The road to American optimism continues. This time, we visit Eastburn bar in Portland to watch the first televised debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Presidential debates take central stage in the US in comparison to other countries. News sites proclaimed the debate would attract a Super Bowl-sized audience. About 84 million people tuned into the first debate, not far off predictions.
As the oldest democracy in the world, this doesn’t come as a surprise. But what our ethnographers weren’t expecting was the positively engaging atmosphere in the crowd, filled with humorous fanfare and spectacle.
The crowd in the bar looks attentively at the screen. There is a mix of ages but not political beliefs. As expected of Portland, this is definitely an anti-Trump party.
Before the debate begins, we notice that those sitting – and have reserved tables – have bespoke debate bingo cards where instead of numbers, boxes are ticked when topics are mentioned. Skittles, Mexico and Putin are all buzzwords to listen out for.
The first topic of tax creates a pantomime atmosphere. Hillary and Trump quickly assume the role of hero and villain. Hillary continues to hit Trump with one-line ‘zingers’ but her actual points seem to fail to make a real connection with the audience. Everything Trump says is laughed at, mocked, jeered.
‘He can’t win. He won’t win’ – says Glenda, 72.
When the topic moves to the racial shootings, the crowd sobers (though the drinks still flow). This clearly uncomfortable topic means people distract themselves by checking their social media, either posting or catching up on the commentary. Towards the end of this part of the discussion, Trump claims to have done a lot of good work and is popular with the African American community. This signals the return of the jeering and laughter.
As soon as the debate is over, the bar quickly empties – with everyone happy and confident that Hillary ‘bossed it’. It’s hard not to get swept up in the wave of anti-Trump, pro-Hillary support. Yet for all the cheers in the pub, our ethnographer seemed to be the only person picking up on the cheers for Trump coming from the television studio.
Expecting to see a night of sober reflection and concern for the future, what our team on the ground have witnessed was the opposite. They have seen a microcosm of optimistic America still going strong.
Americans live in a moment in history where all parts of the world show significant political shifts. However, its characteristic positivity still flows on a micro level. Perhaps there is a perception that no matter who wins, the US is a country that is shielded from harm. For Americans, US is perhaps seen as just ‘too big to fail’.