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Taylor Swift, Donald Trump and an America That Confounds the World

November 09,2018 05:08

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau chief. Sign up to get it by email. Here's where to find all our Oceania coverage. ______. After Taylor Swift sang “Bad Blood” and “Gorgeous,” before the trapeze artists appeared ...

Letter 80
Taylor Swift in Sydney last week, and President Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday.CreditCreditMark Metcalfe/Getty Images and Evan Vucci/Associated Press
Nov. 8, 2018

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau chief. Sign up to get it by email. Here’s where to find all our Oceania coverage.
After Taylor Swift sang “Bad Blood” and “Gorgeous,” before the trapeze artists appeared, while the fireworks were bright and the rain was still bucketing down, I smiled and thought: This is so American.
That was last Friday, when she performed in Sydney at ANZ Stadium. I was there with my young daughter and son, and it’s not the first time I’ve contemplated what pop music could teach my kids about the United States.
As I wrote when they were toddlers in Mexico, “our ears pull in the first lessons of culture,” and America’s greatest appeal can often be found in the sounds showing off the country’s carefree creative exuberance.

Friday’s concert, though, came at a serious time: just a few days before the American midterm elections that determined control of Congress. And what I saw in Taylor Swift’s no-holds-barred extravaganza (even though I’m a middling fan of her music) was some important context for all of us trying to figure out what on earth is going on in the U.S. of A.
What it told me — or reminded me — was that the country is impossible to hold down, that it’s far too big and too dynamic for any one person to totally corral or define. No place that can produce Childish Gambino and Taylor Swift, or Lady Gaga and Cardi B, will ever be easy to control.
President Trump received a form of that message with Tuesday’s election results. Despite structural barriers that favor Republicans in many states (from gerrymandered districts to voter ID restrictions), the House of Representatives flipped to the Democrats.
The Republicans added seats in the Senate but the results will no doubt lead to more pressure for the president and more open political conflict.
House leaders have already signaled that they plan to use their subpoena power to demand more from Mr. Trump (including his tax returns) while the president has threatened that he would retaliate with investigations of his own.

But before the battle gets going, let’s take a breath and ask: What do the results tell us about the country on a deeper level?
A few things to look at:
1. District Maps: This New York Times map shows which parts of the country shifted to the left and to the right compared to 2016. The leftward tilt was pretty widely dispersed.
2. Exit Polls: Surveys of voters from the 1980s onward highlight divisions that are both racial and generational, with the age divide becoming especially striking.
3. Diversity: More women and more young, nonwhite lawmakers are heading to Washington, including the first Muslim and Native American women elected to Congress. That means the power structure will more closely resemble the country at large.
All three of those developments point to an electorate with more people who have become more frustrated with President Trump, including many of those who voted for him two years ago.
If the age trends hold, and with a bunch of the winners coming from the more moderate side of the Democratic Party, it may also mean a future with more consensus than we have now.
Imagine that, an America united. I admit, I have a hard time picturing it.
But if we look beyond the what-ifs and issues and ideology — if we really step back — maybe we can see something more illuminating.

The results and the messiness of American democracy — with ridiculously long lines to vote, with far too many ways to cast ballots, with oodles of money sloshing around from billionaires — all spotlight the jumble of paradoxes that have shaped the United States since settlement.
It’s a country founded as a utopian “city on a hill” — and defined by ruthlessness in capitalism and politics.
It’s a country where white nationalism is surging — and “Black Panther” is the year’s top box-office earner.
I could give you a dozen more of these with 10 minutes and a beer, but I don’t live there anymore so I won’t bore you with that.
And really, Taylor Swift said it best. With just her guitar, playing in the middle of a giant stadium, with most of her big budget production taking a rest, she stripped down America to its essence:
“We’re happy free confused and lonely in the best way,” she sang. “It’s miserable and magical, oh yeah.”
Now for some other stories. Because even Tay knows it’s not always about her or her country.
You know where to find us for more discussion: Our NYT Australia Facebook group, and at nytaustralia@nytimes.com.
We had a busy week. So busy in fact, that I’m going to limit this week’s roundup to coverage connected to Australia and the region. Let’s dive in.

If you have a thoughtful 15 minutes...

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Damien Cave is the new Australia bureau chief for The New York Times. He’s covered more than a dozen countries for The Times, including Mexico, Cuba, Iraq and Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter: @damiencave.

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