those people that want that flag there act any different.” In Mississippi, “we are still struggling. We might have positions, we might have jobs, but if someone wants to come in and take that from us, we can lose it because of our colour. That’s just how it is here.” Some felt the situation had worsened since the election: “The whites’ attitude changed, here in Jackson, Mississippi. Looking down on you, getting on the other side of the street – I’m serious with you. Once upon a time they would have been ‘hey, how you doin’?’, trying to be your friend. Now it’s ‘close the door’.”

I asked Governor Bryant if he understood why the flag made some uncomfortable. “Absolutely I do. I’m sensitive to the fact that African-Americans look at it in a different way.” He has asked the state legislature to put the question once again to the people (“the sovereigns”, as he likes to call them) in November: “Let the people vote, I would more than welcome their decision, whether that’s to keep the current flag, or to change the flag. But it has to be the people’s decision to do so.”


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