- 16 Jun - 22 Jun, 2018
AMERICA UNDER TRUMP
- 24 Mar - 30 Mar, 2018
- A Letter From America
Way back in the 1990s, when I was living and working in Bangkok as a young foreign correspondent, a Canadian colleague there made a memorable prediction: “Clinton sets the stage for even worse presidents to follow.”
Trump is so utterly damaging and dreadful that it’s tempting to see him as unique and unprecedented. It’s a dangerous temptation. Harping on everything that’s wrong with Trump risks letting his predecessors – and, more generally and importantly, America as a whole – off the hook. Trump is America’s own home-grown, self-inflicted karmic punishment. And I apologise, dear Pakistani readers, that we’re also inflicting him on you and the rest of the world.
Such musings are prompted in me pretty much every week, as I struggle to keep track of the constant churn in (and out of) the White House and more widely in what we quaintly call American public life. It’s hard to take a long view, when you never know what astounding new thing might happen overnight (an effect compounded by the fact that I live three time zones west of Washington, D.C.). But I also have a compulsion to avoid dated phrases like “this week,” given the lag of a week or more between the deadline for my column and the time you read it.
So, how to write about America these days? I’m trying to do it by stepping back and looking at historical context and the bigger picture, but that’s not always easy. During the week just ended as I write this, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who learned of his firing the way the rest of the world did, via Twitter). Tillerson was awful, but his nominated replacement, Mike Pompeo, is brazenly sinister. So, apparently, is Pompeo’s replacement as CIA director, Gina Haspel, who reportedly headed one of the notorious overseas “black sites” where “rendered” Muslims were tortured in the early 2000s under George Bush. How should a commentator commentate on such things? I don’t really know, frankly. I do know how not to commentate on them: as if they were routine presidential appointments, in the normal course of American “politics as usual.” They’re not.
But at the same time, Haspel’s connection to the immediate post-9/11 period under Bush, which some of us still remember only too well, is an indicator that such people in such positions is actually all too normal. One way to begin understanding America under Trump is through the phrase “the banality of evil,” famously coined by Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Anyone still tempted to see Trump and his regime as a bizarre one-off aberration should be spurred into sober soul-searching by the Haspel appointment.
I was in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, leaving a Pakistani home there, on the evening in November 2008 when Barack Obama defeated John McCain to become the next President of the United States. The feeling my friend and I had, driving across the border back into the United States and home to Seattle, listening on the car radio to Obama’s acceptance speech, is one I still, despite everything, kind of cherish. It felt as if something essentially good about my country had been rediscovered and reclaimed. After eight years under Bush – and following not only 9/11 and the Iraq War but the stolen presidential election of the year 2000 – Obama really did represent hope and change. But that was a long time ago. What Obama now more accurately represents, if we look honestly at his actions and decisions in office, as well as at his rather tawdry and grasping record already as an ex-president ($400,000 to give a private speech on Wall Street; reportedly – get this – upwards of $500 million to produce a vaguely defined Netflix television series), is American continuity. And not in a good way. Obama does look good compared to Trump. But so would almost anyone.
During the same week Trump fired Tillerson; Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Mumbai in which she shamelessly pandered to her Indian audience. “You know you didn’t like black people getting rights,” she mockingly addressed “those people” who had voted for Trump. “And you don’t like women, you know, getting jobs, you don’t want to, you know, see Indian Americans succeeding more than you are.” Hillary is probably best left for the subject of an entire separate column. For now, suffice it to say that her willingness to whine and pander in front of a foreign audience (and one whose American immigrant cohort includes far too many unapologetic Trump supporters, represented by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley) is despicable and rather pathetic, and that a Democratic Party still reeling from its historic loss under her leadership does not represent anything like the fresh start or reckoning that America needs.
In her new book of essays What Are We Doing Here?, the deeply erudite and humane American writer Marilynne Robinson articulates a damning indictment of the faction that styles itself “the Resistance” to Trump: “We have surrendered thought to ideology,” she writes. “… The Left cannot account for the civic virtues in theoretical or ideological terms and feels awkward speaking of them in religious terms. This is only truer because the Right has made religious language toxic by putting it to uses that offend generosity and dignity. Perhaps the worst thing about ideological thinking is that it implies a structure in and behind events, a history that is reiterative, with variations that cannot ultimately change the course of things and are therefore always trivial, no matter how much thought and labor goes into the making of them.”
Where all this leaves us Americans is on our own. A starting point is to keep one’s own household and career nimble and principled, and to seek local and small-scale fields of action where one can be effectual for good purposes as an individual. That doesn’t fix the country, of course. But perhaps the country is so huge and complicated, and so far gone at this point, that it actually can’t be fixed. •
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