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View from the USA: Heroes & villains

Behind the election campaign’s pantomime baddies, the noble democratic dream of the Founding Fathers lives on in the seat of power, Washington DC

View from the USA: Heroes & villains
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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Politics in America is like pantomime with nuclear weapons. If you were to throw a billion dollars at a high school popularity contest, and put the fate of the world on the result, you would get the past 18 months of the US election campaign. We’ve had potential presidents discussing the size of their manhood, eating bacon off a machine gun and claiming the pyramids were used to store grain, not dead pharaohs. This isn’t democracy; this is electile dysfunction.

But, at least, it’s been great TV. And that’s a problem. There’s a term: hyperreality. It means the blurring of fiction and the real world. This election, America has taken a hyperdrive to the hyperreal. Presidential debates are introduced like boxing matches, with winners decided by appearance not ideas; political adverts look they’ve been churned out by Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth, only meaner; rallies are like an episode of The Apprentice on eviction night — even the beloved ‘U-S-A’ cheer (surely the most unimaginative chant in the history of crowds) has been hijacked by the even more horrifying ‘Lock Her Up!’ And that’s all we get. I’ve been in a media bubble so long now I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be fed anything but the Hillary and Trump sandwich (extra bologna with a small pickle, if you were wondering). 

Surely that’s not what the Founding Fathers intended? Winston Churchill once said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” That, or watching prime-time TV around the election. Surely the results of the greatest political experiment in the history of the world can’t be skewed by Super PACS, Twitter rants and catchy one-liners. Surely, we’re better than that? I went to Washington DC to find out.

The first thing to say is: DC has been designed to impress. Imagine a patchwork quilt of architectural styles, stolen from the world’s greatest ancient civilisations, and then arranged around a 146-acre, neatly manicured lawn, the National Mall. It’s like walking through a manifestation of power itself. The 555ft white-marble obelisk, the Washington Monument, which could’ve been lifted from Cleopatra’s grasp; the Roman pillars of the Supreme Court; the neoclassical Thomas Jefferson Memorial, a revival of the Pantheon itself. Even The White House appears as an elegant country manor, plonked in the middle of the city, but with snipers on the roof instead of Pimm’s on the lawn. But the difference is these aren’t decrepit ruins of the past; these are gleaming, sparkling, living structures today. 

And the effect works. To stand beneath Lincoln’s feet and read those words: ‘Four score and seven years ago…’ means something. To walk beneath the arched ceilings of the Capitol Building, where John Adams defended the Amistad slave mutineers, the League of Nations was formed and the Iran nuclear deal was put to ink, is humbling. To see the colours of the Senate wing — every inch adorned with glazed tiles depicting stars and eagles, paintings of statesmen and wild landscapes, like a mosaic to the American dream itself — is to see power itself.

And that’s the second thing: being here, that dream, that original song of American freedom, self-governance and hope, can still be heard. And it’s not just their dream; it’s ours too. This is ground zero for the modern era of mankind. The first rays of democracy spread out from this point. Whatever language you speak, wherever you come from — this is your history too.

That’s why this election mattered. Because hidden among the mudslings and half-truths, the great experiment goes on, and we’re a part of it. Because the more hyperreal it gets, the more hyperaware we need to become. America’s Founding Fathers could never have imagined the billion-dollar circus that is politics in this country today. But here, in DC, you can still feel something of their original vision, in the power of the architecture, in the grandeur embedded in the stones. It’s inspiring and, just maybe — if we can keep those nuclear weapons out of the hands of pantomime baddies — the seed of something greater than we’ve yet to build. capitalregionusa.co.uk

British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in Colorado ever since. His latest book 50 Greatest Wonders of the World is published by Icon Books (RRP: £8.99).

Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)