Thank God Trump’s gone! But did all the hatred, fear and sneering abuse swirling around his presidency go with him? That’s the 64-million-dollar question. Perhaps no United States presidential inauguration has had America, and the world, holding its breath quite like today’s, when Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th leader of his country. Many – possibly most – wondered what stunt his predecessor might pull to draw attention away from the main game in Washington to whatever margins Donald Trump decided to inhabit.
Perhaps one has to go back as far as 1933 and the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt to find a climate so fractious that a change in administration could be seen as reflecting a social upheaval. It came after the violent rioting in July 1932, when more than 40,000 poverty-stricken World War 1 veterans and their families marched on Washington demanding the payment of their promised GI bonus. And then, shortly before his inauguration, Roosevelt himself was nearly assassinated by a gunshot that killed the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, who was standing beside him. But no-one trashed the Congress in 1933. And Herbert Hoover, the defeated president, although humiliated, took his defeat (through gritted teeth, no doubt) like a gentleman and did not indulge in the whining temper-tantrums of the now departed incumbent, Trump.
For days, the world’s news media has been awash with stories of where Trump would be on January 20, especially after Melania Trump (rather churlishly) refused one of the more modest traditions of American power transference, that of escorting her successor as First Lady, Jill Biden, on a tour of inspection of the White House. Trump, we were informed, might hold his own anti-inauguration event to upstage the new president; he might fly to Scotland to ostentatiously play golf on his exclusive Turnberry estate; he might hunker down in his Florida retreat Mar-a-Lago; or he might run up the flag of secession in Texas. It might be all very ho-hum, except that thousands felt it so acutely they invaded the US Capitol with murder and mayhem on their minds just a fortnight ago.
So much of the mainstream media commentary has focused on the proverbial challenges facing the new president. Covid, above all, but also the raw divide in American society that can no longer be papered over and ignored or wished away. I believe that what has played out in the US over the past year or so – particularly the past fortnight – gets to the heart of the contradictions that underpin American society. While American intuition can almost certainly identify the problems that ravage the country – as Biden clearly has – those contradictions are so deep in the fabric, they demand more than the usual platitudes about “America’s mission” that have passed for public policy since Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” vanished into the mud of Vietnam 50 years ago.
Frankly, Americans fervently believe things that we don’t. When they speak about “the little guy” they invariably mean the small businessman or shopkeeper dragging himself up by his bootstraps, battling banks and conglomerate competitors. A one-man John Doe struggling against the odds. We, however, think a little guy really is a little guy, trying to hold down a modest job in a factory, a production line, an office or a building site. Living a challenging life beset by forces that he knows he can’t possibly overcome by himself.
Therefore, co-operation, and trade unionism for that matter, comes so much more easily to us than it does to Americans. (With the result, I believe, that we are better at solving complex social problems than our cousins across the Pacific.) Americans, rather, seem perennially infatuated by the idea of a great man on a white horse galloping up to rescue them – witness Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower, plus wannabe’s like Douglas MacArthur.
I don’t want to over-generalise, but vast swathes of American people do not participate in “the American dream” and they never have, because of the dominance of extreme individualism and winner-takes-all ideas of personal upward mobility. I’ve lost count of the number of variants I have heard of that old saw “from log cabin to White House”, which seem impervious to the obvious corrective: how many presidents can 330 million Americans possibly have?
All this would be Trivial Pursuit stuff were it not for the fact that an irresponsible demagogue like Trump tapped into resentments that were allowed to fester because the people affected by the profound social changes that Wall Street, Washington, etc deemed inevitable or necessary, were simply dismissed as collateral damage.
Take a state like West Virginia. Back in the 1960s it was a rock-solid “Blue state”, its huge coal-mining base returning Democratic votes of 70 per cent. Today, it is a bitter, resentful shell of what it once was, riven with unemployment, while becoming one of the safest states for Trump-ism, with “The Donald” carrying every county last November. Such a change is worth at least a wondering glance.
Biden, however, knows the truth. I have no doubt about that. He was born in the anthracite town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and knows that to struggle and lose is as much a part of American life as is the dream to conquer the heavens. And so he will also understand that to lose and be kicked into the gutter is nobody’s idea of a desirable dream. (Which is where Hillary Clinton was so foolishly insensitive in talking about “deplorables”.)
But how can the ship of state be turned around when everything American kids learn at school presupposes that the world is your oyster, if only you have the self-focused drive to go for it? And how can the ship of state be turned around when many Americans are so imbued with a crazy brand of individual rights that they will blow you away in the name of ‘Freedom’? And probably for your own good?
You have only to go back a few years to see the reaction the passage of Obama Care caused among American “patriots” – invading public spaces, screaming that to extend health insurance to a mere 20 million more citizens (and we’re not talking socialised medicine here) represented a diabolic attack on everything that “America” stood for. In that small vignette, you can see the challenge faced by Joe Biden in closing the American divide. It used to be called being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
But, eventually, the clouds do part for everyone and I find encouraging signs. Above all, and however belated, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell publicly called out Trump’s role in inciting the insurrection in Washington two weeks ago. And Joe Biden’s acceptance speech. If thoughtful words still count for anything, hope may be on life-support, but it’s still breathing.
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