Trump’s Amer­ica

I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced a loss of at­ten­tion to what’s go­ing on in Amer­ica. The string of calami­ties is too much to ab­sorb

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Richard Ford

Hav­ing Don­ald Trump as my president is a lot like let­ting my kids hang out with the wrong peo­ple (the kids, in this anal­ogy, be­ing the Amer­i­can vot­ers). Un­der cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence, chil­dren will al­most cer­tainly do some­thing bad, pos­si­bly ir­repara­ble, maybe ruin their lives. But it’s the un­der­ly­ing risk that’s per­ni­cious, if less im­me­di­ately demon­stra­ble.

The worry is that bad and do­ing bad will come to seem nor­mal, ac­cept­able, even good to the chil­dren. And, be­cause of this fu­sion of good and bad, they will lose their way, jet­ti­son their moral com­pass for­ever.

As­sess­ing the bad changes President Trump has so-far vis­i­bly wrought upon Amer­ica and the world is fairly easy to do – in one way.

In 10 short months, he’s put the US back on to a course des­tined to wreck the globe’s en­vi­ron­ment; he’s sought and found com­mon cause with vi­o­lent xeno­phobes and mo­ronic race-haters; he’s at­tempted – though mo­men­tar­ily failed – to jerk vi­tal health­care away from mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who need it; he’s made the threat of nu­clear war tan­ta­mount to a board game played by feck­less rich guys; he’s made com­pul­sive ly­ing about vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing stan­dard govern­men­tal pro­ce­dure.

And while do­ing all this he’s blurred the bound­ary that dis­tin­guishes what did hap­pen from what did not – the pre­cious cal­cu­lus by which our ci­ti­zen­ship main­tains its foot­ing.

Be­yond th­ese as­saults, he per­sis­tently threat­ens to dis­en­gage women from gov­er­nance over their bod­ies; he’s cham­pi­oned ig­no­rance of our con­sti­tu­tion rather than com­pre­hen­sion – thereby vi­ti­at­ing the con­sti­tu­tion’s safe­guards against: (1) the de­nial of equal pro­tec­tion and habeas cor­pus; (2) the es­tab­lish­ment of a theoc­racy; (3) the in­flic­tion of cruel and un­usual punishment against our most frag­ile ci­ti­zens. (I’m just cherry-pick­ing here.) Plus – in his brag­gart’s way – he reg­u­larly in­sults and den­i­grates our few, gen­uine mil­i­tary heroes, mocks sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery when its out­comes don’t seem con­ve­nient, and has filled his cabi­net up and down with in­com­pe­tents and in­dus­try stooges who want to run govern­ment like a busi­ness.

President Trump reg­u­larly blus­ters that his record of first-year “achieve­ment” is un­matched by any of his 44 pre­de­ces­sors. And in a leer­ingly skewed way, this may be the one truth­ful claim he’s ever made.

Like I said, the demon­stra­ble part of the Trump legacy is easy to work out.

This, by the way, is what it means to “run govern­ment like a busi­ness” – the Repub­li­cans’ favourite pub­lic pol­icy aria: first, you treat tax-pay­ing con­stituents like child­ish and anony­mous stock­hold­ers who need to be lied to; then you per­son­alise lead­er­ship so that what­ever’s “good” for the chief ex­ec­u­tive is au­to­mat­i­cally deemed good for the coun­try; af­ter that, you make win­ning the only goal, no mat­ter who – other than you – wins or loses; fi­nally, you pro­claim your­self in­fal­li­ble be­cause you’re rich.

And when you’re tired of the whole she­bang, you bank­rupt the com­pany (that is… our coun­try), notch the losses off your taxes and your short-term mem­ory, and treat who­ever’s left hold­ing the bag as pitiable losers. This busi­ness model qua politi­cal phi­los­o­phy is what you might call the “com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of Amer­i­can democ­racy”.

Since Don­ald Trump’s been our president, I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced a con­sid­er­able loss of at­ten­tion to what’s go­ing on in Amer­ica. I read the pa­pers less closely. I tune in to the nightly news with only one ear cocked. This string of calami­ties just listed seems a bit too much to ab­sorb. A bit un­be­liev­able.

Re­al­ity has be­come “re­al­ity”. Like on TV. What opium is in­stilled in dis­as­ter! Emer­son wrote. “It shows for­mi­da­ble as we ap­proach it, but there is at last no rough rasp­ing fric­tion, but the most slip­pery slid­ing sur­faces. We fall soft on a thought.” This thought – dis­as­ter – doesn’t quite hold one’s no­tice, the way you’d think it would.

It’s no one’s fault but mine, of course – the same as got my coun­try into this mess a year ago: the lulling inat­ten­tion of the clas­sic lib­eral’s surety that we’re right about things, that clowns can’t be­come president. Ex­cept, clowns can. We’ve brought one in al­ready – lark­ing and gam­bol­ing about, mak­ing big mis­chief.

Amer­i­cans have al­ways em­braced an inat­ten­tive and un­in­formed at­ti­tude to­ward govern­ment – es­pe­cially the fed­eral one. Even the most pro­gres­sive of us want govern­ment mostly out of sight and out of the way – though not nec­es­sar­ily out of the other guy’s way, since he’s al­ways wrong about ev­ery­thing and needs close watch­ing.

Life, lib­erty, the thought­less pur­suit of hap­pi­ness – th­ese ben­e­fits are granted to us by our Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence. No? So, kindly just stand back so I can lay claim to mine. Pro­gres­sives turn out to be not much dif­fer­ent from right-wingers when it comes to govern­ment. We just ig­nore dif­fer­ent facts.

President Trump has made our con­gen­i­tal govern­men­tal non­cha­lance more per­ilous by paint­ing the walls ‘n ceil­ing with the most gar­ish of lies. He won the pop­u­lar vote (well, no… he didn’t, ac­tu­ally); he’ll pro­vide the best health­care ever (not re­ally); voter fraud runs amok on our land (ap­par­ently it doesn’t); D Trump’s “re­ally smart” (ex­cept he never acts smart; he acts kinda loony).

And, oh, by the way, cli­mate change is a hoax, the mid­dle class will make out like ban­dits un­der this new tax bill, Is­lam­ics hate Amer­i­cans, and Barack Obama was born in Kenya. For the right kind of per­son, such lies sup­press cu­rios­ity rather than ig­nite it. We now seem to be that kind of

per­son.

It’s not far from here to the point of won­der­ing if any of this nut­ti­ness mat­ters at all. We Amer­i­cans seem to be in an up­hill phase of our demo­cratic sine curve, wherein we’re wait­ing to learn if it mat­ters and how. As if maybe some­one were go­ing to tell us. And, of course, some­one will.

It all seemed to mat­ter when Obama was president: pro­bity, dig­nity, hu­man-fal­li­bil­ity-owned-up-to, pur­suit of truth, not grab­bing women’s pri­vates. But if that counted for so much how the hell, then, did this hap­pen two sec­onds later?

Maybe it doesn’t mat­ter if the president’s a child­ish liar, is delu­sional, inept, petty, vi­cious, per­haps even ca­su­ally trai­tor­ous. Maybe be­hind the mask of of­fice is noth­ing at all. In which case, who cares about who gets to wear the mask? Bring in the clowns.

It’s not al­ways ap­par­ent be­hind the façade of su­per-na­tion­al­ism, but Amer­ica is a coun­try pre­oc­cu­pied by self re­def­i­ni­tion. This can be seen as a func­tion of pro­tean, re­gen­er­a­tive op­ti­mism – a rest­less strength. But just as plau­si­bly it be­speaks an in­se­cu­rity about who we are and how we like our­selves and each other (not so much, it ap­pears).

Our vast and di­verse land mass, alone, would make you think co­her­ent na­tional iden­tity was un­likely. All those busily fric­tive states, all those im­mi­grants stream­ing in barely no­ticed. Plus, our un­com­fort­able his­tory per­pet­u­ally need­ing to be ig­nored on be­half of what­ever’s shiny and new.

The com­plexer life gets in the US, the more our care­less na­ture tempts us to fall soft upon the thought of it, and the more a dem­a­gogue’s easy, scar­ily-ro­man­ti­cised, un­true dec­la­ra­tions of who “we” re­ally are threaten to blend into our na­tional lan­guor.

So that like those be­nighted kids whose par­ents let them hang with the bad crowd, even­tu­ally we be­gin not to recog­nise the truth when it’s right in front of us, and to lose our way al­to­gether.

Richard Ford is the au­thor of seven nov­els, in­clud­ing The Sports­writer and In­de­pen­dence Day, and three col­lec­tions of sto­ries. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for In­de­pen­dence Day and the PEN/Mala­mud Award for ex­cel­lence in short fic­tion.

Maybe it doesn’t mat­ter if the president’s a child­ish liar, is delu­sional, inept, petty, vi­cious, per­haps even ca­su­ally trai­tor­ous

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