Shortly after arriving in Anchorage, Alaska, I started hearing and reading references to 'the lower 48'. It took me a while to figure out that this meant the 48 mainland states, Alaska and Hawaii (which only joined the union in 1959) being physically separate to the north and west respectively. Indeed, it is a source of some mirth locally that, used to seeing how the two states are depicted on maps of the US, some Americans apparently believe Alaska – like Hawaii – to be an island.
Yet Alaskans certainly consider themselves to inhabit a place apart, which is understandable considering the former US 'territory' formed part of the Russian empire until 1867. Although to an outsider Anchorage (a compact city ringed by charcoal-black mountains) feels resolutely American, at the same time it does not, a bit like visiting Northern Ireland, which is simultaneously British and un-British. The night after I arrived – via a scenic flight taking in Iceland, Greenland and Canada’s northwestern passages – I ended up getting drunk with an eclectic group, some local and others 'seasonal' workers to the north of Anchorage. 'I’m not American,' a young female artist told me. 'When I go there it feels weird.'
Later, we ended up snogging (as the kids say) in Anchorage’s only gay bar, Mad Myrna’s, something I only properly recalled on finding two strips of passport-photo booth pictures in my hotel room the following morning. My unlikely companion – we had parted affectionately before I went home – had also told me it irritated her to hear Donald Trump state his ambition to 'make America great again'. 'It’s already great,' she said, 'and he diminishes it by saying that'.
It’s safe to say the voters I’ve encountered thus far do not regard this presidential election as a positive experience for American democracy. In Anchorage and elsewhere pleasantries fell into two parts. 'What brings you to the United States?' someone would ask cheerily. 'I’m a journalist…' I would begin in response, prompting a positive reaction (unlike in Scotland). 'I’m here for the election,' I’d then continue, at which point faces would fall and subjects swiftly changed.
I got much the same reaction in Seattle, a Pacific northwestern city in the state of Washington that first imprinted itself on my teenage consciousness via the comedy series 'Frasier', which concerned a radio psychiatrist played by Kelsey Grammar. Its opening credits included an animated skyline of the city, in which most prominent was the 'Space Needle', an observation tower constructed for the 1962 World’s Fair. I visited at sunset on Saturday evening and it didn’t disappoint.
Waiting in the queue I got chatting with two native Washingtonians, one of whom made a point of self-classifying as 'white trash'. I asked them about the election and they both admitted to being in a quandary: they were evangelical Christians and therefore inclined towards the Republican candidate, but also acutely conscious that he wasn’t exactly a God-fearing church-going sort. But then he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, and that seemed to be enough. One told me Mrs Clinton was a 'socialist…a communist', and she didn’t mean that in a good way.
I asked if they’d be watching Monday night’s debate to which they replied with alacrity, 'yes!' And did it stand, I added, any prospect of changing their minds? 'No,' each replied, with comparable certainty. Finally, I asked if they thought Trump had any chance of victory on 8 November. They pondered this at length before one, armed with a quote from scripture, quietly informed me that 'God will decide'.
On the 'link' light rail service from Seattle’s airport to the waterfront downtown an African-American passenger intoned, mantra-like, 'Donald Trump says', while indicating his intention to back the Republican nominee. This caused obvious bemusement among the younger, hipper, passengers, but spoke to an unexpected aspect of Seattle life, that of homelessness and obvious poverty. There were what Americans would call 'bums' everywhere, some claiming (on hand-written bits of cardboard) to be aging 'hippies', while others simply revelled in bucking the system and championing individuality. I spoke to one gay guy who volunteered the unlikely fact that he’d be voting for Trump. 'His military plans, tax code, and passion to protect the US,' he replied when I asked him to explain why. 'I have two kids [and] I want them to know freedom their entire life.'
In the US, it seems that violence of some sort is constantly in the background. On arriving in Anchorage a state of emergency had been declared in Charlotte, North Carolina, following another police shooting, and I reached Seattle just days after a lone gunman had taken pot-shots at shoppers about 50 miles north of the city. Finally, on arriving in Portland, Oregon, on Monday afternoon, news was breaking of another shooting near a shopping mall in Houston, Texas.
All of this, naturally, was pushed down the running order by the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in the State of New York that evening. I’d arranged to attend a 'watch party' hosted by the Oregon Democrats in the eastern half of Portland, a city with an even more pronounced housing problem than Seattle. Outside my hostel in the Pearl District there appeared to be more people living on the sidewalk than in the hostel itself, and not just a few individuals, but whole groups, topless (it was hot) and listless, nesting among plastic bags stuffed full of what passed for belongings. Depressingly, few passing by batted an eyelid.
The Democratic and Republican nominees attempted to address such issues in their 90-minute debate, but neither did so very adequately. Otherwise it went much according to how screeds of pre-debate analysis predicted it would: Secretary Clinton came across as steady and 'the Donald' rambling and verging on unhinged. By any rational measurement Hillary walked it, but of course that doesn’t count for much in the modern political age. Outside the 'watch party' venue was a lone protestor looking slightly embarrassed. 'The Democratic Party,' his placard proclaimed, 'Supports Israeli Genocide'.
Most of those watching inside, meanwhile, would simply have come away with their pre-existing prejudices reinforced, and certainly they regarded Trump as a pantomime villain and their preferred candidate the all-conquering heroine, whooping when Clinton uttered a smart one-liner and groaning when the Republican nominee uttered something, in his own words, 'semi-exact'.
I sat next to an ebullient French-born US citizen who told me she’d seen the recently-deceased golfer Arnold Palmer play at Turnberry back in 1963. Did she know who now owned that course and hotel, I asked innocently. 'Yes! That asshole!' replied Christine, gesticulating at the screen in front of us. 'And the worse thing is,' she added, 'that idiot’s mother was from Scotland'. She then added darkly and quietly, 'and his father was a German'.
David Torrance's American diary continues in the November edition of SR, which will be online 27 October