US Election Special | A Letter to America

US Election Special | A Letter to America

On November 3rd the United States goes to the polls to decide whether or not Donald Trump gets a second term as President. Wales Arts Review has asked some of Wales’s top writers, all of whom have some kind of connection to America, for their thoughts on what many are calling the most important election in that country’s history.

(graphic by Olivia Dosanjh)

Gwyneth Lewis

If you want a summary of what Donald Trump is, have a look at the expression on Pope Benedict’s face during the photocall for the presidential visit in May 2017. He looks terrified.

After graduating, I moved to the US to study for three years. My reasoning was that, like Atlantic low-pressure systems, American social and political weather tends to drift over to the UK. Going to America, then, would give me sight of our future. I arrived in Harvard just as John Hinkley was on trial for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. The case foreshadowed a number of features with which we’ve become very familiar. Hinkley imitated Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, in which Robert de Niro played a sociopath trying to attract the attention of a young prostitute, played by Jody Foster, with whom Hinkley was obsessed. A thinning of the line between art and life, the cult of the celebrity and a gun in the hands of a disturbed young man are all trends that have become more, not less pertinent to us all in the intervening years. I was a fellow at Harvard in 2010, and watched Obama’s inauguration on a big screen. The Dean of my Institute invited everybody, and I remember grinning with one of the gardeners in the queue for food.

I was teaching in Vermont in June 2016 when the Brexit referendum result came through. It was bitterly contested in our house, because my husband and I were on opposite sides of the audience. I found the result devastating. When I was able to appear again in the dining room, an American friend commented on how, despite my political and personal distress, I was still able to accept the sincerity of those who’d voted for Brexit. That precious civil space, they said, has all but disappeared in America and is narrowing in this country. One of Hilary Clinton’s worst mistakes in the 2016 election was referring to Trump voters with contempt as ‘deplorables’. In its absence, people will believe anything about each other, no matter how outrageous. Learning to converse with those with whom we strongly disagree has become an urgent priority on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s this skill that Claudia Rankine advocates in her new collection Just Us: An American Conversation, which promises to be even more important than her earlier ground-breaking book Citizen: An American Lyric.

We can each pick the aspect of this election that we find most shocking – for me it’s the hypocrisy of toxic Christianity. Given that Boris Johnson looks to the Trump administration, this election’s outcome will affect us. I suspect that a Trump victory will facilitate a no-deal Brexit, not to mention scuppering any chance we have of mitigating climate change.

Reading my American friends’ social media posts recently, I’ve been reminded of other, positive influences that have crossed the Atlantic. The alliance of eighty nonpartisan advocacy groups under the banner ‘Protect the Vote’ is heartening, as are documents such as that available free online from civil rights activists, gathering information about how to protest against autocracy (such as Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy, written by  Hardy Merriman, Ankur Asthana, Marium Navid, Kifah Shah). If we’re wise, we will be taking notes.

Gwyneth Lewis is a former National Poet of Wales.

*

Horatio Clare

I meet Americans abroad, where they have that wonderful habit of coming out of themselves in a way Brits only do in drink. In Palermo years ago, I was dining out with friends when a young man at another table hailed us and said, ‘I’m sorry to interrupt, but we heard your accents and we want you to know – we’re Americans, but we’re ashamed of our country now. We hate Bush. We don’t want you to think that America is like that.’ (Perhaps Brits have felt this way over Brexit when travelling in Europe; I know I have.) Later, on assignment with the photographer Lisa Limer in the Mercato of Addis Ababa, one of the biggest markets in the world, we were suddenly surrounded by jubilant Ethiopians who had heard Lisa’s voice. ‘American! American!’ they cried, delighted. ‘Obama! Obama!’ They wanted to shake her hand. More than any other people, Americans are held responsible for their President by other nationalities. No doubt we feel that POTUS is also the leader of the world; our leader. And non-Americans feel responsible for them, too – didn’t we feel proud when Obama was elected, and ashamed by Trump? We have cringed through the presidency of this appalling buffoon, but we have seen worse. My US agent said it felt as though her country had been hijacked by gangsters when Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush had their time. And although Joe Biden will surely be much better, we will see better still than him: let us pray for Kamala Harris. The assertion that America is ‘the greatest country in the world’ always makes me smile but in its soul, the USA is ever the youngest country, running ahead, proclaiming discoveries, making hideous mistakes, performing miracles.  It will be wonderful to be proud of it again – and of ourselves, too.

Horatio Clare is an award-winning travel writer, children’s writer, and documentary-maker.

*

Ailbhe Darcy

For those who can’t be optimistic, a cento

Mother always said that even when I was three, 
I used to get the six- and seven-year-old kids on the block

and punch them and say, ‘Listen to me.’ 
I can’t be optimistic.

In college, I became angry. Apparently all they know 
here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there.

I’m not very optimistic about my country and I love my country.
And now because this nation is a mercantile nation

and is enjoying the efforts and the labor of many of our forefathers, 
many of us want to escape and many of us want to run away.

We didn’t ask to be brought here in the first place. 
We came here shackled in chains at our ankles and our wrists

and we were a cheap supply of labor and we worked.
I love my country but I can’t be too optimistic about it.

Every tomorrow has two handles;
we can take hold of the handle of anxiety, or the handle of faith.

We face an ever-present crisis of energy resources.
We can take a look at American youth during the sixties,

ask questions, demand answers. Do not just tend your garden,
collect your paycheck, bolt the door and deplore what you see on television.

Be as bold as the first man or woman to eat an oyster.
You must live in the mainstream of your time and your generation.

You must use the education that you got from reading the fine print 
and the experience you got from not reading it.

I want to be remembered as a catalyst. 
He was in the bed. I’ll never forget this –

he was lying in the bed and he was propped up 
and I came in through the door. And he

looked up. I’m here because you are ill and you are ill for a good reason. 
I want to be remembered as a catalyst.

I couldn’t stay, because he was very ill, and he held on to my hand so tightly.

 

Ailbhe Darcy’s most recent poetry collection, Insistence (Bloodaxe), won the Wales Book of the Year and the Pigot Poetry Prize for 2019.

*

Darren Chetty

When I was writing How To Disagree with Adam Ferner, we spent a lot of time talking about political discussion and public debate, and our conversations often turned to Donald Trump. I have a hunch that Trump effectively won the 2016 election in 2011, precisely at that moment when the Obama administration released Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Yes, they had provided conclusive proof that they were right. But they had also demonstrated that they felt the need to be accountable to Trump and the other Twitter trolls and conspiracy theorists. The evidence didn’t put an end to the conspiracy theory, but the power had shifted. Since 2016, we’ve seen journalists struggle to challenge lies and inconsistencies – and sometimes to even get a word in – as the conventions of politeness and civility have been shown to be hindrances when your powerful interviewee has no regard for them. And while it’s easy to feel sorry for a media that is attacked by the president, perhaps we should also be asking questions about how the media happily contributed to building brand Trump – just at it built brand Boris in the UK. When politicians are entertaining it’s good for viewing figures. When politics is entertainment it’s bad for people’s lives.

Darren Chetty is co-author of How To Disagree: Negotiate Difference In A Divided World (Quarto)

*
Gillian Clarke

Books, especially poetry, bring us together across space and time. Literature has brought me friends across the world, many in the United States. Through such encounters, face to face and on the page, I know Americans are civilised, open-minded, generous. In New York, Boston, Washington, Massachusetts, Minneapolis I met many fine people, audience, academics and writers.

I walked on Lamentation Ridge with poet and diarist Annie Dillard. She picked up a garter snake from the grass and handed it to me. It was like holding a river, before we let it slide away.

At the Hay Festival, I dined with wonderful Toni Morrison, talked with Gore Vidal. I’ve worked with Pam Petro from Northampton, Massachusetts, on her group’s annual visit to Lampeter – not this year, alas! And a walking group, the Wayfarers, who visit Pembrokeshire most Septembers. And Joan, teaching my poetry at a Boston public school. We have emailed ever since, met at my Poetry Masterclass at Tŷ Newydd, and at the Strokestown Literary Festival in Ireland. I could never have imagined that one day the country that produced such people would suffer mis-governance by a vain, inarticulate, amoral man who does not value knowledge, abhors science, wisdom and truth; a man whose one big idea was to build a wall to keep out migrants, separating parents from their children in pursuit of a ‘safe America’. His ignorance and conceit are dangerous not just for the United States, but for the world. The election is days away, and my American friends are nervous. If the worst happens, I imagine Joan, and her Irish-American husband, Hubert, will move to live in his old family house in Ireland. But what of the rest? What of the world, if he is not stopped?

Gillian Clarke is a former National Poet of Wales.

*

John Harrison

We value arguments more when they agree with our conclusions, and this ‘is most pronounced where emotions are involved’, wrote Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on how we make decisions. The 2016 US presidential election was viscerally emotional. Hilary Clinton was vilified as a reptile at home in a corrupt Washington swamp. Donald Trump, a man up to his neck in personal and business scandals was the man to Make America Great Again; it passed unnoticed that the USA’s economy was as big as the world’s second, third and fourth economies put together.  He was going to cure a patient that wasn’t sick. The real disease was the inequality hurting blue and white collar workers. 

I predicted Trump would implode in the first six months; he was too rotten to be protected, even by the immunity that haloes elected American presidents. But four years later nothing fatal has stuck to that angry orange face. His staunchest supporters are still white evangelicals who sustain their backing no matter how sordid his sexual exploits, and how godless his attitude to immigrant children. He represents a lost, nationalist simplicity which has an emotional appeal profounder than any statistic. No mere fact will trouble him.

If he loses, he has still changed politics. When facts don’t matter, any bombastic lie will do, as Boris Johnson has noted. To nearly half the American population, Trump still feels right, even when cold facts tell them otherwise, and the US electoral system allows Trump to win with a minority. What may damn him are the facts he has callously ignored: the elderly Covid-19 patients dying in swing states like Arizona, replete with frightened retirees who vote in droves. Poetic justice of the darkest kind.

John Harrison is an award-winning travel writer and historian.

*

Tristan Hughes

Over the last four years, I’ve kept being drawn back to two pieces of writing by Philip Roth.  The first is an essay he wrote at the beginning of the sixties, where he decried the fact that American reality always seemed to be outstripping the novelist’s ability to understand and imagine it – that it was constantly proving itself stranger, larger, more bizarre. The second is his phrase in American Pastoral, looking back on the sixties and describing the eruption, out of the seemingly calm and prosperous veneer of American life, of what he calls ‘the indigenous American berserk’. If these last years have shown that ‘berserk’ on steroids, and a dizzying distortion whereby a malign reality show has overtaken even that larger-than-life reality, then I’m tentatively, nail-bitingly, staring-anxiously-at-the-polls, hopeful that the exit to the circus is in sight.  America has always been a country of contradictions and extremes, but it’s also had a remarkable capacity for reinvention and renewal, for the idea of its better angels. And if I started this thinking about Roth, come Tuesday I’ll be nervously thinking about Melville. Ahab and Starbuck share the same ship, but you know who you want at the wheel. And while you don’t know for certain where Starbuck will steer, you do know how things end if it’s Ahab.

Tristan Hughes’s latest book Shattercone (Parthian), a collection of short stories, is out now.

*

Charlotte Williams

‘people like me…’

I am in no way surprised to see that race as an issue is a clear line of division in the Biden/Trump presidential contest. George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent uprisings on the streets of America under the banner Black Lives Matter has undoubtedly amplified this division at a critical juncture. The reach and immediacy of such events to Black people across the world serves as a poignant reminder of the tenuous nature of our individual and collective security and belonging. Our transnational consciousness is battered and bruised by bearing witness to these persistent and deep injustices. In the midst of one such protesting crowd a woman, picked up on BBC footage, said ‘I’ve been watching people like me killed all my life’ and I was at once back in our front room in my childhood home in north Wales and simultaneously standing alongside her on that street; ‘people like me…’

Black people’s struggles for recognition and rights in that distant America has always been deeply embedded in my thinking and critical to my development and identity. Growing up Black in 60s Britain, the Black presence on the TV screen captured in those far away snatches of speeches by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Power salute at the ‘68 Olympics, Angela Davis’ hair and more, combined into a mosaic of resistance to parallel the shots of overt segregation, racist slurs, police brutality, killings, deaths, subjugation and oppression that have such a long history.  

A lot is at stake. This election is fundamentally about values.  For those of us at a distance, we know that American racial politics resonate on a global scale. There is ample evidence that the Trump era has fuelled growing intolerance, given credibility to white supremacists, and nurtured a vitriolic social media culture with direct impacts on Black and people of colour everywhere. And we know that a transatlantic transmission gives impetus to these tendencies in our home countries. Yet there it is, a gulf of 60 years or more and that woman and I stand side by side and view the enduring atrocity of racism. 

It is not so much that the outcome of this election will resolve racial inequalities but a vote for the values of dignity, justice and rights will signal hope for ‘people like me’.

Charlotte Williams won the Wales Book of the Year in 2003 for her autobiographical novel, Sugar and Slate (Planet).

*

Niall Griffiths

Chicago, 2015: the guy at the bar next to me tells me that everyone born this century has a barcode invisibly tattooed on their napes. No they haven’t, I say, and he asks me how I know. I tell him that I don’t know for sure, in the same way that I don’t know for sure that there’s a rhinoceros in the toilet, but I’d be willing to bet my library, house, girlfriend and cat that there isn’t. He snorts in derision and points to the tv above the bar, which is showing footage of Trump’s election campaign; the rage and bigotries abounding.  This guy, my new acquaintance says: this guy knows. And he’s gonna get in next year and prove it all.

The Tachi Yakaut, Santa Rosa reservation, 2019: a guy in a MAGA hat, taking advantage of the reservation’s cheap food and relaxed smoking regulations (as am I), leans back against the slot machine and casts his disdain and disgust around him, at the Latinos, the blacks, the Native Americans. The sheer contempt oozes out of him. He catches my eye and says: you smell something bad off me, buddy? I do, I say; must be the drains, aye? And then my regional accent, yet again, saves me from having to fight.

Hannah Arendt said that the perfect subject for authoritarian regimes is not the thug or the narcissist but the person for whom the difference between the truth and lies does not matter. Should Trump win again, his vicious stupidities will, to himself and his acolytes and indeed the world, be vindicated and he’s shown us what he’ll do; there is no bottom to his shamelessness. America – vast, crazy, over-the-top, glorious, hideous, incredible America – do what you’ve done on several occasions before, and turn the lights back on.

Niall Griffiths’s latest novel, Broken Ghost (Jonathan Cape), won the 2020 Wales Book of the Year Award.

*

Gary Raymond

I’ve been rewatching The West Wing. I realise now that I probably do this around every American General Election cycle since it went off air in 2006. The prevailing criticism of Aaron Sorkin’s era-defining television show is that it is now very dated. Politics moves fast. But there was a time when it seemed not only vital TV (I doubt a politician in the US, or indeed the UK, didn’t watch it when it was on), but prescient. Latino Congressman Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) comes from nowhere to win an unlikely primary victory at the DNC, and then the presidency, snatching it from the grasp of a liberal Republican opponent. Santos’s rise to power in the final two seasons were seen as a remarkable foretelling of the Obama story still to come. Subsequent marathon watchings of the show have had me shifting from thinking The West Wing is the greatest television programme ever made, to it being a smug cringe-fest of unlikely heroes and plot twists. Now I see it as probably equally both. But this election cycle I see something else in it too. Santos wins the general election because his opponent Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) cannot overcome something that is out of his hands (a power station that he voted for in Congress is the centre of a catastrophe the week before the ballot) rather than any judgement on his character. If it had been down to that, Vinick would have won. It seems likely, too, that if it weren’t for Covid-19 running unabated through American society, Trump would not be in the trouble the polls suggest he is in. That is despite everything these last four years has thrown up.

Looking at it now, I don’t think The West Wing is dated. I think its time has come again. Many of the issues raised in it now once again seem to have been markedly insightful, if not prescient. The Republican Party, in the guise of Vinick, are fighting a losing battle in keeping the religious right from overwhelming the democratic mechanics of the GOP. In 2020, we all now can see that the reality is the sort of centrist Republicans Vinick’s symbolised are lost to history. The America that I knew when I lived there and travelled around it in the late 90s, and the America of The West Wing (1999-2006) doesn’t seem very different to the one I see now on the news. My friends there don’t seem very different. The people are not different. The thing that is different is the GOP. The Republican Party, over the last forty years, rather than adopt policies that would embrace the changing social and ethnic demographics of the country, instead have sought to systematically disenfranchise and cheat its way to minority rule, by way of packing the courts and rigging elections. I was sitting in a diner having breakfast in St Louis, Missouri when the Columbine shootings happened in 1999, just a 12 hour drive away (down the road in American terms). The shock I witnessed in America was electric. The GOP, working as a front for the National Rifle Association, has worked tirelessly to normalise the slaughter of children in American schools since that day. It didn’t have to be that way. This is just one example of how one of the most evil and dangerous organisations in the world has corrupted and corroded American society, empowering the worst instincts of the people of a country still in its adolescence as a democracy, and they’ve been doing it since Nixon.

The only righteous result for the American people on Tuesday is for the awkward, bumbling, flawed Democratic Party to win outright all arms of Washington government – the White House, Congress, and the Senate – and then to engage in a merciless destruction of the Republican Party. By the time of the next election in 2024, the Republican National Convention must consist of Kirstie Alley and Kid Rock doing karaoke versions of a new white supremacist national anthem with lyrics penned by the ghost of Lee Atwater to an audience of Donal Trump steaks adorned with Rudy Giuliani masks in a tent off the I95. If not, Democratic victories will be temporary, and the Republican machine will likely come back at a later with someone worse than Trump. So, it’s not enough to win, they need to destroy.

Gary Raymond’s latest book, How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (Parthian) is out now.

*

Sarah Broughton

I first visited the US in the mid-90s and spent two weeks in New York staying at the YMCA on E47th St. At the time I was obsessed with Larry Kramer and his book about the AIDS epidemic, Reports from the Holocaust. I wanted to meet Larry, to talk to the person who was so enraged by the US administration’s apathy towards the pandemic that he treated it as a war on gay men and fought back. I found his address (he lived near Washington Square) and put a letter in his mailbox at his apartment building. And waited. On my last night in the city I got back to the YMCA to a message from Larry asking me to call by, but I was flying home early the next morning and so I never did get to meet him. By the time I read his obituaries, in May of this year, another epidemic was spreading throughout America.  

The connections between the COVID-19 and AIDS pandemics are striking, including a president who (like Reagan) is consciously indifferent to the vast suffering of the most discriminated people across the land. And Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading member of the White House’s Coronavirus task force. Dr Fauci and Larry Kramer loved each other although they sat, initially, on different sides of the battle. After Larry’s death, Dr Fauci credited his close friend with ‘transforming the relationship between activists and government’. A mighty legacy.

To paraphrase Randy Shilts who also wrote brilliantly about the AIDS epidemic in And the Band Played On, if America elects Joe Biden on November 3rd the story of how the president of the US dealt with the [COVID-19] epidemic may come to be told as one of courage not cowardice, compassion not bigotry, inspiration not venality and redemption not despair.

Sarah Broughton’s latest book is Brando’s Bride (Parthian, 2019), the incredibly true story of Anna Kashfi and her marriage to Hollywood’s greatest star.

*

David Llewellyn

It’s probably a cliché to say that there are two Americas, but it’s also kind of true. We talk of Red States and Blue States, but there are plenty of Blue voters in states we call Red and vice versa. Yet it’s still true to say there are two Americas, it’s just they often exist side by side, as I learned the first time I went to New York, in 2009.

I was there researching a novel that remains unpublished, though bits of that research found their way into my novel A Simple Scale. One of the bits that didn’t was a subplot about mixed martial arts, which at the time was only quasi-legal in the state of New York. I met with an MMA blogger from Queens who drove me out to an event taking place in Patchogue, sixty miles east of Manhattan. As we drove down the Long Island Expressway I saw New York transform from an island of skyscrapers to the projects and suburbs of Queens and then stretches of rural belt and small coastal towns designed by Edward Hopper. Before watching men pummel one another we grabbed some food at the barbecue place next door. The jukebox was playing what sounded like the work of flag-draped country singer Lee Greenwood. The uniform was one of checked shirts and jeans, belts with big buckles, and some men were wearing cowboy hats. I had to remind myself that this was still New York State, that there’s a reason some Americans refer specifically to New York City or NYC, and that when Frank Sinatra sang “New York, New York”, perhaps he was just being geopolitically precise.

The fight night, which took place above a gym, was more genteel than expected, but only just. My guide for the evening had given me the choice of two events, one in Patchogue, the other “in the scariest part of the Bronx”. With the confidence of youth I let him decide, but in the event the Bronx one was shut down and so we ended up in Gatsby country, where it was soft drinks only and no gambling, and though there were families present – again a surprise – it did nothing to quell the crowd’s blood lust. “Break his arm! Break his fucking arm!” yelled one man, getting to his feet. It was a predominantly white crowd, and I noticed that they tended to cheer mainly for the whitest person in each bout, even when one black fighter used “Stonewall Jackson” as his ironic nom de guerre.

Taking the subway from Queens I was back in Manhattan by midnight, an experience much less frightening than watching The Warriors and French Connection as a child led me to expect. One passenger was knitting, another was helping her two small children to draw space rockets.

The next morning I called someone in East Village, a dancer I’d met when his company performed at Cardiff’s WMC. We arranged a date, during which we visited bars called the Cock and the Ramrod, ate ramen, and ended up samba dancing on Pier 45. There I spotted the friendly old man from my hotel who looked and sounded exactly like Scatman Crothers. He was dancing with a woman who looked exactly like Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. It was perfect.

Two nights, two Americas.

I don’t know if I’ll stay up to watch the election. My partner’s keen, but I’d rather receive the news in one go than sit there in suspense, even if the outcome is a good one. 2016 taught me that anything is possible, even when that “anything” is more dreadful than anything you could possibly imagine. I’ll go back to New York one day, and hopefully in the not-too-distant future, but I may not stray much further east than Queens. I have friends in Queens, and we frequently comment on one another’s Facebook about our mutual political shitshows. As one of them remarked, “Boris is what happens when Trump gets wet.”

David Llewellyn’s latest novel is A Simple Scale (Seren).

*

Aled Smith

I’ve always been attracted by something in the Southern Gothic literature of America. Something that reeks of home. And it would be another kind of betrayal to let this fiction be tarred with an orange stain dropped from the sweating skin of Donald Trump. In America a large proportion of a poverty-stricken white working-class, the one appearing in this style of American writing known by various epithets such as trailer trash, the hillbilly, the good ‘ol boys, or the redneck, did swallow the political line delivered to them by the circus act. And this is readily comparable to the UK, where a massive section of the voting population were recently also fed and swallowed the right wing populist blather: MAGA/MGBGA. But the line declared by the politics of both America and the UK – that those better times long gone will return – is actually revealed in the best Southern Gothic to be a dirty lie. The truth is, as this fictional genre shows, the pure un-stained past never existed. Southern Gothic writers of the past and present from the likes of Jim Thompson and Flannery O’Connor to Cormac McCarthy and Donald Ray Pollock have all depicted an underlying humanity and survival against-the-odds mentality found in the inward looking community where a dangerous psychotic villain or an absurdist showman like the President himself will usually claim to be innocent even as they wreak havoc with other lives. And indeed many of these novels portraying the broken small town in detail and despair have often displayed a direct challenge to racism and blurred lies. Not all redneck culture is necessarily Trumpian.

Aled Smith’s novel Leading to Texas-2 is available now from Parthian.

*

Zoe Brigley

It always felt like a consolation prize to gain American citizenship during a Trump Presidency, but this year was my chance at last to use my new vote, and I have voted early. I remember on the day of the citizenship ceremony, we immigrants filed into the courthouse, everyone dressed for the occasion. One by one, we stood up and spoke our reason for wanting citizenship. There were immigrants from Somalia, Nepal, Mexico, the Ukraine, and they spoke about reuniting families, about finding opportunities, and working for a new life. But if the United States votes again for Trump, will this vision of America be a thing of the past? So much of his first term was about closing the US down for ordinary people: the immigrant kids separated from their parents, the threat to healthcare with the pressure to remove Obamacare, the callous disregard for black lives, the ceding of power to corporations, and doing very little to support working class jobs. And that’s not even mentioning the failure to contain and control Coronavirus.

If Trump does win, there are two areas that particularly concern me. First is the context of climate change and climate disaster. Even in the last few days, the Trump administration has removed the chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and replaced them with political staff who question whether climate change even exists. Under Trump, plants and factories have been allowed to emit more pollutants, and vehicle emissions standards have been weakened, a move that not even car manufacturers expected or wanted. Hundreds of Environmental Protection Agency rules have been scaled back, putting profits above people and the planet. We have so little time to avert climate disaster. It couldn’t be more important to address this now.

The other worry is surrounding reproductive rights. Women have a right to control their bodies, and to have an abortion if necessary, and where women are supported, given contraception, and lifted out of poverty, abortion numbers drop, because women don’t need them. Vocal anti-abortion groups in the US, however, have been campaigning for a ban for years, and with Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, they just might get their way. How can the US possibly lead the world on these issues under this regressive and small-minded administration?

At the citizenship ceremony, when my turn came to stand and tell the judge my reasons for wanting to be American, I talked about my sons – the “anchor babies” who became Americans just by being born here. “Anchor babies” are of course a myth – with dog whistle racism which seeks to delegitimize black and brown immigrants entering the country, and fails to register the lengthy, expensive, and difficult process that all of us had gone through standing in the room that day. I told the judge that I couldn’t bear to be separated from my kids, and so citizenship was something I needed so I would know that we could never be parted by the say-so of boundaries and borders. Writing here from within a swing state, Ohio, I know that there are plenty of Americans who agree with this vision, of an America that embraces everyone, not only the rich, the white, and the powerful. I had a text from a community organizer this week passing on the news of a huge rally planned if Trump refuses to cede power. Whatever happens we may have to fight for this vision of America, and many Americans are willing to do just that.

Zoë Brigley is a poet, essayist and associate professor at Ohio State University.

*

Robert Minhinnick

On my first visit to New York I was invited to a birthday party for Leonard Bernstein. Stupidly, I declined. These days, my American sentiments are elegiac. Duncan Bush at the Guggenheim museum, Iwan Llwyd at the UN and the Bowery Poetry Club, Martin Mitchell in New York’s Broadway Dive with his trademark merlot. And much earlier, Gerrie Clancy and I in the Bronx Zoo, standing under the neon clock that showed the shrinking of global rainforest by the minute. Terrifying? Yes, but a huge amount remained.

The zoo was 1985. Today’s total is beyond catastrophe. Yet my USA was a perpetual adventure and New York a world capital. I had never heard of Donald Trump or his tower, but as a reader of John Updike, I wondered at Trump’s appearance in Rabbit at Rest (1990). My contribution to American politics was to join the Green Party march for Ralph Nader, down New York’s Broadway, in 2000. Maybe Nader’s votes helped George Bush against Al Gore. Today, It seems my remaining New York friends are leaving town forever. Margot Farrington writes from Treadwell, New York state, October 26:

Terribly tense about election outcome. We voted by mail.  Doubt November 3rd will provide the definitive, perhaps more like the 6th. There are militia groups around our area, and I wonder how they’re going to react if Trump loses. Delaware County {north New York state} has become more Democratic leaning in recent years, but our mix may be half and half at this point.

She tells me she and her partner, artist and light magician, Tony Martin, are selling up in Brooklyn. I used to frequent their neighbourhood’s restaurants, ordering perogies and borsht. That too is part of my American elegy.

I’d like to think Margot, Tony and I can meet again, hopefully with Kevin Gilligan, promoter of all things ‘celtic’. So much has changed. But what would life be like if we didn’t tell God our plans…?

Robert Minhinnick is a three-time winner of the Wales Book of the Year Award.

*

Helen Pendry

Donald Trump was standing around in a dream I had last night. And then he looked at me, and I thought: that’s so much worse than being ignored. Which reminded me of a phrase in Obama’s victory speech in 2008, when he addressed, among others, ‘those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world’ and I thought: when it comes to the attentions of the US state (its military, its police force, its economic might), I’d rather be a forgotten corner of the world.

We’re now watching the US election with an interest most ordinary Americans would find strange. It’s not as if we can intervene in the election – that sort of behaviour is for bigger powers (the US itself, Russia …). But the US is not a forgotten corner of the world, and we’re compelled to gaze at the spectacle its leaders perform. The whole US election experience, on this side of the Atlantic, fits well with the infantilization forced on us by contemporary culture, where constant streams of information mean we see everything and analyse nothing and feel powerless to change a thing. Its shadow is a kind of species shame – we know humans have the means to make a just world and avoid climate catastrophe, but here we are watching the orange face of the kleptocracy insist we look at him. 

And then he looks back, and it’s so much worse.

Helen Pendry’s latest novel, The Levels, is available now from Parthian.

Dai Smith

I am, aged seventy five, currently writing an autobiographical memoir. By which I mean a personalised work of memory which is concerned with wider-than-personal connections. Over my lifetime no connective tissue of that sort has been more meaningful than the culture and society of America. I suppose it began, commonly enough, in the 1950s with comic books, going four times a week to the Pictures, and rock ‘n roll. It deepened when I studied American history, (notably the slave economy of the Deep South, and the secession of those States which led to the blood-drenched Civil War), at Oxford in the 1960s. One hundred years on from the end of the Civil War the stain of those sins of origin, in all their ramifications, had not been erased. When I went to live in New York City and do graduate work in Literature at Columbia University for the year 1966-67, the tension of a society at odds with itself was palpable, and within another year would lead to the open conflict of civil strife. Radicalism and the energies of the Counterculture were exhausted in the struggle to bring the Vietnam war to an end. The backlash came with Reagan’s presidential triumph in 1980 when a bankrolled populist Republicanism made its unholy alliance with the formerly Democratic South, and the latter imposed nation-wide the cultural values it had succoured even after it had suffered that distant military defeat of its Confederacy against the Union.

Trump, then, is not an aberration. He is only the latest, and most foul, excrescence of a self-serving politics of paranoia and the deep-seated racism of white supremacists. America has long been at odds with itself. Evangelicalism against Enlightenment from the beginning. Plutocracy versus the Common Interest. And therein, at the heart of things, lies hope. For there is, and always has been, that other America, one which I cherish both for itself and because it relates, deeply so, to how we became who we are in Wales. This America is that of the people who fought to the death to end direct slavery, which legislated for racial equality, which enforced civil rights and the franchise to vote, which protected free speech and the rights of labour, which strove for gender and sexual autonomy, and refused to cower in fear. In the era of the Civil War, it was just such an America which inspired believers in political freedom and advocates of democratic will and the champions of personal liberty and of social justice, right across a world where those essentials to a civilised life were mostly absent. In the early years of the twentieth century, economically dynamic, socially open and culturally modernising South Wales was labelled American Wales. Here, this locus of mass in-migration and of working-class struggles and developing institutions, soon secular in tone and socialist in aspiration, was a simulacrum of the transatlantic framework for a better existence for all. The metaphorical concept of American Wales was more than a verbal conceit, it was a guiding signpost to the reality which was being shaped by human agency even in the face of all the difficulties besetting us. I returned home from America to begin, from 1968 on, what has been a lifetime of trying to articulate the past complexity and the present meaning of American Wales.

America, again, can overcome its lesser self. The election of Barak Obama in 2008, and again in 2012, was also not an aberration. It was a signal, a flare sent up for hope. That hope has been doused down, but not, ever, extinguished. The election of Joe Biden in 2020, along with the deliberate re-building of a democratic-led coalition of progressive interests in conscious echo of the Rooseveltian togetherness of the 1930s, will let that flame flicker to life. Again. And we, made aware again of exactly what our historic legacy from American Wales should mean to us, can also take such hope forward and re-kindle our own fire. Again.

Dai Smith is a historian and novelist. His latest work of fiction, The Crossing is available now from Parthian.