Thursday 21 September 2017

You could well be outraged right now - but remember, Trump too will pass

It's not what he does, but what he causes that could redefine US civil society in the time ahead, writes Miriam O'Callaghan

Donald Trump: Full of sound and fury, but signifying what exactly?
Donald Trump: Full of sound and fury, but signifying what exactly?

Miriam O'Callaghan

Imagine a serial bankrupt, now billionaire, becomes president of a country. Reasonable suspicion exists that old-enemy agencies were involved in the elections that brought him to power. Within days, the new president issues an executive order banning men, women and children from seven predominantly-Muslim countries.

To civil-libertarians the order is seen as unworthy of the country. In power terms, the order's generation is incompetent to the point of chaotic. The Muslim ban (the order exempts minority faiths) is instigated on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Outside the country, large swathes of civil society are disturbed, old allies worried. Their reaction is dismissed as hysterical. Within the country, the acting attorney general has concerns about the order's standards, its lawfulness.

After consideration, and in keeping with her duty to the country, she declines to defend it. Within hours she is fired for "betrayal". Other experts who voice evidence-based concerns, are reclassified. Once public servants, now they are "career bureaucrats". As well as change, the president's press secretary offers them choice: get with the programme or get out.

On the fifth day of the ban, a senior politician publicly regrets "the confusion" in its roll-out. Also on the fifth day, Homeland Security and the press secretary state there was no confusion. Also, there is no ban - neither on Muslims nor on travel. Rather, the order is about the security of America and the world.

As they speak, in eastern Ukraine, an upsurge of fighting between government troops and Russian-backed rebels sees preparations made for the town of Avdiivka to be evacuated. There are reports of rebel artillery positions in the city of Donetsk. On the day, security-wise, there is no mention of Russia.

On TV, panellists argue over what is said, unsaid. From the tweets and press conferences, it is clear that language can mean something and its opposite, simultaneously. While the pundits turn to LBJ and Nixon for context, I turn to John Keats for the comfort of Negative Capability: "the ability to experience doubts and uncertainties without any irritable reaching after fact or reason".

To write now 'Welcome to Trumpistan' would be to engage in the degradation of politics, the diminution of public life that has helped bring the world to this juncture. Crucially, this is no imaginary country. It is the United States of America. The fact alone makes "hysteria" obsolete.

The NYT's conservative columnist David Brooks says President Trump's administration is not Republican, but "ethnic nationalist". Other writers speculate that the administration's ban is less a global dog-whistle, more a bucket of still-warm flesh, tossed glistening, quivering to the ranker elements of the Lock her up/Build the wall support pack. All the same, in this century's slow race to right-wing nationalism, possibly few imagined it would be America first.

If the ban predicts the administration's competence in future endeavours, the chaos might not just be HUGE or GREAT, it could be FABULOUS. For the markets, things won't be so rosy either. The markets abhor chaos and turmoil. And chaos and turmoil are the better angels of president Trump.

Even the inauguration wasn't turmoil immune. Usually, in inauguration rituals, we sense the power of office descend on the man, transform the once-candidate, then president-elect, to the brand-new president of the United States of America, leader of the free world. Under the stars and stripes and low January skies, partisanship is put aside, poets recite their valedictions, protocol allows the new president heal wounds, forge friendships, speak with grace and gravitas to people all over America and all over the world. Until the last when something else prevailed.

That day, too, the power was a no show. It seemed to avoid Washington the way the Holy Spirit avoids Rome. So did the power bypass President Trump, transfer directly, peacefully to the people? Not the perpetually outraged or the snowflakes. Not just the proud LGBTQ lobby, grist to his dismissive mill. Not the nationalists either or the tentative supremacists. Not those ecstatically taking their country back, wresting it from the dangerous toddlers of Aleppo, who, while barrel bombs rained and reigned, sang songs of stealing the jobs, breath and soul of America. FACT.

I'm referring to the "ordinary folk": the men and women who rejected Donald Trump the candidate but were ready to give him a chance as their president; or those who did vote for him, not hot for his bigotry but exhausted from too much work, or no work, traumatised by the mailman dropping demands from the electric and loan companies into the mailbox. I hope President Trump comes through for them with new jobs, good pay rises. He should. Because pay-rises are existential. Pay-rises are the dog who lies in the corner and without warning, grabs you, eviscerates you. And if the wounded poor who voted for Trump and Brexit don't get those pay rises, end up further pauperised by the phrase-mongering of millionaires, serially-bankrupt billionaires, old Etonians, Bullingdon boys, bluestockings and buffoons, after God saves America and the Queen, he'd better make straight for politics and democracy as we know them.

If the power has passed to the people, I believe the long-term effects of Trump's four or eight years - if he avoids impeachment - will be less about what he did, more about what he caused. Already, there are parents taking their children to protest for the first time; lawyers swapping billable hours for a stint on the picket; business-development managers risking new 200-thread Italian suits to publicly defend 230-year-old American values; the young and not so young with their zero-hour contracts marching to Love trumps Hate.

The protests themselves will achieve little, except maybe when they are big enough, irritate a president who is size-sensitive. Rather, the value of the protest is in what it signifies. Jung says those who look outward dream, but those who look inward awaken. Today, across America individual Americans are starting to look inward. They are awakening not alone to their collective power, but to their personal responsibility.

They heed the observation of The Atlantic's David Frum that this time, the rise of the right will not involve black shirts, white cities or tea with Mussolini. Rather it will be signified by public mockery and derision, deals, reclassification: public servants to "career bureaucrats", the internationally-recognised refugees to "illegal immigrants". It will involve fake news, "alternative facts" designed by ideologues, delivered by order, tweet, rant, rage, ban or enforcers.

President Trump's actions might bring out the worst in the worst. But they will also bring out the best in the good, improvement in the average. The fence-sitting is over. The question is now, where will America take all this once it rises? Because rise it will. And above. And president Trump, too, will pass.

On June 4, 1798, president Thomas Jefferson wrote the following lines to one of America's finest political theorists, John Taylor of Caroline. 200 years later, my friend the late David Curtis, an American sustained by the values of both men, read those lines every day of George W Bush's presidency. They helped him keep heart.

"A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt…

"And if we feel their power just sufficiently to hoop us together, it will be the happiest situation in which we can exist. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake."

And 79 years ago, Jefferson's game ran against humanity itself. At Evian, the world precious with principles, met to discuss the treatment of the Jews. Then, promptly, it closed its heart and borders against them, choosing to see not Him or Her or You, only Jew. Last week, my son went by train to Auschwitz, part of a trip by European students commemorating their counterparts transported for extermination. They trudged in the snow-white silence, under the black capitals of the blacker lie 'Arbeit Macht Frei'.

Perhaps Chancellor Merkel, who will be remembered for putting principles over populism, could send a letter to America. Specifically, a replica of the upside-down 'B' in the ultimate "alternative fact" of 'work makes free'. The Auschwitz prisoners welded it that way.

Casually objectified, then proscribed, scapegoated, demonised, finally stripped of everything that made them human, they did the only thing they could. They refused their consent. In a single letter, they resisted.

And in time, in the world, the spells dissolved.

Sunday Independent

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