Justin Webb

Justin Webb presents Radio 4’s Today programme and was previously the BBC’s North America Editor

July 30, 2019

Pretty girls for Nixon!”

It was a real badge, back in the day. No word on how many were printed or what funds it raised, but, hey: different times. The campaign swag of the Sixties and Seventies has an innocence about it, an innocence that Donald J Trump’s campaign was never going to follow.

No sireee, as the pretty girls might have said. The Trump campaign, bored with the bright red Make America Great Again hats, has hit on a new piece of kit. Its genius is that it offends not only with its message but with its very presence on earth.

It’s a plastic straw. Or, to be more precise: 200,000 straws, followed as soon as possible by 100s of thousands more. The idea was hatched when a man named Brad Parscale couldn’t drink his iced tea. Mr Parscale is the campaign manager for the 2020 re-election bid. He was, according to RealClearPolitics, “eating a quick meal when his paper straw, an environmentally-friendly and government-mandated drinking instrument, became soggy, crimped, and useless”.

“I’m so over paper straws,” Parscale tweeted along with a picture and the hashtag “#LiberalProgress”.

Others followed and the Trump straw was born. Each comes embossed with “Trump” on the side, and at a price of $15 for 10 straws they make a tidy sum for the re-election campaign of the 45th president of the United States (almost half a million dollars at last count).

But, of course, the straws do so much more. They are instruments of culture war. They are weapons. They can raise the blood pressure of an enemy to dangerous levels without having to be removed from the cup. In this way, they are recyclable.

They are the perfect V sign to flick at the busybodies on the east and west coasts of America who tell folks how to live. The city of Washington, D.C., where Brad Parscale was failing to suck his tea satisfactorily, is rumoured to have a special squad of ‘straw police’ making sure plastic is never used.

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As one of the Trump team told Realclearpolitics, “It is a great marketing stroke which coincides very much with the President’s disdain for political correctness and dictating how people live their daily lives. These straws are a perfect marriage of the Trump approach to things and of Trump-marketing. It just works.”

Take that, weak paper suckers!

And as with so many Trump initiatives, something that seems like a random act of political aggression, unwedded to anything you could call a strategy, actually turns out to have an impact beyond what could possibly have been planned.

The Trump straw has come onto the scene at the very moment that recycling in America is collapsing. And this is not a Trump myth. Across the nation the huge surge in interest in recycling of recent years has been turned on its head. Who says? Well, the impeccably liberal reporters at National Public Radio devoted some considerable effort to investigating the industry this summer and what they found is that the cause of the change is pretty simple.

As NPR explained: recycling in America started with organised crime. In the Eighties, the mafia controlled garbage in New York. An Alabama businessman named Lowell Harrelson wanted to turn trash into energy, so he found a mob boss, he bought 3,186 tons of garbage, put it on a big ship, and set sail to find a landfill. It was messy. No-one wanted to take the rubbish. Authorities in Mexico and Cuba threatened to fire artillery shells at the barge if it tried to dock.

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In the end, the waste was returned to and incinerated in Brooklyn. But the garbage barge gave birth to an interest in rubbish and getting rid of it: eventually an interest in recycling. For the best part of two decades, the Chinese stepped in where the Mexicans and Cubans and others had failed: desperate for cash and employment, they took America’s recyclable rubbish.

But now the Chinese economy is in a different place. A cleaner place. Last March, they banned the import of rubbish from around the world – including plastic.

The impact in America has been dramatic. Some municipalities across the nation are now insisting that rubbish is sorted and cleaned – it needs to be washed three times to be recyclable – in order to keep it pure and economic, or they are just giving up on it and are putting all their rubbish back into landfills in the old-fashioned way.

There are some experts who think that landfill is the best place for garbage anyway. Thomas Kinnamen from Bucknell University told NPR that the Chinese had let a good deal of plastic end up in the sea, and said that moving waste around the world elicits a greater environmental cost than burying it.

So, the whole business of recycling is now being questioned for its environmental bona fides while becoming steadily more impractical. As ever, on the one hand the Trump message is clear: You do not have to feel bad about yourself. You do not need to change what you do. You can carry on as your parents did.

And on the other side:

“Errr, maybe spend more time going through your rubbish and sorting it. Then get rid of only some of it. And we might bury it in any case. And you need to pay more for the privilege.”

This is how culture wars are won and lost. And the Trump straws underline the biggest challenge facing the Democratic candidate who eventually emerges to fight Trump. This person is going to have to be a communicator of genuine Reagan or Clinton like abilities.

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He or she is almost always going to be on the more complicated side of any argument with this President and not just because he simplifies (and lies) but because the cases the Democrats want to make often depend on evidence that is relatively unclear, or subject to change or scientific re-thinking. There is nothing wrong with this of course: life is complicated.

But the communication of complexity requires, in an age where the jejune is king, some real mastery of messaging.

The Trump straws and the death of American recycling can be addressed. But that sucking sound is the President guzzling all the attention and the political fizz once again. The paper straw crowd are going to have to work hard to guard against the sogginess that leads to drinking disappointment.