Can Town Hall America take on Trump?

"It does not stop thinking and it cannot stop talking"

April 06, 2017
United States President Donald Trump ©Olivier Douliery/DPA/PA Images
United States President Donald Trump ©Olivier Douliery/DPA/PA Images

I was in Washington DC a fortnight ago, and spent a few nights at the Trump International Hotel, which opened in September. The place is as you probably imagine it: a cornucopia of marble and fake gold, with signature cocktails and steak dinners in a vast inner atrium. In his own brash way, Donald Trump is resurrecting a tradition. The use of the term “to lobby” is sometimes said to come from the old practice of policy hacks hanging around in hotel hallways, hoping to grab the attention of passing congressmen. Trump has given the city a terrific, huge new lobby—right on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks from the White House.

While I was in the city, I sat in on a “Nebraska Breakfast” in one of the Senate buildings up on Capitol Hill. This event is an example of American localism in action: each Wednesday, any Nebraskan in the capital can take part in a kind of meet-and-greet session with their senators and congressmen. No other state holds a gathering of this kind in Washington. It has been going on since 1943 and Nebraskans take it very seriously.

Nebraska Breakfast has the feel of a school assembly. Sitting in rows were groups of families, friends and schoolchildren; there was also a university professor, a farmer, a soldier in uniform and someone representing an association of cyclists. Republican Senators Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer both gave short speeches, then each person was given the opportunity to stand up and introduce themselves to the assembly.

America is at its best when it is at its most local. The French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville saw this as far back as 1831, when he visited the fledgling United States and marvelled at its culture of democratic participation. It is a tradition of civil society—let’s call it “Town Hall America”—that remains an integral part of the country’s identity. Town Hall America is a form of politics fostered through organisations and neighbourhood associations, clubs and cooperatives, tea parties and state committees that span the land from New England to New Mexico.

Town Hall America is an untidy creature. It does not stop thinking and it cannot stop talking. If it allows anything to define it, then it is two principles: decentralisation for government, and direct representation for the people. The evidence suggests that it has a wide appeal. In Gallup polls in late 2016, 71 per cent of Americans say they have a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of trust in local government to handle problems; only 42 per cent feel the same way about their political leaders. Recently, town hall meetings were instrumental in the successful opposition to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

This type of localism and social capital is different from most other countries. In France, where I have lived for much of my adult life, two political entities reign supreme: the individual and the state. Anything messy that operates in the middle is considered illegitimate and there is little scope for what Americans call “intermediary institutions.” It is perhaps no coincidence that the French are great rebels as individuals, yet centralists as a people.

And yet despite its lineage, Town Hall America is going through difficult times. Much has already been said about the challenges facing communities in “flyover country”—the dismissive term for the land between the east and west coasts. The decline in established industries, a shortage of skilled jobs, a decaying infrastructure and the flat-lining of social mobility has affected the way in which people do politics. In this dispossessed landscape, localism has become a way of expressing disillusionment with the national situation rather than a celebration of civil society.

These are the communities that made Trump the president. The irony that it was a metropolitan billionaire who tapped into the disillusionment shows the extent to which the main political parties have taken localism for granted. But such opportunism would never have been possible were it not for the weakening of the civil structures that are the bedrock of local communities.

We see it in America through the rising interference of corporate interests and the cult of personality. We see it in the UK too, where local authorities are infantilised and given the language of sovereignty with little of its authority. In other words, the battle over localism has become a common cause. Political commentators and policymakers are increasingly making this case that a degraded civil society at the local level is dangerous for all of us globally.

More needs to be done to support this cause. It is only through building from the bottom up, through strong associations and empowering institutions, that local communities can become resilient to fragmentation and dispossession. As journalist and political analyst Yuval Levin argues in his book The Fractured Republic, by restoring the institutions that stand between isolated individuals and the national state, America can renew its social contract.

This should be the rallying cry of the Town Hall—for Nebraskans as for the other states; for Americans and for the rest of us. Together, it is time to take back the local for us all.