Sleepwalking to apocalypse
Waking up to Trumpville
Presidential hopeful Donald Trump reminds Carla Carlisle of politics she thought had been consigned to the past
I’VE always loved the quote from Pauline Kael, film critic on The New Yorker, who said: ‘I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.’ I’ve hauled out her remark a lot lately, because, in my rarefied rural universe, I don’t personally know anyone who would vote for Donald Trump. At least, I didn’t until a lunch party at which I met an American married to an Englishwoman. Although he’s lived in Suffolk for 40 years, he still has a vote in the USA and he’s a passionate supporter of Trump. Good grief.
I tuned into the World Service for Trump’s acceptance speech, but slept right through it and woke up to Today’s bonechilling excerpts from Apocalypse Now, a preening, profane Trump telling his gullible followers: ‘I am your voice!’ He warns that America faces doomsday and ‘only I can fix it’.
My first thought was straight from the King James version: ‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.’
I don’t come from Republican stock, although my parents twice voted for Eisenhower. I don’t consider the Republican Party America’s Zion, but when I think that the party of Lincoln has fallen for a thricemarried, self-promoting demagogue with hair that looks like roadkill, I want to sit down and weep.
Instead of turning to Psalm 137, however, I went to All the King’s Men. Set in the 1930s, the novel tells the story of the dramatic rise of Willie Stark, a cynical populist who, by sheer force of will, becomes governor of a nameless Southern state. Its author, Robert Penn Warren, denied that it was based on the real-life Huey Long, Louisiana governor and American senator, but anybody born and raised in the shadow of Long country knew better.
It’s hard to believe that the messianic Trump isn’t from the Deep South. Apocalyptic visions, Calvinist theology, racism and once-upon-a-time visions of a better world (before the Civil War) are in the alluvial soil. The outside world may have thought old Populist evangelism died out with George Wallace, but they were wrong.
When Edwin Edwards, a born-again New Deal Democrat, was running for a third term as governor of Louisiana in 1983, he promised his followers that he would ‘Win! Win! And Win Again!’. ‘The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy,’ he said. Edwards won four terms, then served eight years in prison—some little thang to do with corruption—but, heck, he’s already run for office again.
The difference between Trump and the cankerous Southern Populists is that Trump is a billionaire who was born in Queens, New York, the grandson of German immigrants and whose Scottish mother was born on the Isle of Lewis. When Trump says that his is the people’s voice, he is not a Populist, but a rich man impersonating a Populist. When he tells angry white Americans that foreigners are out to take their jobs, he leaves out the bit that his empire was built on the backs of migrant labour.
His message may proclaim pentecostal egalitarianism, but that doesn’t mean every voter gets a Cadillac. His message is that America is sinking deep with the sin of foreigners and terrorists and he alone can fix it, but, after building the wall and declaring a moratorium on Muslims, the well of miracles runs dry. I’m reminded of Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes’s memorable epithet to Long: ‘The gentleman from Louisiana suffers from “halitosis of the intellect”.’
Compared to Trump, Long was as worthy as Atticus Finch. Long provided free textbooks to schoolchildren, initiated free night schools for adults, ploughed money into public education, constructed roads and bridges, created public hospitals and abolished the poll tax that prevented the blacks from voting. He believed that you had to keep religion and race out of politics, but stuck to his belief that ‘you can’t help the poor whites without helping the Negroes’.
True, he turned Louisiana into an almost totalitarian society, censored the press, passed laws determining who could carry guns and scared Roosevelt to death with his plan to rein in millionaires.
When I think that the party of Lincoln has fallen for a selfpromoting demagogue, I want to weep No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American voter
November in America is looking more like a referendum than an election. The Trumpers want to leave the big, bad globalised world and cling to the nearlyall-white Leave it to Beaver, a world without immigrants, Muslims, Obamacare and Made in China labels. The rest are the supposedly cultivated, liberal folks who were slow to realise that Trump is not an egomaniacal clown, but someone who got 13 million votes in the primaries and who could change American politics for the rest of their lives. They are voting to keep the lights on.
It’s hard to shake off the words of H. L. Menken, never over-confident about American democracy, who wrote: ‘No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American voter.’
Here, in the wheat fields of East Anglia, I watch a new Prime Minister who is intelligent and sane. There are deep divisions in this land, but we can celebrate the luxury of a leader with principles, dignity and good hair.
As for my Trump-loving neighbour, what can I say? You can take a donkey travellin’, but it won’t come back a horse.