For many years I’ve been a fan of American politics, as you all know. I wasnt really aware of American politics before 1997. When as an undergraduate in sociology, in essence social policy, which gave way to international relations and geopolitical history, I took a module in American Politics.
We all know now that in 1997 American politics was relatively peaceful, sure there was bitchy partisanship, but by and large politics was dominated by watered down socialism on the left and hard free trade and the sanctity of business on the right. At this time the Clinton presidency had become mired up in scandal and impeachment was likely and it seemed a rocky time. But with hindsight when my interest in American politics was kindled, things morealess ticked along nicely and there was a professional respect and courtesy in the District of Columbia.
Now of course things are quite different, since then we’ve thought we saw the worst characteristics of the hawkish Republican Bush Jnr years as American once again got the role of the worlds policeman wrong and decided on a dodgy premise to get involved in an illegal war which has mired US troops in parts of the world they arguably dont need to have anything more than a token prescence in and GWB was then the worst president in American history. Especially when it looked like American soldiers were abusing prisoners. Then the political behemoth of Capitol Hill gave way to the hopeful years of Obama. In 2008 America had elected its first black president, and America politically speaking had hope.
Ironically this period itself should have served of a warning of the mood of things to come. Donald Trump, spent alot of the Obama administration asking Obama to produce his birth certificate and the behaviour of what would become the birther movement and what would become Trumps base was starting to turn ugly, being whipped up by the rise of social media, which gave people, especially on the political right a way of bypassing the snooty ‘fact obsessed’ purveyors of bourgeois liberal media editors at the respectable media, now people could address you directly without the obligation of facts and FCC interference. Trump certainly did a good bit of groundwork to connect with a base in this time if he had any notion of his running, if he did it was astute temperature taking.
In 2016 the man that had largely been stirring the pot of the birther movement was elected to the office of President. He won fundamentally on electoral college votes, but lost the popular vote to a contestant who wasnt much more wanted than Trump, a big business dynastic Democrat, Hillary Clinton who was seen as allied to Wall Street and who had been cutting political corners for years which had effectively, with the help of Russian cyber hackers or not produced a candidate the Democrats had to put up, with the reluctance of factions within the Democrats who hated her. She was probably the most qualified person to lead America but too many years of cutting corners and carelessly storing emails on private servers and doing things like wearing a 12000 dollar coat to a rally which had tarnished her, effectively producing two candidates no one much wanted. But Trump in an era of populism was a man who said I don’t give a fuck what you think of me I’ll make America great again and bring jobs back to America, something America needed to hear as it had believed Obama had sent jobs and with it pride in America overseas.
This was nectar to many, and politics in America, and later Europe had a problem. Voters didnt like their politicians anymore. Somewhere along the line they lost the ability to connect and talk to each other. Politics was seen as dirty. People wanted someone who wasnt in the swamp swimming with the scum. Hillary had her own bathing hut at the swamp and to the side of the swamp was Donald Trump pointing and saying I’ll clean that swamp up. Principally as his swamp was north in New York and he didnt like the look of this swamp. People liked that and so Donald Trump won. A fresh start and someone wearing asskicking boots to shake up Capitol Hill. Ironically it would be a multimillionaire who the electorate stated had told it like it was, and they say fascism arrives as your friend to give you back the things you lost, and in fact probably never had to begin with.
What transpired between January 2015 and November 2016 was the dirtiest political campaign in history presided over a Manhattan bruiser, a man who had been fighting a street fight for years, who delivered low blow after low blow and who cosied up to foreign sources and listen to people who came up with dirt on Hillary and shady data harvesting firms to get his message across to social media by targeting Republicans with crooked Hillary adverts and splitting the vote among the Democrats, he bragged that he could stand in 5th Avenue and shoot someone and not lose a vote, even asking the NRA if they could do something about Hilary, which if you like is incitement to violence. Not to mention accusations of grabbing women by their genitals, being the subject of Russian Kompromat to being essentially a puppet of Vladimir Putin. And yet this seemed to fly off him principally as he couldn’t give a rats ass what people thought of him and this pleased the electorate as real people behaved badly, and couldn’t give a fuck. Trump called a spade a spade which seemed refreshing.
All the time Hillary produced the most above board decent campaign weakened by her inability or unwillingness to lower herself to trumps dogwhistling cheapshots brandishing her resumé clearly stating she was THE person who was most qualified to be president. Bit of pisser when Republicans hate you and you’re lacking passion from your own party. Especially when the Democrats have some new blood, street level activists, some very able Congress members who look more like Americas diverse population like the governor of Georgia a rising star of the DNC and sitting on the middle of a party rather than 70 odd year Bernie Sanders to the hard left a man Americans regard with suspicion, after all what sort of idiot wants socialised free for all healthcare and the 72 year old in the pocket of business dynastic Democrat who had, albeit accidental, health issues during campaigning. The DNC had far better new blood to choose from, people who could gave given Trump a fight.
And so the era we know as Trumpism came to pass. And that forms the formation of the current political climate we find ourselves in.
Across town in the BBC’s Washington bureau watching all this was the BBCs recently appointed North America Editor Jon Sopel. Jon Sopel is among the BBCs best, he is a foreign correspondent of the old school serving in London as a chief political correspondent before being based in Paris and Kuwait City during the war in Iraq, he had arrived in April 2014.
Alongside his BBC Washington colleagues he witnessed an election campaign that was like nothing else, and when he announced his name and media organisation Donald Trump described him as ‘a beauty’.
And so to the book.
The Title itself is brilliant. ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English’ was inspired by a bureau colleague which makes the point that America would be better understood if it didnt speak English as it would be covered like a foreign country and it would be covered in a different way whereby we might get a better handle on its politics and its sudden craziness and have it explained like a foreign country to viewers.
‘Jon Sopel may be the sanest man in America’ – Bill Bryson’ is written across the front of my edition and I think that’s a great starting point for reviewing the book. I’ll fess up, I’m a fan of Bryson, a big fan, at a signing once with my friend Dave Wildman I was inexplicably robbed of my ability to talk, unlike me, but that’s star struck for you, at least spend a few days rehearsing what you’d say to your hero as I can guarantee you ad-libbing will make you into a blundering fuckwit, that’s my pro hero meeting tip, I digress. The reason why its apt to mention Bill Bryson is essentially his book Notes from a Big Country is stylistically similar.
Essentially like Notes From a Big Country this is a collection of observed essays, in Brysons book these are life observations and it’s the same with If Only They Didn’t Speak English. 10 chapters which are political but essentially topic tight observations on subjects within politics like patriotism and guns. But like Bryson done in an engaging, accessible, entertaining way as let’s be honest political books can be dry. This isnt, this is all the things that need to be said in an entertaining way. And this is a slice of Sopel’s life in Washington DC and beyond, you feel like a friend Jon is showing around the political landscape of America. There are plenty of facts, some of which are disturbing, and some delightful anecdotes about what it’s like living as a journalist in DC and it’s different areas. It actually works almost as a travel guide to DC and I feel I know DC a little better for reading this.
Each chapter of the book is devoted to a single chapter, the book opens with Anger and reflects Sopels experience, a new one with dealing with covering the anger of the campaign. Presented with new problems about how to use golden showers and the more salacious aspects of the campaign and a realisation that the previous rules of campaigning had been thrown away. We also see a disenfranchised electorate and those wishing for some magic formula for a restoration of pride. We see the nasty nature of the Trump campaign and hear stories of desecration of Jewish cemeteries and of a new open racism.
This book contains chapters on, race, patriotism, guns and much more revealing a side of life which modern America should be ashamed of and Jon Sopel shows that the consequences of a post truth era which has resulted in America essentially self harming, neatly accompanied by Jon Sopel whose style is friendly warm an engaging with a great turn of phrase and shows a country as divided as the UK is after Brexit and the new tribalism of America whether its Trumps base of the new activist groups like Black Lives Matter.
This book works on a number of levels, as a political book it’s an amazing insight into the current mood of America and the challenges, and occasional dangers of being asked to cover that White House as a member of a news team out of favour with the White House, it’s a well researched book that gives examples from Jon Sopels own coverage and tragic incidents like the shooting in Ferguson of Michael Brown and the nights of rioting that ensued.
It’s a highly enjoyable book and a must for anyone with an interested in the current mood of America. It can be enjoyed as holiday reading as one can put down and pick up as each chapter is self contained and time can be left in between reads or it can be devoured. No understanding of the mechanics of American politics is necessary as Jon Sopel explains everything brilliantly and brings a journalistic expertise in good research sources like the Pew Research Centre a respected think tank on social issues, it’s not heavy and the non political day to day life of a DC reporter is welcome as his life seems fascinating.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars out of 5. Worth your time.