Monday, 14 November 2016

The view from the 66th floor will take your breath away

So, a week on, what do we know?

According to some eternal optimists, we’re seeing the sensible side of Donald Trump now.

In the campaign he was boastful, brash and bigoted – showboating to the crowds. Now, supposedly, we see his adorable, modest and vulnerable face, in which he compromises on his extremist pledges and is guided by wise counsel.

I’m reminded of another larger-than-life New York character – Ernie, the piano player in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  With the spotlight on him and a mirror reflecting his face back to the crowd, he revels in showing off. But after the applause, he gives an implausibly humble bow.

As the narrator of the story, Holden Caulfield, remarks: ‘It was very phoney.’

Phoney is the perfect description of a man like Trump, who claims to live on the 66th floor of a 58-floor apartment building.

Who can tell exactly what the new President will do and what he won’t? He is capable of believing one thing on a Monday, reversing his opinion on a Tuesday and deciding on Wednesday that he had it right at the start of the week.

We cannot assume anything about him at all. He is unpredictable, irrational and self-obsessed, so anything is possible. Personally, I would prepare for the worst and not bank on any pleasant surprises turning up.

Some of the things he promised may come to pass. Some may not. I fear that the bad ideas – deportations of immigrants, a love-in with Putin – are the ones most likely to prevail. The other ones, such as restoring manufacturing jobs to the rust belt, are sadly a pipedream.

But with Trump, the issue isn’t so much what he promised prior to the election. It’s what he’ll say and do on a day-to-day basis when he’s in the Oval Office.

What will his response be to a terrorist attack? How will he approach a diplomatic or political crisis with China? Which minority group will he blame when the US economy threatens to tank?

Democracy is a curious system of government. It is, on the one hand, much more flexible and durable than many forms of authoritarian leadership or dictatorship. At the same time, however, it is more precarious.

Part of the glue that holds democracy together is the idea that those competing in elections accept the basic tenets of the democratic system. Trump indicated during the campaign that should he lose, he might challenge the result. This quite rightly provoked outrage from Democrats. But it also created a fascinating double bind.

Now, when Trump is elected – without a mandate in terms of popular vote – we are obliged to say he is legitimate. I don’t blame Obama and Clinton for trying to be gracious and telling us that we have to give the guy a chance. They had no alternative. But this, of course, is exactly the way in which democracy begins to unravel.

You don’t need to go back to the dark days of the 1930s to know what happens when you elect people who don’t accept democracy. Look at Russia under Trump’s bestie Vladimir Putin. There is a notional democratic process in Moscow, but not one which stands a moment’s scrutiny. Journalism is constantly under attack, opposition leaders are targeted and a cult of personality exists around the president.

If you want a sense of where Trump’s America will go, think of any country around the world which has the superficial trappings of democracy, but none of the substance. Places where parliaments rubber-stamp the edicts of strongmen and where opposition becomes more and more muted. Tinpot republics where one man is seem to embody the popular will and anyone who opposes him is assumed to oppose the people.

One thing is for certain. The only time in which democratic institutions will have the power to intervene and shape events is right now.  Congress needs to oppose Trump at every turn and assert its independence. But both the Senate and the House are now in the hands of the GOP. And the Republican lawmakers find, to their horror, that they owe something to Trump.

The very time they need to speak out will be the time they are least likely to. Why? Because the message will be that Trump was elected, that we need to give him a chance and rescue something of the mainstream Republican agenda. And, critically, some of this message will be backed initially by many senior Democrats who believe in the peaceful transition and the integrity of the office of President.

A new landscape starts to emerge or, as Americans would describe it, a new ‘normalcy’.  Trump is President and anyone who denounces his actions doesn’t understand how the world has changed. In the UK, we live in the post-Brexit world.  God forbid that you might cling to the old ways of thinking. Interested in the single market and free movement of labour? So 2015.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing about the new normal is that it is highly contagious. Trump built his campaign partly on the back of Brexit. He said that the little guy can shout and rage at the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elite’ by voting for him. This sends a message to fantasists and populists in other fragile democracies. It resonates in Austria, in Hungary, in Germany and perhaps most alarmingly in France.

Could Marine Le Pen really win the French presidency? Before 2016, every political bone in my body would have said no. The French system is locked down in a way which makes it virtually impossible for an extremist to triumph. She could win the first round, but would be defeated when socialists reluctantly endorsed Sarkozy or Juppe in a second-round run-off. 

Now, all bets are off.

What if Le Pen does much better in the first round than we fear even now? What if socialists, out of political purity, refuse to back her right-wing opponent in round two?  There are Bernie Sanders supporters online who openly say that Trump’s election is a good thing. In at least one state, the write-in vote for the socialist old-timer from Vermont was larger than the margin by which Hillary Clinton lost.

So the left is in a state of shock and looks around for explanations. They favour the ones that fit with their existing ideological standpoint. Sanders and Corbyn blame globalisation and the neglect of working-class communities. They believe erroneously that if they peddle many of the same fantasies as right-wing populists (return of manufacturing jobs, increased protectionism, retreat from global financial and political institutions), they will ride some kind of populist wave.

But of course, the appeal of the right-wingers to working-class communities is only one part of a much bigger story. There are plenty of middle-class people who voted for Trump and Brexit as well.  And the left has to grapple with a whole range of other issues too, which are far less comfortable.

Immigration and racism are involved. Sexism is involved. The FBI is involved. Russia is involved.  Guns and abortion and single-sex marriage are all involved.

Clinton might have won if the third-party candidates had withdrawn. She might have won if idiotic Bernie supporters had backed her rather than abstaining or writing his name on the ballot. She might have won if...

But as we know, she didn’t win.

Welcome to the world of the new normal.  Best viewed from the 66th floor of a 58-storey apartment block.

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