Keep your torches handy
Remember that time Canadians torched the White House in August of 1814? Those were some good times, right?
That conflict was also clouded by a series of “altfacts”, the new label given by the Trump administration for what used to be called untruths. What is often overlooked is that the biggest source of conflict was already settled by the time the US declared war in 1812. The US had already achieved its primary goal by diplomatic means in that crushing trade sanctions imposed by Britain were slated to be lifted. Still, a battle was held weeks after peace was declared. US schoolchildren are still taught that it was a clear and necessary second declaration of sovereignty from Britain, rather than an embarrassing failure of diplomacy and an absolute boondoggle.
All this is to say the US is no stranger to weird and sweeping historical moves based on untruths. It's right there in the Constitution. Take for instance the development of the concept that "all men are created equal" at a time when we were a slave holding country.
In an unrelated note, on January 20, 2017, Donald Trump became president of the United States. A number of non-us folks have been asking me a fair question: “What happened?”
Both Trump supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters fully expected Clinton to win the election for president. Due to (even by US standards) a particularly raucous, drawnout, and out-of-control election, she didn't. Most observers acknowledge that if the election had been held a few weeks earlier or later, she would have won. But other observers rightly note that it should never have been that close.
So now we have a different president. Very different, some would say. Even his supporters admit to a great deal of uncertainty and trepidation about what his administration will bring. His opponents are simply beside themselves, using language like "a tire fire" and "tragedy".
Viewed from the side, though, this might have been predicted. The ultimate opportunist dirty-fighter finally emerged from an increasingly dirty-fighting period in US politics.
For several decades, US politics has become increasingly extremist and divisive. This dates back to Newt Gingrich, who has to many observers' surprise, reemerged in the Trump era from well-earned obscurity. He decided back in 1986 that politics was to be played as a war, not a series of isolated struggles over specific policies. He gained a leadership role as the Republican House Whip. The job scope is implicit in the title - to whip the party in to line to vote the party's way on important legislation. Gingrich expanded that idea to create a single voting block of all Republicans on all issues. His victims included not only Democrats, but Republicans who believed in different tactics. Jim Wright, the Speaker of the House when Gingrich came to prominence, was drummed out of office with the slash-and-burn tactics Gingrich brought to bear.
After unifying the Republican congressional bloc and punishing those who dared to be bipartisan, Gingrich’s goal was to permanently tar Democrats with the taint of corruption. He didn't care about the quality or truthfulness of the mud he slung. He cared only that he and other Republicans were daily engaged in the flinging of new mud at Democrats. Gingrich told his cohort to never mention the Clinton name without the words "corrupt" or "scandal" also occurring in the same sentence; a practice that contiues to this day. This led to his intense interest in personal, formerly overlooked non-criminal issues like Monica Lewinsky's affaire with Bill Clinton. Or, the fiveyears-long fruitless probe into the Whitewater "scandal", in which the Clintons were investigated for losing money on an investment.
This among other developments legitimized partisan talk radio. While always a quirky feature of US politics, at that point radio emerged as an agenda-setting monolith effectively used by politicians to drum up support. But in the nature of tigers, it became impossible to control, and drove politicians further and further right to appease a certain group of voters.
This expanded into partisan television, a path greased by the waning of evenhandedness in news coverage protected by the Fairness Doctrine (RIP 1987). In retrospect, the slow encapsulation of US voters in partisan, and increasingly fact-challenged, bubbles was inevitable. Bipartisanship drained away over the ensuing decades. Now, members of opposing parties working together is considerably more the exception than the rule. This didn't used to be the case.
The tension between war-mongering versus dealmaking Republicans played out over the next fifteen years culminating in the emergence of the Tea Party in 2008, a faction not only influenced by talk radio but born of it. Its smashing success in the 2010 mid-presidential term elections changed the political landscape. Midterms are always a vulnerable moment for the President's party, since all House members go up for re-election every two years. This moment empowered the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, causing much discussion of the "inevitable" fracture and failure of the party.
Instead, the war-mongering wing unexpectedly won a battle, buoyed by popular frustration with the very dynamic that enabled Trumpthe-candidate to emerge. So much for the wisdom of the experts.
So that leaves us here, with the ultimate war-mongering candidate, the least popular candidate of a major party in living memory, becoming the least popular president to begin a new administration. His approval ratings are historic, at 38-40%, but not in the way you want your name to enter the history books.
“You should have stopped me,” Trump said. And we certainly should have.
But it isn't over; it has just begun. This win was just one battle in a war that many of the American people just now realized they were fighting. On January 21, 2017, three million marched on the streets of the small towns and big cities, in tiny groups of five and giant piles of 500,000. I was there as an observer - a political scientist concerned about the future of the country, a citizen concerned about the future of my country, and a global citizen concerned about the future of our world.
So keep handy those torches labeled "For Emergencies Only". It might just happen that you'll have cause to use them.
Dr. Helen Delfeld holds a doctorate in political science, specializing in women/gender studies and international politics from Rutgers University. She worked as a human rights activist and professor for over a decade before turning to public education and writing. She currently teaches political theory to inmates at a maximum security prison. Among other scholarly contributions is her book, Human Rights and the Hollow State, (Routledge, 2014). Her mother is Canadian, and even after fifty years in the US, refuses to become a US citizen. Dr. Delfeld knows all the words to O Canada.
A watercolor by George Munger (circa 1814) shows the aftermath of the burning of the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of White House Historical Association. Image in the public domain.