A Couple of Books About Tr**p

Now that the buzz around Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is starting to fade – being side-lined by the Commander-in Chief’s latest verbal tantrum – I’m taking a step back and looking at a couple of recent books about the most shambolic US presidency in living memory.

Based on reading excerpts of Wolff’s book in the press and skimming and reading sections from the online-bootlegged copy that’s floating around, I can say that there were few surprises. White House pundits have been reporting for months on the president’s eating habits, idiosyncrasies, aversion to books, toddler-like attention span and lapsing memory. The power in this book rests not so much in its confirmation that this president is unfit for office – the world is witnessing this in a near-daily basis – but in the quotes from Steve Bannon. Trump’s former Chief Strategist, involved in both the presidential campaign and the early months of the presidency, describes Trump’s campaign as having a ‘treasonous’ meeting with Russian officials. This is significant. The FBI’s Russian investigation is moving closer to Trump while at the same time looking into the White House cover up, culminating in the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The FBI Director’s dismissal is also described by Bannon as a concerted effort to ‘get him’ led by Jared Kushner. These are serious allegations that could be part of Trump’s undoing if the Republicans lose their majority in Congress after the 2018 mid-term elections. (The other part might come from the international community.)fire and fury

Having said all of that, the better book of recent months on the subject of Trump is the one that doesn’t even mention him by name. Sam Bourne’s fictional account of how Washington insiders cope with a narcissistic, racist and misogynistic US president is by far more interesting and informative. To Kill The President might be fictional, but it relies on knowing the workings of the US government and its laws. The premise is a simple one and one that has been in many of our imaginations for over a year now – what if the US president is insulted by North Korea leader and decides to teach him a lesson by ordering a nuclear attack? In this story he’s stopped for the time being by White House staff and Pentagon officials who trick him into thinking the North Koreans have apologised. Given that, legally speaking, the president could order such an attack without congressional approval, this event triggers concerns about the president’s mental instability. Once it’s realised that getting rid of the president based on mental health is constitutionally difficult to pull off, an assassination is planned. The story uses all of the plot twists and devices that one would expect of a thriller – a murder, a cover-up, secret codes and blackmail. Like a popular thriller, the writing is straight forward and not the stuff of literary fiction. But it’s nonetheless enjoyable for its satirical humour that edges close to the reality we find ourselves in during the era of Trump.

Bourne’s book is full of many quotable remarks from these insider characters.  I’ll close with this one, which comes from Mac, the president’s Chief Strategist and staunch ally (a fictional Bannon perhaps):

These liberals soiling their Depends undergarments about truth. They never stop! Always going on about facts and evidence and all of that shit, even when they have the biggest possible dataset showing them – proving to them – that the American people do not give a rat’s ass about any of it.

The ‘dataset’ that he refers to is the election – the votes that won the presidency.

A flying visit to Le Petit Prince

The first time I read The Little Prince I was twelve and naturally read it in English. This was when pop psychology ruled my thinking, and I saw the book as a fictionalised dialogue between the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and his inner child.  I recently reread this novella, this time in French, which gave it a different flavour in my mind – more intellectual and whimsical at the same time. With this reading, I’m more struck by what it says about human nature in broader political contexts than with the personal and psychological. From here it was easy to see how it reflects the age we’re living in now.

Early in the story, the little prince asks a stranded aviator to draw him a sheep. After a couple of awkward attempts, the aviator draws a picture of a box with some holes in it and tells the prince the sheep is in the box. The prince accepts this and their friendship is cemented. In the present day, I’ll call this image the current British government, who received the picture of the box from the Leave campaign. I don’t think I need to explain this metaphor in any great detail. Any sensible person knows that the box is filled with the likes of a well-funded NHS, a robust economy and a lucrative trade deal with the remaining EU. The air holes are there to make this world seem real, a place where people live and breathe.

Another passage reflects pertinently in our age of the internet. The little prince climbs up to the top of a mountain and calls out to see if anyone is there. All he gets is an echo, which he mistakes for conversation.

The story also has plenty of characters suited for today’s headlines – an illogical king who claims he controls the movement of the starts, a vain man who craves attention, but whose vanity keeps him isolated, and a geographer who draws maps, but never leaves his own desk to experience the world he has helped to construct. I don’t think I need to mention the true life characters by name.

I’ve met people who reread Le Petit Prince every few years or once a decade. I don’t think I’ll join either of those clubs. Having read it once as a child going through puberty and now in my middle-age, my next appointment with this book could be in my very-old age. Who knows what metaphors, insights, ideas this little literary gem will conjure up then.

Petit Prince 2

Brexit, Trump and W.B. Yeats

Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ has had a revival over the past year or so. With reactions to Brexit and Trump, the poem was quoted more in 2016 than in the total of the previous 30 years. (Wall Street Journal and Factiva).

 

Now here we are in 2017. So far, Brexit has unleashed a rise in hate crimes, economic uncertainty and feelings of general incomprehension in the UK as ‘things fall apart’ and as we watch as ‘the centre cannot hold.’ In Trump’s America, a ‘blood-dimmed tide’ is both present and inevitable as mass shootings are condoned and conflicts overseas are rekindled with heated rhetoric.

But what is to come of all of this? I revisit the poem:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Written in 1919, soon after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, this work reacts to the horrors and violence of such conflicts. More importantly, it expresses apprehension over what is to come. Over the years, many have seen this poem as an accurate premonition of a second coming in the form of an anti-Christ – Adolph Hitler. As has been pointed out by many in the press, the present day holds startling parallels to pre-War Germany, with the rise of nationalistic propaganda and untruths capable of seducing millions.

Yet, I feel the need to put this into perspective. Others have alluded to this poem over the years. Joan Didion’s collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Night Ride Home’ are among the many works to keep this poem alive. These works were written long before Brexit and Trump and each with their own political concerns and fears at their time.  Seen collectively like this, I do wonder if the recent malaise – the far-right, the hate crimes, the nationalistic fervour – are all part of a tide that will inevitably ebb back to something perhaps different, but manageable, less worrying.

Yet, the recent surge in quoting from ‘The Second Coming’ is still significant in itself. Most of these allusions can be found in the press, where the educated, the so-called ‘urban elite,’ dwell. As recent investigative reporting and British and American government enquiries are starting to show, it was the elite class of billionaires who indirectly funded both Brexit and Trump’s presidential campaigns. Both employed social media, which spread into mainstream media, to disseminate their propaganda and untruths. The response to this has come, during these campaigns and even more now, from the true masses – the urban and educated. We are the ones seeking to understand what is going on, turning to Yeats en masse. In our bewilderment and fear, we ask if what we have witnessed is a sign of the ‘rough beast, its hour come round at last.’

Fire, fury and Trumpspeak

I’m not calling it language – that would give it too much dignity. As a linguist I’ve been intrigued by the utterances of the current US President. Of course, they wouldn’t be so interesting if they came out of the mouth or the tweet of a teenage boy. I haven’t written about this topic sooner because, not only have satirists done much of the job for me, but I was secretly hoping it would all go away – Trump’s presidency would be so brief, a glitch in the history of US democracy, weird, amusing, at times angering, but a mere footnote in popular culture.

Stripped to its bones, language is about communication. But with Trump, he isn’t communicating as much as he is posing. He has positioned himself as a racist, a sexist, no-nonsense tough guy, but one who is a victim of witch hunts at the same time. What he says – or tweets – is often so lacking in substance that it is more slogan than idea. And then there’s the hyperbole. In Trumpspeak, his proposals are the greatest, the most, the best, the largest. Trump has also completely ruined the word very for me. Okay, very isn’t much of a word anyhow.  It’s one of these thin adverbials used to plump up an even thinner adjective.

He now seems to be posing as a comic book villain with his claims that if North Korea continues their threats – just threats, not military action – “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen … he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

The world is understandably concerned as Trump seems to be saying that he is ready with a pre-emptive strike if these threats continue. He is fitting the persona of the thin-skinned villain who you dare not call chubby or bald. And like the two-dimensional villain, he uses a formal diction – ‘the likes of which.’ This is from someone who has referred to the complicated Russian interference in the US election and more broadly in cyberspace as ‘the Russian thing.’ Trump also, as he does so often, repeat himself, as if the repetition makes the point stronger. Though it is obvious to most of us, this penchant for repetition is likely to come from an inability to understand, let alone articulate the situation this accidental president finds himself in.

The words ‘fire and fury,’ for what we can assume means some sort of military action, are tired metaphors. If Trump were a reader, I’d suspect this came from the Bible or from Shakespeare. My guess is that Trump’s source is more likely the film version of the comic book villain. That’s also where the hyperbole comes from as Trump’s actions will be something the world has never seen before.

While Trump uses words to grandstand or to act out a character, the rest of the world thinks he’s trying to communicate something. As Hillary Clinton said to Trump during one of the debates, as her opponent was being flippant about something he had said, ‘Words matter, Donald.’ He still hasn’t understood that message.

There is a silver lining though. We saw this week how Trump was reluctant to criticise white supremacists for their violence against anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of a young woman. After public pressure and attacks from influential politicians, Trump finally condemned racism, pointing the finger at the KKK and neo-Nazis. This was delivered at a press conference atrump cartoon 2nd not via Twitter or during a staged rally of his supporters. The statement was obviously written for him – not his usual hyperbolic words, repetition and vague slogans. He was clearly uncomfortable reading the teleprompter. And that’s the good news – behind the scenes, there are people trying to control him and limit the damage. Sometimes he has to answer to them. This could be America’s and the world’s best hope against a man’s whose tendency to ride roughshod with the English language could lead to catastrophe.

Still Fighting

It’s easy to give up on politics and politicians. In a sense, that’s what has already happened. Around this time last year, many people in Britain, fed up with austerity measures and unemployment, decided not to engage in politics. They didn’t listen to cogent arguments or evidence. Instead they joined a movement of emotions and voted to leave the EU. Likewise, in America people, fed up with grid-locked legislation and the paralysis of their personal finances, also decided not to engage in politics. They either joined a similar movement of emotions or they didn’t vote at all. The result, as we all know, was Trump. I don’t mean to oversimplify these events – we all know that racism and sexism play their parts as well.

As a consequence of these electoral debacles, many people have been energised into political action. Online protests, petitions, marches, rallies and media-generated debates have erupted on a scale not experienced in my lifetime. But now the wind seems to be changing. Following the recent UK General Election, where a hard-Brexit government lost its majority, there is talk from politicians and in the media of a much toned-down Brexit, possibly keeping the UK in the single market and/or the customs union (among other things).

I went to a Pro-EU rally this past weekend, marking the one-year anniversary of the vote to leave the EU. It pains me to report that this rally was poorly attended.  Maybe some 300 people were there.  I wonder if this slight change in the air, this post-election awareness, has made people complacent. Do they believe that it will all work out for the best? That a hard Brexit or the economic downturn from any type of Brexit will never happen?  If they aren’t complacent in their thoughts, perhaps people were suffering from a bit of protest-march fatigue or were simply enjoying the beautiful weather that sunny Saturday afternoon.Cambridge 2nd march 1.jpg

As for me, I’m still in the fight. For those out there who don’t know me, on a personal level I don’t have much of a fighting spirit. I’ll argue to a point, but as soon as I realise that I’m overpowered or that my opposition is mentally/psychologically ill, I back off. I realise that there is no point wasting energy or keeping myself in a victim position. Of course, it’s easy to feel overpowered by political movements and governments. But then I remind myself that I’m empowered as a taxpayer and a voter and that participating in protests is a step out of the victim position. Wasting energy? I don’t think so. But I have to admit that it can be tiring. The opposition knows this too. I think it’s important that they (the Brexit and Trump supporters) do not wear us down.

 

In my echo chamber

If I’ve learned one thing from the Brexit vote and the ascent of Trump, it’s that inside social media I live in my own echo chamber. Both events took me by surprise. While the mainstream media showed support from all sides in these contests, in Facebook and Twitter, I was seeing overwhelming support for remaining in the EU and strong arguments and jokes against Trump – though divided between supporting Saunders and Clinton.

Of course, in Facebook my ‘friends’ are mostly my former students and colleagues, fellow writers and a few friends who really are friends, in the sense of the word before Facebook. It is no surprise that educated and liberal would define this select group. On top of that, my Facebook interactions have been infiltrated by Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms, sending me postings from people and organisations which are not my friends, but are clearly like-minded – but sadly, not always accurate – I’ve stopped waiting for the ‘child-rape’ charges to be pressed against Trump.

Twitter is another matter. I started my Twitter account when I was still working in academia fulltime and used it as a way of furthering my own research. As a writer, I also follow other writers, certain publishing houses and publications, etc. In other words, I’ve been following loads of people I don’t know personally. Yet, many of these strangers were touting the same views as I was when it came to the Brexit and Trump. We retweet and like each other’s tweets. It could be argued that these people were indirectly hand-picked because they were likely to share the same views – after all, they’re academics or in creative fields.

Since the Brexit vote, in order to keep sane and to participate in the fight against a hard Brexit, I have deliberately started following political organisations, e.g. the Lib-Dems and Open Britain, for the latest news and information on protest marches and petitions. Hence, reinforcing the walls of my online echo chamber.

Offline, while my choice of friends keeps me contently among the like-minded, I also find myself in situations with people who are my political polar-opposites. In Nice, for instance, the expat community sometimes has me face-to-face with regular readers of The Daily Telegraph, which openly backed Brexit. Such encounters challenge me to show up prepared with statistics and references. I do my best, though probably to little or no effect.

At least with Trump’s win my online and offline worlds are not so different. I have not had to come face-to-face with any Trump supporter – I don’t know what I would say to one if I did. It would be like confronting someone who has joined a cult – they have chosen to believe the unbelievable and they are clearly nurturing a need that places them beyond reason.

Yet, my offline world – and my online world outside of social media – with news programmes and newspapers, keep me informed about what others are thinking – the polemics of the debates. The walls of my echo chamber might be strong, but they do have windows.

Diversity- an American Childhood

I grew up in Rogers Park, Chicago in the 60s and 70s. My childhood was post-civil-rights movement and pre-multiculturalism. My parents’ generation had labels for the neighbourhood. The west side of Rogers Park was still ‘predominately Jewish’ and therefore white. The east side, where we lived was ‘changing.’ In East Rogers Park, there still were many Jewish families, some Russian, others German. Other groupings to describe the east side weren’t based on religion, but on the countries their parents and grandparents came from. We had the Italians, the Irish, the Poles and the Puerto Ricans. Sprinkled among these were some Chinese and African-Americans (we used the word ‘blacks’).

If you had asked me when I was living there, how I would describe my neighbourhood, I wouldn’t have used any of these labels. I would have said that it was a ‘cool’ neighbourhood because it had a lot of movie theatres, public parks and shops and restaurants. I would have also mentioned that it was a mix of three-storey apartment buildings and red-brick houses and that it ran along the lake front. I would have located this neighbourhood in terms of its train stations, the elevated line that runs from Loyola to Howard Street.

This isn’t to say that I was unaware of religious and ethnic divides or the prejudices that come with it. The grandparents of a couple of my school friends still had numbers tattooed on their arms from the Nazi concentrations camps. And there were plenty of jokes – the Italian, the Irishman and the Pole go into a bar… At high school, students segregated themselves in the cafeteria with blacks and Puerto Ricans having their own tables, while the whites were mixed in together. In my memory, at the white tables we didn’t make disparaging or racist remarks about kids at the other tables – that would have been ‘uncool’ and ‘racist’ – words no one wanted to be called. And ‘immigration’ was never a topic. Back in ouchicago-2011-001-2r classes and more importantly on our sports teams and clubs, students from different backgrounds played, worked and joked together.

I don’t wish to turn back the clock to my childhood in the ‘changing’ neighbourhood as it came with its own problems – among them, the tensions between the generations on issues of race and ethnicity. I know America has changed since then. To what extent is hard to say, living in Europe as I do. The current wave of fascism in Trump’s America was introduced through democratically-held elections, while at the same time it’s being fought both in the media and on the streets by what appears to be a majority. Perhaps America is ever-changing and perhaps that comes with democracy. I am worried that it’s becoming, to use a word from my youth, uncool.

On the eve of the Trump era

Let’s be honest. None of us knows exactly what’s going to happen once Donald Trump becomes president. As he’s never held public office, there’s nothing to go on. We don’t know if he can manage governmental institutions, though his management of his businesses and of his transistion team are far from exemplary. We also don’t know what underlies his thinking. His dealings with international relations even as a president-elect show his propensity to offend American allies while praising those who have been hostile toward the US. He chose to run on the Republican ticket, but on social issues, he’s not touting family values like a Republican, and his proposal to fund infrastructure comes straight out of the Democratic tradition of public spending. While some of his ideology may have surfaced with his cabinet picks of businessmen, climate-change deniers and army generals, if their confirmation hearings are anything to go by, their views are often at odds with Trump’s campaign proposals and promises.

The only thing that remains consistent and visible for all to see has been Trump’s character. He is bombastic, thin-skinned and untruthful. He has expressed opinions that are clearly racist, misogynistic and against freedom of the press. Whatever his policies may turn out to be, he has already embarrassed America by coming this far.

I’m writinblackg this now perhaps as a place-marker, noting my own awareness of a time before the Trump era started. America has been far from perfect in my lifetime, and my decision many years ago to emigrate from her shores is one that I’ve never regretted. But now, I fear the country that is so internationally influencial is at the beginning of its own Dark Age and might take the rest of us along with her. While some of my Facebook friends are changing their profile pictures tomorrow to one of the departing president and his family, I have chosen a picture of darkness to represent the many things we don’t know about this new presidency and darkness for what we do know about this new president.

2016: Looking for the Good in Good Riddance

Does any more need to be said about what an awful year 2016 has been? In brief – Syria, Bowie, Brexit, Trump, attacks on Nice, Orlando, Brussels… 2016-12-25 11.12.11.jpgFor Syria, Brexit and Trump, there are lists of hideous events and poisonous rhetoric that have helped to make 2016 notorious even before it’s ended. Finding the good in such a year is not only challenging, but necessary. The alternative would be to shut down and sulk, permitting the bad things to fester and grow worse in the mind’s eye.

As for the positive side, for a start there was the election of Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor; women in Saudi Arabia finally got the right to vote; and a solar-powered plane circumnavigated the world. Other good things to happen in 2016 have come from the world of sport. Leicester City football club won the Premier League, having started the season with odds of 5000-1. There was Team GB’s fabulous performance in the Summer Olympics. And on the other side of the Atlantic, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series – a feat they hadn’t done since 1908.

Other good things have emerged out of the many horrible and sad events to happen in 2016. The attack on Nice, my second home, has brought about feelings of solidarity with my neighbours and acquaintances. The shock and sadness of David Bowie’s death similarly connected me with other fans and people whose younger selves had also been transformed and liberated by his creativity. Following the Brexit vote, I have joined several organisations to stay informed and to protest against the economically stupid and xenophobic trail left behind – I have never signed so many petitions and written to so many political representatives as I have in the past six months. Again, there is the sense of unity which is comforting, but to this I must add the satisfaction of doing something political and participating in the bigger debate.

While the political is personal, there is the smaller concentric circle of my personal life. In 2016, David and I went to America to visit friends and I was reunited with a friend I hadn’t seen in 34 years. I also visited my father’s grave for the first tim2016-12-25-11-16-33e – a sad, but fulfilling experience. Back in England and France, we have enjoyed good health and the company of friends and family, interspersed with reading, writing, playing golf and going to cinemas, concerts, galleries etc. Life has been full and satisfying, even under the cloud of this annus horribilis.

Let’s hope for a better 2017.