One day, in 1995, I was walking without a winter jacket on a crisp November night. It was my first week in America as a college student and I had no idea that winters were brutal enough to make me feel like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. I was rubbing my hands to keep warm, about to live alone for the first time, having just seen off my parents, in a country where I knew no one and of which my entire understanding was this: it had liberal arts colleges like the one I was a student of, in the middle of Ohio, and that OJ Simpson may or may not have killed someone.
A car pulled up in front of me. Was this some sort of De-Niro-robbery scene? “You’ll freeze to death, come on in,” said an old man, in his sixties, his wife next to him. They proceeded to buy me a winter coat, invited me to their place for a chat about India, over hot chocolate and a crackling fire. They told me I was welcome to their place anytime for a meal. I understood some values of this new culture – that they listened to your perspective, however naïve and foreign. No matter how alien or distant your culture, in conversation these people looked for common ground (“Oh you want to study finance, our son studied finance! You should call him.” “Your dad sounds a lot like this uncle of ours!”) They taught me that core goodness was something small-town America took as their starting point no matter who you were, where you were from, what your dreams and how you got there.
“Thanks for helping a complete foreign stranger, I didn’t know how cold it gets,” I said, as they dropped me back. “Our pleasure,” they told me. “It is the least we could do. Welcome to America.”
That couple – John and Debbie Mayes – and I were Whatsapping this morning. They still live in Ohio, are much older of course, kind as always, and in a crucial county that voted Trump. As did they. Yes, they voted for the same man who wanted to ban a religion, said black people have “nothing to lose” and all international trade pacts were suspect. In the intervening 20 years, had the Mayes suddenly become mad xenophobic racists fond of a megalomaniac despot?
No, they loved Trump because they had medical insurance they couldn’t pay and John worked in a steel plant that had shut down. Just surviving the month, without money from their son, was hard. At 80 and 74 respectively, the Mayes still had to work to live. They wanted to blame someone and Trump was doing that for them. “What about his values?” I asked. “The misogyny, the hate for the world. How could that match the values of your kindness to foreign strangers?”
“You ignore all that when you’ve got to put food on the table and there’s no money for it,” John told me.
The biggest irony: the Mayes have a Pakistani foreign student staying with them right now.
There is talk that Trump won because this election was about ‘cities vs real America’. Cities were all, to paraphrase Woody Allen, filled with godless, cosmopolitan, progressive, iPhone-using, liberal, homosexuals. Real America was marriage-loving, climate change-denying, gun-carrying, foreigner-hating, Right-wing folks.
Trump is a lifelong Manhattanite. This campaign was probably his first visit to ‘real America’. The world will always be ironic. Donald Trump, today, will walk out of his penthouse in a skyscraper in New York City (a city that is 88 percent foreign born), from a Trump Tower full of Saudi and Chinese billionaires (whom he sold apartments to), to address people like my Ohio couple, and complain that America’s woes are the foreign-born (like the Chinese and Saudi billionaires who are his neighbours).
And clearly they believe him because they think, “Well, he lives amongst them. He must know.”
The Mayes aren’t racists. They don’t hate women or foreigners or other races. They are quite the opposite: the kindest, sweetest, world-loving, ethnic-masks-hanging-from-the-living-room-wall, Salman Rushdie-reading, kind of people. They don’t have Twitter or read any polls or online data. They got Whatsapp only to speak to their friends around the world and call it ‘the weird green thing’. What they just can’t understand is what happened to their income. And Trump came along and said, “Foreigners took it, and I’ll get it back.” And they said ok.
Along the way, they realised he was a bit mad, but not mad enough for people to get distracted from their non-income.
A lot of people are saying that this is America’s vote for racism, for being misogynist, and anti-environment, and pro-guns. It is a vote to tell the world to go to hell. That it takes America back 30 years. That they want a white working class America back.
Except America just wants its jobs back. A crucial Pennsylvania county which was previously always Democrat for 100 years was won by Trump and it is almost 100 per cent African American. Wisconsin’s college towns, the most liberal towns in America, voted for Trump.
So if Obama’s was the millennial revolution, this is the anti-millennial revolution. The ‘lean-in’ vote. Meaning, people ashamed to admit in public they support Trump, leaning in to their friends, and whispering, like an adult guilty pleasure, “Hey, you know what? I think I’m voting for…”.
Now there’s no way for us, you and I, city people that read articles as links in Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, (the ‘liberal media’) to actually hear the perspective of lean-in America. The narrative was they are the fringe. What do they know? They aren’t readers of Politico. Like elite Mumbai or Delhi would speak about, say, Bihar. Trump is their protest. The votes Trump has got is half of America saying, “We exist, we are bigger than your cold press juice, kale-munching, hipster-bearded America.”
I asked the Mayes how they’d be celebrating their victory.
“With some Mexican friends”, they said, adding, “No, not in a cruel way. They are also Trump supporters. They also want jobs.”
As votes came in, liberal global voices, many writers, pundits, commentators, left-of-center in politics, in America and India said, “This isn’t the America I know!” Ironically, that’s the same thing the Trump voters have been saying. Which is why Trump is about to become President of the United States of America.
Perhaps he’ll be a madman, perhaps not. Perhaps the Supreme Court he reigns over will feel like Henry VIII’s court, perhaps not. Perhaps he’ll cancel all trade agreements and things like NATO – we don’t know. I wouldn’t want to be the Chinese premiere Xinping tonight, given most of China’s wealth is probably in US Treasury or real estate. The New York Stock Exchange will probably crash a little tomorrow as might the dollar, or not. Perhaps what lean-in America failed to understand is that it is too late to disconnect the interconnected world. The matrix of the global economy is not some other place and America can’t remove itself from it. We are all the matrix. The Fed raises rates, Indian rupee falls – it’s that simple.
One thing is certain: Trump has blown up politics in America as people knew it. This is the first time, since monarchies ended, a President will have to work with a senator from his own party whose wife he abused.
Here’s a minor detail: Trump doesn’t get the nuclear codes till January 20. As the playwright Tom Stoppard said, “Isn’t it a great time to be alive when everything you thought you knew is totally wrong?”