On the eve of the Trump inauguration, The Ericle is – like many others – pondering where and what it will lead to. And like many others, I’m anxious about the prospects.
It may not have escaped my reader’s notice that this blog has more than a passing interest in matters political, domestic and international. This is not surprising as it reflects not only The Ericle’s disposition but also his field of academic study, which includes a degree in International Relations and an ‘A’ level in The British Constitution. In the latter course a great deal was espoused about the significance of the UK’s unwritten constitution, which underpins the concept of the sovereignty of ‘the will of the people’. Even in 1967, when I completed the course, I had my doubts as to how democratically reliable our unwritten constitution was, and would be in the future. (Indeed this question is central to the UK’s Supreme Court current consideration as to whether Parliamentary assent is required to initiate Brexit by a declaration under Article 50, given the ‘will of the people’ as expressed by referendum result). However putting this aside and other democratically inconvenient constitutional matters, such as The House Of Lords & Prime-ministerial dictatorship, the United Kingdom has arguably steered a path whereby its values of democratic freedom, though not unchallengeable, have generally passed scrutiny of its being a fair-and-just society.
In 1967 I spent a ‘gap year’ between school and university in the USA on an AFS (American Field Service) scholarship. Living with a family in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, I attended the local high school as a Senior and took a variety of courses including one interestingly-called ‘Problems of Democracy’. At the time, I didn’t question the course-title but to the best of my recall the course could have been reasonably called ‘American Democracy: No Problems’ as it essentially led down a road which suggested that the separation of powers and the clear divisions between state and federal governments equalled a near-perfect formula for democracy. So that’s all tickety-boo, but is it?
Which brings us then to the meat of the matter. It’s all very well studying the theory of US democracy but how has it played out in practice? I would contend that an evaluation of how democratic any society actually is, requires an analysis not only of its institutions but also how well those institutions work. In other words they may talk the talk but do they walk the walk?
This summer, I took Bill Bryson’s most excellent One Summer: America 1927 with me on my return to New England, where I had spent over 5 years in the employ of ALSG (The American Leadership Study Groups) in the 1970’s. ALSG generated its revenue on the back of the belief that experiencing Europe was both a reward for, and an educational ingredient, to graduation from a US High School – a mirror credo to my AFS experience where the world came to America for the benefit of local communities who hosted overseas students. (In fact AFS had originally been set up for this specific purpose by American Field medics after WW1). However, both these noble enterprises bring to the fore a need; one that unfortunately has come home to roost with the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency – namely that vast swathes of the United States are deeply parochial, inwardly-looking, areas where some quite objectionable ideas and practices fester. To the outsider, this fact has become obscured by the nature of the largely metro-liberal presidents that have enjoyed power since 1945. Nonetheless, anybody who has travelled inland between the coasts will have experienced a culture that is quite different. We’ve also ignored the ubiquitous presence of national iconery and the insertion of religious assertions in everyday life. As a result the rest of the world has filed such matters as ‘Americana’ where we perhaps should have been more questioning of a country that flies its national flag on virtually every corner and whose politicians need to invoke a “And God bless America” at the end of every major speech. Sure we noted the Gun Laws, the Tea-Party, the phoney evangelists and the rest as aberrations on the basis that they represented supposed minority factions but we chose to overlook the sum of the parts that they represented. And the chickens have now come home to roost in a political result that effectively stuck 2 fingers up at the complacent Washington-centric political machines.
This turn of political events is being mirrored currently in virtually every western democratic country. Whether the democratic voices that have ushered in this quantum shift in political opinion will lead to a parallel overturning of democratic values, with accompanying oppression of minorities and by-passing of the rule of law, remains to be seen. Nevertheless I am clear that one size does not fit all and that we need to evaluate matters on a country-by-country basis. I would contend that being outward-looking and fair-minded are inherent elements of the UK’s DNA. Sadly, and this is the basis of my fears, I cannot say the same of the USA.
Bill Bryson’s 1927 reminded me of some of the elements that support that this is so. The book, in Bryson’s inimitable style, is a wide sweep covering American-centred events of that year including baseball (the phenomenon that were the 1927 ‘Babe Ruth’ Yankees), the impact of the arrival of long-distance flight (Lindberg et al) etc etc. But this was also the society that executed Sacco & Vanzetti on dubious grounds, created the Klu Klux Klan, tolerated segregation in the southern states and toyed with eugenics. Moreover the decade saw the presidencies of Calvin Coolidge, who was definitely weird if not mad and of Harding & Hoover, who were certainly self-interested and possibly corrupt.
Since Trump’s election I have read Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, which imagines the election of a fascist president in 1936 and the Philip Roth novel The Plot Against America, written in 2001, which imagines the election in 1940 of a fascist President Lindbergh. I don’t think that these imaginings can be disregarded as the stuff of fantasy. They are expressions produced from the depth of the American psyche born of real fears that all is not right within the self-proclaimed cradle of democracy.
In both the novels mentioned above, (plot-spoiler alert) it all turns out alright in the end on the basis of an assumed self-correction whereby the forces of good come again to the fore. This hope notwithstanding, I cannot put aside the times when prejudice reared its head and was put into actual political practice in my own lifetime; events such as the McCarthyism and segregation, which actually happened. History is not a story, it is an explanation of how and why we have arrived at today. I do most sincerely believe the dictum that “those that do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat the lesson of history are doomed to repeat it.” The USA has elected ‘unusual’ presidents in the past but in a different age when they have not resulted in the country turning to The Dark Side. However never before have the election of an ‘unusual’ president coincided with a mass movement calling for root-and-branch change and a real-time environment that enables the evocation of sentiment to be expressed and communicated virtually (sic!) instantaneously. Unfortunately, my reading of American history suggests that the Trump presidency is not a singular event but one born from the very roots of American history; and it is this realisation that raises realistic fears that the USA today may be fertile territory for policies that are quite anti-democratic and potentially very dangerous.
[The Ericle recently posted a piece (see here) on this subject. This week, the leader in The Spectator was exactly on this theme. I am re-publishing it here for my reader, who may not be a subscriber.]
This is where the analogies with Brexit end. Vote Leave, the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, was led by people who were liberal, globally minded and optimistic. There certainly was anger at a failed status quo among many of those who voted for Brexit, but the prospectus put in front of people was about a global Britain rather than a Little England. It was an argument about encouraging more trade, lowering tariffs, restoring sovereignty, reducing net immigration — all ideas which voters proved very capable of understanding.
Donald Trump has no similar agenda. He offers emotion, but not much beyond that. He dislikes trade, and global capitalism in general. His immigration policy has amounted to a bizarre threat to ban Muslims from entering the country and build a wall between the United States and Mexico. At any other time, these policies would have disqualified him from the office — but this year Americans were not looking for solutions. Trumpism was about stopping Hillary Clinton from becoming president and sticking two fingers up to the machine. And beyond that, it is not about very much.
It’s not that Americans look up to Trump. Two thirds of them say that he lacks the temperament and character to be president, but they elected him anyway. He is there to dismantle rather than oil the Washington machine: an unpleasant man sent to upset, rather than engage, people in the seat of American government. In Britain, the vote for Brexit represented politicians giving the public a chance to fix the system, if that is what they felt needed to be done. It was followed by Theresa May becoming Prime Minister and enjoying levels of popularity that neither Mr Trump nor Mrs Clinton could dream of. We have a system that works: hence Brexit. America’s politics is broken: hence Trump.
His election is not a triumph for American conservatism. Instead, the Republican party has fallen to a hostile takeover from a man who has a mercantilist view about commerce and talks about starting trade wars with China. This agenda wooed many former Democratic voters, especially in the rust-belt states — where older white men in rural areas started to think and vote like a minority.
For the Democrats to field Hillary Clinton was an act of political suicide. She embodies the gilded political establishment that was in the dock. She carried all the baggage of someone who has been in public life for the last quarter-century: the very opposite of a ‘change’ candidate. Without doubt, she was Trump’s greatest electoral asset. She played straight into his hands, treating white working-class voters with contempt and referring to those who backed him as ‘deplorables’.
The challenge that his election presents to the West are significant. It plunges Nato into crisis: the new commander–in-chief has said he regards it less as a defence alliance and more as a form of military welfare, a means for European countries to skimp on defence spending because they can rely on Uncle Sam’s protection. His analysis has force because it is quite correct. He has said he will charge Nato members for membership; we will now see if he was serious. But Europe must now imagine a world without Pax Americana, and it’s one where Britain might be rather glad that it has an independent nuclear deterrent. And where much of Europe will be glad to have Britain as an ally.
The last eight years have shown how dangerous the world becomes without clear American leadership. The election of this isolationist to the White House will lead to a temptation for an antagonist — perhaps Moscow — to test this new world order and watch the reaction.
And how will Trump respond? It will depend on who he appoints to advise him, and who he recruits to his cabinet. Here, again, there is little ground for optimism. Some of the names being touted are even more extraordinary than his own.
Americans have voted for change, and seemingly didn’t mind very much what form it took. The success of a candidate as grotesque as Donald Trump speaks to the depth of the despair felt in the country. Voters, faced with what most regarded as the worst political choice of their lifetime, have returned the worst candidate in a very long time. There is not much reason to be optimistic of this ending well for Mr Trump or for the Republicans.
The retreat of American leadership will mean that smaller nations — such as Britain — will have to play a larger role. This is not an outcome that Theresa May wanted, but it has happened nonetheless. The days when we could rely on America to resolve the world’s disputes have just ended.
ɪˈvɛnt/ event. Noun. A thing that happens or takes place, especially one of importance.
This has been an eventful seven days by any standards. As I, like many others, try to make some sense of what has occurred in the U.S.A. these words of Harold Macmillan come to mind. From one day to the next, the world has seemingly changed and, seemingly, for the worse.
As the son of Jewish refugee parents from Vienna I was brought up with many stories of how on March 12th 1938 the world changed for the Jews of Vienna. In the space of 3 days, the world turned and the lives of my parents & fellow Jews were turned upside down. What stunned and hurt them the most was that, from one day to the next, certain neighbours & acquaintances changed completely in the ways they behaved towards them. One day they were greeted with a cheery hello and the next they were shunned and worse. This change of behaviour occurred because events had occurred that legitimised the ‘new’.
I have just listened to the most recent episode of This American Life, which chronicled reactions of a variety of American voters, from both sides of the political divide, to the Presidential election result. (You can hear the whole episode here ) In Act 6 the host, Ira Glass, interviews a young New Yorker:
We have arrived at Act Six of our show. Act Six, Times Square. So on election night, a young woman named Blair Imani tweeted this around 11:30. Quote, “I’m scared today will be the last day I feel somewhat safe wearing my hijab.” I got her on the phone the next day, and she told me that she wrote that after walking through Times Square in New York. Four guys walked past her, probably on their way to the Trump victory party, which wasn’t that far away. They were wearing red “Make America Great Again” caps. She had never seen groups of Trump supporters together like that.
You know, whenever I see men in red hats– just because of this election, not before. But you know, because of this election, I kind of tense up and I wait to see what’s on their hat. And when I see that it’s not “Make America Gay Again” or, you know, a parody of Trump’s campaign, I kind of feel a knot in my stomach. And so when I saw four white men walking towards me with “Make America Great Again” hats, I was just kind of feeling the anxiety.
And were you seriously debating not wearing your hijab.
I always will have my head covered. Today, actually, I went and I bought some hats.
Wait, so you stopped wearing your hijab.
Yeah. And tweeted a picture of myself with, like, hashtag Muslim Girl Camo.
Camo, like Camouflage. She’s done this in the past sometimes. Like, when she has to fly, she’ll wear a hat instead of a hijab on the plane. On election night, there were other people tweeting things, like, quote, “My mom literally texted me, don’t wear the hijab, please, and she’s the most religious person in our family.” And quote, “My mom and sister are actually having the conversation on whether or not they should continue wearing hijab for their own safety.”
In the days since then, Blair says that she’s seeing more and more red hats around New York. Like, Trump supporters are feeling bolder now that he’s won in this super-liberal city, which is weird for her.
I appreciate that all sorts of outcome are possible following the Trump victory, but her ‘testimony’ reminded me in some large measure of the accounts of my parents and others as to their experiences in Vienna in 1938.
Hot on the heals of the above I run into a posting from an acquaintance of mine, a life-long Republican who lives in California, and who has been an active poster of Pro-Trump postings on Facebook. On Sunday he posted, together with some quite provocative newsreel images, the following:
History repeats itself with the far left trying to discredit a President. I was on active duty with the Washington DC Army National Guard during every anti war demonstration in 1970-1972. We arrested hundreds of demonstrators on May Day 1971. The demonstrations were carefully organized and financed by far leftists with Democrat support. The Dems candidate George McGovern sought to use it to discredit a Republican President when it was the policies of a Democrat President who really created it. This is now the tactic being employed against President elect Trump.
At the 1952 Republican convention Senator Joseph McCarthy said something rather similar:
“Our job as Americans, and as Rebublican is to dislodge the traitors (the communists) from every place where they’ve been sent to do their traitorous work.”
There is a saying, with which I am sure you are familiar:
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
It’s all anecdotal but one can not ignore that the world has turned last week and it doesn’t appear to heading to a good place. Neither can one overlook the leadership role that the USA plays in the western world. Hungary barb-wiring their frontier is not good, but when the President elect of the USA openly invokes the building of a wall along their frontier – even if it is empty rhetoric – he is inviting a political climate that legitimises the open expression of dangerous narrow-minded opinions. Moreover Trump’s “Make America Great Again” has encompassed a multitude of themes that go way beyond a scoundrel’s appeal to nationalism – misogyny, racism and lies, to name but three. It remains to be seen, whether individual and social discipline will come to the fore and whether American society & its political institutions will prove themselves capable of fostering diversity, or whether they become weapons for a narrowing of opinion. The extent to which they can, or can’t, will determine whether we have learnt anything from the events of the past century or whether we are going to really relive nightmares.
I wonder whether if the Trump election had preceded the Brexit referendum, it would have solidified the Leave decision or have prompted a move in the other direction. As MacMillan put it when asked what he most feared: “Events dear boy, events”. However one can only deal with what is put in front of one and this applies also to the time-frame in which an event is framed. As my reader knows, I voted Brexit in June but I have to acknowledge I may not have done so in November. I was a ‘soft Brexiteer’ then and am even more so now. In June, I was certain that a Clinton presidency would be an instrument for the UK retaining the closest possible EU links. With her absence, we need to look to Parliament more than ever to assert this view and I consider it vitally important that the Supreme Court not cave in to the May government pressure to bypass Parliament in the Brexit negotiations. Unexpected events may not be welcomed but the real mistake is to believe and act as if there is absolute truth in the belief that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change the more they are the same thing.
Even before last night’s ghastly denouement, Trump’s Presidential and the UK’s Brexit campaigns had become coupled within the tidal wave of public rhetoric. I’m not suggesting that there are not some similarities, but that does not mean that they are even vaguely ‘the same thing’ and certainly not in terms of what was ultimately at stake
Let’s get the similarities out of the way. Both campaigns lent heavily on:
- a shifting of macro-economic power from the West to the East
- the resultant worsening of the relative economic positions of blue-collar workers
- the impact of the above on particular regions
- a belief within many communities that central government was failing them and disinterested in them
- an immigration flow of refugees and economic migrants
- a confusion between these 2 categories of migrants
- assumptions, many false, as to the scale and social & economic impact of immigration
- fear, plain & simple
Weighing in against these forces, both the Clinton & The Remain campaigns:
- were seen as insensitive defenders of the status quo and the political establishment.
- lent heavily on authority figures, who warned earnestly of disastrous consequences that would result if their views did not prevail
- appeared indifferent at best, and demeaning at worst, to the issues being raised by the other side.
So yes, the resultant outcomes were effective forged along the social & economic fault-lines that exist within our respective communities. These are realities, and hugely significant ones, but they are underlying causes not the issues that were being contested.
The Trump campaign was an inwardly-directed campaign which ultimately succeeded because, despite everything else, the candidate and his team exploited the above fault-lines for their own benefit; an objective, to put it simply, to gain control of executive power. The Brexit campaign was also about executive power but it was a referendum on an externally-directed issue that was fought on a cross-party basis, despite all the efforts of the UK media to present it as otherwise. As a consequence of this, no assumption of executive change could be made by any on the Leave side. Indeed the possibility existed that the government in situ would act & negotiate in response to a Brexit decision. Two different campaigns then – one a popularity contest, the other a referendum.
For many in the UK the Brexit decision is seen as a retrograde step born of prejudice and lacking in commitment to global causes. Neither of these need be the consequential result of a Brexit decision. The UK voted to make a change in its political and economic relationships and nothing yet has come to pass that suggests that the fundamental democratic and egalitarian principles that underpin our society will suffer as a consequence. In fact, as a Brexiteer, I am firmly of opinion that the relationship changes, which will come to be, will enhance our economic opportunities and that we will more than continue to be an outwardly looking nation and a generous member of the international community.
How different from the potential consequences of a Trump executive. Can you seriously suggest that the Brexit decision is worthy of a hyperbolic damnation as has just arrived in my inbox from the Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian newspaper:
“It was a terrible night for women, for Muslims, for Hispanic Americans, for people who believe climate change is a real and present danger, for people who believe women have a right to abortion, for men and women who object to sexual harassment of the most brutal and obvious kind, for disabled people, for black people, for Jewish people, for gay people, for progressives, for liberals and for people who believe Barack Obama was born in the USA.”
Followed in short order by another piece penned by one of its journalists entitled: “Globalisation is dead, and white supremacy has triumphed.”
BBC News suggests that this ‘to do list’ would feature in Trump’s 1st 100 days:
- Starting process of “removing the more than two million criminal, illegal immigrants”
- Denying visa-free travel to countries who refused to take back their citizens
- Repealing every Obama executive order
- Restrictions on White House officials becoming lobbyists
- Term limits for members of Congress
- Cancellation of all payments to UN climate change programmes
- Using that money to fix US infrastructure
- Label China a currency manipulator
To suggest that this list has any similarities with the consequences of Brexit, is misconceived and totally out of proportion.
These are indeed dangerous times but if we are to survive them we need to have the capacity to identify what things are and what they are not. There seems to be something in the air these days whereby people want to demonise absolutely those that they don’t agree with. (I actually think it is a side-bar to the zeitgeist of instant gratification – ‘wanting it now’ translating into ’agree with me now’. And this impatience then morphs into an “if you can’t see the sanity of what I am saying then you must be insane”). Everything we don’t like or care for is not hewn from the same stuff. If we are to steer a safe path through the obstacles of our time we have to be treat matters on their own merit and respond proportionately. In the coming days and months the real strength and integrity of our political institutions will be severely challenged. Given the role that public opinion plays in today’s political to-ings and fro-ings, it is vitally important that we see matters in shades of grey, rather than black-and-white.
The Trump presidency is a real-and-present danger because of the sort of person he is, the things he stands for and because the United States is a global leader. As a result, the world has indeed taken a lurch towards the dark side. If we are to return to the light, we have see things for what they really are and not tar everything we don’t like with the same brush. And to start with we need to frame Brexit in terms of what it really is – a banana skin compared to the herd of stampeding elephants that the Trump presidency represents.
During the final fortnight of this October I was up in the early hours of the morning no less than 6 times. I’m not a great sleeper, but my early risings on these occasions were intentional – I wanted to watch the 2013 World Series Of Baseball, and in particular ‘my’ team The Boston Red Sox. It is very ‘now’, in ‘these parts’ to pour scorn these days on most things Yankee Doodle Dandy, but if you are so minded I would ask you to put those thoughts aside for an American product that is truly great. Even though baseball is not a game that one can understand instantly, if you give it a little bit of time it will reward you uniquely.
Most competitive sports have simple objectives; such as you line up alongside any number of like-minded and try to run a set distance faster than them, or you team up with others and try to hurl the ball through a hoop more times than an opposing team, etc etc. The complications come in with the number of people involved and the rules. So it is with baseball, the game is simple enough but the ‘complications’ are many.
A baseball field consists of an outer perimeter, which is on average about 350 feet away from ‘Home Plate’ and an inner perimeter defined by the diamond of Home Plate & the 3 other bases, each 90 feet apart from each other. The game consists of 9 innings, each of 3 ‘Outs’. If you hit the ball such that it lands between the inner and outer perimeter, in almost every case you will have hit the ball far enough for you to ‘get on base’ via running to one of the other bases, before the ball is thrown to that base. If it’s caught without landing (a ‘flyball’) you’re ‘out’. And if one of your team-mates achieves a similar feat in the inning, your aim is continue onto to the furthest base possible before the ball is returned to that base. Make it back to Home Plate and your team scores a run. If you hit the ball over the outer perimeter without it being caught you score a Home Run and you & every player on base scores. When you’re not hitting you’re fielding and you take up one on the 9 positions as either the ball-thrower (‘Pitcher’), ball-receiver (‘Catcher’), one of 4 ‘infield’ positions or 3 ‘outfield’ ones. The Pitcher throws the ball and tries to throw it to The Catcher across the strike zone (defined horizontally by the ‘batting box’ and vertically by the batters knees and shoulders) without the Batter being able to either hit it at all or reach a base by not hitting it far enough into play. Each time the pitcher does this it is called a ‘Strike’. If The Pitcher does this 3 times The Batter is ‘struck out’. The only proviso to this rule is that a 3rd strike has to be a ‘clean’ strike – one that does not hit the bat. If the game is tied after 9 innings, each side plays ‘extra’ innings until the issue is decided. That’s all there is to it – simples!
Now do you remember that I mentioned that there are a number of ‘complications’? In baseball’s case there are many. Among other things there are many different ways to get out (some not even involving pitching or hitting), many specialised skills required by players’ positions, rules that define when and how one can progress between bases, (see here for Wikipedia on the Infield Fly Rule), substitutions & tactics – to mention but a few. And the very pinnacle of the game, Major League Baseball – whose 2 Conference winners compete for The World Series – throws up a variation all of its own with the ‘Designated Hitter’ rule which allows another player to hit for the pitcher in one league (The American) but not the other (The National).
I’m sure that at least one of my American, or British expats who live ‘over there’, friends will take issue with my above description of The Game. But that is the point – it is a game of subtleties, any of which can come to the fore at any particular stage of the game. Beyond the result, Baseball has many perspectives which define the contributions of every one of the players and the roles that they play in the game. No other game has the opportunities for statistical analysis that baseball has, which in its way indicates that no other game has such intricacies. The higher the level of competence of the players involved, the greater is the impact of appropriate decision-making & execution. At the very top the executions required turn the game into one of sublime tension and veritable beauty.
Like Hamburgers and Pizza, baseball is not an American invention. The origins of Baseball are a matter of some debate but almost certainly the game found its way to The New World via immigration of the game of Rounders in some form. However in baseball’s case the ‘improved formula’ has evolved into a product worthy of the description ‘Americana’ and that goes for all that travels with it – the stadia, the food and the rituals. If you are ‘over there’ and you get a chance to experience it, do take it!
And oh yes, The World Series* – The Red Sox won it in 6 games. Joy of joys!
*To those of you who have a ‘problem’ with the MLB – an American sports association, albeit with a Canadian team playing in it – claiming that theirs is the ‘World’ series I can only say: “A rose by any other name…..”
Newtown, CT, is a town described as being “typically New England”. Having lived in that area for over 5 years in the 70s, I have a true sense of what is meant by this description. And though I don’t, for a minute, believe that the inhabitants of a prosperous professional neighbourhood believed that they had immunity from the madnesses of the world, I do have a sense that they believed that such devastating madness could not incubate from within a community such as theirs. The 21st century global village is indeed a double-edged sword. It offers the osmotic prospect of quantity of communication, but this magnitude of scale brings with it a prospective diminution of quality. I am a great fan of the internet and greatly value the potential offered by Facebook, email, blogs and the like. But we need to take care that more doesn’t become less; indeed meaningless. Isolation brings danger of alienation in both the micro and macro universes; and in the real and virtual worlds. This surely is the quintessential essence of this time of the year – a seasonal opportunity to embrace and meaningfully connect with one another; not only family and friends but also ‘the strangers in our midsts’.
My cousin, who lives in Los Angeles, is a serial re-emailer. To this end, I am the regular recipient of the odd good joke, some crusty retreads, links to YouTube vids of fluffy animals & the like and an amount of right-of-centre political opinions. This week he sent me a link to a compilation of “wonderful” pictures of Elizabeth Windsor’s Diamond Jubilee gig. To which I replied by sending him a copy of this recent front page of Private Eye; for which he thanked me warmly. The Americans don’t do irony, do they?