Eleven years ago today I launched this blog with a posting about the cultural differences between England and America. Back then George Bush was President, Barack Obama was an ambitious Senator, Donald Trump was hosting Season 5 of The Apprentice, and Alistair Cooke would be broadcasting his Letter from America on the BBC for another eight years. It was on April 27, 1990 that Cooke made an offhand, but eerily prophetic, statement:
Throughout the 1980’s, the non-fiction lists were headed by the autobiographies of self-made men, by titans like Lee Iacocca, the phoenix of the automobile, by Donald Trump, the young, bouncy, blond tycoon whose aspirations to take over hotels, casinos, airlines, resorts, cities — why not the country? — appear to be boundless.
(Letter from America, 1946-2004, p. 339)
Cooke did not live to see the day.
Of the people, by the people
I wonder what that cultured Englishman, who was an outstanding observer of America throughout his career, would make of President Trump? No doubt he would have commented on Trump’s obvious eccentricities as a sui generis political phenomenon. He would also, I’m sure, have visited the red states to talk to some of the 63 million who voted for him. As the French philosopher said “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” And the people have spoken, there’s a new sheriff in town.
What the millions wanted was a change. And change is what we’ve got. They expressed a forceful desire to ‘Make America Great Again’ (now a Twitter hashtag #MAGA). Trump reflects these desires. He mirrors them.
I can remember back around the millennium being in the audience at an avant garde theatrical performance where a series of photographs were projected onscreen, accompanied by loud music. Meanwhile, elegantly dressed young women walked around in the audience holding large mirrors that reflected us, watching the screen, back to ourselves. When a woman happened to stand both behind and in front, then , like in the barbers chair, an infinite series of images of the audience cascaded around us, simultaneously distracting from, and supplementing, the images on the screen we were reacting to. The light from the mirrors illuminated the audience, brighter than the screen was illuminated by the projector. We reacted to reflections of the reality we’d come to see. Watching ourselves watching. Like Narcissus at the pond, we were entranced by our own reflection.
Just so, Trump has taken the image voters have of themselves — channeling their anger and frustration with established politicians — and superimposed it onto the political process. He has ridden their waves of their frustration from the Rust Belt to the Beltway. And he has illuminated politics with the re-tweets of his 20 million Twitter followers.
He assumes the voice of ‘the people’, claiming to speak for them, as only a billionaire on his third marriage can.
He reflects the Americans who are about to get the President they deserve. His supporters are illuminated and emboldened by the reflected glory of his success.
As time goes by, following his Inauguration on Friday January 20, this light might fade, or, heaven forbid, it might shine brighter than a thousand suns.
A Distant Mirror
Some have compared the rise of Trump to other demagogues such as Hitler and Mussolini. Others see parallels in the transition of the Roman Republic to an Empire.
Historian Barbara Tuchman has written a compelling narrative of the 14th century that highlights how, in a time of chaos and pestilence, rulers found opportunities to accumulate wealth and power, enjoying an opulent life while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants. They had their 1% back then. Other periods of human history are distant mirrors to our own.
Thing is, they did not have the nuclear codes.