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1 November 2016

In a Chicago voting booth, I remember why humans find it so hard to accept defeat

A week of election build-up in the US, from peeping at the president to haranguing Hillary – and a starry night in Wisconsin.

By Phil Jones

“It would be insane if we elected him,” the law professor we’re staying with on the South Side of Chicago says. “This is not like electing Reagan. At least he offered optimism: ‘It’s morning in America again.’ This would be a nation collectively taking leave of its senses. But it won’t happen.” I stir the pot slightly by pointing out that many people in the UK felt the same about Brexit. Even Nigel Farage thought his side had lost. And then we woke up stunned.

My wife and I can’t quite believe that the house we’re staying in on our pre-election trip to the United States is on the same street as the Obamas’ – South Greenwood Avenue. Amazingly, the president is in town. We can’t resist a peep. It’s a mansion but not huge by American standards. Muhammad Ali and Louis Farrakhan had much bigger places nearby.

Suddenly, a secret service agent leaps out. “What is your business here?” I think our English accents convince him that we’re benign. Not so long ago, African Americans couldn’t even live in this area. Now it’s a thriving, largely black neighbourhood.

A plaque marks the site of Barack and Michelle’s first kiss. It reads: “I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the kerb. I kissed her and it tasted like chocolate.”


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X marks the spot

Talking of romance, I love the act of ­voting, of marking a cross on the ballot with that stubby pencil. At a shopping mall in downtown Chicago, we watch Americans voting early. After the debacle of the “hanging chads” in Florida in 2000, many districts now use computers. It takes ages to vote here, although this isn’t too surprising, as you’re electing not just a president and members of Congress but also almost every public official going, from judges to the people who run the water board.

Tony Benn used to call voting an existential experience. I think what he meant was that something remarkable happens after the ballot: it’s the losers, not the winners, who hold the key. It’s easy if your side has won, but human beings find it hard to accept defeat. For centuries, “might was right”. Power changed hands through brute force, as it still does in many parts of the world. So it’s pretty wondrous that we have found a way of transferring authority that doesn’t involve violence. That’s why Donald Trump’s refusal to say that he would ­accept the result of the election if he loses is so shocking.


Calling the election

I promised Jeremy Vine and all the team on our Radio 2 show that I would confidently predict the presidential result on my return from the US. With Trump in meltdown, that seems easier now. I don’t mean the popular vote – Al Gore won that but lost the presidency. To know how the electoral college will go, you need to understand each state. If you look at the prediction model used by the statistician Nate Silver’s, Hillary Clinton is heading for a landslide. A word of caution: Trump potentially has millions of supporters who don’t usually vote, who are angry enough to break the habit of a lifetime.


Happiness is a warm gun

A friend from home takes us to a shooting range. The guy behind the desk asks us where we’re from. “From England? That’s awesome!” Not really, I think. “Awesome” is a word that Americans use far too often, even when something isn’t at all awe-inspiring. I try my hardest not to use it. At the range, a picture of Obama is accompanied by the slogan: “The best salesman for guns!” My wife is frighteningly good at shooting and hits the bullseye each time.


War on the airwaves

We drive north to Wisconsin. On our radio, the shock jocks of Fox News battle it out with the liberals on public radio. The Trump-supporting jocks are more entertaining. The liberals don’t understand how anyone could vote for “such a dangerous buffoon as Trump”. There’s a coarseness and vulgarity to him that the left disparages but his supporters don’t seem to mind.

Politics here is visceral. It’s about not only policies and ideology, but instinct. The personal is now completely political, which makes the divide in the nation even deeper. That could make us all depressed, yet some 54 million people watched each of the three televised presidential debates. There’s a real sense that politics matters – as indeed the New Statesman’s impressive New Times special edition exemplified.


Shooting the breeze

I met Hillary Clinton in 2014 when Jeremy interviewed her for his Radio 2 show. She arrived 45 minutes early, so there was time to chat. I remember haranguing her over US  foreign policy. I probably overdid it but, to her credit, she listened with great patience and didn’t hugely disagree.


Heavens above (and below)

Wisconsin is the Dairy State, so can someone please explain to me why its cheese tastes so goddam awful?

It’s autumn, and the trees of Florence County are a dazzling array of golds, reds and orange. Millions of acres of forest were destroyed by loggers, but President Roosevelt put the unemployed to work replanting the forests under the New Deal. “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little,” FDR said.

We put our fear of bears to one side and camp by a lake deep in the woods. There is no light pollution out here, and the air is still and clear. We see the stars above like we’ve never seen them before. Looking down, we notice that the entire night sky is perfectly reflected on the surface of the lake. “How would you describe that?” I ask my wife, Kathy. Her reply is simply: “Awesome.” Hmm. She’s right. It is awesome.

Phil Jones is the editor of the “Jeremy Vine” show on BBC Radio 2

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage