Waking up 18 months ago to discover Donald Trump had been elected US president filled me with despair.
What on earth had happened to politics? How could a reality TV star with no experience of government – and multiple character flaws to boot – have been chosen by American voters to be their leader?
My 13-year-old daughter was also deeply troubled. “How could America vote for a man who said these things about women?” I didn’t know what to say.
She went off to school. And I went off to a dance studio to practise a Gangnam Style salsa for that weekend’s Strictly. As I pranced around in my dance shoes and sweatpants, it did feel that it wasn’t just my world that had gone a bit crazy.
It had, admittedly, been neck and neck between Trump and Hillary Clinton in the final days of the US election campaign but I still thought that, in the end, American voters were not going to go for someone who was so divisive, so careless with the truth, so macho and irresponsible.
But they did – and ever since I’ve been trying to understand why so many American voters made that decision, and why (as recent polls suggest) about the same number of those who voted for him in 2016 still believe this billionaire is the right choice to lead their country.
Because I don’t know about you, but it always frustrates me when I hear commentators dismissing people who voted differently from them as deluded, misguided or – if they want to be really abusive – just plain stupid.
If someone thinks, feels and votes differently from you, you learn nothing by just dismissing their views and insisting they’re wrong. The right response is to try to understand why.
We’ve seen that debate ourselves in Britain over the past few, very divisive years, with a growing gulf between the way that people in towns, rural areas and the old industrial heartlands have been voting, as distinct from people in our big cities.
And that same pattern was clear in the US election where, outside the big urban centres like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, people voted in large numbers to elect Trump president.
To understand what has been happening in America – and with the hope of discovering more about our own politics here in Britain – I’ve recently spent three months in the US making a series for the BBC that tries to get to the bottom of Trump’s appeal to American voters.
The idea for the series was not to go out to metropolitan America and confirm my views about Trump; instead I have travelled through Trump’s heartlands in the Deep South to find out who his supporters really are and why they’re still backing him.
Each episode took a fortnight to film. I spent three full days with different contributors, which is enough time to cut through the small talk and get to the truth. It was also enough time for a lot of new experiences, some more enjoyable than others! I spent an evening on patrol with local police, spent a night in a prison dormitory with 40 convicts, pulled on a leotard to have a go at wrestling and was tasered in the backside in the name of police training.
It’s meant to be entertaining, but there was a serious point to it, which was to walk a mile in the shoes of Trump voters and understand the world as they see it every day.
The striking thing was that while some people did fit the caricature of a Trump fanatic – antiforeigner, anti-migrant, fearful of the outside world – they were the small minority. I met many more decent and hard-working people whom I found to be thoughtful, reflective and tolerant.
Ed Balls with Southern Legacy wrestlers in his new BBC series (BBC)
Time and time again, people told me they didn’t like Trump’s tweets and what he has said about women. Many disagreed with him about Charlottesville, when he refused to condemn neoNazis at a civil rights protest. And the wrestlers – who totally understand how skilfully Trump uses WWE-style American nationalism to whip up the “U-S-A” chanting crowds at his political rallies – were worried Trump sounds trigger-happy when it comes to international relations.
But despite all that, the voters I met are still planning to vote for Trump next time round.
And based on those conversations, I’m not sure that anything that’s happened subsequently – even the horrific separation of migrant children from their parents on the Mexican border and Trump’s cosying up to President Putin – will have seriously dented Trump’s popularity among his supporters. I now think a second Trump presidential term is a real possibility.
How can that be? Well, what I learnt on my travels is that you have to go back to Donald Trump’s original appeal as an outsider and a maverick. Despite being every inch the big business insider, and with a reputation for sharp practices, he successfully presented himself as a challenge to the political establishment.
Disdain for conventional Washington politics was deep and angry. And so I found that, while many of his voters are sceptical and cautious about him, they’re also thinking, “Let’s give him a go,” because they feel it’s better than the alternative they’ve been used to, an alternative that they feel has never worked for them.
Of course, there are some voters who are attracted to Trump’s divisive language on race, immigration and religion – his promise to build a wall to keep Mexicans out or his Muslim travel ban. But the lazy assumption that all Trump fans are racist is very far from the truth, as absurd as the idea that all UK Leave voters are little Englanders who want to isolate Britain from the rest of the world.
I went to a festival in Saint Jo, Texas, called Rednecks with Paychecks, and arrived curious to see whether racism would be on open display alongside the Trump T-shirts and flags from the old Confederate South – a hugely divisive symbol in an America that still bears the scars of slavery, the Civil War and segregation.
People were certainly doing crazy stuff, racing monster trucks, dancing on strip poles and drinking beer for breakfast – it was the wildest few days of my life!
And yes, it was an overwhelmingly white crowd, but not entirely. Soon after I arrived I ran into a black guy from Kansas who was proud to call himself a redneck, had voted for Trump and felt at home at the festival. He even argued the Confederate flag was about southern pride, not white supremacy, despite its adoption by the neo-Nazi movement.
Trump won only 12 per cent of the black vote in 2016, but my new friend from Kansas insisted he was speaking up for voters like him who’d been ignored for too long.
Ed Balls with AHERO farm army veterans (BBC)
At the festival, I also met a Mexican American woman called Marta. She had swum over from Mexico as an illegal immigrant 30 years ago. With all the talk of a wall to keep Mexicans out, you would expect Marta to be anti-Trump. And yet she told me she had voted for him, upsetting her family in the process. She said she supports the idea of the wall because she thinks it will keep “the bad guys” out.
I said to her, “You know the wall doesn’t distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys?”, but she is just happy to be legally on the American side.
I was taken aback by Marta’s support for Trump. I find the way Trump talks about race, religion and the outside world nasty and divisive and I fear that his kind of politics will be destructive in the end.
And yet, while for some voters Trump plays to their fears, to many of the Americans I met he actually symbolises change and offers confidence for the future. Time after time they told me that for working Americans on ordinary incomes, things are getting better. Since Trump was elected there has been a tax cut – albeit with the richest getting by far the biggest benefit – and the economy has continued to grow, for now. They said, “He’s a businessman. He knows what he’s doing.”
As an economist, I can see that Trump’s anti-trade policies will damage American manufacturing and jobs and widen inequality. But as a former politician, I could also see and feel the frustration of the people I met, that no one has been listening to them, and their hope that Trump is different.
Watch the trailer for Travels in Trumpland with Ed Balls below
Many people in Britain, as in America, are desperate for things to get better. Voters who traditionally would think of themselves as risk averse have decided to roll the dice, thinking, “It can’t get any worse, so I’ll gamble on change.”
That’s why it was such a mistake for the politicians who led the Remain campaign during the Brexit referendum to appeal to people’s fears about the economic cost of leaving the EU, while the Leave campaign put out hopeful messages about having more money to spend on the NHS.
We need more hope and less fear in our domestic politics, but we also need to respond to genuine concerns. While Trump tries to win approval by stoking fears over immigration, we must have a measured debate about that subject. People know that immigration has helped our economy over centuries, but they want it to be controlled and managed. So, yes, it was a mistake that we had no control on migration from eastern Europe in 2004 when Labour was in government. The EU grew to 28 countries and I think it was an error not to have predicted that this would have to be managed.
Free EU migration was part of the reason why the referendum was lost. Remainers said that free movement was a price you had to pay to stay in the EU and people thought, “If that’s the price, we’ll vote to leave.”
We live in a world in which outsider, anti-establishment politicians – whether it’s Trump, Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn or Emmanuel Macron – know they can get traction by rejecting the status quo, railing against the established order and promising change.
As a result, politics is becoming ever more tumultuous, unpredictable and divided. Three years ago, it was considered a surprise moment when I lost my seat in Parliament. Now we are getting to the stage where nothing should surprise us. Making wild and easy promises that aren’t delivered, and making continual false statements, in the way that Trump does, will damage confidence in politics even more.
But as my experiences in making this series have shown, if we are to bring our country and our world together, we need to really listen to everyone – not just the people we agree with – and rebuild confidence that we can deliver the prosperity and security and national pride that people crave without having to go to the political extremes, and without dividing our society even further. Otherwise the future is a very scary place indeed.
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