Trump’s election is worrying, but we do democracy an injustice if we fail to address the discontent that placed him in the White House
While we wring our hands over the tumultuous events of 2016, what should be writ large on our memory is the absolute certainty that large swathes of the electorate have felt unrepresented for some time
As the bells rang the new year in and the old year out, many of us breathed a sigh of relief just to see 2016 gone. What a year of unexpected upset. For some, a calamitous year, filled with anger and division, a year in which politics was turned upside down. The year of so-called false news, of post-truth politics, of Brexit, of Corbyn and of Trump. And of suspending belief.
So after a horrible campaign, a disputed result, an outpouring of grief and a ticking off from Meryl Streep, the President-elect of the United States enters the White House this week as the leader of the free world, now inevitably seen as a man with impossibly small hands who reportedly enjoys a Russian cocktail of piss and prostitutes.
And while this outlandish and unverified claim about Trump’s sexual proclivities could comfortably be constructed as an analogy for politics in the round, it all leaves me feeling distinctly uneasy that those that are too quick to denounce him and mire him in any old nonsense, end up looking foolish for treating him like an idiot.
Trump incites division, projects a worrying face of Americans to the world and I fret for the kind of place he could help make America become. But I also believe we do democracy an injustice if we get so lost in the race to do him down that we fail to address the systemic causes of the discontent that helped place him, and not Hillary Clinton, in the White House.
And while we are wringing our hands and bemoaning some of the other tumultuous events of 2016, what should be writ large on our memory is the absolute certainty that large swathes of the electorate, at home and abroad have felt ignored, left behind and unrepresented for some time. That’s why they wanted change.
And it is surely this that means 2017 should be the year that the old so-called political elite – mainly those on the liberal left – wake from their slumber and recognise that the problem was never with ‘the people’, the problem was with them. And it is they that must change.
So when a high-profile, former MP who had served right at the heart of the New Labour experiment, kicked off the new year with a re-tweet of a patronising cartoon from the New Yorker which showed a passenger on a plane asking his fellow travellers whether he should take over because ‘These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us’, and commented “New Yorker’s take on today’s politics”, his turn-your-nose-up superiority about the new politics was exposed.
The irony may have been lost on him, but it attracted an immediate response. The numerous comments, including my own which pointed out that pilots, unlike politicians, require a particular level of expertise, were unrelenting in their belief that this former elected MP was revealing a smug arrogance about who was qualified to be a politician and who was not. One respondent suggested that it would be wise for the ‘pilots’ to remember that if passengers don’t like the flight, they can choose another ‘airline’.
Twitter is an unforgiving place. A simple ‘like’ – a harmless-looking heart-shaped emoji – can be a lightning rod for foul tempered retorts and metaphoric back-slapping as apparently like-minded people priggishly congratulate themselves on legitimising each other’s thoughts.
And that particular tweet was loaded.
Every judgement about Trump starts from the premise that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. His comments about Putin are seen as clumsy and used to raise fears about relations with Russia. Yet former President Bill Clinton once praised Vladimir Putin’s “enormous potential” in a phone call with then prime minister Tony Blair.
“I think he’s very smart and thoughtful.” Clinton told Blair. “I think we can do a lot of good with him.” That’s a quote that could have come straight from Trump central casting and yet we all know that he would have been judged differently for saying it, because he has been.
Sometimes in Trump’s rambling delivery there are some interesting nuggets. Who could argue with their country being ‘great again’ or that it is better to get on with your enemies than not, but the howls of protest from his critics who always assume the worst and never look for the best drown out any chance of thoughtful consideration.
I might not like Trump, but he’s been elected to lead America and he walks in the shadow of Barack Obama whose understated elegance and evocative oratory simply prove to portray Trump as cheap.
Obama took up office on a wave of optimism and expectation. He made history because the election of the first black president was historic, but whether history will be kind to him and his record is less certain.
There are promises unfulfilled: Guantanamo Bay remains open, Syria is a hell-hole, race-relations are past boiling point and class divisions stark.
However, he had Osama bin Laden killed, introduced a more wide-ranging health insurance scheme and notched up big successes in the battle against climate change.
In his inauguration address on 20 January 2009, Obama said: “On this day we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
But in terms of real political progress in those intervening years, ask yourself, this upcoming Thursday as Trump is sworn in, has anything really, fundamentally changed? Does politics breathe easier?
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