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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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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…

1sts BUCS Match Reports
Sports
329 views
Sports
329 views

1sts BUCS Match Reports

James Cohen - October 13, 2019

By Jonny Garwood This year the Badger are aiming to provide a new platform for student sport societies to celebrate their individual or group achievements once a…

Review: BROCKHAMPTON’s Ginger
Arts
117 views
Arts
117 views

Review: BROCKHAMPTON’s Ginger

kajaldave4801 - October 10, 2019

Released earlier this summer, BROCKHAMPTON followed 2018’s ‘Iridescence’ with their fifth studio album ‘Ginger’. Since Iridescence, the self-proclaimed greatest boyband since one direction has faced chaos and…

Oliver’s Brighton: Two years on
News
54 views
News
54 views

Oliver’s Brighton: Two years on

Becca Bashford - October 10, 2019

  “There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments […], windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of…

Two new student-led campaigns join the SU
News
97 views
News
97 views

Two new student-led campaigns join the SU

Becca Bashford - October 10, 2019

  In the lead-up to the Change Sussex Forum taking place in the Research Centre on October 22, The Badger provides the low down on the Students’…

Vegan Activists Disrupt Brighton
News
129 views
News
129 views

Vegan Activists Disrupt Brighton

Becca Bashford - October 10, 2019

  By Becca Bashford, News Editor. Vegan activists have been targeting supermarkets and corporations that profit from the sale of animal products, using a radical yet entirely…

Free Wednesdays Volunteer Scheme
News
49 views
News
49 views

Free Wednesdays Volunteer Scheme

Jessica Hubbard - October 10, 2019

Free Wednesdays, a student volunteer scheme which offers free sanitary and sexual health products to Sussex students, need your help. Launched in 2015 by Rianna Gargulio, Sussex…

Brighton buses become the first in the UK to run in zero emission mode
News
54 views
News
54 views

Brighton buses become the first in the UK to run in zero emission mode

Becca Bashford - October 10, 2019

  By Alana Harris, Staff Writer This October, the UK’s first zero emission buses - The Enviro400Er’s - will debut in Brighton & Hove. Brighton and Hove…

Sussex graduate wins UK Dyson Award
News
60 views
News
60 views

Sussex graduate wins UK Dyson Award

Becca Bashford - October 10, 2019

  By Alana Harris, Staff Writer. Lucy Hughes, a University of Sussex product design graduate, won this year’s prestigious James Dyson Award for her innovative plastic alternative.…

Meet the local feminist collective fighting against sexual assault at gigs
News
67 views
News
67 views

Meet the local feminist collective fighting against sexual assault at gigs

Becca Bashford - October 10, 2019

Becca Bashford, The Badger's News Editor, chats with Girls Against founder Bea Bennister about the problem of sexual assault and harassment that is plaguing the music industry.  Run by…

Should we still listen to Michael Jackson’s music?
Comment
84 views
Comment
84 views

Should we still listen to Michael Jackson’s music?

Rebecca Spencer - October 9, 2019

YES Alice Gledhill Sometimes, bad people create great things. This does not redeem them, but nor does it reduce the quality of their art. Michael Jackson, who…

Brighton: If you haven’t got the means,  is it the ends?
Brighton Festival
183 views
Brighton Festival
183 views

Brighton: If you haven’t got the means, is it the ends?

Rebecca Spencer - October 9, 2019

In this article Comment Editor Rebecca Spencer and Comment Sub-Editor Louis Johnson discuss their perspectives of living in Brighton. Rebecca having moved here in 2017 and Louis,…

Could Brexit become the start of a left-wing national revolution?
Comment
134 views
Comment
134 views

Could Brexit become the start of a left-wing national revolution?

Remel Crichlow - October 9, 2019

YES Luke Schofield The short answer is, yes. However this is an answer in two parts; what has already happened in party politics in the wake of…

Is the UK ready to legalise cannabis?
Comment
60 views
Comment
60 views

Is the UK ready to legalise cannabis?

Rebecca Spencer - October 9, 2019

YES Max Morris-Edwards The idea that cannabis should be legalised for recreational use is rapidly growing in popularity across the UK. Cannabis is indeed the most used…

Books
52 views

A note on graphic novels: A guide to some of the best graphic novels on the market now

imeldaloakes - October 9, 2019

The term ‘graphic novel’ has, for a long time, been used loosely around the fringes of the literary society. While in the world of comics certain graphic…

Is music journalism a total minefield?
Brighton Festival
154 views
Brighton Festival
154 views

Is music journalism a total minefield?

Rebecca Spencer - October 9, 2019

By Stella Cooper My friends are still sharing videos, no matter how messy, of pure summer festival carnage. Whether that’s in the shape of music, or campsite…

Is America ready for a progressive candidate?
Comment
52 views
Comment
52 views

Is America ready for a progressive candidate?

rgs24 - October 9, 2019

By Maritsa Tsioupra-Lewis On September 12th in Houston, Texas, the third Democratic debate commenced. With too-many-to-count candidates originally running in the Democratic primary, the group was dwindled…

The Un-United Kingdom: Scotland’s Brexit woes
Comment
55 views
Comment
55 views

The Un-United Kingdom: Scotland’s Brexit woes

rgs24 - October 9, 2019

By Louis Johnson The Brexit deadline is looming and as Britain prepares to leave the EU, ‘deal or no deal’, it looks as though our Union is…

Should you refuse the zoos?
Comment
62 views
Comment
62 views

Should you refuse the zoos?

rgs24 - October 9, 2019

By Leo Hodges Conservation is an immensely complex process and more often than not zoos and animal-loving customers are the problem. Zoo’s exploit conservation, education and research…

Books
43 views

‘The Goldfinch’: are some novels best left untouched?

imeldaloakes - October 9, 2019

First published in 2013, Donna Tartt’s epic coming-of-age novel has attracted a large literary following. The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014 and…

An Ethical Freshers’ Week
News
40 views
News
40 views

An Ethical Freshers’ Week

jwtalbo - October 8, 2019

With global warming seemingly occurring at an unprecedented rate and with organisations (the Students’ Union included) declaring climate emergencies, as a student at university or anyone going…