Facing up to the political partition

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American presidential candidates Donald Trump (left) and Hillary Clinton (right).

On 8 November 2016 the United States of America will elect a new president. The USA is arguably the most powerful nation in the world, so it is no wonder that the issue has dominated the media for the past few months. However, on the surface it seems that this is not a trend that is reflected in student discourse at the University of St Andrews. Even though we have a large proportion of American students living and studying here, there seems to be very little serious debate over the policies of the two presidential nominees. Indeed, the St Andrews Union Debating Society recently held a comedy debate entitled ‘This House Would Assassinate President Trump’, exemplifying the lack of respect for Trump and his campaign within the University.

American presidential candidates Donald Trump (left) and Hillary Clinton (right).
American presidential candidates Donald Trump (left) and Hillary Clinton (right).

Matt Schoonmaker, President of Democrats Abroad, told The Saint that discussion has declined since the presidential nominees were chosen, saying, “There was a much better debate over Bernie [and] Hillary. That was robust, there were serious ideas being discussed back when more reasonable Republicans were in the race – people like Jeb Bush, there was a real debate going on.”

Mr Schoonmaker attributes this lack of debate to the fact that “it’s really hard for [students] to just wrap their heads around the idea that someone could … not even just vote for Trump, but contemplate voting for Trump.“ He suggests that this is partially due to the fact that many students in St Andrews have a keen interest in foreign affairs and recognise the infeasibility of Trump’s ideas.

“The view that Trump stands in as the definition of a Republican is utterly false.”

Mr Schoonmaker suggests the inability of many students in St Andrews to understand why anyone would vote for Trump and his simplified policy ideas has lead to “a stifling effect.” He continued, “if you’re a Republican then you’re afraid to even say that you’re a Republican.”

Indeed, when asked about whether it was now taboo to voice his political stance, one Republican supporter who wished to remain anonymous replied: “That’s a solid yes,” adding that in the US, his stance as a Rockefeller Republican is respected, whereas the reaction he gets in St Andrews is much more along the lines of “a ‘why won’t you vote for Hillary Clinton?’”

Although the population of St Andrews is highly educated, there is still a tendency to view Trump and the Republican Party as being synonymous. When asked about this tendency the Republican supporter replied, “the view that Trump stands in as the definition of a Republican is completely and utterly false.”

As far as this student is concerned, “America is the strongest democracy in the history of democracies and therefore the President of the United States must act as the leader of the free world. He noted that Trump’s conduct has been, overall, “extraordinarily unseemly of a president.”

However, as this Republican supporter points out, the lack of debate within St Andrews is actually part of a greater worldwide phenomenon. He says, “It’s not so much that there’s no debate in St Andrews” but more that “there is a growing sense in both America and Britain that if you disagree with someone, you should simply not argue with them. You should say, I disagree with you and I’m not going to agree with you and therefore you’re wrong.”

Although he dislikes this approach, he does admit that coming across people who disagree with him so strongly in St Andrews has shaped his political opinions: “I feel like being at St Andrews has changed my views on the election, giving the opposing views that I hear. If I was surrounded by people that agreed with me, well, not only would that be boring, but it would probably radicalise my views, which I feel is happening in the States.”

The void that has been left by the lack of debate on policy in the press seems to have been filled by personal attacks and scandalous news stories being run about the two presidential candidates. Philip Trevisan, Press Secretary of Democrats Abroad in St Andrews, voiced his concerns about how the media is focusing on the wrong issues. He said, “I think Hillary Clinton’s positives are getting sort of pushed out by how terrible Donald Trump is” because “he takes up a lot of the media coverage but he makes such an idiot of himself when he does it.”

Sensationalist media has exacerbated this problem and constantly appears on students’ newsfeeds. You cannot scroll through Facebook without seeing a story about people trolling Trump or creating conspiracy theories surrounding Hillary Clinton’s conduct. Moreover, even serious non-American news sources that have less of a motive for bias seem to show little respect for Trump and his policies.

Mr Schoonmaker believes that “because the international media is bewildered by Trump, the international community is bewildered by Trump.” Consequently many Americans are forced to resort to read ing about the election from US-based news sources.

[pullquote]This may have the effect of increasing voter turnout as people will come out “if only so that they vote against Trump.”[/pullquote]

“The president of the United States must act as the leader of the free world.”

After comparing media sources from both the UK and US, one thing that is obvious is that this is a unique election, with complete polarization of support on both sides. When asked about why he thought that this was the case, Mr Trevisan replied that it is the result of both parties lacking respect for the other’s candidate. “[Democrats] wanted to win in 2012, but we didn’t feel like the country was going to fall apart. I don’t agree with John McCain or Mitt Romney on a lot of things but I still respected them a lot as people. I have no respect for Donald Trump at all.”

This lack of respect appears to have provoked a certain level of fear on each side that the candidate from the opposing party will win. As a result many citizens see their vote as an act against the opposing candidate, rather than an act of support for their own candidate or party.

According to a national survey conducted by Pew Research Center in June more than half of Trump supporters (55 per cent) view their vote more as a vote against Clinton, while just 41 per cent view it as a vote for Trump.

Mr Trevisan pointed out that this may have the effect of increasing voter turnout as people will come out “if only so that they vote against Trump.”

One thing mentioned by the anonymous Republican supporter was that this particular election has become a “reality TV show.” He was not wrong. At this point in time nobody can be sure which way the USA will choose to vote, but one thing is certain: the rest of the world will be waiting with bated breath.

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