“Kathy, I’m lost”, I said
Though I knew she was sleeping
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why”.
Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come
To look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America
[Paul Simon, Bookends. 1968]
My Kind Reader sent me an email last week enquiring whether I’d be commenting on the USA Presidential elections. The fact that I have not produced any e-ink on the subject reflects the fact that, though the Biden victory is far better than the alternative, I fear that this may be a Pyrrhic victory over the longer term; one where the 70+ millions who voted for Trump become augmented by the grim post-pandemic realities that face the new administration. The Ericle, like many others, had been hoping for an emphatic turning point; one that evidenced an American not-to-be repeated mea-culpa. What we actually witnessed was a marginal tipping of the balance that spoke loudly that the forces which heralded in Trump have not been re-sized into a comfortable minority. And the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that this is not a 21st century aberration but one that has been over a century in the making – one that speaks of the aphorism that ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. Indeed, the most surprising thing about our reaction to the Trump phenomenon is that we were taken by surprise and that we believed it couldn’t and wouldn’t happen.
I highly recommend, particularly at this time, Bill Bryson’s One Summer, America 1927 – an outstanding & most readable popular social history of the forces that swirled around the USA during that amazing year. Despite being a period of prosperity – it was some 2 years prior to the Wall Street Crash – this was a time where the U.S. evidenced the pursuit of socialists (Sacco & Vanzetti); a strong belief in Eugenics as a matter of religious conviction; a countrywide tour by the Italian fascist, Francesco de Pinedo that attracted attendances of many thousands; the start of nationwide radio broadcasts by Father Charles Coughlin, in support of the KKK and anti-Semitism, listened at their peak by audiences of over 30 million. This was the era when the supremacist views of Henry Ford, the industrialist whose picture Adolf Hitler reportedly kept on his desk, were published regularly and widely in the press. We should also not forget the reluctant entry of the USA into 2 global wars and that country’s refusal to join The League Of Nations. This is also a country that despite fighting a Civil War, took until the 1960’s to desegregate its southern states and one where, in recent history, Barry Goldwater and George Wallace have been serious political contenders. And this is a country which was held in sway by the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings leaving many thousands of lives ruined by dint of accusations & hearsay. The seeds of all of the above, I suggest, are still present in the USA today and have played a part in where we are today.
A broad sweep of US history then, in fact, suggests that there is nothing really new about The Trump presidency. The politico/social divisions between the industrial heartland of the near mid-West, the food-supplying states of the far mid-west, the states south of Mason-Dixon line and the coastal states have all reared their head since the birth of The Republic. Trump’s America First policies are as old as the proverbial hills, as are peaks & troughs of attitudes towards immigrants. Nor should it come as a surprise to anybody that, in a country, where every major pollical speech ends with the words: “And God Bless America”, religious ideology plays a big part in the lives of many of its people. Nor that America has always expressed ambivalence between the rights of the individual and bigger government. For many, The New Deal was viewed as Socialism, as per Obamacare today; while the debate over Guns & Abortion still rages on. And lest you believe that Trump is uniquely crazy or corrupt may I refer you to some the US Presidents elected in the 20th century: Theodore Roosevelt (1901-9) who was so eccentric that the British Ambassador wrote that “you must always remember that the President is (an age of) about 6”; Warren Harding, who was totally corrupt, and Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) whose principal characteristics were inertia and silence. Perhaps they don’t compare to Trump but given that the American credo allows for the fact that ‘anybody can become President’, we shouldn’t be totally surprised if the world is presented with an American President who has been a B-movie actor or a reality TV show star!
In all this, the rest of the world has, in a small but significant way, been complicit in not wanting to acknowledge the forces that are contained by the heart and soul of the American identity. As long as we have been presented with Presidents of the type that we found palatable, we have presumed that elements to be found within the USA’s heartland could be disregarded. In fact, the inconvenient truth is that us oh-so sophisticated Europeans have entre-nous silently mocked many/most of the Americans we have encountered for their parochial concerns and perceived lack of cosmopolitan sophistication. We have chosen to believe that we are alike, when almost every contact with an American confirms the Churchillian, (or was it Wilde?), trope that the USA and the UK are countries separated by a common language’.
The election of a US President of Trump’s political flavour and personal characteristics can not really be seen as the aberration that most would wish it to be seen as. Nor that that policies pursued by his presidency should have resulted in such staunchly held polarised opinions. So, what really has happened such that we have been so shocked by the coming to the fore of phenomena that have been evident for a very long time? I believe that what we have been experiencing – not just via the Trump presidency but also from other issues closer to home – is the heralded arrival of the phenomena that Alvin Toffler, in 1970, called Future Shock. This shock, according to Toffler, occurs when “too much change occurs in too little time”. In other words, prior to our 21st century global village diversity arrived at containable pace and thus was ‘manageable’ from a societal perspective. Today what would in prior times be perceived as individual fires appears to us as a conflagration.
The real question that we need to be asking is not why this has been happening, but how can this state of affairs be prevented from escalating further into an even greater disaster for the USA and the world. The way out of this will, I suggest, not come about as a result of a multitude of micro events – a change of heart by millions – but via a macro reconstruction of the institutions that are at their service. Even though distrust of Washington has been the prevailing undercurrent of Trump’s 2016 election, the anger was directed at individuals rather than institutions. In 2016, unfortunately for Hilary Clinton and her candidacy, she was the target that made itself clearly visible in that particular line of sight and that rage was directed at her. Regrettably, this wilful personification misdirected the American voter from the real target – their institutions of government that are no longer fit for purpose. In a country that proclaims that it has ‘government for the people by the people’, the elastic between the American electorate and its governmental institutions has become stretched to breaking point. And this I contend is an Anglo-Saxon problem born out of our joint history.
In 1967 British Constitution was one of my A-level subjects and in 1968 I took a course on the American Constitution. The British Constitution sufficiently worried me even back then given that it was presented as the Gold Standard for democracy. Democracy? An unelected House Of Lords with Hereditary Peers plus others appointed by the Prime Minister? Cabinet Government at the behest of The Prime Minister, the Leader of the majority party in Parliament? The Law Lords? Where were the checks and balances? Where was the independence of the branches of Government? Even the Civil Service with its 3 pre-ordained classes didn’t sit right with me. When I enquired of my teachers why such a system was not abused by ruling parties and Prime Ministers, I was told that this was because of the unique quality of the unwritten British Constitution; that convention dictated that no Prime Minister or their government would take unfair advantage of the system. Clearly nobody told that to Maggie Thatcher! The same sort of answers were given to me by my teachers of the American Constitution, when I queried an Electoral College that bypassed the popular vote, Presidential executive orders that didn’t require legislative approval and Presidential Supreme Court appointees. And even though the American Constitution looked to the French 1st Republic for its institutions, its guiding spirit was British and kinder 18th & 19th century times where notions of consensus and fairness were in the air. What we have today, on both sides of The Atlantic, are political institutions that do not fulfil the characteristics and hence the needs of the 21stcentury. There is an urgent need for the Electorate and their governments to be reconnected in order to diffuse the sense of hopeless alienation felt by many and to foster a demonstrable belief that government is working for rather than against them.
To return to the question posed of me by My Kind Reader. My response, to how I feel about the outcome of the US Presidential election result, is that it speaks gloomily to me. I can only see a deeply divided American electorate which has no inclination to change its mind in the foreseeable future. It would be nice to believe that Joe Biden, the compromiser, can reach across the political & social divides to diffuse the anger at the extremes and forge a working consensus that ensures an enduring period of broader based government. But I fear that this is simply wishful thinking. The fundamental issue at hand is that the US government, as it is currently constituted, no longer has the trust of a most sizeable minority of its people. I truly fear that there is a real danger that the next time round a President will be elected in the full knowledge that he or she intends to rule by government that is closer to dictatorship than democracy.