Monday 20 May 2019

On Trump's inauguration

By Joseph O'Connor

A painting of Donald Trump, by Dublin-based artist Shane Berkery (24), who is a previous winner of both the Hennessy-Craig award and the Whyte's award at the 186th RHA Annual Exhibition. He will be having a solo exhibition at the Chimera gallery in May. For more information see: www.shaneberkery.com
A painting of Donald Trump, by Dublin-based artist Shane Berkery (24), who is a previous winner of both the Hennessy-Craig award and the Whyte's award at the 186th RHA Annual Exhibition. He will be having a solo exhibition at the Chimera gallery in May. For more information see: www.shaneberkery.com

I am one of the unseeing. I admit it.

The era comes in every life when you realise not only that you know nothing, but that everything you ever thought you knew was mistaken. "I grow old, I grow old," TS Eliot writes. ("Yes, you do," reply the rest of us. "Shut up.")

Usually, that realisation evolves rather gradually, like the slow-dawning onset of a season. You notice that you don't know the names of happening bands or television personalities. Celebrities are in the newspapers talking about learning to love themselves, and you have absolutely no idea who they are. Which is fine. It's as it should be. It's the passage of time. You have arrived at the age when you could live without sex if you had to, but not without your glasses.

That happened to me in November, with the election of the Trumpster.

Youthful insight became past tense.

And I am finding it a sort of serenity, the honeyed anaesthetic of my ignorance. In the words of Republican Party senator Lindsey Graham, the world has gone "bat-shit crazy".

I had spent the summer of 2016 researching and teaching in America, a country I love and admire. I read incessantly about the primaries, watched every single minute of both party conventions. For balance, or for reasons of masochism, I watched Fox News as well as MSNBC, a process of finding yourself having to choose between being beaten to death by bores or bored to death by beatniks.

And Fatboy couldn't win. It wasn't possible.

America wasn't ready to put an orange man in the White House.

This bouffant-boasting daddy's-boy with the Mussolini pout was good for a chuckle, was possessed of a weird sort of horrible charisma, but had 'loser' written all over his doughnut-dough-textured face, and the voters would fleetingly toy with his demagogic narcissism before spitting him out in bubbles.

You wouldn't dignify him by describing him as an Accident Waiting To Happen, more the flat-footed, prat-falling driver of a clown-car, who is only hilarious because his I-don't-realise-I'm-a-gobdaw act never lapses.

He couldn't win. He didn't really want to.

The Trumpster was only along for the ride, to pelt the pinkoes and pundits with monkey nuts. It was an ego trip, we told ourselves. He quipped about grabbing women, praised Putin, appeared to mock the disabled. For God's sake, here was a man who HAD A BABY THROWN OUT OF A PUBLIC EVENT!

Know what?

The voters didn't care.

Many of them know he's reprehensible, a glorified thick and a corner-boy. But they're through with the leaderships of both mainstream political parties, which they regard as interchangeable. (Remind you of anywhere?)

They got tired of being seen as voting fodder, blithely overflown by the private jets of party hacks who had focus-grouped that day's soundbites.

There were too many evictions, repossessions and job losses, too many abandoned factories and crushed human hopes, and nobody at the top seemed to care. I don't say that they didn't, but not seeming to is as bad. In an era of 24-hour-news, it's also stupid.

In a disastrous photo-opportunity, Hillary Clinton descended into the New York subway and made immediately evident that she had no idea of how to negotiate the automated ticket-barriers. How would she? At this stage, her idea of public transport is a limo shared with her aides. It's not going to endear you to the working class rustbelt Democratic base, still less to a wider electorate that decided that, this time out, it wanted something more than a candidate who was highly experienced and qualified. They wanted a nasty piece of work. And they got one.

And sometimes you can see where they're coming from.

The usual propensity of the Bleeding Heart to be disappointed by the electorate has never been more pronounced or more piteous. Meryl Streep bravely stands up for liberal, progressive values? At the Golden Globes? It's a little like an elderly Carmelite bravely reciting the rosary in St Peter's Square. Nice, but not exactly a tough crowd.

We lefties and wet liberals don't want to face facts. But Hillary came with some baggage. A lot of it Louis Vuitton.

She has paid dearly for every six-figure cheque she ever received from a bank for making a speech. Many voters didn't care about her email security errors (though the ones who did, did). She was clever, a policy-wonk, but the electorate might have forgiven her even that. The Truth Thing was what did her in.

Too often, she seemed unable to answer straight questions. Her campaign was a final reminder, as though we in Ireland didn't know it already, that every time a politician says the words "Let me be absolutely clear", what you're about to hear is weapons-grade bullshit.

Ever onward she rambled, through the inglorious thickets of self-justification, the jungles of disingenuousness, the forests of subordinate clauses, towards the icy slopes of Mount Evasion. Hillary Clinton loved the comma the way Batman loves black. And the voters started worrying.

Somewhere in the background, deeply unfairly, was her husband's onetime insistence that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman", when many would feel that if what happened on those occasions wasn't sexual or relational, words don't mean very much. Indeed, the prospect of the First Laddie trudging the moonlit White House corridors, clad only in loose-flapping pyjamas and hopeful smile, was perhaps a little too haunting for certain voters.

Last week, President Obama gave an interview to the chief literary critic of The New York Times, in which he spoke of the novels that have inspired him, including works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Norman Mailer. We can only shiver with anticipation of what happens when President Trump grants the equivalent interview.

Personally I don't mind that a Head of State doesn't read literary fiction but I do hope he can list something other than The Beano, Pussy Galore and Burger Monthly. Certainly, it would be good for America if he did.

Here's where it becomes important, the president as role model, image of the society he leads.

One of the results of ageing is that you slightly stop believing in universal suffrage. The idea of stupid people having a vote equal to yours becomes harder to digest, like cabbage.

These days, I want Ireland, indeed the entire world, to be ruled by a Gang of Four, a junta of sensible, likeable, citizenly individuals, smart, serious, copped on: former Fianna Fail minister Mary O'Rourke, Fintan O'Toole, campaigning journalist Una Mullally and the peerless Gene Kerrigan of this parish. If ever I find myself unsure of what I think about something, I read what Kerrigan thinks, and I think that.

In October, O'Toole wrote a powerful piece in The Irish Times, in which he likened Trump and his Ukip acolytes, one of whom had recently punched another unconscious, to "15-year-old boys". My only slight quibble is that 15-year-old boys have redeeming graces and can sometimes, in their own way, be lovely.

I am the father of a wonderful teenager. I marvel at the desire for social justice that I see among his peer group. In my regular role as press-ganged taxi-driver to this cohort of Irish youth, I have eavesdropped on many a bantering conversation but have never once encountered the boorish, uncouth, sexist, pub-bore, miserable, bragging, lewd, posturing, racist claptrap with which Mr Trump has beslobbered his great country and its highest office.

Certainly, I have never heard one of them utter a predatory remark, which is more than may be said about Mr Trump, a man who exhorted his followers to beat up his opponents. No wonder he is adored by Ukip, the provisional wing of a football terrace riot. So, as a parent, you worry. That's real.

But young people are among the ones who will render these dinosaurs irrelevant in the end. Witness the hundreds of thousands involved in the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, the Green movement, American volunteerism. In a world of little-me nationalism, I find them a reason to believe.

The contradictions of the Trump presidency may cause it to implode. I hope not. We don't need more uncertainty. But, where the role requires a bridge-builder, it has a wielder of the wrecking-ball, where it needed a compromiser, it has an oversensitive belittler. The best we can hope is that Mr Trump achieves little. I believe that's the likeliest outcome.

America is a great country, the noblest experiment in all human history, and it will survive Mr Trump, his Star Wars cantina of a cabinet and his vengefulness towards everyone in the world who doesn't agree with him. And let's face it, hoping he doesn't start a nuclear war in response to someone teasing him on Twitter will keep us on our toes, and we could do with the exercise. He will never build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants, because, as anyone who has ever been to America knows, illegal immigrants would be needed to build it.

But these are sad days for the reputation of a republic that was once the hope of the free world. A huge consolation is that most Americans didn't vote for him, and many who did don't like him, and when God made time, he made a lot of it. This bloviating slob will eventually join the legions of the deservedly forgotten, this lummox cloaked in the arrogance of the mediocre. Mr Trump is a minor burp that, hilariously, thinks itself the Gettysburg Address. Let's get the darkness started. We'll be through it in four years. That's if he isn't impeached in the meantime.

Joseph O'Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. Next month his international bestseller Star of the Sea will become the first Irish novel since Joyce's Ulysses to be published in Cuba

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