LONDON, ONTARIO – When the disruptive shock of the 2016 election was followed a couple of months later by the installation of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America, one scarcely knew what to expect or to hope for. It was the final culminating impossibility in a whole series of most improbable longshots. Quite simply, this wasn’t supposed to happen.
Recall just some of the many strikes that once seemed so securely poised against the prospect that Donald Trump would ever make it all the way up the greasy pole to the White House. The man had no political experience whatsoever. Prior to what seemed an impetuous and baldly ego-driven political bid, he’d spent far more time schmoozing with Democrats than Republicans. Nearly all of the GOP brass and even more of the media loathed this brash and ill-equipped interloper with a burning intensity.
From his first announcement that he intended to run for the Republican nomination, I fully expected to see Trump crash and burn in some utterly humiliating way and skulk back to his penthouse to resume his career as a deed-shuffling developer and real estate tycoon. But instead, he ably knocked off one after another of a whole field of uninspiring fellow contenders and won the leadership of a ragged and divided party that wasn’t at all sure they liked him or trusted his instincts.
With his stunted vocabulary, his tendency to ramble and repeat himself and the constant self-aggrandizement that is redolent of a fundamentally insecure man, his gifts as a public speaker were nil. A fixture in the shallow and noxious world of reality television, Trump exuded not a trace of culture, sophistication or charm. While such qualities were often more implied than substantively present in credible presidential candidates of the past, Americans had historically required that the person who hoped to represent them on the world stage should at least make the effort to pretend they retained some decorous aspects.
Trump didn’t try to put himself across as anything finer or nobler than what he was. He refused to disguise or apologise for the fact that he was a capitalist scrapper with an uncanny genius for generating attention and spinning profits. Trump believed that the grand commercial enterprise of the United States had been badly mismanaged for decades by incompetent and often shady political careerists who, in their eagerness to appear progressive or compassionate, neglected what he regarded as job number one for any president-in-chief: realizing the best return for that corporation’s millions and millions of contributing citizen stakeholders.
In a couple of ways the now-highly regarded Ronald Reagan who held the White House for two terms in the 1980s, could be seen as having somewhat smoothed Trump’s path. He also hailed from the entertainment world but his undistinguished career in B-movies and television (even sharing top billing with Bonzo the chimp in a whole series of witless comedies) was positively Shakespearean compared to Trump's reality TV work on The Apprentice and guest slots on TV and radio talk shows where he routinely came across as the gruff embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s characterization of the cynic as a man “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
In addition to the show-biz associations he shared with Trump, Reagan also was a divorcee. Americans had traditionally wanted a steady hand on the presidential tiller and any evidence of a chaotic private life used to be a campaign-breaker. Because neither of his two marriages had been attended by the sort of glitter and flash and jaundiced pre-nuptial contracts of Trump’s three, it helped "the great communicator" and all-round smoothie to become the first divorcee to glide his way into the White House. But subsequent to his election, two of Reagan’s children denounced him as a cold and absent father whereas – so far at least – none of Trump’s menagerie of exes and differently mothered children have run to the press to air any grudges or resentments. Indeed, all of his relatives – current and ex – actually seem to like him.
But perhaps the real precedent-breaker here was the feckless Bill Clinton who won entrance to the White House (with his charmless, resentment-laden wife in tow) despite a well-known legacy of bimbo eruptions . . . and then topped that off with his despicable exploitation of a confused female intern who was about the same age as his daughter. In the wake of that sort of brazen marital incontinence, Americans seem to have learned that a technically intact first marriage might not be such a dependable guarantor of anything when it comes to electing leaders of the free world.
It was apparent on election night that a lot of people who pulled the lever for Trump never really expected him to get in. It isn’t that they didn’t honestly prefer him to Felonia von Pantsuit who in the last week of the election campaign had maligned them all as ‘deplorables’. They did. And who can blame them? Without a qualm of self-awareness or misgiving, the appalling Mrs. Clinton dismissed half her countrymen as racists, sexists, homophobes, anti-Semites and blah, blah, blah. What had they done to deserve such an arrogant dismissal? They had nodded in agreement to Trump’s calls to “Build the wall” and “Drain the swamp”. These despicable sub-humans saw the sense in wanting to reassert control at America’s badly leaking borders and to dislodge an encrusted plague of unelected insiders, wealthy lobbyists and an entrenched civil service who were encumbering American initiative on virtually every front.
It wasn’t that disenfranchised Americans particularly loved Trump – though they did find him oddly refreshing. It was more that they sensed he didn’t hate them or hold them in contempt. And that was a nice change in a federal politician. Nor did they have any illusions that he would be a perfect modern statesman. Indeed, any sane American’s illusions about the possibility of presidential perfection had evaporated over the two terms of Obama. From 2008–16, a man widely hailed as the new Messiah from the very get-go (even winning a Nobel Peace Prize before he had the opportunity to prove that he didn't deserve it) only became smaller and meaner and more pathetically ineffectual, the longer he served. More than anything else, Trump’s supporters recognized that the American model of governance had become sclerotically clogged and criminally wasteful and were looking for someone who would vigorously bash it about and find some way to make that sucker more responsive to the actual needs and aspirations of its citizens.
A lot of Trump voters suspected their cause was hopeless and were really only casting protest votes. Though I had no vote in that election, this Canadian was with them in spirit and therefore had no intention of tuning in any election night coverage just to witness his universally predicted defeat. And then I received a Facebook update from one of my favourite Social Justice Warriors at about eight p.m. which was frantically headlined, “How can this be happening?” And that was the moment when I dared to take up once again that virtue which Obama had copyrighted and obliged so many people to discard for the better part of a decade: “Hope”. Could it be? By golly and by gum, it could.
The disbelieving aftershock of the election came to an end with Trump’s inauguration on January 20th, 2017, when he gave a short speech in which he did not backpedal on any of his controversial promises but vigorously reasserted all of them. This, in turn, set off a wave of anti-Trump protests across the country and around the globe, the like and tone of which had never greeted a previous Presidential installation. You could almost mistake the sheer incoherence and grotesque contortions of the reaction he provoked for some sort of collective nervous breakdown except that . . . two years and six weeks later, the petulant and unhinged freak-out shows no sign of abating.
Every week it seems we are promised some new bombshell of a revelation which – it is solemnly hoped – will bring Trump down. The walls are always closing in. The end is forever drawing nigh. This abomination of a presidency is always sputtering to its collapse. But not only does Trump never succumb beneath the latest barrage of outrage, he shows up for another day’s work of reshaping the way America conducts politics and then follows that up with a slew of unrepentant tweets that, like a sizzling string of firecrackers, detonates cranial explosions all across the land.
As I think I’ve made clear, I didn’t like the fellow, I never thought he’d get in, and I still regard him in many ways as a gross and shallow man. So imagine my surprise a couple of weeks ago while watching Trump’s rather spectacular State of the Union address in which he characteristically boasted about the many worthy accomplishments he’s racked up with precious little help even from the party which he leads, to find myself cheering him on as the only adult – and in many ways, the only relatable human being – in the room. Kate MacMillan at Small Dead Animals composed one of her finest-ever headlines for her SOTU coverage the next day: “So I tuned in to see Hitler and they were singing Happy Birthday to a Jew”.
Allowing that my gifts for political prognostication have never been any great shakes, it seems to me that in their increasingly strident defection to the bitter and socialist end of the spectrum, the envy-driven joylessness of the Democrats is paving the way for Trump’s triumphal return next year.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
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