The hand­shake


The for­mer puts his hands to­gether and places them, thus joined, be­tween the hands of the other man – a plain sym­bol of sub­mis­sion, the sig­nif­i­cance of which was some­times fur­ther em­pha­sised by a kneel­ing pos­ture. – Marc Bloch, Feu­dal So­ci­ety

You would think that the di­rec­tor of the FBI would know all the tech­niques by which the pow­er­ful sub­or­di­nate the less pow­er­ful. It’s core busi­ness, surely. But when the now for­mer FBI boss, James Comey, was con­fronted by Don­ald Trump’s se­duc­tion rou­tine he was “stunned”: too stunned in fact to “move, speak, or change my fa­cial ex­pres­sion in any way dur­ing the awk­ward si­lence that fol­lowed”, he told the US Se­nate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence. Pa­triot that he is, in that in­stant per­haps Comey couldn’t get him­self to be­lieve that this was the pres­i­dent of the United States go­ing the metaphor­i­cal grope on the coun­try’s prin­ci­pal law en­force­ment agency. It is a lot to take in. For a mo­ment did James Comey feel some­thing in com­mon with all those young women on whom Pres­i­dent Trump had im­posed his “mag­netic” per­son­age in the days when he was a mere bil­lion­aire and TV star?

As a New York Times opin­ion writer de­clared the next day, what Don­ald Trump tried with Comey, af­ter he’d kicked the at­tor­ney-gen­eral and ev­ery­body else out of the room, was the kind of rou­tine that pow­er­ful preda­tory bosses ha­bit­u­ally in­flict on women: “There was pre­cisely that sin­is­ter air of co­er­cion, of an em­ployee help­less to avoid un­sa­vory con­tact with an em­ployer who is try­ing to grab what he wants.”

It seems more than pos­si­ble that in de­mand­ing Comey’s “loy­alty” what Trump wanted was his sub­mis­sion, thus to pro­tect him­self against in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He has Congress in his cor­ner, and the Murdoch me­dia firmly onside. He’s turned the White House press con­fer­ence into a farce, and his re­lent­less use of so­cial me­dia (ev­ery day juiced up and broad­cast na­tion­wide by the con­ven­tional me­dia) con­tin­ues to sat­isfy his sup­port­ers while de­press­ing every­one else and deny­ing his op­po­nents the kind of sus­tained at­ten­tion that brought down the last truly cor­rupt pres­i­dent, Richard Nixon. But Trump doesn’t have the FBI, nor, as far as one can tell, any of the other 16 arms of the $80 bil­lion US in­tel­li­gence oc­to­pus, and they might hook him on the Rus­sia busi­ness just as he’s about to make Amer­ica great again.

For every­one but Trump, the Rus­sia “cloud”, as he called it, should re­ally be a mat­ter of sec­ondary con­cern: what he has al­ready done to the coun­try, its democ­racy and stand­ing in the world, and what he is bent on do­ing, is much more trou­bling. And much more ur­gent is the need for a sober ap­praisal

of the home­grown forces that got him to the White House. If im­peach­ment were to fol­low from the present in­ves­ti­ga­tions, splen­did – he can’t go soon enough. But it will be a poor sort of vic­tory if the coun­try is left think­ing that the prob­lem was merely pro­ce­dural, and that with Trump dis­patched by the usual reli­able con­sti­tu­tional in­stru­ments the US can get back to be­ing just dandy. And go on for­get­ting, of course, that when you’re talk­ing about in­ter­fer­ing in the gov­er­nance of other coun­tries no na­tion on earth can run the US close.

Mean­while, of course, the in­ves­ti­ga­tions make great tele­vi­sion: if Comey’s Se­nate in­ter­ro­ga­tion was any­thing to go by, im­peach­ment would put Net­flix out of busi­ness. Where else, for ex­am­ple, can you ex­pe­ri­ence live on TV not only Comey’s com­mand­ing per­for­mance but also, as a coda, the pathos, em­bar­rass­ment and dread pro­vided by John McCain? The age­ing hero ap­peared to suf­fer some kind of synap­tic mis­fir­ing and, like any old man in ir­re­sistible de­cline, grew more bel­liger­ent the less sense he made. Who needs Burt Lan­caster and Henry Fonda when you have the stage pres­ence of Comey and McCain? Maybe it’s only in such old-fash­ioned theatre as the in­quiry, co­cooned from the “univer­sal en­vi­ron­ment of si­mul­ta­ne­ous elec­tronic flow”, that re­al­ity can be made com­pre­hen­si­ble and the demo­cratic mind use­fully con­nected to it.

Trump doesn’t go in for such nat­u­ral­is­tic plat­forms, of course. His theatre owes more to vaude­ville, with despotic in­flec­tions. You’d swear both Danny Kaye and Kim Jong-un had a hand in di­rect­ing the tele­vised 12 June cabi­net meet­ing. It is a won­der that the pres­i­dent did not wear his er­mine stole. The syco­phancy of his team, in­clud­ing his gen­er­als, no doubt sat­is­fies his ego. But as­sum­ing he wants to leave no doubt that he’s in charge and that even great sol­diers, fel­low bil­lion­aires and peo­ple of in­com­pa­ra­bly greater po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence bow down be­fore him, it also suits his pur­poses. In Trump’s world, as in the feu­dal lord’s or the mafia boss’s, every­one owes his or her stand­ing to him. He may as well say to them, “With­out me, you are noth­ing.”

The whole pres­i­dency is so off-key, so asi­nine and so pal­pa­bly rot­ten as to make any self-re­spect­ing vas­sal weep. Which is where Aus­tralia comes in: for no one is bet­ter at vas­salage than we. The syco­phants around that cabi­net meet­ing ta­ble could be re­placed by Aus­tralian diplo­mats and politi­cians, and no­body would no­tice much dif­fer­ence. The Amer­i­can wit Bill Ma­her was un­kind to call Aus­tralia a “long-time poo­dle dog ally”. Bet­ter to think that ours is more like the feu­dal form of the ar­range­ment, when the hand­shake con­firmed the sub­mis­sion of one party to an­other, but it also con­firmed the lesser party’s sta­tus as the man of a pow­er­ful man – a great man, a lord. Sure, he had to join in any wars he cared to fight and do his bid­ding in all things, but it was only be­cause of his vas­salage that he could hold his head up. It was called ho­mage: the per­son prof­fer­ing his hand de­clared him­self to be the “man” of the per­son fac­ing him, then “chief and sub­or­di­nate kiss each other on the mouth, sym­bol­iz­ing ac­cord and friend­ship”.

As far as we know, an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent has never re­quired a kiss of an Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter, and no prime min­is­ter has ever of­fered one. And fond though he is of im­pos­ing his lips on those of un­sus­pect­ing beauty queens, Pres­i­dent Trump is un­likely to try it on Prime Min­is­ter Turn­bull, if our man ever gets in­vited over again. Trump hasn’t got the gist of the feu­dal thing at all. He un­der­stands sub­mis­sion as it is un­der­stood by the Mob, Roy Cohn and WrestleMa­nia. His hand­shakes as­sert dom­i­nance, not ac­cord.

We may yet owe Trump our thanks. Not that we would wish him on the good peo­ple of his own coun­try or on the world. But for the vul­gar­ity ex­pressed in that bizarre phone call to Turn­bull, we might be grate­ful; as we might be for the later slight when he left our prime min­is­ter wait­ing three hours while he cel­e­brated the pas­sage though the Congress of his health care bill. As we might for his Saudi sword dance, and for telling his Is­raeli hosts upon his ar­rival in Jerusalem that he had “just got back from the Mid­dle East”. As we might for ev­ery other goofy er­ror, loath­some pol­icy, egre­gious lie and psy­cho­pathic kink.

It is not that through Trump we have learned the real na­ture of the coun­try we are deal­ing with – know­ing it is a prospect open to any­one will­ing to get be­yond Brook­lyn or the Belt­way, or to read more than the New York Times. It is rather that Trump may force us to see how down the years the re­la­tion­ship has cir­cum­scribed de­bate, nar­rowed our per­spec­tive and shaped our na­ture.

Of course our lead­ers, diplo­mats and think tanks will never call it ho­mage. They tell us that the ears of Wash­ing­ton’s most pow­er­ful are al­ways bent in our di­rec­tion. If we take the dis­as­trous un­end­ing war(s) in the Mid­dle East as just one ex­am­ple, this must mean ei­ther that they have lis­tened and ig­nored our ad­vice, or that our ad­vice has con­sis­tently sup­ported US pol­icy, which would be to say that it has not been good ad­vice. Can any­one think of a sin­gle in­stance since Suez when Aus­tralia has of­fered an opin­ion that sub­stan­tially dif­fered from US foreign pol­icy or mil­i­tary strat­egy, or in any way changed its di­rec­tion? And while we’re at it, when John McCain calls in to tell us that China is act­ing like a bully in the re­gion, can any­one think of a good rea­son why our lead­ers should not tell him to get a hold of his own coun­try’s his­tory and stop tak­ing us for mugs? Or is it that to be a pa­triot in Mal­colm Turn­bull’s sense is to be an Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ist?

Per­haps our peo­ple never tire of telling the United States’ peo­ple where they’ve stuffed up, or why the elec­tion of an in­ept and dan­ger­ous jerk such as Trump, the mil­i­tari­sa­tion of their coun­try and the im­pov­er­ish­ment of so many of their ci­ti­zens

are just three of many pos­si­ble in­di­ca­tors of de­cline. Per­haps our sound and fear­less ad­vice just never gets re­ported, and the true char­ac­ter of the re­la­tion­ship only seems to be re­flected in the fawn­ing speeches, the idiot grins, the pap about shared val­ues, the talk­ing points that have scarcely changed in 50 years, and the un­fail­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in wars the US has de­cided to fight.

Be­lieve that if you will, but vas­salage is vas­salage. The ab­sence of any gen­uine clout in Wash­ing­ton is to be ex­pected. In any event, it is not the worst fea­ture of the re­la­tion­ship. Much worse is the fact that a dogma stands in the mid­dle of this na­tion’s life as a sub­sti­tute for sup­ple and in­de­pen­dent thought. Supine­ness is the per­ma­nent na­tional pos­ture, im­i­ta­tion and dumb syco­phancy a na­tional habit. Don­ald Trump just might en­cour­age us to give it up. Dare we hope that the PM’s lit­tle es­capade at the Mid­win­ter Ball – for which every­one, in­clud­ing the PM, should give thanks to Lau­rie Oakes – might mark the mo­ment when we learned that there is some­thing to be gained by be­ing a lit­tle braver ev­ery day.

An ear­lier, more con­sid­er­able, Amer­i­can pres­i­dent wrote to the US Congress in 1862: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must dis­en­thrall our­selves, and then we shall save our coun­try.” We could do worse than take his ad­vice, and start draft­ing a let­ter of our own.

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