‘It is a worrying time to be in America but it is still a wonderful country’

Marion McKeone is Ireland’s foremost reporter on the United States and she is taking part in GIAF’s First Thought Talks series with a lecture entitled ‘Trump’s Wall: A Symptom of a Greater US Sickness?’ at NUIG’s Aula Maxima on Saturday July 20 at 12 noon.

McKeone is US correspondent for The Sunday Business Post and Today FM and was formerly US editor for The Sunday Tribune. She has also written for The Guardian, New York Times, and The Irish Times, and is a regular contributor to RTÉ current affairs programmes. She has covered all the major political events in the US from 9/11 and through the presidencies of Bush, Obama, and Trump.

She is a seasoned, sharp-eyed, observer of the US political landscape and, ahead of her Galway visit, she spoke with me from LA about her ringside view of America over the past two decades, with special focus on Trump’s heartless hardline policy, toward immigrants on its southern border.

“It is the most fascinating, complex country,” McKeone begins, as she offers her overview of America and its attitudes. “There is a mixture of irreverence, humour, and passion but, sadly, also, of partisanship and enmity which has been getting worse lately. But there is huge energy and optimism here and I think no country has the capacity, and it is still a young country, to heal itself as quickly as America does.

“I remember covering the second Bush inauguration in 2004. John Kerry was a terrible candidate and it wasn’t surprising Bush beat him. When Bush won I remember the triumphalism and nastiness and feeling very depressed that America had gone down this route. I also remember the 2004 Democratic convention, and Barack Obama speaking at it, and I rang Matt Cooper, who was my editor at the time, and said ‘The next Democratic president will be Barack Obama’ and Matt replied ‘but he’s black!’ and I said ‘I know, but there is something about him’. Four years after Bush and Cheney were re-elected, America chose a young politician, with little experience, who was also a black American and that is the speed with which America can regenerate itself.”

The current field of Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidency is as crowded as an Aintree Grand National. McKeone shares her thoughts on the frontrunners.

“I’ve met Joe Biden many times and he is a lovely man but, politically, the more you see of him the less impressive he becomes,” she says. “I don’t think he has what it takes to go the distance. You need somebody who can energize people in the way Obama did and I don’t see anyone in the Democratic field who can do that.

“Kamala Harris is probably the closest but I’ve been disappointed in her; I covered her launch in Oakland and it was bigger than most rallies for Trump, with over 20,000 people, and there was not a single glitch. She was very impressive but I think she has hired too many Hillary Clinton staffers and is too equivocal on too many things. Her default position on controversial issues is ‘Oh we need to have a conversation about that’ and that does not win you an election.

“Bernie Sanders has no chance; I covered a lot of his campaign in 2016 and by the end of it he was visibly exhausted, both mentally and physically. He pushed the party to the left and now the people on the left have overtaken him. Elizabeth Warren could win the nomination but I don’t think Americans will elect her. Pete Buttigieg is the most talented politician there but America is not going to elect a married gay man though he could be a very exciting VP running mate - if the Democrats had the nerve to do that.”

‘The bad news is I think Donald Trump has a very good chance of being re-elected. Americans are turning a blind eye to all the ugliness and divisiveness and his appalling border policy’

The plight of refugees and asylum seekers along the US-Mexican border, and their cruel treatment by the US authorities, has appalled many people around the world. McKeone has observed the issue up close and listened to the opinions of people on the ground.

“I’ve been to all of the border towns, like Tijuana, San Diego, Calexico, McAllen, Brownsville, etc, and the communities there have no problem with immigrants, for several reasons. Firstly, a lot of people have family on either side of the border and those families are mixed, they are Anglo-Hispanic. They are sympathetic to the plight of border crossers but a lot of the landowners and ranchers I spoke with are not sympathetic.

“I found mixed attitudes even among border control agents. Some of them are just doing their jobs, a lot of them are Hispanic themselves, and many are disturbed by the suffering they see. They feel their hands are tied – they are told there is a zero tolerance policy and they have to arrest people and then they have to keep them in these appalling conditions.

“I really can’t say enough about the squalour and cruelty of the conditions in which people are being held. I worked on the border between Syria and Lebanon for two and a half years, and on the border between Kenya and Somalia, and I never saw the sort of policies that are being implemented now in the US. They seem intended to maximise the suffering of women, children, asylum seekers and illegal border crossers alike.

“I find that very disturbing and the people who live on the border have said to me repeatedly that they do not want to be part of this. The people who have been doing heroic work on the border are the Catholic Church organisations and other religious groups; they are the only ones who are providing any kind of humanitarian aid.”

McKeone explains the rationale behind the US’s zero tolerance policy toward these border crossers. “There has been a policy from Washington, and people like Stephen Miller and John Kelly, of deterrence. They feel if they make things as difficult and painful as possible for people coming over the border then fewer will come. But even border patrol officers have said to me that you may as well tell someone not to jump out of a burning building because what these people are fleeing is so awful that they will risk being separated from their children, and being held in cells, and all kinds of contempt and cruelty being inflicted upon them, because they are desperate.

“So the policy of deterrence is not deterring them it is just magnifying their suffering. Obama had strict policies as well and he deported over two million people so it is not like this started with Trump. Trump however has wrongly claimed that Obama was also separating children from their parents. That is not true, children were only detained if they were unaccompanied minors or caught with known criminals; and they were usually teenagers, they were not kids being put in cells who were only a few years old. That did not happen before and that is unspeakable cruelty, it’s wrong and we all need to be a lot more outraged.”

While there is no denying the dark clouds over present day America, McKeone, in conclusion, can still see a silver lining. “The bad news is I think Donald Trump has a very good chance of being re-elected,” she says. “Americans are turning a blind eye to all the ugliness and divisiveness and his appalling border policy because the stock market is high and unemployment is down to 3.6 per cent. But I do think that things will get better.

“There are legal mechanisms and institutions in America that have held strong and mostly been able to withstand the Trump excesses. There will never be a 2,000 mile long border wall for legal and practical reasons, but the main problem is that you have this pandering to the worst aspects of the American psyche, the xenophobia, and this is doing a lot of damage to America. It is a worrying time to be in America but it is still a wonderful country for all its faults; it’s hugely generous and optimistic. I feel like America is a teenager going through a bad phase and in a year or two it will be out of the woods and back to some kind of normality.”

Tickets for ‘Trump’s Wall: A Symptom of a Greater US Sickness?’ are €10 via www.giaf.ie, and Marion McKeone will be interviewed by Larry Donnelly, NUI Galway legal scholar, and broadcaster.

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