Alex Massie

Trump’s presidency will stain America for years to come

Trump's presidency will stain America for years to come
Text settings

It is amazing what a crowd - or a basket - of deplorables can do. Sometimes they can even strip away cant and reveal the truth. Such has been the case since a few hundred neo-Nazis and assorted other white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the weekend. They were protesting the planned removal of a statue honouring General Robert E. Lee, a statue typical of the American south’s longstanding emotional sympathy for the Confederacy. The Confederates might have been wrong, but they were romantic and, besides, they were our kind of wrong. Of course they should still be honoured by statues that serve as consolation prizes or participation trophies. America’s original sin endures, you know. 

And it lives in the White House too. Previous presidents have been, if we are coy about these matters, complicated creatures. But Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, to name but two of these complicated creatures, were politicians of substance; men who viewed the presidency as a means to an end, as a way of getting things done. A vehicle for improving the republic. The current incumbent, Donald J Trump, is a much simpler kind of bigot. 

There is no need to be coy about this. If it is unfair to suggest that the 63 million people who voted for Trump are all bigots and racists we may still insist upon the truth that they voted for a man who is. This has always been apparent, from the time when the Trumps were discriminating against black tenants in New York City to the time when candidate Trump was railing against Mexicans and Americans of hispanic heritage during the campaign. 

And it was made obvious, too, by the people he chose to staff his White House. The Steves, Bannon and Miller, and the likes of Seb Gorka are unapologetic white nationalists. And why, for shame, should they apologise for being so when they serve a president who is plainly cut from the same cloth? The Breitbarting of the White House has been a shameful thing to witness. Never before, or at least not in living memory, has the American presidency been so degraded. 

It is no exaggeration to say that Trump is the most ignorant president any of us can recall; ignorant, that is, of everything except his own genius. No American president has known less about American history; none has shown so little appreciation of the work done by his predecessors, nor of his own duty as a custodian of the republic’s virtues or guarantor of the better angels of its nature. Trump is ignorant of everything except himself and sometimes you suspect his knowledge of his specialist subject it itself more limited than you might think possible. 

But why should Trump be expected to take sides in a street brawl between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators? I mean, one of these groups was made up of his people and the other was not. So you can see the difficulty. Even now, shitty takes will be being prepared arguing that it’s somehow liberalism’s fault; that the decent bear responsibility for the indecent. Well, in a word, no. 

Again, not everyone who voted for Trump is a bigot but it is obvious that he performed well in the bigot community. David Duke, like the other goons marching in Charlottesville, had no doubt that Trump was his president in ways Barack Obama could never be. And again, Trump’s staffing of the White House has given Duke and his ilk every reason to believe that the president is broadly sympatico with the aims and values of white nationalism. At no point, certainly, has Trump disabused this constituency of any of this. A man must accept support from wherever he can get it, after all. 

It all represents the shaming of the United States and I think we may now suggest, quietly, that it’s not just a question of economic insecurity. These people wanted to take their country back. To the 1950s, if possible. And in their president they see a kindred soul and, while guilt by association is not always a pleasing or profitable suggestion, in this instance if the hood fits, well, it fits. 

As David Frum, a Republican whose ‘Never Trump’ bona fides need no further substantiation, observed, the president “is always an effective communicator, but rarely has he more clearly communicated who and what he is than he did today”. Quite. It would be sad if it weren’t all so shameful. And embarrassing. 

Meanwhile, I suppose a measure of pity is warranted for those people in this country still clinging to the notion this is a president who is “good for Britain”. Admittedly, that pity should be laced with scorn but there you have it. Even if Trump could plausibly be thought a Good Thing for the United Kingdom, there is something miserable about kowtowing and abasing ourselves before a man so thoroughly unqualified in every way for the office he now holds. Trump’s idea of a deal is glory for him and humiliation for you. And, besides, no-one serious can possibly trust anything he says. 

All of which is to observe that if ever there was cause for allowing Trump the benefit of the doubt, for giving him time to acclimatise to and then grow in office, that time is surely over. He is who he is and that, frankly, has been obvious from the start. If you chose to ignore this - as, to their shame, millions of Americans and too many Britons did - then you were only fooling yourselves. 

Realpolitik demands we accept disagreeable reality but even if we accept it a certain measure of self-esteem and dignity demands we recognise the truth for what it is. Nothing good can come from deluding ourselves or maintaining the fiction that what is plainly appalling is in some odd fashion actually welcome. So it is with Trump and this country’s dealings with his administration. 

If we have it bad, however, we might also spare a thought for Congressional Republicans and, indeed, millions of Trump’s voters. The possibility of redemption is still there for them, but only if they too are prepared to look reality - and truth - squarely in the face. The longer they kid themselves, the longer they maintain the lie that all of this is acceptable or somehow just within the bounds of what is normal, the more they abase and shame and soil themselves. Because it is none of these things and the more fully you recognise this the more thoroughly you begin to understand that it is likely, all of it, to get very much worse before it gets better. 

The sadness is oppressive and so too is the shame and the embarrassment one feels for a great country that has never, at least not in my lifetime, been led by a president whose worldview and every instinct refutes and repudiates the very values he is supposed to embody and uphold. 

It is what it is, I suppose, and that realisation might be the saddest of all. It has only been 200 days, albeit 200 days that feel like years. Shame. Pity. Scorn. Embarrassment. These are the leitmotifs of the Trump years. And they will stain the great American republic for years yet. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.