Sonja Niemeier and Tim Luecke
Brexit, the success of Marine Le Pen, the rise of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), the election of Donald Trump for president of the United States of America. All of these seem to indicate a rising discontent in Western countries with the established order. While there are clearly local causes and reasons for these developments, it would be too much of a coincidence if the timing of these recent political changes were not in some way connected. What is especially disconcerting about these developments is that few political experts saw them coming. The election of Donald Trump or the vote for Brexit came for many as a total surprise. And still, to this day, there are few who can provide compelling answers as to what is wrong with the West. While mass surveys might shed some light on this issue, those surveys also provided the basis for the incorrect predictions that, for example, Donald Trump would lose against Hilary Clinton. We have therefore decided to tackle this issue in a different way and to conduct in-depth, semi-structured interviews with voters in the United States.
Our central question was “Why Trump?,” or, to be more precise, “Why do you believe Trump was elected president?.” However, we also asked interviewees about the general political orientation and beliefs, issues that are of central concern to them, how they think Donald Trump is performing as president, and, importantly, what they think of his foreign policy. Semi-structured interviews have the advantage over surveys that one can ask follow-up questions, talk to interviewees in much more depth, and thereby hopefully uncover answers that one did not anticipate while designing a survey. While Tim Luecke conducted the interviews, Sonja Niemeier, a professional photographer, took numerous pictures during those conversations and during the trip as a whole. Photographs add an important component to the interviews since they allow the observer to get a better idea of the habitus (Bourdieu) of interviewees, i.e. their place in the social order, their political orientation, their social and natural environment, etc. The trip lasted for two months and we drove from the East coast to the West coast. So far, we have interviewed a total of 43 people and we have several more interviews scheduled on Skype and for another trip in December.
Our goal is to publish excerpts of the interviews in conjunction with some of the photographs in a book next year. In addition, we will present our findings at locations in Germany and the United States. We have already promoted the project on social media (Facebook and Instagram) and are currently designing a website for the domains “why-trump.com” and “why-trump.de,” both of which we have purchased. The website will also host videos of the trip and serve as a repository for the full interviews. At this stage, we are transcribing more than 40 hours of interviews, working through more than 20,000 photographs, and going through 50-60 hours of video material. We anticipate that this process and putting together the material will take another four to six months.
Sonja Niemeier has been a professional photographer since 2004. She has a degree in graphic design with a focus on photography and illustration from the University of Applied Science in Duesseldorf. As a concert photographer for the German and British radio stations 1Live, WDR 2, BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Services), BBC 6 Music Sonja has photographed artists, such as The Police, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and David Bowie. Via the Ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Sonja also had an exhibition in Manchester’s famous Night and Day Café. Amongst other things, she is currently working on the art project “6 Questions about Music”, where she photographs musicians, such as Peter Hook (New Order/Joy Division), and asks them to answer six questions about music in their own hand writing and drawing. The photos and answers will be published in a book.
Tim Luecke has spent much of his life thinking and writing about politics and social life in general. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. in Political Science with a focus on International Relations from the Ohio State University. His dissertation was about political generations and how they change the world. During this time, he conducted in-depth interviews with German politicians, including Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former foreign minister of Germany. During and after his Ph.D. studies, he also managed “International Theory: A Journal of International Politics, Law and Philosophy” published by Cambridge University Press. After 15 years in the United States, he has returned to his hometown Cologne, Germany and is currently working on a generational history of Germany, told through an autobiography and a biography of his grandfather Paul Lücke, who was minister of housing and the interior for the conservative party (CDU) in post-war Germany.