Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 26 January 2017

His popularity is already waning. It can’t be long before Donald Trumpety-Trump goes the way of Nellie

Long life | 26 January 2017
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I keep finding myself singing ‘Nellie the elephant’ who, packing her trunk and saying goodbye to the circus, went off ‘with a trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump’. I’m hoping against hope that Donald Trumpety-Trump will also say goodbye to the circus in Washington and return to the jungle whence he came; for irrespective of whatever he does in government, even if some of it proves to be beneficial, he is unworthy to be president.

The president is not only the country’s chief executive and commander-in-chief; he is the symbol of national unity and the protector of the American constitution, and he has already failed in both these last two roles. His dreadful inaugural speech intensified the already sharp division of American society, and he has already made clear that he doesn’t think much of the constitution’s first amendment of 1791 on the guarantee of the freedom of the press.

Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counsellor, warned ominously on television that the Trump administration would have to ‘rethink our relationship’ with the press if journalists continued to challenge proven lies by the White House’s new press secretary, Sean Spicer. Trump, of course, had started his presidency with a speech at the CIA in which he called journalists ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth’, accusing them of inventing a rift between him and the intelligence agencies.

‘I love you, I respect you, there’s nobody I respect more,’ he told CIA staff members (which incidentally was also what he had said during the campaign to women he had been accused of abusing). The CIA employees cannot have forgotten that it was he, Trump, who had tweeted that their opinions were less reliable than those of both Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange and that ‘intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news [about Russian meddling in the election to help him win it] to “leak” into the public’. ‘Are we living in Nazi Germany?’ he asked.

Well, he might indeed have wondered if we were, but not for the reasons he gave. For he is a liar on a Hitlerian scale, fomenting distrust and hatred of groups that bear no blame for the popular grievances that brought him to power; and his administration has promised retribution against journalists who prefer real facts to what it calls ‘alternative facts’. Trump calling American journalists ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth’ is more than the pot calling the kettle black, for there is no comparison between the two. While Trump doesn’t care how many lies he tells, the mainstream media generally make great efforts to report the truth. They don’t always succeed, but they try.

In its founding manifesto of 1925, the New Yorker promised to print ‘the truth and the whole truth’; and to fulfil this promise its founding editor, Harold Ross, created an institution that was later copied elsewhere throughout the industry — a special department to verify everything in the magazine that could be categorised as fact. The fact-checking department gave birth to a culture of high pedantry in which trivial details were checked not only in journalistic articles but also in fiction pieces and cartoons that might have real persons and occurrences lurking within them.

When I was working as an editor on the New Yorker many years ago, I often found the fact-checking system flawed and frustrating, but I nevertheless admired it as reflecting an American belief not only that the press should try to tell the truth but also that, with objectivity and diligence, the truth could be achieved. Mr Trump stands in opposition to this ideal. Instead of upholding the truth, he seeks to undermine trust in facts verified by journalists and replace it with faith in contentious nonsense spouted on the internet. The internet has much to answer for: not only the election of Trump but also the rise of the Islamic State.

It’s impossible to foresee what will cause Donald the Elephant to leave the circus, but it’s also hard to believe that he will stay in Washington for long. Indeed, polls show that his popularity was already waning even before he took office. Even here in Britain I noticed in a branch of W.H. Smith that Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal ranked lower on its list of bestselling books than both Hillary Clinton’s biography and Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. I feel that his days are numbered.