The famous still from ‘Planet of the Apes’ that accompanied yesterday’s post should really have been reserved for today. Confronted by the sight of the decaying Statue of Liberty rotting away on a beach, Charlton Heston’s astronaut character Taylor realises he hasn’t landed on some alien planet where man’s evolution occurred in reverse, but has been flung into the far future and is home – albeit a post-nuclear apocalypse home. Falling to his knees, he pounds away at the sand in despairing rage. ‘You finally really did it!’ he cries; ‘You maniacs! God damn you all to Hell!’ He didn’t add ‘You put Donald Trump in the White House!’ Who would? Who can even really believe this has happened? Donald Trump? Donald f***ing Trump? Yup.
Let me make it clear that I didn’t think Hillary Clinton was perfect by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, her absence of perfection on so many levels enabled Donald Trump to inflict a humiliating defeat upon the most qualified candidate for the Presidency America has probably ever seen. Had she won, however, it would have been an achievement solely based on her gender. History would have been made, though we shouldn’t forget that history was also made in 2008. Being America’s first female President would have been a big deal, as being America’s first black President was eight years ago. But had Hillary Clinton cruised along on that achievement alone – as Obama has often seemed to cruise along on his – the achievement would have paled very quickly.
When Obama came to office, the western world had just experienced its most severe economic collapse since 1929; though the climate has improved slightly since then, there remain vast areas of America that have yet to receive any signs of an upturn in their fortunes, and this was the climate prime for exploitation by Trump. Frustration with this state of affairs has manifested itself in many ugly ways in the US over the last twelve months, and having a black man in the White House doesn’t appear to have made a bit of difference to racial tensions whatsoever; if anything, they’re worse now than at any time since the Civil Rights movement half-a-century ago.
Barack Obama was swept into power on a tide of unrealisable optimism; hopes rested heavily on his shoulders after eight years of George II and the two unpopular wars he dragged the nation into, and Obama’s colour – coming from a country with such troubled history in that department – was an undoubted selling point that suggested America could finally shake off the toxic legacy of slavery and segregation. There was faith in the future again. When Americans got there, however, the limited extent of the President’s ability to enact the changes he and the country desired when confronted by a Republican-dominated Congress determined to thwart him at every opportunity seemed to highlight the impotence of the American political system. And that should serve as a timely warning to his successor and his myriad mad ideas. The Republicans may have retained control of Congress, but most of them don’t even regard Trump as a genuine Republican; one could argue that has been his ace.
Bernie Sanders was the anti-Trump candidate far more than Hillary Clinton was; the bullish billionaire tapped into the same blue-collar discontent Sanders could have appealed to. Two outsiders versus each other instead of one outsider versus the advocate of the system so detested by great swathes of the electorate would have been a far superior contest, and one I have a feeling Sanders could have won. A proud socialist against a shameless capitalist, both latecomers to the parties they represented – that would have dealt a fatal blow to the professional party machine more than a thousand Brexit’s.
Instead, we now have a President loathed by all but his fanatical supporters, a man whose very presence in the White House is the most telling example of an American political system that can be bought if you have enough bucks in the bank. The old cliché that every American child can grow up to be President in a way that every child can’t grow up to be a king has belatedly been exposed as the myth it always was. If your father is an extremely wealthy man, you’re certainly in with a shout. And JFK would have concurred with that truism.
Kennedy represented more than he ever delivered, and that probably would have been the case even if he had never travelled to Dallas in November 1963; he represented something so positive in the collective imagination, something youthful, regenerative, glamorous, new – a break with the grey old men who governed the nations of the western world, a man who appeared to be in tune with the spirit of the fresh decade he came to power in; and despite the unsavoury stories that have emerged in the fifty-plus years since his murder, that image continues to possess an irresistible allure. By contrast, it’s hard to think of any President in US political history – and I include Nixon and Dubya – who radiates so much negativity as Donald Trump. And yet, conversely, he represents a similarly radical break. This is a rejection of the American party system as well as the final rejection of the Obama era. Yet for all the expected talk of ‘uniting America’, it’s hard to see how somebody so divisive can unite after having alienated so many members of the electorate before even being declared the winner.
Trump’s combative personality and arrogant, unapologetic coarseness is seen by many Americans as a sign of his unvarnished honesty; what you see is what you get. He’s viewed as ‘one of the guys’, somebody you could share a few cans with as you watch the ball-game. He’d be the kind of guy you could go hunting with. Alien as that may seem to European sensibilities, in America it counts for a lot. But Trump’s tasteless braggadocio could be regarded as the same spiel a prize-fighter spews forth during the weigh-in alongside his opponent; having won the fight, his acceptance speech after Clinton conceded was remarkably subdued.
If the election of Donald Trump is the end of the world as we know it, I doubt many would dispute the world as we know it is a pretty bloody awful place, anyway. But it’s the world as we don’t know it that we now face; and God only knows what that’s going to be like.
© The Editor