As the US Presidential election was taking place, Carla Carlisle penned her thoughts about a uniquely disturbing event back in her homeland: an election in which both sides fervently believed that victory for their opponents would bring the end of the world as we know it.
I am writing this at the kitchen table. The soundtrack in my head is Dolly Parton singing What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen. The background noise in the room is Today on Radio 4 with Jon Sopel telling me what I already know: that America may — or may not — have four more years of Donald Trump. That the melodramatic story is not over.
I’m 3,000 miles or so from Dollywood outside of Nashville, on a farm in Suffolk, nine miles from the sugar-beet factory in Bury St Edmunds. Last night, as I waited for Katty Kay and Christian Fraser to begin the BBC’s coverage of the election, my fellow Americans were still standing in lines that stretch nearly as far as the beet factory to cast their vote for the next President of the United States.
What with the long lines of voters and publishing deadlines, I am writing this without knowing who is going to win. You have an advantage: barring stomping, tweeting and — new word for me — lawyering, when you read this, you will know who is going to occupy the White House for the next four years.
Not knowing makes me sick with anxiety, but there is something worse: it is the knowledge that America is in such a dark place that each side in this election believes that the victory of the other will bring about the end of America as they know it, that all the citizens of that vast and rich land believe the country is doomed if one half of it — the ‘other’ half — is victorious. The partisanship is so profound that, when you hear ‘lies, lies, lies’, it might be a reporter on CNN railing against a President known to be a braggart, a bully and a liar or it could be the angry voice of Fox News accusing the Biden team and the ‘liberal media’ of ‘lies, lies, lies’.
This is not a battle between two political parties, an ideological contest or a culture war. It’s like a religious war, with no forgiveness in sight.
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Our patch of East Anglia, 45 minutes from Lakenheath and Mildenhall, two of America’s main air bases in Britain, is like a field of dreams. I figure that about half of the Americans who come to the farmers’ market each Saturday, or eat in the vineyard restaurant, are Trump supporters. Divisions and differences that have scarred their friends and families back home — economic, medical, political, racial — are on hold on these air bases, model villages of an idealised America where every need is met and discipline is enforced. The Stars and Stripes flies high over the amber waves of grain that are pure Suffolk.
“Mac and I were both born and raised in the South, so we know in our bones how long divisions can persist”
It’s very different for my friends who live in Trumpland America, where Covid-19 and economic disaster are surging, masks are a political statement and ‘right to carry’ laws permit you to take your gun to the grocery store, the bar, to church, even to hospital should you have trouble breathing. The ‘right’ to carry a gun is considered as fundamental a right as liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
My friend Mac Gordon, a fearless reporter who lives in rural Georgia, writes about armed militia groups patrolling the streets in some American towns and cities. I look at these armed men with assault rifles in Charlottesville, Portland and Seattle from my position of safety in front of a slender television screen. The reality is terrifying.
Mac also has a sound track for these times. His is a mournful old country song by Porter Wagoner: I’ve Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand. He reckons that the title is how most Americans feel about the past four years, wherever they stand.
Mac and I were both born and raised in the South, so we know in our bones how long divisions can persist. So much has been stripped and laid bare by these past four years that it’s hard to believe we’re going to see an end in our lifetime. Once the populist fervour is unleashed, it’s hard to get it back into the bottle.
As I was writing this column, Mr Trump declared that he’d won. Never mind that millions of postal votes were yet to be counted, he called for the counting to stop and for the Supreme Court to get ready. He wants to fight it out.
If you are worried about your job, or affordable health care, or climate change, guns, opioid deaths, coronavirus, moral character or the education of your children — all the things Americans put on their list of worries — those will have to wait.
The first email to arrive in my inbox is brief: We are living under the volcano.
In the peace and warmth of my kitchen, I look out onto the apple orchard where chickens and peacocks check out the windfalls. The dog at my feet snores softly. On the wall by the window hangs a slate plaque carved with the words that hung over Karl Jung’s front door: Bidden or not bidden, God is present. The words have a theological suppleness that comforts me.
One morning, I had one of those hazy moments when I thought it said ‘Biden or not Biden, God is present’. By the time you read this, America — and the world — will know: Biden or not Biden. God only knows — and I hope He is present.