Diehard teen republicans

Matt Kennard reports from the Republican convention where he's already met with Republicans young an

As I got into St. Paul airport at about 1pm also arriving were the 50-strong Junior Statesman contingent from all over the United States. A collection of diehard teen Republicans who had come to meet lawmakers and officials for a week of festivities, they were noticeable a mile off.

I spoke first to preppy looking Matthew Zubrow, a 17-year-old from Fast Hills, New Jersey. “I believe in McCain because he is a fiscal and social conservative and he is right for America,” he said, like an automaton. “He has more experience than Obama.”

At this moment his friend sitting next to him got involved. A diminutive 15-year-old called Brendan Zehner he reeled off a scary and perfectly delivered set of Republican shibboleths. “I’m not pro-McCain but I definitely don’t want Obama winning,” he said. “McCain is too liberal for me,” he continued, “his energy plan, his cap-and trade policy fails economically, and he doesn’t support drilling in Alaska, that would make us much less dependent on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela. But at least he doesn’t want to tax the people creating the jobs,” said the 15-year-old.

Zubrow agreed. “In some respects McCain is too liberal. Overall I feel he is excellent and despite what I disagree with he’s a good, honest person; I know because I interned for the campaign this summer.”

But what do they think about Bush, the mega-unpopular Republican now in the White House. “In theory Bush is not the problem, he hasn’t been a bad President. It’s the way he does things that makes his policies seem bad,” said Zehner.

***

I moved on to the Convention in a shuttle full of octogenarian Republicans. They talked variously in the back about how “Fox News is too liberal”. One of the older women said, “I have a horrible feeling that Obama and his wife hate America.” As her husband was getting out he said: “Tell those liberals in the UK if they think Obama is gonna make it you’re dead wrong.”

The shuttle driver Abdi Mohamous, 26, came from Somalia in 1991 and said he was supporting Obama. “These Republicans are scary,” he said. “I have to listen to all their bullshit in the back, these 80-year-olds talking about how they want to bomb Iran and how they are disappointed because the Vice President is a woman.”

He dropped me off at home, and I went down to the convention centre to check out what I thought would be the raucous protests. In the end it was one guy with a “9/11 was an inside job” placard.

There was a surfeit of cops hanging around though doing pre-programmed routines marching about the place. Dave Morris, 25, was from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I think the government planned 9/11 for it’s own political gain,” he said. “They did it so they could invade the Middle East, set up a police state, control the world drug trade, and all the other stuff.”

He was getting a fair about of media attention. “I’m just here to get people to wake up, spread the word,” he said.

Morris was standing at the main entrance, and not much was happening so I moved around to the media entrance where there was one placard that read McBlood and “No more wars for Israel”, alongside, without any seeming animosity, a pro-Israel placard of another protester.

After talking idly for a minute the atmosphere suddenly turned febrile and out passed us walked George W. Bush’s brain, Karl Rove. I followed him with my camera asking him why he’s a war criminal and what he thought of torture in Guantanamo, which was the signature issue of the Amnesty protesters, who I’d just been talking to. He gave no response and was surrounded by four burly guards. He got in the car with three women all decked in Red.

I walked back up the path and got into a conversation with the Ron Paul fans, a perennial fixture at any American political event these days. John Kusske, 30, from St. Paul was a slow talking but intelligent guy who believes in bringing the Republican Party back to the principles on which it was founded. “We have to make our presence know to the delegates,” he said. “There are a lot of people in there with ideas sympathetic to Ron Paul.”

So what was wrong with the current Republicans in power? “Two things,” he said, “Number one, they spend far too much, the Federal Reserve prints too much money, it’s spending money we don’t have; we need sound finances and I would like us to go back to the gold standard.”

He paused now consumed with an evangelical zeal that was a little scary. “And number two,” he declared, “we should not be going around the world invading other countries; we need to get rid of troops around the world and not declare war around the world without even going to Congress.”

***

That was it for the daytime convention, which was all taking place in the stuffy surroundings of the Excel Center, a gargantuan edifice surrounded by reams of barricades and surly police and tooled up secret service.

The real action everyone knew was happening in the evening in Minneapolis ten miles away where the party season was getting under way. I went along with my friend Eugene Mulero, who works for the wonkish D.C. weekly National Journal. He had got me in free to a $75 party and we got down there about 9 pm.

It was at a club called 1st Avenue on the main Minneapolis strip, which was full of cops and sprightly Republicans – not everyone’s idea of fun, but worth a try. Inside there was to be a performance by the music titan, Sammy Hagar, also know as the Red Rocker, who used to perform in Van Halen.

Inside there was the usual Republican fabric; out of the probably 300 people there wasn’t one black face. It was an open bar and everyone got jollier as the event drew on. Then came the video show that would be the intro to Hagar. Up flashed pictures of Mexico and young Americans kissing and fondling each other in Cabo, a popular Mexican resort for young frat types. Snoop Dogg’s pimp classic “Gin and Juice” then came on and the crowd looked a bit bemused. Then, strangely, a Banksy style rendering of Bush’s visage. Then the line: “Right now youth equals violence.” Then this one: “Right now Christians and Muslims don’t pray together”. Then more pictures of Mexico and the beach. Everyone looked as confused as I was.

Then up came the video and on came the prophet, Sammy Hagar, himself. A shaggy haired blond man in sandals and beach shorts and a “Cabo Wabo” T-shirt. The definition of an aging rocker his enthusiasm contrasted farcically with the depleted crowd on the floor. Behind him were fake plastic palm trees and it all felt a bit David Brent.

I talked to Marina Hockenberg, 52, from Minneapolis, who was part of the Katrina Relief Fund and selling T-shirt’s behind a table. “I think it’s a crime and unconscionable what the Bush administration did in New Orleans,” he said, while I looked around to see if anyone could hear us. She was obviously not a True Red. “The Republicans don’t seem in the mood to purchase this stuff so far,” she said. “Maybe they feel a bit guilty!”

Meanwhile the rockster was still on stage singing away and the crowd was getting behind him now. People were hi-fiving him on the stage and he was talking about his mom’s back yard in between songs and how all she wanted was a place to grow tomatoes; the Republicans cheered. He then did a song about chasing your dreams. My notebook at this point reads: “Fake palm trees – End Of The World.”

I then spoke to Jordan Russell, 22, a student from the University of Mississippi, and a College Republican. “I’m here because we have a war to win,” he said. “Palin has electrified young conservatives.” He paused: “We don’t want to be socialists,” he declared swigging his drink. “We want to be Americans!”

Hagar stopped his infernal racket after about two hours and the crowds seeped out onto the street. There was speculation that Republicans didn’t want to be seen to have fun while the South was bracing itself for a new hurricane, but judging by this show it’s going to take more than a category 4 to stop them.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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