Wednesday 21 February 2018

States of decline: Death of the American dream

It is hard not to interpret Donald Trump - whose victory this week represented the ultimate triumph of glitz over substance - as anything other than a perma-tanned symbol of America's decline. Every day of the campaign provided evidence that the US is in the throes of a downward spiral, writes Prof Robert Schmuhl

New order: President-elect Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech during his election night rally
New order: President-elect Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech during his election night rally
Prof Robert Schmuhl

In the end, America decided to roll the dice. To conclude an unpredictable - and unusual, unruly and unprecedented - White House campaign, the unpredicted occurred with stunning effect. Donald J Trump is president-elect, and the world (including much of the US) keeps gazing upwards to check whether the sky is falling.

At his last rally in Michigan during the early morning hours of Election Day, Trump said: "If we don't win, this will be the single greatest waste of time, energy and money in my life."

The combination of "we" and "my" in the same sentence captures the essence of Trump's approach and appeal. As crowds to his speeches grew and became more boisterous, he talked of his supporters as a new "movement" in American politics.

But at the heart of everything he did from June 16, 2015, the date he announced his run, through his victory remarks early on Wednesday morning this week, the candidate himself was front and centre.

While Trump, in most cases, stood alone on stages across America, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, appeared with high-profile public figures (including both Barack and Michelle Obama) as well as high-wattage performers (Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga to name three).

As it turned out, enough voters in enough of the battleground states -such as Florida, North Carolina and Ohio - decided that the singular figure speaking on behalf of "the forgotten men and women of the country" deserved a chance.

Trump's triumph, bound to keep political scientists in clover for the foreseeable future, raises more questions than it might settle. What will a Trump presidency mean for the US and the world? Is his election a blinking-sign symbol of American decline? Does it signify that the nation's politics reached a breaking point?

A presidential election in the US is something of a modern-day Rorschach test with a constant flow of video images replacing the traditional inkblots. From attentively watching and trying to analyse the candidates, their events and the reaction of crowds, you get a better sense of the nation's current condition and future prospects.

At the conclusion of campaigning this past week, one could almost hear a continent-wide sigh of relief. Almost in the same breath, however, a realisation took hold that the exposed fault lines we kept seeing throughout the election - politically, economically, culturally and morally - might possibly reflect the more encompassing diminution of a global superpower's status and standing.

Take, for example, the intersection of the political and media cultures so much on display, particularly with the emergence of Trump.

By one calculation last March, he received free media coverage worth almost $2bn in the first months after he declared for the White House. His closest Republican rival in this category at that time was Texas Senator Ted Cruz with a value of just $313m in free coverage.

Those numbers give you an idea what celebrity means in contemporary American culture and invite this question: does glitz now trump substance, and at what cost?

Trump was able to parlay the recognition he'd received in the past, including popularity from a reality TV show, along with his new role as a presidential aspirant into a winning formula. He projected strength, delivered simplistic policy solutions and conveyed a sense (with repeated put-downs) that no other competitor was worthy of his challenge.

But, seriously, is celebrity an appropriate entrée to become "the leader of the free world"? Trump and his vice-presidential running mate, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, often invoked Ronald Reagan as someone who'd made the transition from performer to president. But Reagan served two terms as governor of California before winning the White House in 1980.

Every day of the 2016 campaign provided evidence that the American political system is in the throes of a downward spiral that jeopardises governing following the electoral process. The state-by-state nominating procedures of primaries and caucuses are both haphazard and incomprehensible. Huge amounts of money fuel campaigns, and candidates without wealth or rich contributors might as well stay home. Televised debates early in the process take on a questionable significance that fail to enlighten voters about a candidate's executive abilities.

Trump understood the weaknesses of the current process - and exploited them whenever he had the chance. Funds never presented a problem for him; he even had his own jet and helicopter. The debates became moments to attack his opponents, belittling them with nicknames that branded them in the public mind.

Read more: Trump wouldn't shake my hand. 'I just don't know where it's been...'

Trump continued and expanded this approach throughout the autumn. The phrase "Crooked Hillary" fell from his lips almost as often as the first-person pronoun. A former diplomat, Clinton abandoned the nuanced language of a secretary of state, rhetorically giving as much as she was receiving.

Indeed, for the past six months, Trump and Clinton went after each other with such ferocity that neither would have qualified as a "happy warrior," the label bestowed on another New Yorker, Al Smith, who sought the presidency in 1928. The personal attacks, relentless and at times savage, deepened divisions between Democrats and Republicans. At the final debate, when Clinton and Trump never even shook hands, everyone knew that American politics had reached a point of no return. The campaign emphasised in boldface type and high-decibel language the political polarisation that has become so pronounced since the 1990s in the US. What we're witnessing in the US today is partisanship on steroids.

In his poem 'The Second Coming', WB Yeats fretted about the centre not holding.

In Washington and elsewhere across the 50 states, it's becoming more and more difficult to locate a place resembling a centre point, where citizens of different political viewpoints can find common ground in approaching problems.

How bad is it? Before the election, some Republican senators threatened never to confirm any Supreme Court nomination put forward by Clinton if she won the election.

Moreover, at the end of electoral process this time, Americans were ready to throw their hands up at what they'd witnessed. A poll taken by The New York Times and CBS News right before voting began asked whether "the 2016 presidential campaign made you feel more excited or more disgusted about American politics"?

Some 13pc answered "excited," while a stunning 82pc responded they were "disgusted". That number in itself suggests that the body politic will take time to heal, and one wonders whether complete recovery can even occur with Trump in the Oval Office. Widespread protests in opposition to the president-elect the evening after Election Day might be just the beginning of civic objection.

Political divisions were on display throughout the 18-month slog to this week's election. Just as significantly, other divisions became exposed in the context of the campaign that raises warning flags for the new White House administration and Congress as they assume responsibility after the new year.

Much of Trump's support came from the white working class, people who think globalisation, trade policies and technological development make them economically vulnerable. The so-called "American Dream" - of continued upward mobility and a better future for the next generation - seems more elusive, if not completely out of reach, for millions of men and women.

Trump spoke to this constituency in language they understood, and his slogan - "Make America Great Again" - hearkened back to a time when workers in blue-collar and pink-collar jobs enjoyed a solid middle-class life.

Read more: A two fingers to a politically correct elite

Interestingly, to a considerable extent these people were historically Democrats, supporters of Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy. Starting in the 1980s with the rise of the "Reagan Democrats" and now even more significantly with the followers of Trump, this group is both more visible and vocal.

Will it be possible for a wealthy developer, who benefited from the support of "forgotten men and women", to bridge this chasm of class? Or will this divide - which is economic, cultural and social - get even deeper and threaten the unity he spoke of in his first speech after Clinton conceded?

Since Trump's backing largely came from white voters (58pc to Clinton's 37pc, according to exit polls), racial differences provided a serious point of tension as the campaign unfolded. African-Americans, Latinos and others often viewed Trump rallies as places where they weren't welcome. In the exit data, he received merely 8pc of the black vote and 29pc of the Hispanic and Asian electorate.

Ethicists won't be alone in pondering the moral questions that were raised throughout the campaign, and these concerns are bound to linger well after the inauguration on January 20. Neither Clinton nor Trump was viewed as honest or trustworthy by a majority of Americans, an indictment in itself. While Clinton paid a large price for secretly deciding to set up a private email server during her public tenure in the State Department, Trump's ability to fabricate facts and change what he'd previously stated kept heads shaking for 18 months.

In his case, too, on-the-record language about how he treated women forced parents to mute news coverage for a while and provoked discussions about a potential White House occupant being a problematic role model for the young. What does such behaviour communicate to the public of whatever age?

At the end of a long political campaign, the US has elected a new president, but the nation faces a future of uncertainty that extends far beyond the fate of one person who's won the White House. Do all of the problems and divisions add up to dim the brightness of America as a "shining city on a hill," the descriptive phrase Reagan often used?

Since the United States emerged as a world power over a century ago, worry about possible decline has been a constant concern for intellectuals and commentators near and far. Over the decades, however, the nation's resilience and, yes, luck, somehow relieved the weighty anxieties of a particular time - the Vietnam War and Watergate, for example - and sunnier tomorrows dispelled clouds of doubt.

This time, however, it's as though the country is willing to take a shot in the dark under the leadership of someone who has never spent a single day in governmental or military service. Trump won high office by promising "to drain the swamp" of Washington - to reform the way lobbyists operate and to seek a constitutional amendment limiting the time a member of Congress can serve.

If Trump is true to his word and takes on the lobbying class and Congressional office-holders soon after he takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we'll all quickly learn whether political reform is going to be possible. Will someone without any Washington experience be able to navigate that city's treacherous waters? Stay tuned.

Read more: Echoes of the Rust Belt on Irish Riviera

The president-elect will have ­Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives come January. Given that Trump alienated so many leaders of his party en route to the White House, how he deals and works with his fellow Republicans bears close scrutiny for the simple reason that his principal campaign appeal was to change the status quo.

That status quo extends to the currently Republican-controlled Congress, and one would expect the new president to make proposals that might challenge long-term practices that Trump supporters want to see end.

Throughout his recent campaign, Trump focused almost exclusively on domestic matters in his speeches and interviews. When he discussed immigration and terrorism, he emphasised internal implications of greater border security and homeland threats from violent acts.

By stressing problems within the 50 states, Trump did little to sketch out a worldview on international affairs. He seems less inclined to involve the US on the global stage, and that in itself might affect the overall perception of the country in superpower terms.

Last Tuesday's election puts America at a crossroads, with each path leading into uncharted territory. History provides no map for the future ahead, but everyone embarking on this journey knows that more than a presidency will be at stake.

Robert Schmuhl is a professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He's the author of Ireland's Exiled Children: America and the Easter Rising (Oxford University Press).

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