By Jackie Voluz
Earlier this month, World Learning completed a reporting tour program for six senior journalists from across Germany to attend the U.S.Vice Presidential Debate and the Second Presidential Debate earlier this month. The program, sponsored by U.S. Embassy Berlin, aimed to introduce the journalists to campaign issues, offer a first-hand glimpse of the American political process, and provide expert perspectives on the complex views of the U.S. electorate and this unique campaign season. The group included: Ms. Ruth Ciesinger, online editor of Der Tagesspiegel; Ms Regina Lang, deputy editor-in-chief of MDR Thuringia; Mr. Kai-Dietrich Pfundt, current affairs editor, commentator, and reporter of General-Anzieger Bonn; Ms. Christine Strasser, editor and reporter of Mittelbayerishe Zeitung; Ms. Marion Trimborn, political reporter of Neue Osnabrucker Zietung; and Mr. Ilja Tuechter, foreign editor of Die Rheinpfalz. In addition to assisting with their program design, I had the opportunity to accompany them on their ten-day tour through Washington, DC; Farmville, VA; Iowa City, IA; and St. Louis, MO.
At the start of the trip, I was fascinated by their two core questions: “Why don’t Americans like Hillary?” closely followed by, “Why do so many Americans like Trump?” Many of our interlocutors were happy to dive into the nuances behind both questions, though occasionally a few appeared thrown by the prospect of explaining the phenomenon of why the candidates resonate, writ large. “This is a highly unusual campaign cycle,” our speakers repeatedly reminded us.
With this in mind, the group approached the Vice Presidential Debate at Longwood University feeling uncertain about what sort of duel we were about to witness between Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence. Being on-site provided an invaluable opportunity to talk with campaign staff, other journalists, and students and occasionally rub shoulders with pundits and talking heads in a bustling Spin Alley. After a very orderly series of meetings in Washington and the minor excitement of dueling partisan billboards in rural Virginia, the journalists were suddenly surrounded by chanting Libertarians, African-American Trump supporters waving signs, and die-hard Hillary fans. Although the debate itself was arguably inconsequential, the venue alone offered an unique glimpse into the American political landscape, and a far cry from more typical debate watch experiences in bars and living rooms across the country.
The V.P. Debate was a valuable precursor to the Second Presidential Debate at Washington University in St. Louis, which featured a baseball field temporarily converted into a Freedom of Expression Zone. Though literally fenced in away from the rest of the campus, protestors were free to organize in this space. I was particularly struck by contrasting images: a group of Trump supporters in t-shirts of Bill Clinton captioned by the word “rape”, while a collective of female anti-Trump activists, called “Brick by Brick,” lined up in matching jumpsuits to form a wall, covered in the various slurs Trump has used against women on the campaign trail. The journalists got a few quotes from each group before departing the batting cage to watch the debate and navigate the chaos of Spin Alley. As I peeked over the balcony to glimpse FOX News’ Sean Hannity interviewing Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, I could see members of our group talking with university experts just around the corner from Wolf Blitzer’s CNN station. If Longwood gave us a taste of the electorate, then Wash U afforded a chance to savor the world of storied “media elites” and political frontrunners.
“One third of the U.S. citizens did not know who the vice presidential candidates were before the debate. If they followed the slugfest on the screen, they experienced at least one thing: both candidates played their roles of strongly backing their bosses while attacking the other presidential candidates of the other party, with no slip-ups. Both claimed the themes near and dear to their constituent bases: human rights and social justice for the Democrats and law and order and economic challenges for the Republicans.” — Ilya Tüchter, foreign editor of Die Rheinpfalz
While the German journalists worked to understand current events from an American perspective, I enjoyed the chance to see my country through their eyes. On occasion it was difficult to remain neutral in my position as their liaison, but it was a revealing learning experience to watch their pursuit of everything they considered quintessentially “American.” In one memorable instance on our way to visit a mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the group requested that we stop the van to take a picture of a realtor billboard featuring caricatures of the two candidates that read, “Moving to Canada? We will sell your house!” We happened to be stopped in front of an establishment called “Second Amendment Firearms”, and the Iowan guide had just begun to stream the breaking news of Trump’s conversation with Billy Bush on Access Hollywood. It was disheartening when one of our journalists commented, “what an American moment!” but ultimately rewarding when hours later we emerged from our meeting in the Mother Mosque of America to hear another say, “now that was an American moment.”
As part of their exploration of the American election process, the group of German journalists pounced on opportunities to examine real sample ballots at the Johnson County Auditor’s Office in Iowa City; to meet ordinary Americans as they selected political lawn signs at a street festival in Missouri; and to grapple with the state-level idiosyncrasies of canvassing, polling, down-ballot candidate races, and voter registration.
The trip was an incredible cross-section of politics and society, valuable not only to the journalists, their media outlets, and undoubtedly their readers across Germany, but also to me, a specialist in international exchange, constantly exploring the cross-cultural implications of American politics in global affairs.