Opinion

America will survive Trump, but the social divides will be harder to overcome

"The sense of disconnect, disquiet and division I have seen in the United States this week is something else"

Downtown Washington is like a CGI creation from the slightly disappointing Star Wars prequels. The buildings in the square mile that encompasses Capitol Hill and the White House are alarmingly pristine and shiny. The streets are quiet and sedate. On Monday morning, when I arrived to broadcast the first of four specials of my drive time show on Talk Radio, it felt like a sleepy Sunday morning. It was not how I expected the beating heart of American democracy to look like just 24 hours before one of the most seismic elections in its history.

That’s because everyone in this square mile is a member of the political classes. The strategists, senators, advisers, journalists and interns who wandered in and out of our pop-up studio inside a local coffee shop wore the weary, indifferent expressions of people who had been there, done that and were far too cynical and jaded to get caught up in the election hysteria that enraptured the rest of the world. I spoke to pollsters and hacks and spin doctors who all seemed lightly amused by the hype and drama that I, a UK journalist, seemed to be applying to the election.

Nobody I spoke to at the start of the week gave Donald Trump a realistic chance of becoming president

Because they knew. They knew the polls had Hillary nailed on to win. They knew that Hillary would become the 45th president of the United States. And they knew that the political world as they knew it would carry on turning just as it always had.

They were wrong. Nobody I spoke to at the start of the week gave Donald Trump a realistic chance of becoming president. Not just because they believed the dodgy polls. But because their minds could not conceive of such a scenario; in their wildest imaginings, they could not contemplate the prospect of TV reality star, multiple bankrupt, racist, sex pest, mad man Donald J Trump busting into their cosy Washington establishment.

I watched the results come in at the iconic Martin’s Tavern in the swanky suburb of Georgetown; it has been a regular haunt of serving presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. There is a commemorative plaque beside the booth where JFK proposed to Jackie. Like pretty much everyone in Washington, the locals at Martin’s are resoundingly Democrat. The atmosphere at the start of the evening was celebratory and relaxed. A Trump supporter from a less affluent, less liberal, less bourgeoisie part of the country might well have described the atmosphere as smug. There was a sense that the silly Trump circus was now coming to an end and life would soon go back to normal.

Three women on the table beside me were sobbing. Some were angry, others were in denial

But there came a point at around half nine when the giant TV screens started to display worrying messages about unexpected leads for Trump in all of the key swing states. Florida, North Carolina and Ohio were all looking decidedly ‘Trumpy’. By half ten, the writing was already on the wall. Three women on the table beside me were sobbing. Some were angry, others were in denial. A woman at the bar assured me confid-ently that the figures coming in were wrong and that I would wake up to discover that Hillary had actually won the day.

Washington, like New York, LA and the other heartlands of liberalism in the States, discovered this week just how out of touch it is with huge swathes of America. The people here have described themselves to me as ‘numb’ with disbelief about Trump’s victory. Some students up the road from where I’m staying burned a US flag on Wednesday evening, as if they weren’t quite sure how else to express their mixture of rage and confusion.

We thought Brexit was bad. But the sense of disconnect, disquiet and division I have seen in the United States this week is something else. America and the world will survive a four-year Trump presidency. But the social and cultural divides this election has highlighted will be much harder to surmount.

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