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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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Anonymous - September 19, 2018

Starting university comes with both exciting but potentially daunting changes, with both moving away from home and studying at degree level posing to be two new challenges.…

INCREDIBLES 2: The Sequel with a Feminist Twist
Film & Theatre
1409 views
Film & Theatre
1409 views

INCREDIBLES 2: The Sequel with a Feminist Twist

Olek Młyński - September 18, 2018

One key film in the development of anyone who grew up in the early 2000s was The Incredibles (2004). It’s comedy, vibrancy, and general sense of fun…

France in Fine Fettle
Sports
1324 views
Sports
1324 views

France in Fine Fettle

Anonymous - September 17, 2018

Prior to the start of the quadrennial tournament this summer, football fans across the world grew sceptical over Russia’s credentials and ability to host the most prestigious…

Dive into Brightonian Culture
Arts
1474 views
Arts
1474 views

Dive into Brightonian Culture

Sorrel Linsley - September 17, 2018

Boredom is impossible when you throw yourself into everything this weird and wonderful city has to offer. The specific and unique cultural wonders of Brighton are indeed…

Oh, baby, baby, did you see Britney at Pride?
Arts
1540 views
Arts
1540 views

Oh, baby, baby, did you see Britney at Pride?

Anastasia Konstantinidou - September 15, 2018

During this year’s Pride Festival, Brighton had the honour of welcoming international pop star and voice of the early 2000s, Britney Spears, to the main stage. Undoubtedly,…

Union obliterates the debate – unwritten requirement used to shut down free speech debate
Campus News
3655 views1
Campus News
3655 views1

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

Jordan Wright - April 27, 2018

Written by the News Team. Student society Liberate the Debate’s most recent event was cancelled over a lack of compliance with the Students' Union's (USSU) requirement for…

CINECITY PRESENTS – ‘Judy and Punch’ – A Swing and a Miss
#CINECITY
66 views
#CINECITY
66 views

CINECITY PRESENTS – ‘Judy and Punch’ – A Swing and a Miss

Jude Whiley - November 14, 2019

The last time I attempted a review I all but disowned the medium - as if I’d ever owned it in the first place. What was written…

CINECITY PRESENTS: ‘Cubby’
#CINECITY
113 views
#CINECITY
113 views

CINECITY PRESENTS: ‘Cubby’

Chris Ahjem - November 12, 2019

Written, co-directed and produced by the film’s star Mark Blane, Cubby is a film shot on 16mm Kodak that comes in at just under 90 minutes that…

Announcing CINECITY 2019
#CINECITY
97 views
#CINECITY
97 views

Announcing CINECITY 2019

lucypeetas - November 11, 2019

The temperature is rapidly dropping as Autumn descends upon us, but for movie lovers, cinephiles and film-buffs alike the perfect solution to staying warm is CINECITY Brighton…

CINECITY PRESENTS: ‘Waves’ – A Rewarding Piece
#CINECITY
84 views
#CINECITY
84 views

CINECITY PRESENTS: ‘Waves’ – A Rewarding Piece

Jude Whiley - November 11, 2019

  In Waves, Trey Edward Shults portrays a 21st Century African-American family in an intense and redeeming narrative that explores masculinity, family, and isolation. Formed of two parts…

First Man To Run a Marathon Under Two Hours
Sports
58 views
Sports
58 views

First Man To Run a Marathon Under Two Hours

Melissa Rosalind White - November 10, 2019

By Sonaili Vasta  Marathon history was made on Saturday the 12th when Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a sub two-hour marathon.  Kipchoge crossed…

Features
59 views

Risky Raves- the highs and lows of party drugs

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

What are party drugs: Party drugs are recreational drugs such as MDMA, Ketamine, and cocaine, taken to enhance people’s experiences at clubs, festivals, and parties. All party…

Features
55 views

LGBTQ+ discrimination in the workplace- what does the US Surpreme Court have to say?

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

It is always a fear of mine that when I fill out an application for a job, that when I get to the anti-discrimination section and enter…

Features
51 views

Protest art- The Lennon Walls in Hong Kong

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

John Lennon, the famous singer, peace activist and icon of freedom was assassinated on 8 December, 1980. People from around the world commemorated his death. Shortly after…

Features
50 views

Decolonise Sussex

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

Authors: Shriya Lakshman ( English and History, 3rd year) and Roxane Lavanchy( MA International  Relations)  Decolonise Sussex: aims and origins  Decolonise Sussex is a student-led campaign dedicated…

Features
53 views

Protests in Hong Kong- an insight

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

Dominic Cheung, a Hong Kongian student studying at Sussex, tells The Badger about what he witnessed at one of the peaceful protests in Hong Kong, and gives…

Features
53 views

Extinction Rebellion- the fight for our planet

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

Protesters for social justice movements often talk about a moment of awakening when the true weight of the cause you are fighting for hits you. I had…

Features
44 views

Freshers week 2019 recap

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

By Arianna Lee (and others) Sussex treasure island fest: Freshers week kicked off with the Sussex Festival, headlined this year by Annie Mac. The festival had a…

Features
47 views

A Guide to Sexual Health at Sussex University

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

by Kimberly Lee   As freshers week has come to an end, many of you will have been introduced to the colourful culture that university life brings.…

Features
39 views

Mental Health and You

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

Living on your own for the first time can be scary and stressful. Sometimes the new and difficult challenges presented by university life can lead to mental…

Features
41 views

Making you feel at home- a guide to Sussex’s international societies

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

Sonaili Vasta and Arianna Lee International students come from all over the world to study at the University of Sussex. With such a diverse body of students,…

Features
25 views

Why you should be excited to study at Sussex!

amjlee22 - November 9, 2019

Welcome to the University of Sussex, and welcome to Brighton! In a place known for its diversity and inclusion, Brighton is a fantastic place to be at…

Protests in Latin America: Explained
Comment
145 views
Comment
145 views

Protests in Latin America: Explained

Rebecca Spencer - November 6, 2019

By Laura Rodríguez Peña Latin America has been a region historically oppressed by its own leaders. Even after colonisation, the upper classes tended to monopolize power causing an…

Writing our Legacy: Experiences of the Windrush
Features
90 views
Features
90 views

Writing our Legacy: Experiences of the Windrush

Sonaili Vasta - November 6, 2019

On Thursday the 17th of October the organisation ‘Writing Our Legacy’ in Brighton and Hove, hosted their event for Black History Month. Which was a literary event…

Badgers centre stage: The Past
Arts
64 views
Arts
64 views

Badgers centre stage: The Past

Jess - November 6, 2019

With Brighton being a playground for artists of all genres, types and skill, it is unsurprising that the University of Sussex has a multitude of notable alumni…

The cultural appropriation of Halloween
Culture
86 views
Culture
86 views

The cultural appropriation of Halloween

vanessahtl - November 5, 2019

By Josh Talbot In light of the of the pinnacle event on the spooky calendar there are question marks to be raised on Halloween and what place…