American in Chaos
You could view the mass invasion of the Capitol building by Trump’s ‘proud boys’ and other moral reprobates as a glass half empty event; the end of that misty ‘American Dream’ which was meant to bring cohesion to an agglomeration of races all huddling under the same flag.
The degradation of the world’s first true democracy – still a 1st Republic after more than 200 years, while the French are into their 5th – is nothing if not gruesome. Whether we admired it or not, most of us will never look at America in the same way again. The dream, it would appear, has died, if it ever really existed; that bright new morning is now shrouded in dark and menacing clouds. Shining city on a hill, not so much.
On the other hand, there’s the glass half full view. The flipping of two Senate seats in Georgia lit the blue touch paper which has finally brought a petty demagogue crashing down, ushering in a cleansing of the Augean stable which will allow ‘normalcy’ back into everyday politics. No ‘House of Cards’ scriptwriter would ever have got away with this real-time pantomime.
So how did it happen? It’s easy to blame those should-have-known-better Republicans who swallowed the Kool Aid and tolerated, apart from Trump himself, a central casting list of weird characters like Roger Stone, with his Richard Nixon tattoo, and the unspeakable Rudy Giuliani, who almost outdid Dirk Bogarde’s Death in Venice beach scene. You remember? That bit where he’s succumbing to the plague while the hair dye runs down his face.
With more grotesques than a medieval cathedral, the party of Abraham Lincoln had declined into a grand guignol farce which, for some peculiar reason, an awful lot of perfectly good and decent Americans were prepared to vote for. This leads us on to another question. What on earth was so toxic about the Democrats that made half the population throw its electoral weight behind an irrational narcissistic two bit property developer and failed casino owner?
Trump did not spring fresh-minted from The Apprentice to take control of the most powerful nation on earth. He was an outcome, not a cause; a manifestation of Aristotle’s dictum about nature abhorring a vacuum. Nor is this phenomenon by any means exclusively American. In the 1990s New Labour pollster Philip Gould, asked if the party’s obsession with capturing the socio-economic middle ground might alienate a large section of the working class, responded with the statement ‘they have nowhere else to go.’
That may have worked for Tony Blair in 1997, after 18 years of freemarket economics in which the destruction of a community was considered a price worth paying for Mrs Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution, but it didn’t work for Hillary Clinton in a struggling industrial settlement like Logan Township, Pennsylvania, where loyal ‘ancestral’ Democrats switched enmasse to Trump in 2016, furious that her campaign team was taking neglected working class areas for granted.
If a single word epitomises the Democrats’ 2016 campaigning style, that word is complacency. At a meeting hosted by the leftist Nation newspaper in New York a panel heady with over-confidence insisted that when push came to shove (a) no self respecting woman would dream of voting for a man like Trump (b) black voters would reject him as a racist, and (c) after his ‘murderers and rapist’ jibe about Mexican immigrants no Hispanic voter would give him the time of day. It was in the bag.
The problem with the voting public is that its prejudices can be surprisingly nuanced. There were feminists who felt that not only did Hillary come across as calculating and insincere, she had also let the side down with her loyal Tammy Wynette act alongside her errant husband. Other women simply didn’t warm to her; as for black voters, it would be a surprise if, after 8 years of Obama’s ‘hope’ and ‘change’, a return to the beltway status quo could be anything other than a bit of an anti-climax; and the Hispanics? Well, more than a third of that socially conservative Cuban community which quit the Castro regime to settle in Miami-Dade county helped deliver Florida to Trump.
As for those who ‘had nowhere else to go’ – non-college educated white males in the de-industrialised rust belt – many, it seems, had had enough with the erosion of their living standards as American jobs left the country. This long, slow process of attrition began in the 1970s, when investors worked out that a production worker’s hourly rate in the Far East, at around 75 cents, did much more for the bottom line than the $6.36 minimum payable to American factory workers. By 2016, that famous old slogan on the New Jersey Bridge, ‘Trenton Makes, the World Takes’ was sounding a bit hollow.
This Democrat complacency even permeated the left of the party, as I discovered one day during a quiet lunch break in New York’s Bryant Park. I was suddenly engulfed by an excited crowd and two or three TV camera crews following an elderly white haired gent. He came up and grasped me by the hand. ‘Hi, I’m Bernie Sanders.’ What was I meant to say? He then made a stump speech which, despite the fact that he was meant to be a socialist, seemed more in the soft pedal spirit of Joe Grimond than the rhetoric of fiery Jimmy Reid.
At that point Trump was making a pitch for the Republican nomination. Someone in the crowd asked Bernie about this, and he grinned broadly. “If Donald Trump wins the nomination that’ll be just great – it will wipe out the Republican Party for a generation.”
Not so many months later I looked on as thousands of Hillary hopefuls at her party in New York’s Javits Center burst into tears.
What really has to be appreciated at this juncture in the history of the United States was that there wasn’t actually a country called America. There were two countries called America, both unaware of each other. One tuned in every night to Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, and Anderson Cooper, chilled out with Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live, and read The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic Review. The other was wowed by Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, and Glenn Beck, lapped up the off-beat Infowars conspiracy theories of Alex Jones, and read The National Enquirer, or the Breitbart News and Daily Wire websites.
For the ultra-wealthy, there are ways of handling unhelpful news coverage. Trump critic and multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos, for example, owns the Washington Post. For Macao and Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson – a Trump donor to the tun of $180 million – you can easily deal with a newspaper like The Las Vegas Review Journal which might be upsetting you with critical stories – just buy the title and sack any troublesome journalists.
It would be a mistake to think of the last four years in America as a battle between angels and demons. It isn’t quite that simple. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat veteran, shrugged her shoulders and said ‘people will do what people will do’ when a rampaging mob destroyed Baltimore’s Columbus statue. Donald Trump, no doubt, could have said exactly the same thing about the storming of the Capitol. There were even one or two overlaps – his policy on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, for example, was shared by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a sassy enfant terrible happy to call herself a socialist.
Nor are we, in Brexit wracked Britain, where a dedicated MP like Jo Cox could be murdered in the street by a right wing extremist, in a position to be too critical of events in the USA. Far right populism is not just an American story. See Hungary, Brazil, Turkey, India, and Austria, for starters.
Even if the Trump presidency does turn out to be a quirk of American history (I wouldn’t be so sure; he picked up 48% of the 2020 vote) which ended up with the image of a man with a Klu-klux-klan tattoo lounging on the speaker’s chair, we might ask ourselves how it came to be.
It isn’t difficult to gain some impression of the general environment which brought Trumpism into being. Working class disenchantment with the liberal elites which had somehow tolerated a collapse in the jobs market and stood by as a wave of mortgage foreclosures swept the country. A black vote which had been energised by the Obama years not-quite-believing the blandishments of the Democrat telephone canvassers.
Finding a specific cause for Trumpism isn’t easy – but I think I may have tracked one down. In 1996 the Telecommunications Act was signed into law electronically at a glittering ceremony in the Library of Congress. At a stroke, the regulation of the airwaves was ‘liberalised’. There were those who imagined that this might usher in a new age of community radio, but the reality was that the far-right spotted an opportunity, and either established, or bought up, radio stations across America, while Rupert Murdoch founded Fox News and the little-known Sinclair Media Group quietly began to dominate America’s local TV outlets. The age of the ‘shock jock’, Bill O’Reilly, and the Tea Party malcontent had arrived. Chemically fused with the expansion of the internet and social media through broadband, the i-phone, Google, Facebook, and other editorially unaccountable ‘platforms’, it was soon exerting a pernicious effect on the political culture of a United States which rapidly bifurcated, Jekyll and Hyde style, into the two tribalised Americas we know today.
So when the more historically minded among us try to determine who we should identify as the spiritual forefather of Donald J Trump, 45th President of the United States, don’t automatically assume it was Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck, or any other far-right carnival barker.
Because, you see, the President who signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act and provided Trump with the media boost which propelled him into the White House was none other than William Jefferson Clinton.