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America’s Power: BBC journalist Justin Webb talks bears, Obama and Trump

There’s a particular quality to the United States that is difficult to experience without seeing it for yourself. Roads stretching hundreds of miles, disappearing into the horizon. Winding through dense forest, or barren desert, you can drive for hours without encountering civilisation. Even in the cities, the grid system means you can see for miles in all directions: the vastness is always palpable.

Justin Webb, who spent eight years living and working in America as a BBC journalist, sums up this unique American feeling: “it’s the space. It’s quite shocking to people who live in England,” he says.

“I remember driving outside of Washington, just two or three hours, and you could be in wilderness. You know, there would be bears. There were actually bears!”

Webb’s love for and interest in America has driven his career. He started working for the BBC in 1984 as a graduate trainee, and has undertaken a range of roles since. As a foreign correspondent, he reported on the closing years of the Cold War. He went on to spend three years as Europe correspondent based in Brussels. He is now a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

In 2001, he moved to the United States as the BBC’s chief Washington correspondent. In 2007, he became North America Editor. He moved back to England with his family in 2009.

Webb is warm and friendly. Hearing his voice on the phone is both familiar and strange. Usually accompanying 7 million Britons through their mornings, I am grateful he’s taken the time for a private conversation.

From the physical space there’s also an intellectual space that we don’t have here in the UK

Webb feels America, although flawed, is special. He spoke to me about his experience of the uniqueness of American life.

“I think from the physical space there’s also an intellectual space that we don’t have in the UK. A kind of range of views, a tolerance of huge diversity – a kind of way-of-life diversity. You’ve got Amish people living a couple of hours South of New York, and you’ve got people out around the Great Lakes who prefer to speak European languages,” he says.

“I think one of the difficulties when we talk about America is defining what we are actually talking about. I think once you go you just realise, it’s the space.”

Living in a country that is so vast, stretching over 3,000 miles from corner to corner and hosting every climate from tropical Florida to freezing New Hampshire, does, however, have its downsides. “Because of the size, there is often a lack of curiosity about the outside world, which is depressing,” Webb says.

I asked whether he thought the isolation of communities in America – unique to the Western world – fostered backwards, potentially intolerant attitudes.

“There’s a risk, yes. I think that’s potentially one of the difficulties. Isolationism is one of the great strands of American history, nativism as well.” Unsurprisingly, it is on this topic that we first discuss the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

Trump’s campaign has been one of huge intolerance, with two of his apparently most appealing policies being his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and to ban Muslims from living in the United States. How did America get here?

Trump appeals to white voters who are afraid of change

Webb thinks that Trump is unique to the current moment, taking advantage of America’s socio-political environment. With the racial demographic shifting fast, the United States will soon be a majority minority country. Trump appeals to white voters who are afraid of this change. Webb describes his impression of Trump’s supporters: “it’s kind of a desperate feeling that everything you’ve assumed is rightfully yours is no longer. It’s a matter of managing that change for those people.”

Trump is a personification of what has been exposed in 2016, in the UK as well as the US. The Brexit vote in June showed – among other things – how many members of the British population were afraid of the level of immigration coming into the country. Trump’s nomination uncovered something similar. At the root of these revelations to do with popular sentiment is fear: anxieties about the movement of people across borders have claimed their place at the forefront of politics. Webb spoke about the nature of this fear in the US.

“I think the single problem is illegal immigration. You can’t airily dismiss the fears of Americans who find themselves in states surrounded by people who actually shouldn’t be there. It’s a real and definite problem.

“But once you attack illegal immigration, you are then attacking everyone who looks like an illegal immigrant. Then you’re into an un-American, racist madness,” he says.

Fear in the public domain has been mixed with a heightened political aggression, and the result has been what many have labelled as the ugliest presidential race in US history.

Throughout this year, Trump and his Democratic Party opponent Hillary Clinton have been battling it out for their place in the White House – “battling” being a particularly appropriate word in this case.

The choices and actions in the personal lives of both candidates often seem more important to debates and discussions than their policies

Both candidates and their campaign teams have tried their best to humiliate their opponent, smearing them with the intention of blowing their reputation to smithereens. And that’s not just their political reputation: the choices and actions in the personal lives of both candidates often seem more important to debates and discussions than their policies.

Although politicians have always been scrutinised closely in their lives outside of their jobs, the rhetoric of the 2016 race has stepped things up a gear. Presidential debates have been dominated by accusations and defences rather than political discussion.

Accompanying aggression within the campaigns themselves is a heightened hatred in the public domain. Although both Trump and Clinton have plenty of supporters, contempt for both candidates has been at the forefront of discussion as never before.

I don’t think it would be wise to make predictions about future elections based on this one, as it has been odd

When I asked Webb if American politics was entering a new phase, one where mass public love for candidates – think Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy – was disappearing, he gave his reflections on how the public sphere’s priorities in politics had shifted.

“I don’t think it would be wise to make predictions about future elections based on this one, as it has been odd. It’s definitely the case that Americans are increasingly likely to vote to stay in the group that they feel themselves most comfortable. That’s a cultural choice as much as a political one. If you believe in abortion, you’ll vote Democratic. If you believe in hunting, you’ll vote Republican. That’s a change in the system – in the past it was more about the individual.”

I spoke to Webb about Donald Trump’s campaign, a dominant theme of which has been a criticism of the political and capital elite. Trump condemns other politicians – Democrats and Republicans alike – for being puppets of corporate interest. His lack of experience in political positions has been twisted to work to his advantage: he claims that he stands independently from an established system that is “fixed”.

Part of this system, Trump claims, is the liberal media, who he claims are treating him unfairly. “On the one hand, he’s got a point, but on the other it’s complete nonsense” says Webb.

Trump comes as a disruptor. Whatever you think of him, he’s someone out of the ordinary

“He comes as a disruptor. Whatever you think of him, he’s someone out of the ordinary. There’s a sense that the American media don’t take him seriously.” He points out that the ban on Muslims was Trump’s most popular policy with Republicans who voted in the party primary: “You can throw up your hands and say ‘that’s awful’, but you also have to acknowledge that it’s democracy, and you have to take it seriously. Taking Trump seriously is a reasonable demand on the part of his people.

“But the assertion that he’s uniquely put under pressure by the media is nonsense. Almost the opposite is true. Because journalists have trouble taking him seriously, he’s actually had a soft ride from the mainstream media.”

I asked Webb is he could give me his predictions for November 8th. He laughed and warned me that had no more of an idea than anyone else.

“It’s not an expert prediction, but at the moment I can’t see Trump winning. The local polls in key states where he has to win in order to be President, I don’t think he’ll get. My rather dull view is based on the evidence of how people vote, and I think Clinton will become President.”

Unquestionably, ObamaCare is the President’s greatest political achievement

We couldn’t talk about Presidential candidates without talking about Barack Obama, who’s eight years in the Oval Office are coming to a close.

Webb was living in Washington D.C. when Obama was first elected in 2008: a pivotal moment in American history. For many across the nation and the world, Obama was a symbol of great change, a symbol that United States voters had chosen to embrace the “one American family” that Obama promoted.

With his Presidency in it’s closing months, I asked Webb for reflections on Obama’s years as Commander in Chief.

“Unquestionably, ObamaCare is his greatest political achievement. There were roughly 40 million Americans who weren’t insured, and roughly half of them now are.” Webb emphasises the importance of making distinction between those who weren’t insured by choice, and those who previously couldn’t afford it: “a significant number of Americans needed insurance and now have it.”

Webb stressed that the next President still needs to work to keep the policy strong. Although the Affordable Care Act is not reversible, it will need solidifying in years to come. Despite this, the policy is a great achievement for social progress in the US, and one that Obama will be remembered for.

Obama should have realised that Iraq was not, as he called it, a country with a sovereign, democratically elected government

Next I asked Webb where Obama had gone wrong. He spoke about his approach to policies in the Middle East. “He stuck to George W. Bush’s timetable for pulling troops out of Iraq, and pulled them out too early,” he says. “Obama should have realised that Iraq was not, as he called it, a country with a sovereign, democratically elected government. He was fooling himself, and that was an initial mistake.”

Webb then went on to discuss Obama’s actions in Syria, and his strategy for dealing with Vladimir Putin, President of Russia. “In 2013, he threatened to bomb Assad and then didn’t do it. There’s no doubt that has had an impact on American power.

“It seems extraordinary that a country such as Russia – with an authoritarian leader and very little going for it economically – can bully the United States so hugely on the international stage,” he says.

“There is a significant, legitimate question to be asked about whether Obama personally invited that.”

I asked Webb about Obama’s continuing struggle to push through gun control, and what this can tell us about the workings of the American political system.

Gun control is popular, there’s no question about it. Most Americans think it’s perfectly acceptable to limit the weapons that people have and the number of people who have them

“It’s a catastrophic mess because it’s so difficult to do things. Gun control is popular, there’s no question about it. Most Americans think it’s perfectly acceptable to limit the weapons that people have and to limit the number of people who have them – but it remains impossible to get through.

“Part of it’s money and the ability of special interest groups. Both interfere with the democratic process. Gun control is just one example of how messed up the system is.”

Finally, we discussed the future of the United States. How will things change in the coming years?

I asked Webb about the role of religion in politics and culture, which seems much more significant than in the UK. “One of the really interesting social and political changes of the next decade will be the extent to which the Democratic Party is – to use a deliberately provocative phrase – captured by atheists. It’s increasingly the case that religion is not playing a part.

“I absolutely accept that religion plays an important part in American life. I don’t think it will stay that way forever.

This is probably the last election that could have been won by a super-served white-appealing candidate

And how about politics – are Trump’s aggressively right-wing views a sign of things to come?

“No. This is probably the last election that could have been won by a super-served white-appealing candidate – someone who only really appeals to white voters.

“White people are on the way down, and the number of Latino people who are becoming registered to vote and reaching the voting age every year is huge. There’s nothing the poor white population can do about that.”

Webb stressed the importance of immigration reform in order to create more of a relaxed view towards Mexico and South and Central America – he sees Clinton prioritising this if she wins the Presidency.

November 8th will see the United States and the international community on the edge of their seats. No matter what the result, it seems the challenge ahead for future leaders will be creating a nation where the American people feel united rather than divided. Given the inconceivable space and huge diversity, who knows if this will ever be possible.

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One Comment

  1. this is fracking helarious to all that watched Justin Webbs BBC america reporting.
    This is the guy that attacked Obama continually even after he won the nomination. So Pro Hillary that he said after obama won the Iowa Primary “Should Obama be VP”.
    Then he started joining in with “is sara palin right ” stories. never paying attention to Obama or the blue dog democrats gutting the healthcare.
    No attention to Hillary other than “would we be better off with Hillary”
    His blog on the BBC banned people for saying Palin was racist, that the tea party were racists,. they allowed the racists to say Islam is a religion of hate and banned those that called that racist.
    he created Trump.
    Amazing to see him pretend so hard now. PS The voted like fools because the bots pushed the lies.
    thatw as evident when you were banning every consistent left wing poster on your page. but hey pander to the racists much?

    Reply

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In conversation with Gen Hidaka Yamato Drummers of Japan

Jessica Hubbard - February 10, 2019

Internationally renowned Yamato Drummers will return to Brighton Dome to perform their new show, Jhonetsu – Passion. The group have immense skill in traditional, Japanese Taiko drumming which they…

Hippo Campus at Concorde 2 Preview
Arts
312 views
Arts
312 views

Hippo Campus at Concorde 2 Preview

Matthew Nicholls - February 6, 2019

Unique five-piece indie-rock band Hippo Campus are coming to Brighton, performing on Sunday 24 February at Concorde 2. Formed in 2013 in Minnesota they have been supplying…

The Messthetics Live Review: Fugazi Spin-Offs impress
Arts
479 views
Arts
479 views

The Messthetics Live Review: Fugazi Spin-Offs impress

Ryan Bridgewater - February 6, 2019

While the debut album released last year by instrumental rock trio The Messthetics was an enjoyable listen, I was not prepared for the awesome experience of seeing…

Mary Queen of Scots: Compelling but never takes flight
Arts
443 views
Arts
443 views

Mary Queen of Scots: Compelling but never takes flight

Florence Dutton - February 5, 2019

There is no doubt about it; Josie Rourke’s new adaptation of one of the 16th century’s most intriguing plots is beautifully shot. Unfortunately, John Mathieson’s cinematography remains…

Roma Palace drop debut single ‘Tell Me’
Music
271 views
Music
271 views

Roma Palace drop debut single ‘Tell Me’

Lara Antoine - February 2, 2019

Brighton’s up and coming artists Roma Palace are breaking into the scene on the South Coast with their debut single, ‘Tell Me’. The trio of best friends…

In Conversation with Pavel Kolesnikov
Arts
324 views
Arts
324 views

In Conversation with Pavel Kolesnikov

Billie-Jean Johnson - February 1, 2019

Among the din of the Brighton music scene, classical music is often stifled under the noise of other genres. This Saturday, however, Pavel Kolesnikov will be changing…

Hollywood’s Netflix New-Wave
Arts
1239 views
Arts
1239 views

Hollywood’s Netflix New-Wave

Gabriel Ross - January 30, 2019

Netflix has been ever-present in most of our lives now for a while, yet a couple years ago it still would’ve been hard to believe that the…

The Oscars’ ‘Best Popular Film’ Category reveals the vested interest that lies at the heart of Awards Shows
Arts
172 views
Arts
172 views

The Oscars’ ‘Best Popular Film’ Category reveals the vested interest that lies at the heart of Awards Shows

Gabriel Ross - January 30, 2019

Anyone who has watched The Oscars before will know very well that artistic integrity isn’t prioritised in the way that the awards' image demands. However, news of…

‘First Man’ Review
Arts
166 views
Arts
166 views

‘First Man’ Review

Gabriel Ross - January 30, 2019

Space travel has been a preoccupation for Filmmakers, almost since Cinema's invention. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) amazed audiences of the time. Its invention…

Romanticising the bad guy, why do we do it?
Arts
310 views
Arts
310 views

Romanticising the bad guy, why do we do it?

lillysussex - January 29, 2019

Reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as a love story is a standard initial interpretation of the novel, despite the kidnap and rape of the titular 12 year old…

James Blake – Assume Form review
Arts
488 views
Arts
488 views

James Blake – Assume Form review

Alex Leissle - January 28, 2019

Arriving in to Brighton’s The Islingword on Queens Park Road, as I ordered a pint and briefly squinted to see the football score before sitting down, I…

How Netflix’s Sex Education is breaking stigmas and defying stereotypes
Arts
463 views
Arts
463 views

How Netflix’s Sex Education is breaking stigmas and defying stereotypes

Kate Dennett - January 28, 2019

Netflix’s new series, Sex Education, has been released less than a month and has already got rave reviews from fans across the globe. It has been considered…

Keira Knightley rewrites gender in Colette
Arts
543 views
Arts
543 views

Keira Knightley rewrites gender in Colette

Alice Gledhill - January 26, 2019

Colette is the biographical story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a French author, performer and dancer during the late nineteenth century. Keira Knightley gives a sublime performance alongside Dominic…

LGBT representation in music: measuring the success of #20GAYTEEN
Arts
727 views
Arts
727 views

LGBT representation in music: measuring the success of #20GAYTEEN

Gemma Laws - January 25, 2019

Personally, music has always been about connection and expression, which is why I value diversity and representation. From Tchaikovsky to Freddie Mercury, LGBT people have made important…

Interview with Sunflower Bean
Interview
399 views
Interview
399 views

Interview with Sunflower Bean

Yazz James - January 24, 2019

Sunflower Bean recently performed at The Old Market; I was lucky enough to chat to Nick Kivlen – guitarist and vocalist – over the phone about the…