Inside Trump's America: A nation divided ... but do they actually care?

By Paul Little

Muslim bans, scandalous resignations and bizarre tweets. Under its new President the United States looks, from 12,500km away, to be a fermenting maelstrom of discontent. Less than a month after Trump's inauguration, Paul Little grabbed his Iranian-stamped passport and went to find out what it's like.
President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Entering the US since 9/11 and the increased security measures that followed has been an often intense and time-consuming experience, involving long lines, multi-stage processing, footwear removal and no-nonsense uniformed personnel barking instructions that make even the most innocent wonder if they've done something wrong.

Imagine then, what it was like to arrive in LA on Day Eight of Donald Trump's ban on travellers from Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya and Somalia when you had an Iranian visa in your passport, from a visit last September.

I found out only 22 days before my departure that my Iranian visit meant my right as a New Zealander to an electronic visa waiver wouldn't get me into the country and I'd have to apply for a regular visa. That was relatively straightforward but the atmosphere was such I wasn't sure it would hold up with the new ban.

I even left my laptop at home in case it was searched - as other people's were - and evidence of anti-Trump sentiments found.

That's the good thing about paranoia - it feeds itself.

It had been stressful enough getting this far. I'd had bad experiences at border crossings before, going in and out of countries run by totalitarian megalomaniacs who suppressed the media and specialised in apparently whimsical decision-making and government by fiat. So I sort of knew what to expect.

But what would happen at the US border when the official saw my Iranian visa a few pages from my shiny new US one? I approached the experience with some trumpidation.

In the days before we arrived there had been traffic- and travel-stopping demonstrations at major US airports, including LA.

It didn't help that on landing I found my son had texted a link to the story about the former Norwegian PM being detained when he tried to enter the US.

Facing two weeks in the country in the wake of all this, I wondered what it would be like to be caught up in the fermenting maelstrom of discontent that was Trump's America.
Pretty chill, actually.

For a start there was precious little evidence it was indeed Trump's America.

A protester holds a sign during a demonstration to denounce President Donald Trump's Musilim ban. Photo / AP
A protester holds a sign during a demonstration to denounce President Donald Trump's Musilim ban. Photo / AP

US airports at their entry points traditionally feature a prominent portrait of the President with a welcome message. I have passed Barack Obama's beaming and benign countenance several times in the past few years. And sure enough ex-President Obama's visage was nowhere to be seen, but nor was his successor's. Perhaps he was having trouble settling on an image that did him justice.

There are two stages in the entry process - Automated Passport Control, in which your passport is scanned and you answer onscreen questions. Assistants are on hand to help those who are having any difficulty. In the second part of the process, a Customs and Border Protection officer looks through your passport and stamps it to confirm you can enter.

I was scanning my passport when I heard an American voice say, "What's the name of them seven countries again?" The enquirer was one of the APC assistants. Her colleague told her.

"That guy just reminds me more and more of that feller Hitler," she said in response, shaking her head ruefully.

"Excuse me, but are you actually allowed to say that here?" I asked.

"Why, sure, we have freedom of expression in this country," she told me. Indeed they do. Quiet chuckles all around.

Trump fans in North Carolina. Photo / Getty Images
Trump fans in North Carolina. Photo / Getty Images

Moments later, in line for the CBP officer, he said to the woman ahead of us as he handed back her passport: "Just be careful of all the riots out there."

She, and we, were taken aback. "Just kidding," he chortled.

And then - in the fastest processing time ever - we were in the USA. A small but effective group of protesters at the terminal door made their presence felt and got their point across.

And so far, the people at the frontline of Trump's immigration measures seemed to be treating them with amused contempt.

Of course, LA - where superficiality goes to get its cosmetic surgery - was never going to be the best place to observe Trump's America.

Broadly, his crucial voting support came from the Rust Belt - the economically moribund north-east of the country. (Not you, New York - sit down.) But you'd expect to see some evidence things were different, if only in graffiti or general grousing on the street.

But in LA, apart from a "Not my fascist America. Fight Trump" notice on a foodstall at Grand Central Market - as superfluous a sign as you'll see anywhere - dissent refused to seethe.

Thousands of demonstrators turned out Monday across the U.S. to challenge President Donald Trump in a Presidents Day protest. Photo / AP
Thousands of demonstrators turned out Monday across the U.S. to challenge President Donald Trump in a Presidents Day protest. Photo / AP

No one cared. Democrats have a 2/3 supermajority in both houses of the State legislature, a bona fide Democrat saint for governor in the form of Jerry Brown, and the world's sixth-largest economy, making it immune from the sort of pressures that caused the Trump boil to fester and burst elsewhere.

Taxi drivers! Surely they would have opinions one way or the other. But, like Aucklanders, they were most interested in talking about the traffic.

We took our granddaughters on a three-night cruise from LA to Ensenada, Mexico, and back. A cruise ship! Surely that would be full of middle Americans who voted for Trump. Would they mention The Wall?

Hell, no. This ship of fools was floating away for fun times. No one even joked about whether we'd have to sail around The Wall to get back to LA. Nor, for the record, did I see even one bad hombre in Ensenada.

Next stop, Nashville Tennessee.

That state rocketed Trump home with some 60 per cent of the total vote in the presidential election. But the county containing Nashville itself chose Clinton by 149,000 votes to Trump's 85,000.

I saw neither elation at their new presidency, or anyone in the city giving a damn about the result.

No one joked about whether we'd have to sail around The Wall. Nor, for the record, did I see even one bad hombre in Ensenada.

Nashville is Nashville - a case of "my country music right or wrong" and, as is the case in California, the rest of the country and their cockamamie ways don't seem to have much relevance to folks around here.

In the middle of the blink-and-you'd-miss-it Michael Flynn affair - and doesn't that seem like a long time ago now? - where the shiny new National Security Adviser had to resign for lying, the local paper The Tennessean led with a story about the parks budget.

I only became more obsessed at this apparent indifference. As I know many have, I had fallen into the morning habit of wondering, "What has he done now?" and turning on my phone to find out. I even started following the lunkhead on twitter so I could enjoy the unmediated experience of seeing in as close as possible to real time the thoughts of someone who actually struggled to fill a quota of 140 characters.

At only one place could I reliably find people getting upset and agitated about the Trump nightmare - TV.

Not so much on the regular network news shows, which maintained their diet of regular pabulum - the latest self-help book author, major weather events and cooking demonstrations.

And not as much as you'd expect on Fox News. The hitherto notorious right-wing Trump-loving network seems to have given up on its golden - well, tangerine - boy and to be pulling back its support.

A US President Donald Trump supporter reacts on the National Mall to the inauguration of US President Donald Trump. Photo / Getty Images
A US President Donald Trump supporter reacts on the National Mall to the inauguration of US President Donald Trump. Photo / Getty Images

It had surprisingly little Trump coverage and had defaulted to items more at home on YouTube, such as a teen being rescued after falling through ice into a lake and cuddly animals doing cuddly animal stuff.

But the influential CNN and MSNBC in particular were wall-to-wall Trump. And Donald Trump is right about one thing - the media are biased in a way that does them no credit. Those networks were populated with panels who were anti-Trump to a man and woman. Which is no way to have a debate.

And without debate there is no democracy. They were little more than cacophonous echo chambers in which people who agreed with each other sat around doing so vociferously.
These observations, remember, are based only on three separate and unique environments.

It could well be very different in other places, but I saw no pussies unwelcomely grabbed; no Russians swaggering around like they owned the place; no White House tradespeople being told they wouldn't be paid because the exposure was worth so much.

But most worryingly, I saw no dissent apart from that expressed by people paid to do so on TV.

If nothing else, the indifference I encountered, when compared to the passion with which the subject is pursued in the media, is all the proof you need that the US is now a country dangerously divided.

- Herald on Sunday

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