28 Feb 2016

The rage driving the race for the next American President

From Insight, 8:12 am on 28 February 2016

RNZ's political editor travels to the US and finds widespread anger at Washington politicians and big money impacting on the presidential primary race.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both have committed supporters.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both have committed supporters. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

Heading to the US, one of the questions I wanted to try to answer was why Donald Trump's campaign for the Republican nomination was gaining such momentum.

It was a question never far from peoples' minds as I interviewed voters and chatted to dozens of Americans.

Listen to Insight:

The billionaire businessman-turned-politician has been causing outrage in some corners and attracting wholehearted support in others for his uncompromising stance on Muslims, plans to build a wall with Mexico and ideas on security and immigration.

Mr Trump was so sure of his popularity, he declared he could stand on Fifth Avenue in New York, shoot somebody and still not lose support.

While waiting at San Francisco Airport I struck up a conversation with Shirley Kappas, a 66 year old who grew up in Texas.

What she said to me about Mr Trump would be echoed by several other people in the four states I would visit.

"People are furious, and... the everyday working person, is mad and angry, and Trump is hitting that anger - that's the phenomenon of Trump.

"They're angry at politicians saying they're going to do things, they're going to do what the people want and then they go to Washington and they don't, they do what big business wants and they feather their own nests and people are furious."

She believed that was allowing politicians like Mr Trump to wheel out controversial rhetoric and not be questioned or examined too closely by the electorate.

"He says things that people don't like - even his followers - but they're like, well I don't care; he's going to do this and he's going to do that."

Salesman holds up Trump scarf at outside stall

 Hawkers sell Donald Trump merchandise in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Photo: ( RNZ / Jane Patterson )

Dangerous or exciting?

"A buffoon," "dangerous," "disgusting" were all terms I frequently heard used to describe Mr Trump.

But there is a contradiction in some people's thinking: even though they fear what America would look like under his Presidency, they can't help but admire him.

Darryl from Florida was a good example: "He does bring something to the table, he's mixing things up, he's getting people excited, I think we kind of need something like that right now in these times, you know we don't need the average politician and he's forcing some of these politicians to get outside of their comfort zone if you will."

But how would he react if Mr Trump was elected President?

"I would be a little nervous," he admitted.

"Yeah he's a businessman, and could he do positive things for our economy and generate jobs? - probably. But when it comes to foreign affairs and all that, that's what makes me nervous."

International relations and how other countries would react to a Trump Presidency were common themes.

I came across Sue who ran an artists' co-operative on the main street of Plymouth, a small university town in New Hampshire.

Sue in her tidy studio

Sue has always voted for the Democrats but is now considering supporting Donald Trump. Photo: ( RNZ / Jane Patterson )

Softly spoken but with firm views, Sue told me she had always voted Democrat in the past, but was now seriously considering Donald Trump.

"Trump is...I've never voted Republican, ever....and Trump is, he's like a fresh face and although I think his world politics might be a little scary, because of the way he just speaks what he thinks without refining it at all. But I'm sure that if he was elected, he would probably surround himself with a lot of bright people."

Just up the road I spoke to 22-year-old Matt Boyce, a student who was working part time in the local laundrette.

Bearded student stands in front of two big front loader washing machines

Student Matt Boyce thinks Donald Trump lacks policy. Photo: ( RNZ / Jane Patterson )

He was more cynical. "I'm not a fan," he said.

Mr Boyce said Mr Trump talks a lot, but doesn't back it up with specifics.

"He has these grand plans but he doesn't really say how he's going to implement the, you know, and he just sort of relies on 'well we're going to make America great', like, that's great but what are you gonna do?"

Republican voters also have concerns about Mr Trump and how he would behave as President.

Republican voter stands outside hall doors

 Donald Trump's charm isn't enough for Paula Maxheim. Photo: ( RNZ / Jane Patterson )

Paula Maxheim was at a Ted Cruz rally in Iowa; she was still undecided about who she would support for the Republican nomination, but she was sure about one thing - Donald Trump.

"Absolutely not."

She was most worried by his apparent lack of Christian principles.

"When he said, at the first meeting I went to, that he never forgave anybody, one of the basic principles of Christianity is forgiveness.

"And he's always saying, 'well you ought to forgive me' but then he doesn't forgive, and this bothers me a lot.

"I think he's telling us in Iowa a lot of what we want to hear, and he is, he's very charming and he's got a different lifestyle but I don't know, I'm afraid he might be our [nominee] because he's got national appeal."

Don Sapienza was driving around in suburban Iowa with his wife Shirley and dog Albany when he spotted the Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley out door-knocking (Mr O'Malley has since dropped out of the race after a poor showing at the Iowa caucuses).

Two men shake hands on a crsip wintery  day

 Iowan voter Don Sapienz meets Martin O’Malley. Photo: ( RNZ / Jane Patterson )

After Mr Sapienza met Mr O'Malley, I asked him what he thought about how America was being represented to the rest of the world through the prism of the Presidential race.

He told me America already had an image problem and this contest was not helping.

"When I travelled internationally it was about the 'ugly American'; Americans who were travelling had a very (bad) image and what I tried to do was show that we're not a bunch of scoundrels....we don't flaunt our riches.

"We are a country of moderates who really do want to have a global perspective."

Big Money Influence

A major selling point for Mr Trump and the left-wing Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is that they are not relying on big money donors to fund their campaigns.

Mr Trump is using mainly his own money and makes sure his supporters know it - "Everyone else is taking money, I call them the bloodsuckers."

His Republican rival Jeb Bush had a massive target on his back for being the beneficiary of more than a $100 million from Super PACS fundraising committees. But his access to enormous amounts of money was not enough to endear him to voters, and he dropped out of the race.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Photo: AFP

Mr Sanders has raised millions from individual supporters, a point in his favour in the view of one New Hampshire voter:

"He's an honest politician who wants to get big money out of politics and shake up the whole American system."

Tia O'Neill lives in Virginia.  A freelance writer and the mother of two young children, she wanted to see better access to education and healthcare, but said campaign finance reform was also very important to her.

"The lobbyists in this country spend way more money than the individual person could ever hope to spend; their influence is astounding.

"It really hurts our political system because we're allowing private interests to influence our politicians and I think that's where the anger comes from because they're not necessarily representing the people they're being elected to represent.

"It's really frustrating and there are a lot of people that are angry, and that's why we have the candidates that we have, that's why there's such a stark contrast and there's such a divide.

"Because people are angry on both sides."

Follow Insight on Twitter