While he was on the campaign trail, Donald Trump was asked an intriguing question by Bob Lonsberry of WHAM 1180 AM, a local radio station in Rochester, New York.
‘Is there a favourite Bible verse or Bible story that has informed your thinking or your character through life, sir?’ Lonsberry said.
Trump’s answer? ‘An eye for an eye.’
If you wanted a quick glimpse inside Trump’s brain, that quote’s as good as any. It captures his narcissism, his thin skin, his exponentially cranked-up aggression.
Harry Mount and Michael Segalov debate the merits of getting angry about President Trump:
It still isn’t clear whether the Trump administration is genuinely deluded, in its creation of pretend crowds, its all-out assault on the media, its anger at supposed illegal voters in an election it won; or whether the administration is just pretending to be deluded to send the left apoplectic.
Because Trump isn’t the only one pumping out the rage and the confected ‘facts’. The world has gone bananas in its response to his tactics, and his enemies have responded in kind, moulding the truth to suit their aims, belting out the same foam-flecked rhetoric. To misquote Trump’s favourite passage of scripture, it’s a lie for a lie.
In his 1837 history of the French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle wrote, ‘It is unfortunate, though very natural, that the history of this period has so generally been written in hysterics. Exaggeration abounds, execration, wailing; and on the whole, darkness.’
We’re in danger of doing the same with Trump’s American Revolution. We used to laugh at the comments below online articles — see how nuts how they are! — but now public discourse at the highest levels has become little more than an internet slanging match. It isn’t so much the loner’s isolated echo chamber as two separate, enormous, hermetically sealed silos, each crammed with opposed supporters screaming, unheard, at the other side.
So with all this rage whirling around on both sides of the Atlantic, how do you stay sane and composed in Trumpworld?
Don’t let Trump — or his usefully hysterical enemies — drive you crazy. Ignore the trolls and the virtue-Trumpeters; discard Trump’s anti-media hysteria as the cynically concocted ruse it is. Most people — including you — aren’t shouting, so why should the shouters have a monopoly on your attention? Neither the Trump-lovers nor the Trump-haters have a monopoly on the truth.
You can be sceptical about the media without denouncing it all as post-truth evil — particularly if you read both sides of the argument. Take the edge off partisanship, and you feel your way to a closer approximation of the truth. For a brief moment, the two silos open up and their occupants listen to the other side.
When Trump lies, don’t lie back; don’t get angry. Come back with something true and composed that might conceivably register in the minds of the only people who can control Trump’s future in four years’ time — the American people.
There was little sign of that composed, effective response in the Trump protestors outside Downing Street on Monday night. As individuals, they were a restrained bunch — largely white, middle-class, mostly in their twenties. The odd wisp of dope smoke drifted down Whitehall, and there were a few starry-eyed activists on the fringes. One handed me a flyer headlined ‘Brexit is Racist’. But this was Middle England — or Middle London — on the march. As I wheeled my bike through the crowds, apologising for bumping into people, they displayed the chief distinguishing mark of English civilisation — they said ‘Sorry’ every time I said ‘Sorry’, even though it wasn’t their fault.
Their collective message, though, was a kind of group rage. ‘Theresa the Appeaser’ was a regular theme on the placards, which is at least catchy, unlike the one that read ‘No one asked for you, Theresa, you hatchet-faced old bitch.’ Trump as Hitler was another repeated image, one pictured above the single word ‘Twitler’.
A particularly popular slogan was to take the subtle, telling Martin Niemöller line — ‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist…’ — and inject it with rage: ‘First they came for the Muslims but the UK told Donny to fuck off’; ‘First they came for the Muslims, and we said, not today or ever, motherfucker.’
Trump’s travel ban is badly thought-out, ineffective and cruel, but it was hard to see how the abuse and rage would stop it — or stop the President’s state visit to Britain.
It was even harder to see how any of this could shift the electoral maths that brought Trump to power. Trump got fewer votes last year than Mitt Romney did in the 2012 election, but he retained the Republican core vote. Hillary Clinton lost millions of black and Hispanic voters who had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012.
The placards on Monday night’s march saying things like ‘Trump’s AmeriKKKa’ won’t have any power to turn that Republican base against Trump. If the London march was reported at all, they’ll only firm up his support.
Getting angry with Trump won’t do him any harm, either. He is the king of anger in what has been called the ‘Age of Anger’ in a book of the same name, published next week by Pankaj Mishra (my brother-in-law, I should add). Trump’s campaign was built on manufactured rage — on anger mismanagement, you might call it: being rude about immigrants, threatening to lock up Hillary, demonising the press and mocking individual journalists.
It’s a brutally effective technique: hate my enemies — love me. And it worked during the campaign. So they’re doing it again now, with continued attacks on the press, and with the divisive executive order banning visitors from seven Muslim countries. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, allegedly intervened to intensify the ban. Initially, it’s reported, the Department of Homeland Security decided to give green-card holders an exemption. Bannon apparently overruled the decision to ramp up the outrage.
The protestors on Monday night are playing right into Bannon’s hands. He’ll be delighted with their placards; he must long for that ‘Trump’s AmeriKKKa’ poster to be broadcast across the Republican heartlands. He won’t be concerned, either, by the more than 1.7 million British signatures on a petition to ban Trump’s visit here. Real-politik dictates that Theresa May had to jump at the chance to be the first leader to meet a new American president. Manners dictate that the Queen will stick by her invitation.
It would hardly be much skin off Trump’s nose even if the state visit were cancelled. Yes, he’d love to walk the Balmoral golf course with the Queen in the land of his dear old Scottish mum, Mary Anne Mac-Leod Trump. But Britain looms much smaller in America’s world view than America does in ours.
Monday’s protests won’t figure in Trump’s political reckoning, or Ohio’s voting intentions in 2020. Nor will a 1.7 million-signature petition. Nor will the newly popular hashtag #NotMyPresident, which loses some power in the UK, where it is factually true.
Still, for all its impotence, the mass protest is a sign of the increasing anger and deepening political divisions in Britain. American politics always used to be more divided than British politics. When I lived in New York a decade ago, I was astonished to meet the proprietor of a conservative newspaper at the entrance to his party in Midtown Manhattan. ‘So, Harry, are you a conservative?’ he asked.
‘Erm — I suppose so,’ I said.
‘Well, come on in, then! Get yourself a glass of wine.’
That Manichaean approach to party invitations doesn’t apply, thank God, to The Spectator. But an angry ‘Whose team are you on?’ approach is increasingly spreading across the rest of Britain.
It applied in spades during the referendum campaign, when difference in voting intentions was interpreted by many as outright opposition.
The hatred wasn’t just between Remainers and Brexiteers. It was, if anything, more virulent between the different factions of Brexiteers, particularly between Nigel Farage and the leaders of Vote Leave. As I interviewed the various factions for a new book, I was constantly reminded of that inspired political scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
REG: The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.
PEOPLE’S FRONT OF JUDEA: Yeah… Splitters!
FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People’s Front.
In these fevered times, it might be wise to channel the spirit of Alexander Chancellor, the late, much lamented former editor of this magazine, who died on Saturday. One of the many enchanting mysteries about Alexander is that a man who revolutionised Britain’s leading political magazine wasn’t all that interested in politics.
I can’t remember him expressing any strong political opinions — although Nick Garland, a Spectator cartoonist for many years, does recall a sudden burst of outrage when it was suggested in 1979 that British naval vessels shouldn’t pick up Vietnamese boat people from the sea, for fear they would become Britain’s responsibility.
In his final Spectator column, published last week, Alexander predicted, in his measured way, that Trump wouldn’t last long in Washington.
And, if he does lose the next election, it won’t be because of angry Whitehall protests attacking AmeriKKKa; it will be despite them.
Harry Mount’s Summer Madness: How Brexit Split the Tories, Destroyed Labour and Divided the Country is out next week.