Once again, America is under attack. If it’s not hordes of migrants swarming over the border, it’s murky jews financing un-American attacks on the president of the United States, aided and abetted by a ‘fake news’ media in hock to the Democrats, liberals, and other malignant handmaidens to American weakness and decline.
Of course we know what’s going on here. We know these eruptions of Trumpery are intimately connected to the mid-term elections and the administration’s need to rally conservative voters to the cause, to stave off possible Democratic advances. But it is not just that and we know this too. This is Trump embracing the freedom of being Trump.
Trump, lazy and incompetent and proudly ignorant, does at least know about winning and losing. Confrontation is where he is happiest; possibly, indeed, the only arena in which he is happy. These elections are a verdict on him; no wonder he takes it personally. Screw first or risk being screwed yourself. That is the Trump ethos, the Trump way. If he needs to poison the village to save it then so be it.
As always, it really is all about him. Trump’s mixture of braggadocio and self-pity is both gruesome and compelling. Yet, whatever else may be said of the president, it’s also evident that he taps into a strain of thinking in American public life that has always been present but only intermittently been given high-profile voice in Washington. America is the greatest nation on earth but that greatness is always fragile, always vulnerable, always at the mercy of internal betrayal. America’s foes overseas are one thing; the internal enemies quite another and, by virtue of their insidiousness, much more threatening.
It is a question of attitude or sensibility, not policy. Indeed policy scarcely matters at all save to the extent it kindles American grievance and shores up a mistaken interpretation of American exceptionalism. Feelings – so easily bruised in the Trump era – matter more than substance; the appearance of action is more significant than the action itself. It is a curious form of Potemkin politics on the Potomac.
So the inherent and obvious ludicrousness of dispatching 10,000 troops to the Mexican border to deal with the non-existent threat of an ‘invading’ migrant ‘caravan’ does not matter at all. The symbolism is what counts. Say what you will about Trump, but he’s prepared to DO something. And if the namby-pamby liberals at the New York Times reach for their smelling salts than so much the better. Indeed, that’s all the justification that is needed.
It is true that other people besides Trump have occasionally drawn attention to the alleged insanity of birth-right citizenship, guaranteed by the 14th amendment to the constitution, which makes anyone born in the United States of America a citizen of the United States of America. But no recent president has made this non-issue an issue in the way Trump has. Conservative extremists have worried about so-called ‘anchor babies’ for years but, until now, they never had an ally in the Oval Office, never mind a leader.
Trump’s rise to political prominence depended on these extremists. His suggestion Barack Obama was not a ‘natural born citizen’ of the United States was his gateway into politics. He owes his political career to birtherism of one sort or another. Some people are more American than others, and their claims to Americanness are counterfeit. And we all know the colours on this chart.
But if America is anything it is an idea, and the idea rests upon the accessibility of Americanness. The Statue of Liberty is both tribute to and guarantor of that, and without that idea, America is sharply constrained and much reduced. Equally, birth-right citizenship – which, contra Trump, is hardly unusual elsewhere in the world – is a recognition that, yes, anyone can be an American and, at least at the moment of birth, there is a symbolic equality between all Americans.
For Trump, that is a weakness, not a strength. So some things should be said: the people who really hate America are those who, like Trump, believe it under attack. They are the ones confronting and, they hope, dismantling this American idea. Sometimes, it is true, the power – and hope – of the idea is allowed to compensate for glaring injustices in the lives of Americans, but if you dismantle it, then the United States just becomes another place. Richer and larger and more powerful than others, but still just another place. Paradoxically, the great defenders of American exceptionalism would actually weaken and eventually destroy what makes America exceptional.
Weakness is Trump’s great fear, of course, and here it becomes difficult to resist the notion that there is a psychological component to his worries. He protests too much and by doing so demonstrates the weakness of a position much weaker and lacking in confidence than he would have you believe.
That is born-out by the behaviour of his worst supporters. The ‘fine’ people marching in Charlottesville; the gun nuts; the disturbed loners; the far-right conspiracy theorists and kooks; the voiceless people given voice – and courage – by this White House. When Islamist terrorists commit atrocities we quite rightly ask where they drew their inspiration from; who encouraged them, who motivated them, who planted the seeds that grew into violent tragedy? When white American terrorists – all of them different, yet all of them united by their inadequacy and the pathetic squalor of their thinking – commit terrible crimes we prefer to maintain a more discreet silence. The double standard is revealing.
These latest instances, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, will be followed by more. This is not the end of the story; it might only be the beginning of the beginning. The far-right has always been an undercurrent in American politics but it has never before been officially encouraged from the highest levels.
And the message is always this: America is under siege, threatened by foreign strength and internal weakness. That was what Donald Trump thought when Ronald Reagan was president and it is what he thinks today. It’s the one constant, beside his estimation of his own genius, in his adult life. And if America is under siege, action is necessary. In this world, the mail-bombers and the vigilantes and the shooters are not altogether wrong; officially their actions may have to be deplored but there is a knowing – and transparent – suggestion their targets are at least the right ones. The media is ‘the enemy of the people’ (touchingly, Trump says he ‘hate[s] to say this’) and because the media are in the tank with Democrats and hispanics and blacks and Jews and God-knows-who-else they must all be the enemy of the people too.
Which does not, in point of fact, leave very many people who are not the enemy of the people. But that is fine too; the strength of the tribe is measured in its purity. The trick is a neat one: the pure are simultaneously everywhere out-numbered and yet also the great, silent, majority.
It is all a thoroughly disgusting and wearisomely predictable spectacle. A president without even any redeeming vices who daily shames his country. It will get worse before it gets better. If this is how Trump approaches the mid-term elections, think how he will campaign for his own re-election?