The events of the last week in what is supposed to be the ‘greatest democracy’ on the planet have been very disturbing, to say the least – perhaps not for most people, who may not really care about the United States of America, but for me, who spent at least 6 years of my life in a beautiful part of that country – in Connecticut, New England, and later in Philadelphia. And I have good friends there, who are even more horrified than I am at what is occurring under the unpredictable presidency of Donald Trump. He reminds me of the paradoxical adage, ‘Expect the unexpected’, reformulated as ‘Predict the unpredictable’.
Trump is not only a very dangerous person for America to have in the White House, but, because the US is arguably the most heavily armed country in the world (even if Russia is reputed to have more nuclear warheads than the US), at the same time a menace to the rest of the world – as the US Congress evidently realised when they adopted a motion recently, that Trump could not unilaterally go to war with Iran.
In the last week Trump proved, again, that as soon as one thinks that he has reached the limit, ‘ne plus ultra’, of inflicting damage on the body politic in the US, he shifts the goal posts even further in the direction of indecent presidential behaviour. Through Twitter he directed, as everyone knows by now, the most reprehensible racist barbs at four Congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley (‘The Squad’) – falsely suggesting that they were foreigners and should go back to their ‘broken’ countries to fix those before telling him, or other Americans, how to do it.
Unfortunately the people comprising his (minority) ‘base’ are either too uninformed and stupid, or blindly racist and prejudiced, or both, to question the veracity of Trump’s outrageous claims. The fact of the matter is that three of the four women are American born and bred, while the fourth, Omar, came to America as a child and is a naturalised American citizen. Nor do they seem to factor in the fact that Trump himself descended from German immigrants, and that his wife, Melania (also an immigrant), has been in America for a shorter time than Omar.
But Trump is not interested in accuracy, or truth. He is the accomplished demagogue of the Twitter Age, and he wields the social media platform ruthlessly to paint his enemies in the most reprehensible colours, to the delight of his supporters, who are whipped into a frenzy of hatred at his rallies, chanting refrains like ‘Lock her up!’, or, regarding the four members of ‘The Squad’ (AOC and friends), ‘Send them back!’
Not everyone is taken in by his unconscionable abuse of the position of President of the US, though. By all accounts, the majority of Americans abhor him – just this morning I read an e-mail message from a friend in Maine, New England, confirming this – and one easily forgets that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the presidential election against Trump by something like 3 million votes. It was only the archaic electoral college system, dating back to the days of slavery – where less populated states in the south are given unfair weight against their counterparts – that gave Trump the presidency. Furthermore, there are people with keen intellects observing Trump and analysing his actions. Henry Giroux informs us that (The Public in Peril – Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism, New York, Routledge, 2018):
‘According to Drucilla Cornell and Stephen D. Seely, Trump’s campaign mobilized a movement that was “unambiguously fascist.” They write: ‘We are not using the word “fascist” glibly here. Nor are we referencing only the so-called “alt-right” contingent of his supporters. No, Trump’s entire movement is rooted in an ethnic, racial, and linguistic nationalism that sanctions and glorifies violence against designated enemies and outsiders, is animated by a myth of decline and nostalgic renewal and centered on a masculine cult of personality.’
These are all the markers of fascism, which usually goes hand-in-hand with racism, too; recall the Nazis’ unadulterated racism against the Jews, and the fascist apartheid government’s legally entrenched racism against people of colour in this country. (If you want to know in more detail what fascism is, see my earlier post: Are we witnessing signs of ANC fascism?).
That racism has of late been rearing its ugly head again – as I argued in my previous post, ‘The resurgence of anti-semitism’ – is everywhere evident, for example in the online comments on news articles (on Yahoo, among others) concerning Trump’s undisguised racist taunts against ‘The Squad’. Almost without exception, the writers of these comments applaud Trump in a blatantly racist manner, which resonates with W.B. Yeats’s famous lines ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’. If only people who oppose racism would add their comments in larger numbers (I frequently do), the impression would not exist that the world is regressing…fast!
So how should one conceive of the consequences of Trump’s time in power, which is now in its third year? One has to remember that, despite Trump’s brand of populism, which attracts many people from the blue-collar class, as can be seen at his rallies – his so-called ‘base’, ironically – the true measure of his allegiance is apparent from the fact that his much-vaunted ‘tax cut’ primarily benefitted the corporations, not ordinary people. Confirming this allegiance, Robert Kuttner says (quoted by Giroux, p. 2):
‘Trump’s populism was a total fraud. Every single Trump appointment has come from the pool of far-right conservatives, crackpots, and billionaire kleptocrats. More alarming still is the man himself — his vanity, impulsivity, and willful ignorance, combined with an intuitive genius as a demagogue. A petulant fifth-grader with nuclear weapons will now control the awesome power of the U.S. government.’
To date, the effects of Trump’s fraudulent ‘rule’ on American society have been devastating. Giroux (p. 2-3) sums it up as follows: ‘Large segments of the American public have been written out of politics over what they view as a failed state and the inability of the basic machinery of government to serve their interests. As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing. As these institutions vanish — from public schools to health-care centers — there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good. This grim reality has been called a “failed sociality” — a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will, and open democracy. As the consolidation of power by the corporate and financial elite empties politics of any substance, the political realm merges elements of Monty Python, Kafka, and Aldous Huxley. Mainstream politics is now dominated by hard-right extremists who have brought to the center of politics a shameful white supremacist ideology, poisonous xenophobic ideas, and the blunt, malicious tenets and practices of Islamophobia.’
Anyone who thinks of her- or himself as a democrat – and their numbers are dwindling – should remind themselves that democracies are recognisable by the opportunities that they create for people, not simply to ‘survive’, in the Darwinian sense of ‘the survival of the fittest’, with its connotation of internecine struggle – which is what America has become – but to thrive, by providing the means to do so. And by this I don’t mean stock exchanges; they are less important than other democratic institutions such as the ones Giroux lists, above, including affordable public schools and health-care centres.
By the same token, the kind of elitism that Trump and the Republican party in the US promote – and shades of which one notices in South Africa too as a result of its embrace of neoliberalism – militates against the strong sense of ‘community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good’, referred to by Giroux, above, which has always been the hallmark of democracies. Until neoliberalism arrived on the scene, of course, and perverted all of these. Small wonder that Trump is the embodiment of this perversion – after all, by fusing his, and his family’s, business interests with the office of the president, he has made of the latter a brand, and subverted its political significance and gravity.