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.