by Barendina Smedley
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way — Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
On the late afternoon of Friday, 20 January 2017, I’ll be in Norfolk, in a village perched on the edge of the North Sea. By 16.30 or so I’ll probably be in my comfortably scruffy kitchen, settled down in the armchair next to the old Aga, watching the BBC news on my laptop computer. Outside in the gathering dusk, the pheasants will shout their usual crepuscular warnings at each other, as the sleek fat farm cats make their regular rounds and night tucks itself in around my 500-year old former parsonage, under a waning quarter moon. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well, as our local St. Julian of Norwich put it. And at the same time, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
This horrifies me. I was an American both by birth and patriotic conviction and remained so for more than two decades until I became British by choice, but no change of passport will ever eradicate my troubled entwinement with the United States and its fortunes — my admiration for it when it is at its best, or my visceral fear when it appears to be at its worst.
And what could be worse than Trump?
I know enough about American history not to romanticise the past. The USA was built both on courageous, admirable ideals, and also on the enslavement, persecution and mass murder of African Americans, indigenous Americans, Americans who for whatever reason were deemed unworthy of equality and Constitutional rights. Just over a century before I was born — which, in historical terms, is no time whatsoever — it was convulsed by a brutal civil war which, in hindsight, may not entirely have ended in 1865. Since that time, plenty of things have happened which ought to fill no American with pride — the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, challenges to the progress of the Civil Rights movement, a tendency to engage in foreign wars more as a short-term domestic policy expedient than as a thoughtful contribution to global peace and stability. My political consciousness began with President Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate. As much as I love America, I don’t always have hugely high expectations for the course of American public life.
And yet despite all that, Trump is literally the most terrifying thing that has happened to America within my lifetime.
* * *
Not everyone agrees, obviously. It was a source of amazement, bemusement, disbelief, disgust and eventually real sadness to me that in the days and weeks following his election, several old friends of mine — well, at the time they were friends — seemed perfectly all right with Trump’s victory. Some, conservatives or libertarians by conviction, hoped that Trump, for all his imperfections, might all the same prove to be the instrument of economic and political changes that these friends found desirable. Some responded with cynicism: all politicians are the same, surely; the only difference is that Trump is a bit more obvious about it? Some responded with self-interest: they basically hoped to get work from the new administration. And some just wanted to change the subject: apparently our friendship had always been about a lot more than politics, so why didn’t we just talk about something else?
Paradoxically, that final (and, in the end, it really was final) strand of argument goes to the heart of is wrong with Trump. His wrongness strikes deep roots in areas far beyond the obvious bounds of party political positioning. So, were my friend and I — both women, by the way — supposed to stay off the subjects of gender and sexuality? Were we supposed to stay off the subject of how news media works, what different broadcaster get right and wrong, how that fits within our public life? Were we to stay off references to tax, business ethics, integrity? Were we never again to mention Russia? Or China, Taiwan, Ukraine, foreign policy more generally? Were we never again to have a laugh at the marvellous, grotesque, often very funny freak-show that is political Twitter? And what about references to people who happen to be black, or gay, or Jewish, or Muslim, or an immigrant — or indeed any other category of humanity frequently condemned by Breitbart, spawn of Stephen Bannon, apparently Trump’s presiding genius?
On a happier note, I should add that while I certainly lost a few friendships over Brexit and Trump, the grisly events of 2016 in fact strengthened other existing friendships, real and sustaining ones, as well as creating new bonds where none existed before. So that’s nice, at least.
And those former friends, now lost to me? When I asked one particular friend whether she was okay with Stephen Bannon’s history, his track-record of journalism and his influence on the next president of the United States, this was her answer: ‘I don’t really know much about Stephen Bannon’.
Let that be their epitaph.
* * *
We are all, ultimately, creatures of our own narrowness. I should love to be able to claim that my horror of Trump was based on purely intellectual, rational objections to his known policy positions, his documented achievements and mishaps. This, though, would be a patent fib. In truth, quite a lot of my horror, wherever it eventually comes to repose, has its origins in snobbery.
Trump is, alas, what my grandmother — the patriotic granddaughter, daughter, wife and mother of decorated US servicemen, incidentally — would have called ‘vulgar’. This isn’t just a question of his coarse language, his attitudes and self-reported actions towards women, his compulsive self-promotion or his narcissistic self-centredness, either. It’s there in his attitude towards money, fame, power. It’s in his taste in architecture, interior decoration, his manners. The font and origin of all my problems with Trump is the essential fact that he is ugly, inside and out.
And if it seems strange to express this in such terms, let me explain very directly why I am doing so. People who don’t know America well sometimes have rather strange and inaccurate beliefs regarding how social class works in the Land of the Free. On the basis of this, they occasionally think that because he is rich, because he was born into a rich family, because he had a lot of advantages in life, Trump is somehow ‘upper class’ and that his mode of being is generally considered admirable.
The truth, of course, is that American social class, like British social class — probably like all class everywhere, actually – is entirely relative. A lot depends on the angle of view.
But looking from the angle of my own social origins — because, in truth, who can do otherwise? — I find myself turning into my grandmother.
Trump is vulgar — and not in a nice, wholesome, vigorous, down-to-earth way, either. He is vulgar in the sense that he rejects a lot of societal norms that are important to me. Just to pick a few examples, he lacks physical bravery, good manners, generosity, a sense of irony, charity towards his enemies, magnanimity in victory, self-deprecating humour in defeat. He never misses an opportunity to be petty, vindictive or trivial. Does he have any sort of inner life, apart from a sort of mute and bestial scrabbling towards a little more material gain, a little more external validation? If he does, he’s keeping uncharacteristically quiet about it. Meanwhile, he talks about himself in third person, while his howls of inarticulate need and anger pierce the lapping surface of the Twittersphere at some very strange hours of the day and night.
There is probably some sort of very real problem there — some kind of damage, some ingrained and painfully impacted dysfunction — for which pity and sympathy would, in any other context, be adequate solvents. Here, though, we are talking about the man who will, within days, preside over the United States. And so it is that the vulgarity, the things that Trump probably could do otherwise if he wanted to, rush to the fore, while the human sympathy goes out on the ebb tide.
By way of contrast, while Trump has always seemed disagreeably alien, I have never once had this problem with Obama. Put starkly, a thoughtful, middle-class, Harvard-educated constitutional lawyer is, at least potentially, my kind of person. As portrayed in an article like this one, he is half dream teacher, half fantasy best friend. There’s a laidback, funny, respectful, articulate, apparently effortless elegance to Obama that gets me every time. He’s good with children. I love his wife’s clothes, her poise and the fact that her speech was by far the best speech of the 2016 presidential campaign, in which she wasn’t even a candidate. As a former US Republican, I may not always agree with the Obamas but somehow that never really stops me from liking them. And this always, always makes me cry.
In contrast, Trump invariably fills me with disgust. I actually missed quite a lot of the 2016 campaign because I really didn’t like watching him or reading about him — shallow, perhaps, but true. For some reason, he simply makes my skin crawl. It would be good to be able to transcend this – good in the sense that consciously overcoming visceral instincts always feels rather impressive somehow — but I don’t think I’ll ever manage it. Let’s be honest: a generous part of the reason why I can’t stand Trump is because he basically instantiates pretty much everything I grew up believing was unattractive, disagreeable, embarrassing and to be avoided at all costs. And in a few days, he will be President of the United States.
* * *
In case you were wondering, there is a reason why I began with pointed references to my 500 year old parsonage, my Aga and my pheasants, just as there is a reason why, in an essay that takes Trump to task for self-obsession, I have written an awful lot about my subjective judgements, the vicissitudes of my friendships and the failures of my imagination.
Who am I, after all, to write about Trump? I haven’t lived in the United States since 1988. I haven’t set foot in the United States since 1996. Best of all, worst of all, I’ve actually taken on British citizenship and hence ceased to be, at least in the eyes of people who deal with passports, an American. And this matters when it comes to my Trump-denouncing credibility.
Rather as we are constantly told that here in the UK, the ‘Leave’ vote in the 2016 on the EU referendum was a rebellion of authentic, down-to-earth, normal British people, particularly those from outside of London, against a hated urban elite who have presided over their exploitation and degradation for heaven only knows how long — particularly with regard to immigration, which is seen as the key issue on which the elites take a view completely alien to that of normal British people — there is a strong sense that only a certain sort of voter really ‘gets’ Trump, and hence that only a certain sort of voter is fit to pronounce on him.
So let’s be clear: I have never worked in a steel mill, a coalmine or an automobile factory. The part of the States into which I was born had plenty of universities, hosted the perpetual job-creation scheme that is state government, and also nurtured an early version of what would now be called tech start-ups, but featured few derelict industrial sites or rusting graveyards of infrastructure. I certainly have never had a job ‘taken from me’ by anyone, except perhaps someone who could do it better and more cheaply than I could. I am white, which does indeed correspond with most Trump voters, but I also have a PhD, which doesn’t. I’m a Christian, but a low-key, Book of Common Prayer-wielding Anglican rather than an American evangelical, and by the same token, I’m a Southerner by birth, but one whose parents were middle-class, university-educated Democrats who hated segregation and certainly felt that they were doing their level best to support the Civil Rights movement.
Finally, I try not to be ‘angry’, at least in a political context. As an ex-soldier colleague once said in my presence, being angry is a mistake because it makes people stupid. Trump-hating friends, please take note.
For all these reasons, it’s very easy to argue that of course I don’t ‘get’ Trump, because he isn’t about people like me — perhaps even because he stands directly in opposition to people like me. And up to a point, it’s a fair contention. Both in the US and the UK, part of the vibe of 2016 was a sort of sudden compulsive lunge in the direction of the reset button, based on a feeling that however bad the alternative might be — how catastrophic, even — the present situation was unendurable. Yet for me, and many of those around me, at the start of 2016, the present seemed broadly acceptable — in places quite encouraging. Clearly, however, for many people this simply wasn’t the reality, and in that sense, the urge for something, anything different makes sense.
Why that ‘something’ needed to be a boorish, narcissistic, orange-faced, gibberish-tweeting billionaire ex-bankrupt with worrying ties to Vladimir Putin is a rather more puzzling question.
The easy answer, I suppose, is that people get the politicians they deserve. This answer is particularly easy if one happened not to have voted for the politician in question, in which case the phrase can be spat out like the curse it usually is. It is very easy to roll all the people who voted the wrong way into ‘other’ and hope that the monster they created will somehow turn back and consume them, casually and without remorse. And indeed, perhaps the Rust Belt or parts of Texas somehow deserves Trump — his moral and ideological ugliness, his lack of impulse-control, his weird obsession with the viewer figures for television programmes — just as Sunderland and Romford somehow deserves Nigel Farage’s piss-coloured corduroy trousers, pre-prandial pints and casual racism. Perhaps a slim majority, both here and in the US, is actually more grisly than anyone had hitherto anticipated, and richly deserves the disaster it has wished upon itself. Perhaps there was always a central flaw in the logic of democracy, and in 2016, what was once a hairline fracture suddenly felt like a chasm, as we were reminded that the same system that gave us Obama could also spew forth a Trump.
The more difficult answer, however, may be more accurate. Who among us, if we’re being honest about it, hasn’t voted for a politician, not because he or she perfectly represented our views, ideals and aspirations, but rather, because he or she seemed, at the time, to be the least bad alternative, and so we offered him or her, rather unwillingly and without enthusiasm, the benefit of some considerable doubt, at least until the burden of doubt became too heavy and we had cause to regret our decision? Also, the awfulness of specific politicians is often a trick of the light, an accident of personal perspective. To pick an historic example, I have gay friends who hated Margaret Thatcher in large part because they hated Section 28 and couldn’t forgive her for it, but I also have gay friends who campaigned obsessively for her because, although they didn’t like Section 28, they saw it as a relatively unimportant concession to an internal faction of Tory MPs that allowed Mrs T to get on with the policies that mattered, which were mostly about the economy, trade unions and foreign affairs.
We all have our red lines, but we draw them in different places. How awful is too awful? I’ve been a Tory for decades, a lifetime really, but Theresa May’s conference speech in 2016 turned out to be a red line for me, if only because her nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to ‘global elites’ and ‘citizens of the world’ struck me as borderline fascist. Yet friends of mine have rejected the Tory party for decades on the basis that it was, well, borderline fascist. Who was right? God only knows. I’d honestly contemplate voting Labour these days, if only because I’m now more urgently worried about the rise of xenophobic nativism than I am about the milder forms of socialism, but the Labour on offer isn’t led by a pragmatic, responsible post-Blairite — it’s led by IRA supporters, apologists for Stalin and Mao, people unable or unwilling to tackle anti-semitism within their own party. So that’s another red line. And yet not voting, at least for someone who cares about what happens in the world, can feel like an evasion, a positive act of moral laziness.
So at that level, perhaps, I do enjoy a kind of kinship with Trump voters. A lot of Americans dislike Hillary Clinton, or thought she’d be a terrible president, for reasons that seemed very real to them. Trump, at least, was something of an unknown quantity, at least as a political leader. Many seem to have been prepared to take a chance on him. That was what, for some anyway, was in the balance — Clinton’s flaws against Trump’s untried potential. All politicians are bundles of qualities, more or less promising. In the case of Trump, quite a few voters were willing to ignore or downplay the less inviting aspects of Trump, and to focus on something else: Trump’s novelty, his status as an outsider, his potential as a beneficial shock to a sclerotic, possibly moribund system. If Trump appealed hugely and without much reservation to the racists, homophobes, misogynists, domestic abusers, fantasists and neo-Nazis, it is equally true that he was given a chance by people who are none of these things, but who couldn’t or didn’t see a better alternative. And so do they deserve the politician, the monster, they’ve now got? I doubt it. But they’ve got him all the same. We all have.
* * *
A lifetime ago, soon after noon on 2 May 1997, the lunchtime after the night before in which Labour had won the UK general election and thus ended 18 years of Conservative government, I wandered down through St James’s Park and through Horseguards to Downing Street, where cheering crowds awaited the arrival of a youthful, fresh-faced Tony Blair.
My own reason for being there had nothing to do with cheering. As a Conservative, on that afternoon I viewed the future with genuine apprehension, later much allayed by the fact that although Blair was a Labour politician, he managed to govern, at least most of the time, in a way that made at least a degree of sense to a broad majority of the British people. But on that painfully bright and unfeeling spring morning, I wasn’t there to welcome him. I was there to observe that near-miraculous thing, the peaceful transfer of political power — the moment when one leader voluntarily stands back and makes way for another, not because he or she is compelled to do so, but rather, in effect, because societal norms have long ago drummed it into him or her, and all the people around him or her, that this is the right thing to do.
In the UK we take the peaceful transfer of power for granted, just as people do in the US. And in both cases, generations of history suggest that we are right to do so. Only in 1860-65 did the United States experience the trauma of a full-blown crisis of political legitimacy, but its institutions, at least, bounced back quickly.
While in the UK, perhaps because our ceremonial tends to follow our head of state, rather than our political leaders, the outwards signs and portents of the peaceful transfer of power are low-key: a sentimental moment as a familiar figure departs the door of No. 10, hackneyed helicopter footage of a car driving up the Mall, perhaps a removal lorry parked self-consciously in Downing Street. But in the USA, inaugurations are much more festive affairs, complete with inaugural balls, processions, a huge set-piece speech. And in general, these patriotic rituals surely exist to celebrate not only the good fortune and high resolve of the incoming leader, but also the fact of that peaceful transition itself. This is why they, like presidential funerals, are usually fully bi-partisan affairs. There have been a few exceptions along the way, but as a general rule, old enemies rise to the occasion with generous words about each other, and a sense of shared endeavour. Our responsibilities to the people of the USA, the logic and tone of the ceremonial insist, ring out louder than the surface hum of faction.
And yet everything suggests that the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States may be rather different. Trump tried, briefly, to be generous regarding Obama and Clinton — it would be interesting to know what brought him to his senses in those few fleeting moments, if only to encourage it to happen again — but once he had returned to the sweaty thumb-working compulsion of Twitter, the magic departed, and his all-embracing littleness was once again on show for all the world to see.
Trump has, by all accounts, presided over the worst transition in the history of all transitions. By meeting foreign political figures, making foreign policy pronouncements and generally being Trump, he has trampled on all the constitutional norms, formal and informal, regarding how a president-elect ought to behave. Unsurprisingly, although both the president and Trump’s defeated opponent have managed to exercise near-supernatural restraint in the face of these clumsy provocations, not all their followers, friends and well-wishers have managed to follow suit. It is hard to imagine the USA being united on much, at the moment, but on the possibilities of celebrating Trump’s accession to power, it is perhaps uniquely and unalterably divided, to the extent that an increasing number of elected officials are now refusing to attend the inauguration. And more than a few have gone even further, and raised the possibility that Trump is not, in fact, a legitimate president.
These accusations make me uncomfortable. In some cases, they are surely simply wrong. The argument that as Clinton seems to have won the popular vote, she ought to be president, lacks merit. That isn’t how the US Constitution works. The Founding Fathers, pretty much to a man, viewed direct democracy with the sort of unalloyed fear and loathing now quite familiar to Remainers contemplating the Brexit vote. All the candidates knew that what matters, in the US election, is the electoral college vote, not the popular vote. If you don’t like the system, then change the system, but don’t pretend that a long-running feature is, this one time, a bug. (UK readers may be interested to hear that in 1874, 1929, 1951 and February 1974, the incoming party of government won the majority of seats but did not win the popular vote. This stuff happens.)
I am also uncomfortable with the idea that if Russia hacked the computers of the DNC, in a sort of nostalgic cyber-reenactment of Watergate, then the result of the election should not stand. Obviously, if Russia did do this — and it does seem more likely than not — then this is bad thing, and should not be ignored, any more than stealing anything ever ought to be ignored. But when it comes to genuine electoral tampering — to changing the result of the election — the chain of causation feels, to me anyway, slightly slack. True, the information that emerged probably made a difference, and as Trump won by a relatively small margin, the difference may have been decisive. But what stood between that information and the achievement of an electoral goal? The news media, the critical intelligence of voters, the inconsequential content of much of that information — barriers that ought to have held, seawalls that should not have collapsed in the face of a weak autumn tide.
There is, however, one contingency in which, despite these reservations, I would regard Trump’s election as invalid. If anyone could prove that Trump had knowingly colluded with a foreign power to alter the course of a US election through the commission of a criminal act, Trump would be not only the accessory to a felony, but also, surely, a traitor. And a traitor, by definition, is unfit to be president. Since none of this has been proved, on Friday 20 January, watching the painful ceremonial unfold from my distant fastness in Norfolk, I will regard what I am seeing as the lawful inauguration of a new American president. Do I wish it were otherwise? Yes, I do — and that isn’t a good feeling, either.
* * *
I began these thoughts with a quotation from Count Tolstoy, whose own politics were, frankly, cranky. The point of the quotation was to conjure up, as best I can, what our shared experience of watching the inauguration will be like. For while the joy of watching an inauguration has, historically, been a fairly homogeneous one — for which, see the comments about the peaceful transfer of power mentioned above — when it comes to Friday’s festivities, the anguishes will be individual, personal and presumably more or less without number.
There are, after all, so many reasons to lament Trump. Just by way of example, forget for a moment — and enjoy the experience! — the awful man himself. Think of something else. Whenever I contemplate Trump’s Twitter timeline, I am chilled less by the actual content of his unhappy, anxious, needy, dysfunctional table-talk than I am by the legions of admirers who, it seems, are happy both to ‘like’ and retweet him. Who are all these people, and what, exactly, is wrong with them? Think, in particular, about how many of these people must surely be women — women who have, by now, learned quite a lot about Trump’s attitude towards women. What sort of mental worlds must these women inhabit, so that they can somehow filter Trump’s remarks through their own histories, standards and expectations, and find them acceptable? Or think, perhaps, of the Trump enthusiasts who have been members of the armed forces, or who have fathers, brothers or sons who have risked everything to serve their nation in conflicts far and near. How do their minds work — how does their self-respect, family pride or patriotism work — that they can thus embrace a man who not only casually shrugged off the draft and now disparages Vietnam-era PoWs and the mothers of America’s recent war dead, but who genuinely seems prepared to conform his policy to the urgings and whims of a resurgent Russia?
These, for various reasons, are styles of anguish that come easily to me. My black, Hispanic, Muslim, Jewish, LGBT, left of centre, vaguely countercultral and other assorted American friends and associates will, of course, be able to compile their own distinctive lists of reasons for horror, sadness, disbelief, perhaps even despair.
And yet despair is, surely, the one luxury we must not allow ourselves as we sit down to watch this heartbreaking, stomach-churning narrative unfold. (Chocolate and / or wine are, in contrast, positively encouraged.) For one thing, despair makes everything too easy for the forces of evil, who in any event so often turn out to be rather less formidable than they first appear. For another thing, there’s a perverse way in which the sheer awfulness of Trump & Co may serve as a spur to more political engagement, more actual critical thinking about where America should be going and how best to get there. Is it just me, for instance, or has there ever been a Martin Luther King day more freighted with genuine gratitude, admiration and inspiration than the one just gone? True, some of that engagement will involve interventions from people who spend a lot of time hunched in their mother’s spare room, picking their spots and being brave on the Stormfront website — but let’s face it, these are not exactly high-quality opponents, and should not detain us for long. Most normal Americans will, I strongly suspect, soon see through Trump, particularly if they are offered alternatives that seem at once more attractive and yet no less innovative. Indeed, the disillusionment is already underway.
So this is a battle that can be won. Or perhaps it’s just another battle in an ongoing war that is never really won, at least in the sense of any ultimate and irreversible victory — but at the same time, none of that is any excuse to give in to despair, withdraw from the field and leave the spoils to our lacklustre enemy.
We have, after all, been here before. We have been here many times. Just as most normal people have moments wherein the certainly descends that they are, in fact, experiencing love, or grief, in a way that no one has ever done before — certainty no less lapidary and convincing for being patently nonsensical — some of us this week, bruised by Brexit and traumatised by Trump, feel that things are worse than they have ever been. In truth, though, these particular forms of evil are as old as mankind, just as the resistance to them is as old as mankind. And one might adduce, to this end, lines from imperial Rome (where Trump would have been regarded as a cliché, a bad pastiche of something by Petronius Arbiter) or indeed the English Civil War, the American Civil War or a dozen other civil conflicts.
Let us end, though, with something closer to home, and suitably Anglo-American — a few lines by Wystan Auden, who loved both countries as much as he sometimes despaired of them, their polities, and ultimately the imperfections of his own political judgements. He wrote them on 1 September 1939, which cannot have felt much more encouraging than 20 January 2017.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Listening to Trump’s inaugural address, presumably delivered with Obama sitting nearby, will not be easy. It’s important to remember, though, that none of us watching, with whatever mounting degree of horror and revulsion — even those of us watching from kitchens in furthermost East Anglia, amid a complicated tangle of feelings about America and its future — no, none of us will be watching it alone.