Interview by campaign agent Luke Walpole
Jon Sopel has been the BBC’s North American Editor since 2014. That means, in just a few years, he has witnessed some of the most influential events in modern American history. From the tragedy of the San Bernardino shootings to the incendiary violence on the streets of Ferguson in Missouri, Sopel has witnessed the divisions in American society first hand.
He has also had a front row seat in watching the rise of Trump and the tumultuous tenure the President has endured. His new book, ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English; Notes From Trump’s America’, is an engaging and perceptive analysis of the differences between the US and the UK. Told with wit, warmth, and incision, the book is a fantastic primer for anyone keen to know what happens on the other side of the Atlantic. Talk Politics caught up with Sopel to talk about the book, the role of journalists in Trump’s America, and how the author made it to where he is today.
Let’s talk about the book. You say it came around thanks to a Tweet which you received following an interview with Simon Mayo (on BBC Radio 2), but was this an idea which had been brewing around for a while?
JS – The conversation had been going on about how different America was to the UK. You know, going to live there, it felt very, very different; suddenly you’re aware of many more differences than you had previously imagined. So that’s how I started and it was in my thoughts. Then someone said, ‘well, what would you write if you were going to write something?’ And I thought, well this is obvious. It has to be about how profoundly different America is compared to the U.K.
I became very aware, and I thought that there were certain things that were just so obvious. Like guns, like God, like government, where people have got such different attitudes. Just the way people react to things is so different from how I would’ve imagined. Then, of course, you had the whole Trump effect as well, which made you think, my God, this really is so different and so extraordinary. So that again reinforced the strength of the narrative of the book, because you were now going through the craziest time with America electing a President so different from anything it had ever experienced before in its history.
Was it that America has always been different, but Trump threw it all into sharp relief?
JS – I think America has always been different, and that it just gave it all added resonance. And yes, exactly, threw it all into sharp relief, because you were suddenly dealing with a President who had uncovered all these feelings of anger and isolationism. The post-war settlement of America has been that it is this outward looking country, internationalist, and you suddenly got this big change in attitude, something which was pretty profound.
Okay, so let’s go for some alternative history. Had Clinton won those key swing states, would there have been a substantial change to the book, or were these differences that were always there?
JS – I think the first and last chapters wouldn’t be in particularly such sharp focus. Particularly with the chapter on ‘Truth’, where there was so much ‘Fake News’ that was shown. It seems on the face of it that some of it was done by people just wanting to make money, but there were some bad actors there who just wanted to mess with the election result. All that was telling you that the truth no longer matters, and that you can do whatever you like. It was all fine, and no one cared, and it was the new normal. I found that deeply alarming, just for the sake of democracy. This isn’t pro-Clinton, anti-Trump, or anti-Clinton, pro-Trump, it’s just that I think democracy thrives when people are well informed on good information.
I think there’s a supreme challenge now, and that chapter came around because there were so many people determined to undermine the election result, or subvert it, or however you want to describe it. Also, the chapter on ‘Anger’ was something that really came out. Then the disillusionment with conventional politics. It was partly anti-Hillary Clinton, but it was also partly anti-Jeb Bush, anti-Marco Rubio and anti-John Kasich. Anyone who seemed to represent mainstream politics as it has always been done was going to get a kicking. This was important in showing America in a given moment. The American Dream had turned to disillusionment, and people were prepared to think the unthinkable and to go in a direction and vote in a way that they had never voted in their history before. That is, for somebody who has no experience of government, and who hasn’t served in the armed forces. That was novel territory for America.
So those chapters were sharpened, but all the chapters were. So, for example on ‘Guns’, you had Donald Trump making some pretty incendiary comments on the Second Amendment, and how the ‘Second Amendment Boys’ might take matters into their own hands if Hillary got elected. All the chapters, I think, got a sharper focus because of the Trump victory. Nevertheless, the difference in our attitudes towards God, towards government, towards patriotism… those would’ve stayed irrespective. I just think the trends were brought into sharper relief.
Absolutely. One thing I’ve found reading the book is that there are almost different conceptions of America fighting off against each other. So, you’ve got the Liberal Elites, you’ve got the Rust-Belt people…
JS – I think that’s true, but I think there are some base values. Yes, some things are more exaggerated in the centre of America, for instance. Sure, Liberal West-coast America, and Liberal East-coast America are probably closer to Britain than the central, so-called ‘fly-over’ states. But nevertheless, there are still pretty profound differences there in attitudes towards guns and government. You know, no one was advocating a National Health Service. Hillary Clinton wasn’t, Bernie Sanders is doing it now, but still. Hillary Clinton wasn’t saying she wanted to repeal the Second Amendment. She was saying that she wanted marginal gun control measures at the edges; she wasn’t saying ‘overturn the Second Amendment.’ So, I don’t think it’s a case of saying, ‘If only the Liberals had won’, then America would be like Britain. It would still be a very different country.
Looking to that section on ‘Anger’, do you think at the moment that America is almost too angry to come back together. Is there too much difference? In some areas, you have Black Lives Matter activism, but only a couple of weeks ago we also had White Supremacist rallies. Is there too much anger to move forward productively?
JS – America is sharply divided, and I think that the divisions obviously pre-date Donald Trump. They were there, but they’ve come to the surface much more because he’s a deeply polarising figure. His base thinks he’s a hero, and they loved what he said after Charlottesville; the fact that he equivocated and put blame on both sides. Whilst Liberal America absolutely detest him for it. And so, you have an America where there is division between white and black, young and old, rural and urban, educated and uneducated. If there are these separate tribes, they all get their news from different sources that reinforce their opinion. All these people live in echo chambers, and that makes the divisions between them even sharper. If you’re a liberal, you’re not going to read Breitbart News, you’re not going to listen to FOX. If you’re a conservative, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be reading the New York Times or listening to MSNBC.
That all calls to mind what your role as a journalist is in these really strange times. Right at the start of Trump’s Presidency you had that lovely interaction where he said that you (and the BBC as a whole) were ‘another beauty’. How was that? And how has it been since?
JS – On a micro level, it was extraordinary, and unforgettable. In the space of one news conference I looked at my Twitter feed and thought ‘I’ve got 50 new followers. Oh no I haven’t, I misread that, I’ve got 5,000 new followers’, and you just think ‘jheez, this is global’ (laughter). ‘This just doesn’t normally happen.’ On another level, I felt I wanted to very politely and very respectfully say ‘No, we’re not Fake News. We do things impartially, we are fact based.’ I think the great mistake that could be made, and to some extent is being made by some of my colleagues in the US media, is to make the mistake of thinking that they are the opposition. We are not the opposition. We are there to hold power to account. It’s a traditional job that journalism has always had to do, and we will do it on evidence-based judgement, we’ll do it on facts. We’ll do it calmly and we will not get angry.
Donald Trump loves to have an enemy. He had Lying Ted, Little Marco, Low-Energy Jeb, Crooked Hillary and now he’s got Fake News Media. We mustn’t accept the sobriquet, we mustn’t get angry. Let us calmly, objectively, re-state what we’ve always done. Otherwise, if we lose the trust of our public, then the websites that churn out utter garbage and total fictitious, made-up bullshit – some of it is laughable and risible – win. With that story I tell at the start of ‘Truth’ [shows], it matters. Because this guy, Edgar Welch, took it upon himself to take a loaded AR-15 rifle into a pizza place in Washington because he wanted to release the children and there was no paedophile ring (Welch was acting out following reading about an apparent child-trafficking ring in D.C. on Twitter, thanks to the #Pizzagate handle. The story was a hoax.) So, I think that this stuff really, really matters, and I think it’s a very big challenge for us, no doubt about it. A very big challenge indeed.
Like you said, impartiality and being objective is such a huge part of your job. But have there been times when you’ve had to bite your tongue over some of the decisions that have been made, or some of the news that has come out of the White House?
JS – No, not really bite my tongue. There are times when you go ‘Wow. Cor’ blimey. I can’t believe that.’ But no, I think you report it. What I don’t think you want is vanilla, banal, bland reporting that says ‘Well Donald Trump said this, the Democrats said that. Only time will tell. Jon Sopel, BBC News.’ That is limp, that is unforgivable. We’ve got to be sharp, we’ve got to call it out when people make tall claims. We’ve got to report but we’ve got to stay calm. That doesn’t mean ‘be bland’; I want anything but blandness. I want us to be edgy and pointed and at times people will find that uncomfortable.
But, I think Donald Trump handled the floods and Hurricane Harvey really well. I said to someone there that this has been a model in how to get things done, and show that you’re dynamic and to reassure the American people – unlike George W. Bush (and Hurricane Katrina). Trump supporters said, ‘Oh my god, Jon Sopel has said something nice about President Trump.’ And yes, it was clear he’d done something really well. But other times, if you lose a Chief of Staff, a Press Secretary, Communications Director and Chief Strategist within three weeks, you’ve got to say that’s pretty unusual.
Unusual is certainly one word for it! Now we’ve got a lot of younger people on the site who would be keen to know about your career. Was politics always your calling from the start?
JS – I think it was really. I got into politics really young. I was always interested, and it was always on in our house when I was a kid… it was always part of the background noise. I did politics at university, and I went out with a politician’s daughter for a long time when I was a teenager. The political process, and how decisions are made, and government, has just really interested me, and it has never been more fascinating than it is now.
What have been your biggest lessons as a journalist? How do you think you’ve changed over the years?
JS – I think being trusted, having integrity and doing the right thing are the most important things I’ve learned. Because if no one trusts you then they won’t tell you anything. So, I think behaving with integrity is the most important thing, but also, just having a keen eye for the truth. Don’t believe everything that people tell you. So, be suspicious, always look beneath the rock…
And just one final question… I remember your interview with Obama, and I was just wondering how on earth you prepare for an interview with the President of the United States?
JS – (Laughs) I tell you what, it was extraordinary, and it was sleepless and it was a really interesting experience. There was a huge amount of prep that went into it; and not just about asking the right question, but about whether we’re asking the question in the right way as well; in a way that would get a good a response from him. Because, you can get two Barack Obamas; you can get the sort of grumpy, bad tempered Barack Obama… all professorial. Or, you can get nice, friendly Barack Obama. We worked really hard at it, and it was a really good atmosphere. He was charming, and I was incredibly nervous. I don’t normally get nervous before interviews but I was, and he was very gracious about it. I write about it in the book; how I went out at a million miles an hour with my first question and then tripped over. He was then the one who stopped and said, ‘I have something in my eye, I’ve got to rub my eye.’ Unsurprisingly, he didn’t have anything in his eye…
Jon Sopel (@BBCJonSopel) will be appearing at Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday 7th October.
This interview was conducted on the 15th September 2017.
Image Tushar Dayal @Flickr