Murmurations of starlings twisting in darkening shadows are common in Irish skies, so the sight of little black birds swirling over Des Moines, in Iowa, on the afternoon of November 11th, 2015, didn't startle me at first. It was only after a moment that I noticed the birds were swirling upwards.
These starlings were in fact leaves lifted by a dark shadow of tornado that appeared beside me as I drove. About 50m to the right of my rental car a flash of light caught my eye. It was the result of the wind ripping a branch from a tree, exposing the bright white flesh of the timber.
It was time to turn left, quickly.
When I got to the airport for my flight back home to Washington, DC, I counted my blessings that I had made it safely after a close brush with such a force of nature. It was one of the standout moments of my four years as US correspondent of The Irish Times. I certainly wasn't in Kansas any more.
I had been in Iowa to write a story about Jeb Bush's attempt to retake the lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination in the face of an unlikely challenger, the blustering Donald Trump.
That twister was an omen of the year to come. In the midwestern state – the first to pick its preferred presidential candidates – the US National Weather Service had reported a relatively quiet peak period in its tornado season, during late spring and early summer, but a series of rare late-season twisters, in October, November and December, just weeks before Trump started on his path to the White House by coming second in the Iowa caucuses on February 1st, 2016.
It was fitting that his victory nine months later should be sealed by carrying the states of Tornado Alley, from Texas to Alabama, down south, right up to the rust belt in the north, from Wisconsin to Michigan.
Over an astonishing 17-month campaign the Trump tornado swept through American establishment politics, sending Washington into a tailspin, uprooting two parties and felling two mighty political dynasties, the Bushes and the Clintons.
Even a year before he announced his candidacy Trump showed signs of the bombast that would dominate the election cycle. In an interview with me after he bought Doonbeg golf resort, in Co Clare, the New York property tycoon displayed the braggadocio that would later stun political and media elites unsure how to hit back at this free-swinging fighter.
“I get the biggest audience and I get the biggest response. I do great in the polls,” Trump said, boasting about his reception at a conference I had seen him speak at two months earlier. He concluded talk of a potential presidential bid with a promise: “I’ll make a decision and you will be the first to know.”
I wasn’t, but at least I have the honour of being one of the first people he lied to in his campaign.
When my wife, two young daughters and I arrived in a freezing Washington, early in 2013, those brilliant blue skies over the US capital appeared cloud free. Barack Obama had a pep in his step.
Fresh from his commanding re-election victory, won with the support of white working-class voters in the Democratic strongholds of the industrial north that would swing for Trump four years later, the 44th US president laid out a bold vision of modern American liberalism and a forceful progressive agenda in his second inaugural address.
His unprecedented call to action – to advance gay rights, to embrace illegal immigrants and to combat climate change – was inspiring, but sitting before the west front of the United States Capitol, shivering among the masses that January afternoon, I was struck by Obama’s combative tone.
Gone was the post-partisan unifier of Obama’s historic 2008 campaign. In his place was a Democratic president emboldened by a renewed, undeniably large mandate, telling Republicans that they were wrong and he was right.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act,” he said, in what we can see now as a forewarning about Trump’s campaign of insults.
Looking back, the warning signs of the billionaire’s impending rise were there. The Washington political classes were hated long before the Carswell clan arrived in the city. Polls showed the US Congress’s approval rating at record lows. Cockroaches and root canals polled higher.
I recall telling a Republican staffer on an assignment in Austin, Texas, that I lived in Washington, DC. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said.
Republican opposition ground down the business of government, and Obama’s response, bypassing it with executive orders, only riled his opponents even more.
The 16-day government shutdown in October 2013, triggered by conservatives attempting to topple Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which would extend health insurance to millions of poor Americans, showed the damage that could be done by the dysfunctional politics that had paralysed Washington.
It was even felt by the smallest members of our household. The image of my three-year-old daughter encountering a padlocked gate at our local playground, in a park run by the federal government, sticks in my memory.
The price of healthcare
But even with the limited benefits of Obamacare the extortionate costs and bureaucratic morass of the US healthcare system shocked us. Our standard health insurance cost almost $15,000, or €14,200, a year, and even that required payments of at least $20 for each doctor’s visit.
In a system where bankruptcy or death awaits the terminally ill uninsured it became clear why Obamacare was such a hot issue during our time in the country – and remains so today.
During the calamitous roll-out of the scheme we lost our insurance for a few months and experienced the stress that the system brings to tens of millions of others. My wife’s antibiotic eyedrops for an infection soared from $10 with insurance to $240 without.
It filled us with dread, particularly with two young children. Never mind that they could get a routine chest infection; what if something catastrophic happened, such as a car crash, through no fault of our own?
The sea of red tape extended deep into American government administration.
“Can I speak to your supervisor?” became the most effective weapon my wife and I deployed during endless phone battles with inflexible operators as we tried to navigate our way through routine services.
I remember being surprised at the number of metal detectors and armed guards on duty at Washington's department of motor vehicles, the notorious DMV lampooned in the movie Zootopia, in which the sloths were in charge. After a three-hour wait for my DC driving licence, and having seen one customer in meltdown because of his inability to change the address on his driving licence, I was no longer surprised.
The threat of guns and the potential for random attack is ever present, even in Washington, DC, where it is prohibited to carry firearms.
On three occasions our daughter’s Capitol Hill school was locked down by incidents in our area, including the fatal shootings of 12 people by a disturbed young man at the nearby Washington Navy Yard in 2013.
This was the second-worst mass shooting at a US military base, but I will remember it for another reason: the automated call I received from my daughter’s school principal, telling parents not to come to the school, as all the doors would be locked.
Washington’s public schools – and our eldest daughter’s, Maury Elementary, was one of the best – did more than just protect. The sharp divide between the haves and the have-nots in the capital meant that schools were often the only source of a hot meals for children living in poverty.
On snowy days schools often delayed opening rather than closing for the day, as that could mean no hot food for some children, all living within a few kilometres of the White House and the United States Capitol.
Violence did more than just lock down neighbourhoods. The Boston Marathon bombings, in April 2013, showed how fear could grip a city. The Boston metropolitan area was put in lockdown as police searched for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two Chechen-American brothers whose bombs killed three people.
I inadvertently found myself at the centre of the area on lockdown while staying at a friend’s vacant apartment in Cambridge, across the Charles river from Boston.
A circling helicopter alerted me to the shooting of a police officer on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, around the corner. I arrived in the area as the officer’s car was being cordoned off. Later, at my desk, I heard pressure-cooker bombs being detonated in a shootout with police.
The next day a shortage of food in the apartment forced me on to the deserted streets to find something to eat. I had an awkward moment being eyeballed by a jumpy cop before I eventually found the only place serving food in the neighbourhood: the Bom Cafe, around the corner from the Tsarnaevs’ apartment.
At the surviving bomber’s trial, in 2015, it was harrowing to hear William Richard speak of the death of his eight-year-old son, Martin, and how he chose to leave him to save his daughter, Jane, an Irish step dancer, whose leg was blown off.
Richard said he still suffered from high-pitched ringing in his ears, but it did not appear to matter. “I can still hear music. I can still hear the beautiful voices of my family,” he said.
The 9/11 plotters
The Boston courthouse where Tsarnaev was tried was also the scene of the extradition of David Drumm, the former Anglo Irish Bank chief executive, to face criminal charges relating to events that led to the bank’s collapse, in 2008.
The Irish banking crash followed me to the United States, where two of the most prominent financial players of the Celtic Tiger era, Drumm and the formerly swashbuckling property developer Sean Dunne, sought refuge in the US bankruptcy courts. Their legal travails have, like me, since returned to Ireland.
A more bizarre courtroom was the Kafkaesque military commission at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba, where the five plotters behind the 9/11 attack are being tried.
"Gitmo" is an ugly manifestation of the American military-industrial complex, and of the failure to disentangle the US from the wars and missteps of the George W Bush administration. It is hard to see any justice being served there, particularly when the hearings were broadcast into a glass-sealed public gallery on a delay, to allow a judge and a CIA agent to censor any classified detail revealed in court.
Despite Obama’s best efforts Guantánamo remains open, and Trump has promised to “load it up with some bad dudes”. It is also, therefore, a monument to the failures of the Obama administration and to the congressional stasis that prevented him closing it.
It was remarkable during my 2013 visit to watch relatives of some of the 2,976 victims of the 9/11 attacks attend the trial. They stood transfixed by the sight of the five defendants appearing in person as they were led into court for the first time. One firefighter injured in the attacks spent much of the week trying to engage the lead plotter, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a staring contest. By the end of the week he felt he had won, by forcing the accused to block his sightline with folders of legal papers.
Glenn Morgan, whose father, Richard, had died in the Twin Towers, recalled that time in Gitmo, in an email to me this week, as “a seven-mile-by- seven-mile box of raw emotion”.
Morgan lamented the stalled trial as “a squandered opportunity to shine a beacon of fairness and calibration into a dark corner of the world”.
“For me,” he added, “the cost of entry to GTMO was expensive. My entry fee was the life of my father, Richard Morgan, and for such a dear price it would be nice to see progress.”
The grim decision about whether to travel to the scene of the latest terror attack or mass shooting during my time in the United States was often determined by the nature of the atrocity and, morbidly, the number of fatalities. The all-too-frequent, all-too-routine nature of these massacres numbed my reaction, at least until I travelled and met the survivors and relatives of the victims and saw the pain on their faces.
"It was a scene that nobody should have to visualise or experience," a shaken Dontae Martinez, a 22-year-old law student, told me, describing through tears the blood and the people falling around him as he ran from Omar Mateen's gun attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016. Mateen killed 49 people and injured 53 more that night. It was the deadliest attack in the US by a single gunman.
The horror of these tragedies is often soothed by the way the communities they affect rally, standing united against hate and supporting the victims. In the aftermath of the Pulse attack Orlando hugged its LGBT community in a warm embrace.
Likewise, the deaths of six Irish students in the Berkeley balcony collapse, in June 2015, was a moment of great trauma but also brought out the best in what I saw in Irish-American communities across the US: the meitheal, as President Michael D Higgins put it on his trip to the San Francisco Bay Area to remember the victims.
This is the interdependence that binds people with common interests and the generosity of spirit that extends well beyond the Irish in the US.
Where Obama reminded us that we live in each other’s shadows, Trump tried to create bogeymen in those shadows.
What makes the United States great
In my final year, while travelling the US on the campaign trail, most people I met were not deplorables, nasty women or “bad hombres” but people who felt left behind by an uneven economic recovery and feared what the future held for them, their families and their country.
Trump, the PT Barnum of American politics, managed to fan flames around those anxieties with his pitchfork populism, apocalyptic rantings and xenophobic rhetoric. He exploited the self-curated news cocoons created by new technology and social media, fuelling the idea that any facts you don’t agree with are fake.
The antithesis of the cerebral Obama, Trump chose spectacle and name calling over politics and reasoned debate. He brought out the worst impulses of an angry, divided electorate frustrated with career politicians. He won without a majority or even a plurality of voters.
There were certainly economic backwaters in the so-called flyover states, where white working-class voters justifiably felt deserted by their elected representatives.
But the dark, dystopian vision of a decaying, lawless, racially divided US that Trump painted bore little resemblance to the country that I grew to know over four years, and I visited 37 states by my final count.
In years to come, when I look back at my time in the United States, I will not remember first the fury of Trump or the ugliness he brought out in others. I will not remember the US that had my friends in Washington, DC – a 94 per cent Democratic city – struggling to explain Trump’s election victory to their children, or feeling as if there had been a death in their family the morning after the election.
I will remember the things that make the United States great: the exciting melting pot of cultures in its cities; barrelling down a snowy hill at the Capitol on a sledge with my daughters; seeing the first burst of colour with Washington’s blooming cherry trees; catching fireflies on soupy June evenings; or new acquaintances in a city of blow-ins welcoming an Irish family into their homes for food and friendship.
And, yes, I will remember that tornado. The thing about tornadoes is that they can grow in strength and wreak havoc on everything in their path, but they eventually blow themselves out. Then people roll up their sleeves and rebuild.
Suzanne Lynch is now the Irish Times Washington Correspondent