by W Stephen Gilbert
Auden called the 1930s “a low dishonest decade”. I think we can all agree to call 2016 a low dishonest year, perhaps the lowest, most dishonest, most depressing, most heart-breaking any of us has lived through. Has it touched bottom? Please god.
That Donald J Trump is the president-elect is, I fear, all the fault of none other than Barack Obama. An American television profile of Trump a few weeks ago credibly pinpointed Obama’s brilliantly funny speech five years ago at the Washington correspondents’ dinner as the moment that Trump decided to run for the presidency. Obama mocked Trump mercilessly, as he was royally entitled to do because Trump had doggedly kept the nonsensical “birther” controversy going. But, as Hillary Clinton frequently remarked, Trump is notoriously thin-skinned. Here is the speech that made the difference:
The television programme proposed that Trump found Obama’s public mockery deeply humiliating and vowed to have his revenge. And indeed he will, for his first acts will be to dismantle the works of Obama: the climate change agreement signed in Paris that went into effect four days before the US election, the nuclear deal with Iran (at the time of writing, the Wikipedia page on the Iran nuclear deal had been sabotaged to read “a preliminary framework agreemtrump is an asswholeent” [sic]), the sanctions on Russia, free trade deals in general, the détente with Cuba, the already pitifully slender controls on gun ownership, the refugee programme, the H-2A visa programme for foreign nationals, the equality gains made by the LGBTQI community, the guarantee of Planned Parenthood that Obama signed into law this week and, especially, the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Effectively, he will delete the Obama presidency. This is the kind of vengeance sought by an egomaniac who believes that anyone around whom the world does not perpetually revolve is “a loser”.
Though I started with the 1930s, I suggest that making parallels with the rise of Hitler, as some are apt to do, is at best unhelpful. Trump is surely not an ideologue. His positions on all the issues of the day have been dictated by a mixture of whim and populism.
Whether it’s abortion or free trade or the middle east or health care, no public statement he makes may be depended upon to be definitive – he has come at these issues from every direction. He has been a Democrat, a Republican, an independent and “none of the above”. So anyone who voted for him imagining that he was articulating a reliable plan of action will be sorely disappointed.
For starters, Hillary Clinton isn’t going to trial. There’s the little matter that she hasn’t broken the law. Getting his crowds to chant “lock her up”, running posters depicting her behind bars and even telling her to her face on national television that she would “be in jail” if he became president was all just a way of garnering votes by demonising his rival, playing to the mistrust that many Americans felt towards her. It was of a piece with so much of the crass grandstanding that is Trump’s style. But it had no substance.
And in any case, Trump and the Clintons are old friends. The enmity between them during the campaign is at least in part political theatre. The menfolk are golfing partners from way back; Bill and Hillary were guests at Trump’s most recent wedding; their respective daughters Chelsea and Ivanka are chums too. The Clintons have always kept close to the money, one of the underlying reasons perhaps why Obama beat Hillary to the White House. As far as the campaign goes, only the players will know where the play-acting ends and the boiling resentment begins, but that’s what people in the public eye are like: they have much more in common with each other than with the ‘civilians’.
Meanwhile in his turn, Trump has some 75 lawsuits outstanding against him. With his new status, each of these will draw considerably more media interest than hitherto, insofar as they have merit or prospects (many will collapse by themselves). Even with the ability to appoint a new Attorney General and to start changing the complexion of the Supreme Court, though, Trump is unlikely to be able to fend off all the suits, especially those against that deeply shady enterprise, Trump University. At the very least, the scope for embarrassing revelations is limitless.
Equally phantasmal among the Trump undertakings is the Mexico wall. Trump said he would “make Mexico pay”. There is no mechanism by which he can effect this. I guess he’s not going to undertake to nuke Mexico City if the government refuses to pay. San Antonio is less than 700 miles as the crow flies – or the fallout drifts – from Mexico City. So if he’s to come good on the wall, the US government will have to foot the bill. What would a 2,000-mile wall cost to build and to patrol, and to repair when dissidents start blasting holes in it? This is not a practical proposition.
Trump says he’s going to rebuild the infrastructure. Well, no one will oppose the notion. It’s what Jeremy Corbyn wants to do too. But you have to wonder what exactly he has in mind. Talking about this, Trump always mentioned first the airports because of course that’s the infrastructure he actually sees, flying in and out on his private jets. Will he bother with improvements that won’t touch on his own life?
What he has proposed is a trillion dollar investment programme, but he wants it to be shouldered by private enterprise, assisted by $140 billion of tax credits. In fact, the document Trump versus Clinton on Infrastucture, drawn up by Trump advisors , anticipates an equity investment of $167 billion and rehearses a sophisticated but highly speculative series of assumptions whereby the package could be made attractive to a private sector that, in practice, is less interested to infrastructure projects than in more directly profitable revenue streams. It’s easy to see why Trump, a latter-day Ludwig II of Bavaria, wants to build more large-scale monuments, no doubt all bearing his name. But along with the swingeing tax cuts he plans for his fellow millionaires and billionaires, it may be that his blue-collar supporters will be less delighted with the fruits of their labours. Where will their pay-rises come from?
Indeed, it may be the very area of supposed expertise that persuaded so many to vote for him that lets him down.
Calvin Coolidge is supposed to have declared that “the chief business of government is business” (actually what he said was: “the chief business of the American people is business”) and the fact that Trump was perceived as a businessman commended him to many. But what kind of businessman is he?
For ordinary people, the notion of bankruptcy is too frightening to contemplate. Trump has filed four times in the last quarter-century for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, all four concerned with his interests in casinos and hotels. The Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City opened in 1991 and within a year was $3 billion in debt, a third of that Trump’s personal liability. He was obliged to offload his airline and his yacht as well as half his stake in the company. The three subsequent bankruptcies were less personally painful.
But the history of reckless speculation is clear. This is the kind of businessman in whom the discontented have put their trust, a man who calls himself “smart” for avoiding tax for a decade and more, the first presidential candidate in the modern era to decline to disclose this accounts. Will he see the need to be unaccustomedly meticulous when in charge of the nation’s finances or will a compliant Capitol Hill wink at executive chicanery and impetuousness?
On the world stage, the established players wait like the theatricals in Cole Porter’s lyric for the song ‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show‘: “You cross your fingers and hold your heart”. Trump apologists point to his long experience of international business, but intergovernmental relations are something rather different. The language spoken between nations is diplomacy and Trump, with his bluster and his outbursts and his instinctive responses, is as much a stranger to diplomacy as Idi Amin was. Will he choose a Secretary of State who will supply this fundamental lack in his own equipment? The patronage he deploys will tell us a lot. We brace ourselves for the appointment to leading executive roles of major deplorables: Giuliani, Gingrich, Christie, even perhaps the return of Sarah Palin. This has the makings of a comedy as well as a tragedy.
And yet maybe Trump is more aware of the great responsibility he has taken on than we imagine. Watching the press coverage of Obama and Trump in the oval office, I was struck by the body language. Both men sit forward, forearms on thighs, but while Obama is physically relaxed and owns the room, Trump suggests a schoolboy up before the head. Obama speaks carefully, pausing to find the exact word; it’s a demonstration of practised diplomacy. Trump gushes, comes out with typically perplexing phrases (“high-flying assets”?) and over-compensates. Here’s the footage:
The C-span coverage cuts out just before he calls Obama “a very good man, a very good man”. Obama has said nothing that contradicts his assessment of Trump expressed on the campaign trail, he has simply but scrupulously observed the niceties. Trump heedlessly shows himself to be unreliable either as a candidate or as a president-elect; perhaps both. We know what we’re in for.
Still, we shouldn’t despair altogether. What has happened is an unexpected boost for Jeremy Corbyn. After all, anybody deploying the term “unelectable” is now readily answered. The power of exciting crowds of people who thought themselves previously disenfranchised has been dramatically demonstrated. And the implications for the political mainstream in both Washington and Westminster and their sense of entitlement and superiority will not be lost on those with any small degree of self-awareness.
As for the American presidency, that will come good as the wheel turns. The Democrats will surely win back the White House in 2020, ending the dispiriting administration of President Pence who, like Gerald Ford, will come to be remembered solely for pardoning his predecessor.