The State of America, with Janna Levin, Thomas Mallon and Gloria Steinem at #AWF16

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The ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre was packed out to hear cosmologist Janna Levin, writer Thomas Mallon and feminist icon Gloria Steinem discuss the state of the United States of America, ably chaired by Guyon Espiner.

US FlagTrump-bashing was the order of the day and Mallon wasted no time getting stuck in. “I’m less interested in explaining Trump than in vanquishing him … he is dangerous, grotesque … If this means the end of the Republican party, so be it … He believes in nothing.” This played well with the crowd, who, drawn by their horrified fascination with the current US presidential nomination race, had come in their hundreds to receive an explanation from US intellectuals who presumably had some kind of insight into what the hell is going on.

Insight was duly delivered with varying degrees of helpfulness. Levin admitted right away that she couldn’t explain Trump’s popularity at all. “I have very little insight to the human psyche, I do math … I live in a bubble of academics, and we don’t realise what others are thinking … We didn’t take [Trump] seriously soon enough – and by ‘we’ I mean sane people.” I think this is an important point: there is a danger in surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you, and developing the delusion that you must therefore be in a national majority. Although she was playing it for laughs, I think Levin’s last comment is very telling: there a danger too in characterising your own point of view as ‘sane’, thus demonising the views of your opponents.

I found Steinem’s view much more insightful. She spoke of how Trump is “a backlash candidate”; a backlash, that is, against the advances of civil rights, feminism, environmentalism etc over the past few decades. Trump supporters “feel displaced by a lack of hierarchy … they have been raised to believe their identity depends on racial hierarchy”. Mallon added that “people will vote for Trump even though they fear his presidency because he gives them a chance to insult those they feel aggrieved by [such as Muslims and people of colour, but also professional politicians and the media]”.

Steinem gave an interesting historical perspective, saying that the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s drove the racist Democrats into the Republican party, which has become more extreme. She hopes that Trump may cause the old centrist Republicans to reemerge.

Steinem is optimistic: “I’m a hopeaholic”. Speaking about the upcoming Presidential race, she says Clinton can be elected “but it’s gonna be hell … Trump is ruthless … I live for the day an atheist is President! A single, gay atheist … the only thing better would be a pagan.” She said that “hope is a form of planning”, and noted that within our lifetimes the USA will no longer be a majority white country – “This is crucial source of backlash but also of hope because change is inevitable.”

Moving on from Trump, Espiner invited the panellists to explain America’s allergy to public healthcare and gun control: two other issues on which we as New Zealanders feel comfortably superior to the USA. Steinem says you have to follow the money – the reason these things are so hard to change is because they’re protected by wealthy and powerful vested interests. Only in the ballot box are we all equal: “It’s up to us as the social justice movement to combat money with people power.”

I was struck all of a sudden by the oddness of the event: to have invited three Americans to the stage to explain their country to us, because we think they’re screwing up. And all three of the guests took our fascination with their society to be completely natural: America is so globally all-encompassing that of course we would feel involved. Would there have been such a large turnout for a panel discussion on the state of China, or Germany, or India? I wondered too under what circumstances there would be a session at a literary festival in another country to dissect what’s wrong with Aotearoa (and who would they invite to do the explaining?).

In considering this event, I was reminded of Helene Wong’s warning in her magnificent Michael King Memorial Lecture earlier today: beware the ultra-nationalism growing overseas because it could happen here as well. Maybe we shouldn’t feel so superior to the US after all.

The State of America, reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Thomas Mallon‘s solo event, Power Tales, is at 3.00pm  on Saturday, 14 May
Janna Levin
‘s solo event, Gravitational Sensations, is at 4.30pm on Sunday, 15 May