‘There are two different Americas, living side by side’

| Trethyn Trethyn

Victor Vlam and Maarten Kolsloot, US experts who both previously worked with American presidential candidates, gave November’s first Studium Generale lecture yesterday evening in the Vrijhof. Over the course of about two hours, they gave an illuminating tour across America, through both space and time.

Maarten Kolsloot and Victor Vlam.

The show begins with a literal bang as both presenters come on stage. Despite a minor initial setback involving the projector – ‘it was made in America’ – once the introduction begins, things move quickly. We are introduced to our two presenters, and learn that Vlam worked for Barack Obama’s election campaign, while Kolsloot was involved with the campaign of the lesser-known Chris Dodd. The screen shows an image of Google Maps, zoomed in on our own Vrijhof. The camera lifts up and away, and the journey begins.

‘Modern presidency too big’

Our first stopping point is Philadelphia, at Independence Hall. Here we learn some things about the past of the American presidency. ‘The modern presidency is too big,’ Vlam and Kolsloot explain. ‘When the American constitution was first written, the role of the president was planned as a weak one. The spectre of King George III of England loomed large, and recreating a monarchy on their own shores was the last thing the Americans wanted, so power was largely given to Congress. This didn’t change until the somewhat memorable Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ‘grabbed power’ in order to combat the Great Depression, taking many responsibilities and powers that had previously belonged to Congress for himself, a move that lead many at the time to label him a dictator. Since the days of Roosevelt, ‘the importance of the presidential office relative to Congress has only grown’.

Two different Americas

Lifting up from Independence Hall, we travel across the country to a location that one might find unpleasantly familiar, the town of Charlottesville in Virginia. It is here that Vlam and Kolsloot showcase how America is split. ‘There are two different Americas, living side by side,’ they say. ‘Conservative America and Progressive America’, both of which live increasingly in their own echo chambers. When asked if they think the other group are “bad people who want the wrong things for America”, ‘49 % of Republicans and 46 % of Democrats said yes.'


Vlam and Kolsloot use this to answer the question ‘Why is Trump still so popular?’. ‘Trump used that polarisation. When Trump says things like “LOCK HER UP”, or “Democrats are un-American”, that feeds into the mindset of people who already believe Democrats are evil people.’ When asked what a solution to this division might be, their answer is that it’s complicated, but what is needed in this situation is ‘respect for the other’s opinion’ and that Biden’s plan to bring America back together again is to ‘make it less about politics’, though how successful this will be remains to be seen.

Identity politics

The final location we visit is Madison Square Garden in New York, where Kolsloot and Vlam stage a debate between the two parties, Vlam representing the Republicans and Kolsloot the Democrats. The discussion is on Identity Politics, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the audience, the Democrats win by show of hands. A critical audience member asked after the debate whether Vlam was representing the Republican position accurately, as his points seemed quite centrist. Vlam’s response was that he was representing the opinions of Republican politicians ‘behind closed doors’, rather than the official party line.

And then, debate over, at last we leave America, fly back over the great Atlantic, and settle back home at the Vrijhof, certainly having learned a lot from our short tour.

Stay tuned

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.