Caitríona Perry’s Trump book has one major blind spot
Review: In America: Tales from Trump Country is a worthwhile, eminently readable book
In America: Tales from Trump Country
First things first: Caitríona Perry, to her credit, does not overplay the moment that brought her to international attention earlier this year. The incident came in June, when President Donald Trump beckoned to her in the Oval Office as he spoke on the phone to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
“Where are you from?” the president asked Perry, who has been RTÉ’s Washington correspondent since 2014. When she replied, Trump told Varadkar, “Caitríona Perry. She has a nice smile on her face, so I bet she treats you well.”
The remark raised eyebrows, especially against the backdrop of the crude comments Trump made about women in a tape that came to light during last year’s election campaign. But Perry dispenses with the encounter in a few pages.
“It is not for me to say what motivated his behaviour and whether he was setting out to be sexist,” she writes. “What I will say is that I did not feel ‘demeaned’.”
And that’s that.
Perry’s book is not intended to be a blow-by-blow account of the election campaign. Instead, she seeks to draw nuanced portraits of the people who elected Trump. “I felt an obligation to inform our audience of the opinions of voters that didn’t coalesce with the pro-Democrat, pro-Clinton viewpoint that colours much of Western European political discourse,” she writes.
This is an admirable goal and she succeeds, for the most part.
Her book takes the form of a series of dispatches from key states. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin each gets a chapter. The three states had purportedly formed a Democratic “blue wall” that would all but guarantee a Hillary Clinton victory last November. Each one fell to the Trump tide, albeit by very narrow margins.
Economic and cultural territory
Perry’s book is at its best when she explores a particular economic and cultural territory – those places that have suffered most keenly from de-industrialisation, depopulation and creeping despair.
In Michigan, we meet Chris Vitale, who works in the car industry but bucked the call from his trade union to back Clinton. Vitale’s analysis of the North American Free Trade Agreement is sharp and unforgiving – and unlikely to be found on the editorial pages of most major US newspapers.
“All we did was find just another place to exploit labour,” Vitale tells Perry, referring to Mexico. “We didn’t create a middle class.”
In Ohio, Perry writes with empathy about the people grappling with the effects of the opioid epidemic that has rampaged through rural and small-town America. The potent combination of alienation, frustration and sadness rendered vast swathes of the American heartland fertile ground upon which Trump scattered his seeds.
His critics fear that electing him president will have dire consequences for the United States and the wider world. But safer bets, like Clinton, are attractive mainly to those who feel they have something to lose in the first place. Many of the people Perry meets don’t fit that bill.
Perry also punctures some myths closer to home. The anachronistic delusion that there is still a discrete “Irish vote” in the United States gets short shrift from her.
In America is a worthwhile and eminently readable book, but it is not without flaws. Writing about the affairs of one nation for an audience in another is always fraught with difficulty. There is an understandable desire to avoid arcana and an equally strong imperative not to trade in simplistic shorthand.
Perry walks that line better at some moments than others.
She pins part of the blame for Clinton’s defeat on the idea that the Democrat was offering a de facto third term for Barack Obama. This ignores the fact that, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Obama left office with a 59 per cent favourability rating – streets ahead of Trump and Clinton.
At the very least, there is a plausible case to be made that it was not Clinton’s similarities with Obama but her differences from him – more cautious and calculating, less authentic and charismatic – that helped doom her.
The most serious weakness of In America is also the most perplexing. Economic disadvantage and deterioration were not the only factors that powered Trump’s rise. So too did the white racial animus and resentment which he exploited with a deft, if demagogic, touch. This point is relegated to the margins of In America. The sin of near-omission is to the book’s detriment.
At one point, the author draws a parallel between Trump’s 2016 bid and Bill Clinton’s economy-focused 1992 campaign. “Trump just repeated: ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs,’” she writes.
Trump did not “just” do any such thing. He propelled himself from the business world into the political arena with the racially charged lie that Obama may not have been born in the US. He positioned himself for success in the Republican primaries by calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. His campaign’s closing stretch was masterminded by Steve Bannon, a deeply controversial figure adept at channelling the shadowy concerns of the alt-right. Trump even won the endorsement of David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
On top of all that, when Perry’s interviewees – overwhelmingly white – use implicit but well-understood racial codes, she is confoundingly reluctant to acknowledge that they are doing so. The most striking of several examples comes towards the book’s conclusion, from an unnamed female interviewee.
“All those beliefs that you have buried in your back yard, all those thoughts that you have tucked under your mattress, [Trump] makes it OK to bring those out into the light and say them out loud,” this woman says.
Perry never mentions the woman’s race. She doesn’t need to. It would be hard to imagine a clearer expression of white racial enmity, covered in the thinnest of veils. Yet Perry writes merely that these words are evidence of how Trump “tapped into pent-up frustrations”.
The version of Trump’s America that Perry presents brings many essential and revealing factors into sharp focus. That makes it all the more of a shame that In America has some important blind spots of its own.
Niall Stanage is White House Columnist with the US political newspaper and website, “The Hill”. A native of Belfast, he has worked as a political journalist in the United States since 2003. He is also the author of “Redemption Song” (Liberties Press, 2009), an account of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign