203 Views
1 Comments

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.

Get the best viral stories straight into your inbox!

Don't worry, we don't spam

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

Leave a Reply

Join the Badger Team

Apply today!

Latest Posts

Union obliterates the debate – unwritten requirement used to shut down free speech debate
Campus News
721 views1
Campus News
721 views1

Union obliterates the debate – unwritten requirement used to shut down free speech debate

Jordan Wright - April 27, 2018

Student society Liberate the Debate’s most recent event was cancelled over a lack of compliance with the Students' Union's (USSU) requirement for a neutral chair - a…

Verve Couture – Musicality, kitsch & ignition: the beginning of a series
Arts
165 views
Arts
165 views

Verve Couture – Musicality, kitsch & ignition: the beginning of a series

Ricardo Reverón Blanco - June 17, 2018

Pictured: Zac Black At Proud Cabaret audiences were spellbound as if at night at the circus, yet this was not like Angela Carter’s magical realist novel; Verve…

Fleabag on stage at The Old Market – review
Arts
185 views
Arts
185 views

Fleabag on stage at The Old Market – review

Florence Dutton - June 11, 2018

[caption id="attachment_35513" align="alignnone" width="2400"] Fleabag at Soho Theatre[/caption] Last Monday at 8pm at Brighton’s The Old Market, I sat myself down in my theatre seat eagerly awaiting…

Fleabag preview
Arts
179 views
Arts
179 views

Fleabag preview

Florence Dutton - June 2, 2018

[caption id="attachment_35513" align="alignnone" width="2400"] Fleabag at Soho Theatre[/caption] Following the mass success of the Bafta award-winning BBC Series, DryWrite and Soho Theatre are about to hit the…

Brighton Festival: Ezra Furman at the Dome
Arts
221 views
Arts
221 views

Brighton Festival: Ezra Furman at the Dome

Georgia Grace - June 1, 2018

Having completed my final semester of university with modules on punk history and queer arts, it was fitting that I rounded off my end-of-assessment celebrations by attending…

Arts
224 views

The Tempest review

Georgia Grace - May 30, 2018

As the sun begins to set over Hove Green, tinnies of Red Stripe are cracked open, tartan blankets are strewn, and families tuck into their picnic hampers.…

A Glass Half Empty review
Arts
218 views
Arts
218 views

A Glass Half Empty review

Georgia Grace - May 27, 2018

For those of us coming to the end of another year of university study, the prospect of careers, marriages and babies may seem a long way off.…

DollyWould at The Old Market review
Arts
209 views
Arts
209 views

DollyWould at The Old Market review

Alex Hutson - May 27, 2018

Sh!t Theatre’s DollyWould is a hilarious, thoughtful and experimental performance piece. The award winning show has the Sh!t Theatre duo integrating comedy, storytelling, personal experience and music.…

UCU Launch Petition to End the ‘Hostile Environment’ at Sussex
Campus News
332 views
Campus News
332 views

UCU Launch Petition to End the ‘Hostile Environment’ at Sussex

Billie-Jean Johnson - May 26, 2018

The Sussex branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has launched a petition calling for Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell to end the 'hostile environment' at Sussex. The…

Arts
170 views

Shakespeare in the sun – The Tempest preview

Georgia Grace - May 24, 2018

In a world of dystopian King Lears and female Hamlets, Shakespeare’s classics are constantly being reimagined for the modern day. There’s something oddly refreshing then about the…

Review: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)
Arts
462 views
Arts
462 views

Review: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)

Sophie Coppenhall - May 23, 2018

What a phenomenal contrast these two films present when watched side-by-side. In essence, together they are capable of tracing inner and outer metamorphoses of their subjects. The…

Dollywould at The Old Market preview
Arts
209 views
Arts
209 views

Dollywould at The Old Market preview

Alex Hutson - May 22, 2018

From the 22nd May - 25th May 2018 DollyWould will be showing at The Old Market. An exciting new show, presented by Sh!t Theatre, who won the…

Exhibition: Io-sono Fedilouu
Artist Focus
309 views
Artist Focus
309 views

Exhibition: Io-sono Fedilouu

Ricardo Reverón Blanco - May 16, 2018

Last week artist Fedilou made her debut exhibition in the downstairs space of Morelli Zorelli, a quaint vegan Italian restaurant in Hove, featuring a collection of intimate…

Interview with Philosophy faculty and COGS director Ron Chrisley
Interview
215 views
Interview
215 views

Interview with Philosophy faculty and COGS director Ron Chrisley

Nikolaos Manesis - May 15, 2018

Ron Chrisley is a Reader in Philosophy, on the faculty of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, and is the director of COGS (Centre for Cognitive Science).…

Adam review
Arts
293 views
Arts
293 views

Adam review

Ketan Jha - May 13, 2018

If you have been a stranger to the stage this spring and decide to see one contemporary show, let it be Adam. This reviewer went in entirely…

Brighton Fringe Preview: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)
Arts
333 views
Arts
333 views

Brighton Fringe Preview: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)

Sophie Coppenhall - May 13, 2018

In celebration of iconic Brighton local, legendary alt-rock musician (and episodic actor) Nick Cave, TOM’s Film Club are hosting a double-bill screening of his films at The…

Whimsical fairy-tale meets class war – Standard: Elite review
Arts
370 views
Arts
370 views

Whimsical fairy-tale meets class war – Standard: Elite review

Georgia Grace - May 11, 2018

Meta-theatricality and interactivity are becoming all the more vogue in contemporary theatre, and in a world where the arts are becoming increasingly open and democratised, I find…

A Year of Art Society: The Best Picks
Artist Focus
269 views
Artist Focus
269 views

A Year of Art Society: The Best Picks

Alex Leissle - May 9, 2018

  [gallery type="slideshow" ids="35385,35386,35387,35388,35389,35390,35391,35392,35393,35394,35395,35396,35397,35398,35399,35400,35401,35402,35403,35404,35405,35406,35407,35408,35409,35410,35411"]

More Brit(ish) than ever: A review of Afua Hirsch at Brighton Festival
Books
281 views
Books
281 views

More Brit(ish) than ever: A review of Afua Hirsch at Brighton Festival

William Singh - May 9, 2018

Afua Hirsch’s 2018 book - part memoir, part polemic - provokes mixed feelings. So too did her discussion of the topic at this year’s Brighton Festival. Don’t…

Ethnic-bioweapons: between conspiracy and reality
Science
367 views
Science
367 views

Ethnic-bioweapons: between conspiracy and reality

Luke Richards - May 8, 2018

Bioweapons exist, while ethnic-bioweapons are whispered conspiracies. Pandemics can fairly hazardous to human life, the 1918 Flu Pandemic killed 20-50 million people. A man made pandemic could…

Breaking: Spring referenda results announced
News
338 views
News
338 views

Breaking: Spring referenda results announced

Jessica Hubbard - May 4, 2018

Students have voted to support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, reject Prevent and adopt new Gender Equality policies. Results for the Students' Union referenda were…