BONNIE GREER: Tennessee waltzes as the Trump tide sweeps through
- Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Bonnie Greer looks at Donald Trump's popularity in Tennessee
My late mother was born in Nashville, the eldest of six. I always think that, somewhere in her, that fact haunted her after she moved away with her parents to the north.
She would show me, sometimes, her Nashville baby picture. Then I would forget. But Tennessee never really goes away.
On some ancestry site, my brother-in-law discovered that Mamma was descended from a slave owner. A black man who owned slaves. This kind of collision, this thing-you-need-to-face is very Tennessee.
James Agee, the great American writer, who may or may not have written the classic film, The Night of the Hunter, was from rural Tennessee. The man was book-smart enough to get himself up to the north and to elite educational glory.
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It bothered him all of his life that he did this, and his long essay/meditation for the Depression era, known as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is filled with his thoughts and feelings.
Maybe one of the greatest movies about Tennessee, Elia Kazan's Wild River stems from his own guilt. He, too, as a young man and aspiring director, was involved with rural Depression-era poverty. Not from Tennessee himself, he clearly had left a part of himself there. Something he had gone back to reclaim when he made his movie.
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Most of the states of the Union have just one state song. These are selected by the state legislature or governor and are considered anthems; a singing regional testament to be unfurled at matches and where appropriate.
A few states have two. But Tennessee has nine, including a bicentennial rap. Its greatest song, though, may be Tennessee Waltz. Its classic version was sung in the 1950s by Patti Page.
Again, there is that sense of longing, of loss, a wistfulness which seems to be a part of the state and its beauty:
I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced her to my loved one
And while they were dancin'
My friend stole my sweetheart from me
I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz
Now I know just how much I have lost.
The song was made a hit again in the late 1960s. It appears on the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni's hippie-imaginarium via the Italian New Wave, Zabriskie Point. We hear Patti Page's wistful tones at the moment when the young woman, called a "hippie chick" way back then, stares at a bleak desert landscape.
And something like that bleak landscape may be what Trump and the Republicans face if they lose their Tennessee senate seat in 2020.
Tennessee, 'ruby red' - that is, solid Republican - is not done and dusted.
During 2016, most of the polls predicted that Hillary Clinton on course to become president of the United States. They were right. She won the popular vote by 2.1%. She almost won Texas, Arizona and Georgia. Which would have been extraordinary. She took Trump out in Virginia.
Overall, Trump won 62,984,828 votes. Clinton won 65,853,514 .
So the polls were right. And they turned out to be wrong.
They neglected to remember that the American people do not directly elect the president. Americans elect electors. The electors, in turn, elect the president. This is known as the electoral college.
Clinton lost, for the Democrats, the Upper Midwest. She lost the states of Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio. States that the ticket of Obama/Biden won. Twice.
Trump was huge in Tennessee. To lose the Upper Midwest was game over for the Democrats.
This loss was the catastrophe. Because along with the swing state of Florida, Trump won a landslide in the college.
And it is winner take all. That can be done by a majority of one. In other words, Trump can be president again, by just one vote.
So while most people are counting the popular vote, the Trump Never-Ending-Campaign is looking, Janus-like, at the college. And at the senate.
Donald Trump won in Tennessee with 60.7% of the vote. He had the largest margin of victory of any presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972. His win was also the first time that either main party had won over 60% of the vote in Tennessee.
But maybe the writing was on the wall for the Democrats in that other heart-breaking election: 2000, when then vice president Al Gore failed to win Tennessee, where he had been senator from 1985 to 1993.
Democrats do very well in the urban regions of Memphis and Nashville. The Republicans win big in suburban and rural areas. In the Midterms of 2018, Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, ran against former governor Phil Bredesen for a vacated senate seat. Blackburn got very early support from Trump. Bredesen got last-minute support from that daughter of Tennessee, Taylor Swift (born in Pennsylvania, she moved to Nashville at the age of 14 to pursue her music career).
It came down to Trump versus Swift, making the end fairly cutthroat.
But perhaps the inevitable happened. Blackburn won 1,227,483 votes or 54.7%. And Bredesen, 985,450 or 43.9%. So very Tennessee.
Veteran Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander announced in December 2018 that he would not run for a fourth term in 2020, creating a vacancy.
The Democrats need four seats to take control of the senate. They need three if they win the presidency next year. That is because the vice president is president of the senate and the ultimate tie-breaker.
The odds are that none of the four Democratic senators needed to convict Trump - if he wins again, is impeached by the House and sent to the senate for trial and judgment - will come from Tennessee.
That will take another 'wave election' like 2018, which gave the Republicans the biggest wipeout since the 1970s.
But Trump has weaponised immigration, race and the culture wars. This is how he won Tennessee in 2016 and will win it again in 2020.
The big problem, and it is happening here in the UK and elsewhere, is that America is losing what some political scientists call "candidate-specific factors" in favour of party connection. So a messed-up Republican will win in a Republican state against a very good Democrat. Trump fuels this partisanship by more and more hostile and simplistic rhetoric.
It is this loss of candidate specificity which could make all of the difference. In any democracy. A kind of political version of the Tennessee Waltz.
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