The State of America – Janna Levin, Gloria Steinem, and Thomas Mallon at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Before the Auckland Writers Festival began, possibly even before I finished reading the programme, I'd picked yesterday's The State of America session as a must-see.

I'm happy to say that my intuitions were bang on. It was a cracker of a panel, with smart people saying a succession of smart (and sometimes profane) things. Put it this way - if you think Donald Trump's an idiot and enjoy listening to smart people elaborate on just how true that is then you probably would have enjoyed this hour of the festival as much as I did.

Guyon Espiner, (who drolly summed up his career as writing for newspapers "when they were still a thing" followed by television journalism, which was also alluded to as a thing that had gone the way of the dinosaurs - this got a laugh) was in the enviable position of not really having to do much beyond throw out the occasional question, such was the calibre of the panelists and the flow of the conversation.

And what panelists. Janna Levin is an astrophysicist with a PhD from MIT in Physics. Espiner rattled off a list of her achievements (including an award winning novel) that seemed longer than the queue to get into the auditorium and then followed up with "...but can she explain Donald Trump's popularity". To which her response, with reference to her astrophysics background was, "I'm not interested in anything that happened more recently than 500 million years ago".

Thomas Mallon, who I have to admit, I'm not that familiar with was more conservative in his politics (he didn't vote for Obama but still wept when he won because of what an amazing thing for America that was), but he was certainly just as scathing of Trump as anyone and possibly more critical of the Republican party and the predicament it finds itself in because of his history of leaning that way politically.

And of course, Gloria Steinem, who if you were looking for a polar opposite of Donald Trump, would make an exceedingly good candidate. When she walked out on stage she was greeted as a rock star, and in her leather jacket, Steven Tyler-esque scarf and silver belt, she did very much look the part.

One thing that Gloria Steinem talked about was the insidious and pervasive influence that whole industries have on the US political process. She puts the lack of a functional public healthcare down to the insurance industry, and says that members of the legislature are often Insurance Agents by trade. When something seems nonsensical or against what most people want, if you follow the money it leads you to the source of the issue (like the NRA's power to halt gun control laws). This somewhat mirrored Susie Orbach's comments from yesterday in which she pointed out the various industries that make money from creating and exploiting feelings of inadequacy about our bodies.

Even so, Steinem still claims to be a "hopeaholic", and thinks that things will change.

Possibly wanting to give the American panellists a break from the negativity, Espiner asked each what was cool about the US. This lead to discussions of the strength of diversity. The belief in innnovation, and an openness that Levin claimed shows on American faces.

There were many laugh out loud moments during the hour and some marvellous quotes, like the following.

I had the kind of happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer.

Thomas Mallon on the disability afforded him by a stable upbringing.

On Donald Trump

It's a death knell for critical thinking.

Janna Levin

The only ideology he has is himself.

Thomas Mallon also described him as "grotesque and dangerous".

We didn't take it seriously soon enough. And by "we" I mean "sane people".

Janna Levin

He's a kind of proxy insulter.

Gloria Steinem

We survived Benedict Arnold. We survived Lee Harvey Oswald... We will survive this preposterous son of a b****."

Thomas Mallon not mincing his words.

On Social Media

It's a terrible way to discuss ideas.

Thomas Mallon on the limitations of Twitter.

I've been maligned a lot but not with such brevity.

Gloria Steinem on being misquoted and copping flak about it on Twitter.

On who could be the president

I want the girl to win.

Levin's 9 year old daughter is Team Clinton.

Oh, I live for the day. A single, gay, Atheist. The only thing better than an Atheist would be a Pagan.

Gloria Steinem when asked whether an Atheist could ever be president.

It's going to be hard to top this session for smart, wry, commentary. I think it may well be my favourite session of the festival.

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