Friday 2 December 2016

American Nightmare

Twenty-four days after the election, and the reality of the forthcoming Trump administration is beginning to sink in. We are in a scary place.

How did we get here, and what happens now?

To reiterate: If the Comedian were a real person, he'd be loving this, and also working for Trump.

How can we wake from this nightmare?

Unfortunately, this is real. There is no escape. The ruby slippers will not send us back home.

In all likelihood, neither will the Electoral College. Yes, it would be a fine thing if electors defected to Clinton as the law allows. But they are selected for partisan loyalty above all else, so it ain't happening; at least, not on a large enough scale to stop Trump.

If you're a US citizen? By all means organise, campaign, donate to candidates and causes who might offset the damage done by Trump. The rest of us can only look on in horror.

The next four years are going to be bad. If Trump is struck down by a bolt of lightning on Inauguration Day, with nothing left but a scorched combover? It will still be bad, because the USA will be left to the leadership of President Pence.

The President of the United States has the hardest job in the world, with the greatest weight of responsibility. Trump is in no way fit to shoulder that burden. The key question is what he will do about it.

If Trump delegates most decision making, and his administration sinks into scandal and infighting, it may be only moderately awful. Trump's appointees would do substantial damage, with the gleeful assistance of Republicans in Congress, but it would be within the bounds of some kind of normality.

If Trump maintains a sense of purpose, and actively tries to "move fast and break things"? There is practically no limit to the ruin he could bring. Like a toddler with a gun, he will not understand what he is doing before it is too late.

At this point, we have no idea what Trump will do. He might flounder helplessly; he might try to deliver on his deranged rhetoric; or he might do something even worse. That's what makes him so terrifying. A nihilist with the emotional maturity of a spoiled child is about to be handed the nuclear button.

The Powell pitfall

Remember Colin Powell? Victorious general, respected national figure, presidential candidate who never was. He took the job of Secretary of State in the George W Bush administration, and we were all reassured that such a steady, cautious man would counterbalance warmongers like Cheney and Rumsfeld.

We all know how the story ended. Powell threw away his hard-won authority, trying to convince the UN there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. His case was based on dubious evidence, shaky at best and fabricated at worst. In fact there were no weapons to be found, and Powell left office a pathetic and diminished figure.

This should stand as a warning to Mitt Romney, or anyone else with a shred of credibility who might take a role in the new administration. If they serve Trump long enough, he will chew up their dignity and spit it out. There is no way he won't. Trump's Cabinet will be caught between their boss' arrogance and his incompetence. Trump's name will be attached to failures which live in infamy alongside the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina; and that's one of the better scenarios.

Maybe prospective Cabinet picks are seduced by the promise of power. Maybe they think they can mitigate the damage from Trump's crazier impulses. Some simply don't care about Trump's horrifying behaviour. Rudy Giuliani clearly would like nothing better than to be Witch-King to Trump's Sauron.

Meet your new Secretary of Homeland Security.
Image source: LOTR Wiki

It is fair to note that under a never-used provision of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, the Vice-President and a majority of the Cabinet can certify the President "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office" and remove him from power. But this is unlikely to be invoked so long as Trump can stand up and speak in coherent sentences on two attempts out of three.

Be that as it may, it's pretty clear how the Republican leadership in Congress will proceed. Trump isn't the President they wanted, but he's a Republican in name at least. His ignorance and overweening pride make him malleable. He is likely to sign any piece of legislation they send to his desk, as long as they call it something like the Trump Is Awesome Act. A similar dynamic will be in place for Supreme Court appointments.

Congressional Republicans don't really have any credibility to lose. They will feel free to push through an agenda of tax cuts, favours for big business, demolition of public services, and rolling back the rights of women and minorities, regardless of the consequences for the American people.

Hillary Clinton's speaking fees

There are countless ways in which Clinton was a terrible candidate. I've been thinking about her speaking fees; perhaps not her worst problem, but one where even her own version of events leaves her looking bad.

The facts are simple enough: Clinton's going rate for a speech was over $200,000. As Clinton herself said, that's what they offered. It is an insane amount of money to earn for an hour's work. It's four times the median annual income in the USA. In simpler language, it's what four typical American workers make in a year.

It's also an insane amount of money to spend for an hour's diversion. You could buy a thousand good seats at an NFL game, or ten thousand movie tickets; the show would last longer, and you'd still have money left over for popcorn.

Not many organisations can afford that kind of fee. Some of them were Wall Street banks. Others were less controversial: The Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, the Xerox Corporation, and so on.

Did Clinton's speeches offer insights available nowhere else? The leaked transcripts suggest not. She was making fairly banal remarks about the pace of change, the challenges of the future, and so on and so forth.

Something else was going on here. What were these organisations really buying?

The cynical answer is that they were buying influence. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. You pay me colossal stacks of money, and when the time comes, I'll be ready to do favours in return.

Clinton insisted that no, this is wrong, she wasn't being swayed by this money, and most of it went to charity via the Clinton Foundation. Maybe this is true. But even if every penny was going to help starving orphans, that's not the point.

If the companies weren't buying influence, they were buying status.

It's like hiring the Rolling Stones to perform at your party. (To be fair, a private show by Mick, Keith and the lads allegedly costs more than $6 million; Clinton was cheap by comparison.) It doesn't matter that a CD would cost next to nothing, and give you a better performance from a much younger band. You do it for the experience, and to prove that you can.

Clinton, in the most generous interpretation, was an entertainer. In itself, this is fine. Americans are content to see entertainers in high office, as President Reagan, Governor Schwarzenegger, and now President-Elect Trump demonstrate.

The trouble is that Clinton was the wrong kind of entertainer. She was performing to very select audiences, for huge sums of money, with an act which would send the typical voter to sleep. Like it or not, speeches about politics and economics motivate most people to change the channel.

The entertainment offered by Trump was like a fast-food cheeseburger: Cheap, trashy and popular. That offered by Clinton was like the rarest beluga caviar: Exclusive, inaccessible, and it's unclear why anyone would pay so much for it. It's not a good look for a would-be champion of the common people.

The Twitter distraction

Every time Trump puts something insane on Twitter, there are two predictable reactions. One is people saying, "That's insane." The other is people saying, "Shut up, stop saying it's insane, Trump means it only as a distraction from these other things."

The latter reaction is getting tiresome already. I'm really not looking forward to putting up with it for the next four years.

Let's face it, scolding anyone on Twitter is not going to achieve all that much. Yes, yes, it's important to stay informed and participate in the conversation and all that jazz. But the fact is, Trump and the people around him respect only power. They have won the election, and that gives them the power to do some hideous, fucked-up shit. It would be nice if by posting just the right tweets, we could stop them in their tracks; but the world doesn't work like that.

I don't think crazy-tweeting is a cunning strategy on Trump's part. He just likes sounding off and getting attention. The people who think Trump's tweets are insane and terrifying largely think the same of his more substantive actions, so I'm not convinced reaction to these tweets is really holding back opposition to Trump.

Back in 2004, the marvellous satirists at the Onion wrote about "outrage fatigue" in connection with Bush:

"For a while, I wanted more fuel for the fire, to really get my blood boiling," said Madison, WI resident Dorothy Levine. [...] "Now, I could find out that Bush plans to execute every 10th citizen and I'd barely blink an eye, much less raise a finger."

Trump is delivering outrage fatigue on steroids. He can spew out more insanity overnight than Bush did in an average month.

All I can suggest is that we'll have to pace ourselves, and try to keep some degree of detachment, otherwise we'll burn out. It is news when the President-Elect of the United States says in public that he'd like to strip flag-burners of their citizenship, or that polite and respectful protest directed at the Vice President-Elect requires an apology. I'm no happier about it than the next person, but paying attention to deranged statements from the soon-to-be most powerful man on Earth is a fair and reasonable reaction.

It will also be news when Trump and his cronies do horribly insane and destructive things, instead of just saying them. Very soon now, Trump will be inaugurated as President, and his power to act will ascend to heights a Roman emperor would envy.

It's going to be a long four years.

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