Saturday 24 March 2018

Culture and politics of US collide, splattering us all with toxic spray

Campaign on a roll: Then along came Anthony Weiner Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Campaign on a roll: Then along came Anthony Weiner Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Fergal Keane

I don't know what it all tells us about the decline and fall of civilisation as we know it. Maybe not a lot. But it feels bigger than politics, as if the train has entered a long tunnel at the end of decades of financial recklessness, military adventurism, cultural debasement and rampant narcissism.

We have a battle for the most powerful office in the world dominated by the ravings of a self-misogynistic race baiter - a man who frequently exudes contempt for democratic norms - and a politician who used her private email server to send thousands of job-related emails.

This would be a fine point if only those emails were not those of the Secretary of State of the United States of America, an individual sworn to uphold not only the letter of the law but the spirit of open government that defines the American constitution.

There is much else to be said about Hillary and her attitude to power. This has nothing to do with her being a woman and all to do with the idea of high office being an entitlement that shields the holder from essential scrutiny.

But in the past few weeks, aided by her opponent's staggering awfulness, Hillary seemed to have done enough to mute Trump's chorus of 'Lock Her Up' and the wider sense that she was shifty and secretive. She saw off the Russian espionage operation which provided Wikileaks with - guess what? - thousands of her campaign emails.

Surging at last in the polls, she had convinced enough potential voters that the alternative to President Clinton was a vista that could not be contemplated. Then along comes a guy called Weiner...

This is where the culture and the politics of the age meet head on, splattering us all with their toxic spray. Wiener was a rising star of the Democratic Party until his penchant for sending sexual texts and photographs to other women - and now possibly a 15-year-old girl - derailed his bid for the mayoralty of New York City. Weiner was, until earlier this year, married to and living with one of Hillary's top aides, Huma Abedin.

Although Weiner was still under investigation, the Clinton campaign assumed he had slithered safely into obscurity.

That was until Friday when the FBI director, James Comey, wrote to congressmen telling them they were investigating Clinton-related emails found on the seized phones of Weiner and Abedin. If they are found to contain classified information she could be in serious trouble. But they may contain nothing of significance. The problem for Hillary is that she is unlikely to know either way until the election has been held. Clinton partisans have accused the FBI of irresponsiblility in releasing the information so close to Election Day. Wrong. Comey would have been damned if he hadn't. The Trump campaign has already accused him of letting Hillary off the hook in the original investigation. It was the absence of information and context in his statement that was outrageous.

The prospect now is of a Clinton presidency undermined by a high-profile legal process that could drag on for months, if not years.

Sound familiar? Little wonder Bill has been looking so gaunt and strained in recent weeks. Even if Comey gives Hillary the all clear in the next week, the latest allegations will reinvigorate the Trump campaign.

They will not win - but they will claim moral justification for refusing to accept her victory.

The poison is now flowing too freely through the system. The great hope that the Republicans would see the folly of bitter partisanship is a pipe dream. I expect American politics to get more vicious and polarised.

A President Clinton will not unite the nation because too many Republican voters loathe her, and too few Democrats love her. America is in a dark place. The extremes are no longer the extremes. In much of the western world, a view has taken hold on the farther reaches of right and left that only breaking up the political system will create a world free of corruption. We know how such Utopian fantasies end up.

We are left, as so often these days, to imagine what might have been.

Just as a many Republican grandees now mourn the ascendancy of Trump, there are surely Democrats who wish that solid figure of Vice President Joe Biden was their candidate.

At his age of 73, he would almost surely only serve one term - but long enough to create some stability.

He and Michelle Obama have turned out to be the star performers during this campaign, by turns thoughtful and passionate. Now there is a ticket to ponder!


I am in West Kerry and just back from a walk around Slea Head in this glorious mild weather.

The Blaskets still turn my heart inside out every time I see them come into view. Dingle is buzzing and full of foreigners. It is a relief to be in Ireland. I love London and it is my home - but the atmosphere of the city feels changed.

Hardly a day goes by without some racist incident or hate crime being reported. A man is struck in the face on the tube because he has brown skin. Muslim women have hijabs pulled from their faces. Many others find themselves verbally abused and told to 'go home'.

The usual liberal voices express outrage. But there is a sense that all of this is happening without the necessary outrage on the part of the wider public. I always inclined to George Orwell's belief, expressed in The Lion and The Unicorn, that the English would never be hijacked by extremism. They were too stolid, essentially mistrustful of ideology, to be swept up by the kind of angry passions that currently convulse America.

Perhaps it is so. But the ugliness in the air right now makes me fearful.

In Ireland, 30 years of The Troubles, and the memory of the Civil War that gave birth to our State, makes us disdain political extremes. The negative side of that is you end up with a system where for too long debate about issues was replaced by the politics of the pocket calculator. That and a still lingering culture of cronyism.

We were driven to economic catastrophe not by atavistic passion but by greed and stupidity.

I am thankful for our ingrained suspicion of grand ideological projects. Now all we need are some ideas fit for the challenges of Brexit and a polarised world scene. This island might just offer a calm example to John Bull.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

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