Keep your torches handy

The Victoria Standard - - Commentary - HE­LEN DELFELD

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.

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