It’s over. I’m still reeling from last week—as I’m sure many of us are—and the next few months are gonna be messy as hell, but the end result is what matters. Trump is out. Donald Trump will no longer be President of the United States. What a joyous set of words to be able to write. The ejection of that miasma of hate, corruption, and incompetence from The White House is only the first step in America’s journey towards something better.
The amount of steps that will actually be taken remains to be seen. Nevertheless, this first step is one to celebrate. Not just for what it means domestically for the US, but for the international repercussions too. Jettisoning Trump has put some brakes on the tide of fascism sweeping the globe. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro was reported to be crestfallen at the result for a start, apparently saying that it might make him think twice about running for re-election. Modi, Erdogan, Orban, Johnson—all these forces of insurgent reactionary nationalism will be feeling a pause at the repudiation of Trump at the ballot box. So while there are many, many caveats to a Joe Biden victory—and I intend to get to them in good time—for now we can take comfort, albeit very briefly, in the result that upset Jair Bolsonaro. There’s always gonna be some good in something that does that.
So why that headline? ‘In Some Ways Trump Was the Most Honest American President Ever?’ Rest assured I’m not being deliberately inflammatory or provocative. Nor am I intending to rain on the Biden parade. Yet. There’s just a particular side to the whole President Trump saga that I think goes relatively unexplored, and it’s one that gets to the heart of so much of what is rotten in politics: Image versus substance. The gulf between rhetoric and policy.
From the very beginning of his campaign, Donald Trump’s administration ran on racism, misogyny, hate, violence, elitism, and cruelty. The story of how he managed to ride into office by surfing the wave of anti-establishment sentiment despite in many ways being the embodiment of that establishment can be left for another time. That’s just a classic tale of a strongman fascist figure railing against ‘elites’ while actually punishing the vulnerable. As is usually the case with people like Trump, the anti-elite rhetoric was just a thin surface layer to the whole circus, a smokescreen.
Underneath that insubstantial veneer was all hate and violence, and it was present in both his messaging and his policies. His abhorrent, spittle-flecked invective was matched by his actions. It was plain to see, and everyone did see. He told you who he was, and it was hard for anyone to deny his essential nature (though many, of course, worked tirelessly to do just that in order to legitimise him). Trump wasn’t just hateful and violent, though. He was crass and vulgar. Narcissistic and selfish. He was a shark-eyed, hammer-fisted brute who took what he wanted and hurt those who stood in his way. But he never pretended to be anything else. He was, in that way, quite possibly the most honest representation of the office of the American President.
Because that office is one of the most blood-stained there is. The world as it is now was built with great violence to serve the interests of the American empire. We could go back centuries but even just the past few decades highlight the almost unimaginable scale of death and destruction the United States of America has visited upon the globe. Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Chile, Cuba, Afghanistan, Syria, Lybia, Indonesia, Palestine, Lebanon, Panama, Guatemala, Haiti, Congo, Laos, Ghana, Cambodia, Angola, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan—the list goes on and on, the human cost of this avaricious, cold-blooded war machine proving literally uncountable. Millions upon millions of lives extinguished without remorse, by armed forces and covert intelligence services and economic actors commanded by American Presidents who called themselves Democrats just as often as Republicans.
This is why, in the wake of Donald Trump’s ejection from office, it’s been hard to stomach those who have been decrying Trump for soiling the image of the American President. For making a mockery of an exalted office. For despoiling a cherished, august institution. Anyone privileged enough to sit in the White House should be well-mannered, they say. Polite. Charming. Urbane. Trump was none of those things. He was crass and mean and ill-tempered and rude, and he cared nothing for the customs and behavioural traditions of his role.
There has long been an effort by some to pretend that the office of the American President is an inherently dignified one, automatically worthy of respect. (This often extends to other American institutions, and the United States as a whole, but for now we’re staying with just the presidency.) Let’s call it the ‘Sorkin tendency.’ The fact of the matter is that there is nothing dignified about the office that carries the weight of all that has been committed in its name. Trump may well have been crass while enacting horrific crimes against humanity. His predecessor Barack Obama, who many pundits traumatised by years of Trump’s worst excesses have been repeatedly evoking as an example of how to hold oneself when occupying the seat of the President, was in many ways Trump’s opposite. Where Trump was base and lewd, Obama was suave and eloquent, radiating megawatts of charisma. Yet in other ways, underneath the surface, he was strikingly similar, continuing the long custom of imperial aggression that comes with the office, and in some ways expanding on it.
As the author Teju Cole said after Trump’s Muslim travel ban back near the start of his term:
Trump is a dangerous clown, and we must continue to strongly oppose him and his hateful crowds. But it is important to understand that his idea of “banning all Muslims,” scandalous as it is (intentionally scandalous, because he is of course doing it for media attention), is far less scandalous than the past dozen years of American disregard for non-American Muslim lives. And that wasn’t Trump. Trump didn’t murder thousands of innocent people with drones in Pakistan and Yemen. Trump didn’t kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people with bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump didn’t torture people at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or the numerous black sites across the planet. Trump’s weapons aren’t incinerating Yemen now, and didn’t blow up Gaza last year. No American president in the past fourteen years has openly championed Islamophobia, but none has refrained from doing to Muslims overseas what would be unthinkable to do here to Americans of any religion. This deadly speech we are hearing towards the Muslim members of our family is nothing new: it is a continuation in words of what has been real on the ground for a long time. Our legitimate dismay at Islamophobic statements must be situated inside this recent history, a history in which a far wider swath of the country than Trump’s base is implicated.
This is a chain that stretches far back into memory. No matter what the character of the person occupying the office, the consistency of their crimes is notable. Noam Chomsky once famously said that ‘If the Nuremberg laws were consistently applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.’ Much like the attempts at the image rehabilitation of George W. Bush leave a truly bad taste in the mouth, so do the efforts now of certain sectors of society to paint the office of the American President as some sort of dignified, well-meaning post. It’s understandable why some might do this. We are traumatised by years of Trump. We long to escape the event horizon created by his unique brand of awful; by that ceaseless, jarring, hateful braying. It’s important not to lose sight of a vital truth, however: We can be simultaneously relieved that those years are now over, while also acknowledging that there is nothing dignified about the American empire and the figurehead that authorises its atrocities. Trump exposed the ugliness underneath the veneer. He was a symptom, not the cause. Yet he was quite unique in that the ugliness of his words matched the ugliness of his actions. We must use the knowledge of what he exposed not to wax poetic about something that never was, but to try build something better that could be.
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