When I look back on this last week in years to come, it may be that I will feel more hopeful. Maybe I will have a broader, wiser perspective. By then I might have much greater capacity to laugh at the irony and the comic ridiculousness of some aspects of human life. Right now though, I am filled with sadness.
My daughter and her wonderful family remind me of the importance of naming what we feel grateful for each evening, and sharing that. My son impresses me with his courage, his courtesy, his appetite for life, and his ability to include others. My wife is gracious, caring and giving, and is loved by many. My mother is alive, and keeping up her spirits in the face of adversity. So I should be happy, right?
Why then should I be bothering myself, right now, with questions about language, honesty and deceit. Well, it is because I have been thinking about two well-known figures, Leonard Cohen and Donald Trump: What they represent and the legacy they might leave.
(Source: The Leonard Cohen files)
Cohen’s recent death from cancer has been a jolt. Over the last few days I have been recalling his poems, his novels, the first album of songs he released in 1967. At that time, it seemed to me, he wrote and sang as if composing from an inner space, in an almost sacramental way. I saw Cohen as a seeker, an enchanter, who could take you down to a place where Suzanne, “wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters”, lived by the river. Not a strange unnamed woman, but Suzanne.
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her Then he gets you on her wavelength And she lets the river answer that you've always been her lover And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
Born into an affluent Montreal family, Cohen would often dress in sharp suits, but he could lead us as he sang, and we would consent to travel blind with him , even although he would confess to his audiences that “I don’t know the answers to anything”. For me this was the badge of his authenticity. Like Boris Pasternak though, he wondered if his work was invalid and irrelevant.
Cohen returned from a retreat at a Zen Buddhist monastery one day to find that his manager had fleeced him, leaving nothing for him and his family. It was this crisis that forced him back on the road, even though performing on stage was so excuciating for him that he sometimes drank lots of wine (Chateau Margaut) to get back up there and work for our smiles. We were the beneficiaries of that manager’s theft, for it meant that Cohen could never retire; that is, until death claimed him in the end.
Where Cohen’s death has taken me back, Trump’s election victory, on the other hand, causes me to wonder about the future, particularly as it might affect my grand daughters and their generation as they come of age.
During the week I have spoken to many people, including a leading public figure, and I have been surprised by their eagerness to assure me that Trump will be fine as President, because of the checks and balances that are in place. Haven’t they heard? Don’t they know their history? I will return to that theme in a moment.
I thought I might begin my reflection on Trump by saying something about his speeches. First, because I am a sociolinguist with a strong interest in languages and their roles in framing what people do, but I am also a historian, so it interests me to analyse the election of Trump as President in the light of what we know about some European leaders who came to power in the early 1930s.
The day before the election Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The stage was decked with flags in front of a partisan audience holding placards. All the journalists were corralled together in an enclosure at the back of the hangar like sheep, an arrangement that was the brainchild of Hope Hicks, Trump’s young press secretary. After the national anthem had been playing for a while, Trump denigrated “the corrupt political class” and “the failed political elite that has bled this country dry”, and promised “to put the factory workers, miners and the steelworkers back to work”. Then he looked up from the teleprompt and shaded his eyes histrionically: “See the dishonest people back there, the media, the totally dishonest people….They are so dishonest”. He then paused, to let the crowd boo, and continue booing, at the media representatives roped in behind them. Then he continued, “The New York Times is a total lie. It is so false….The Times is going out of business soon. That’s the good news”.
The speech at Scranton was, of course, carefully scripted and stage managed. The words, the symbols, the flags, and the music were all carefully designed to swell listeners’ breasts with pride, to stir their anger, to encourage hope, and to make them angry. The journalists huddled at the back were just doing their job, but they were hissed and booed for playing that role, as if they were reviled outcasts, with encouragement from Trump. They were the scapegoats that day. Who is next? The audience was then told that Trump’s first step would be “immediately repealing and replacing the disaster known as Obamacare”.
Two insights are helping me to make sense of Trump’s electoral victory. The first is that he is a brand. ‘Trump’ stands for affluence and brashness. It is a brand that has financial value, and so it is bought and sold. For example, a 70-story condominium in Panama pays one of Trump’s companies $5 million annually for use of his name, including the right to display it in enormous letters all over its hotel, marina and the sails of its casino. The second insight is that his campaign relied on naming and shaming groups of people, and that his partisan supporters shared his scorn for them. Adam Gopnik has written about the ‘weird free form nastiness’ that now passes for political oratory and debate.
So the angry, alienated voters of Scranton had a lot to be grateful for. There, in their very own depressed town, half the size of what it had been in 1940, they could come before a famous rich guy who knew other influential rich guys, and hear about a dream to make America great again.
It is hard to know whether Trump’s contempt for journalists was real or simply confected for the benefit of his reality television show, sorry his campaign, but I cannot help wondering whether those who work for newspapers, magazines and televsion stations are now feeling nervous, having been labelled collectively as ‘totally dishonest’. Since I am a writer too, like the journalists who were the butt of Trump’s anger, I find this attitude quite disconcerting.
Trump’s lie were preposterous and daring. He maintained that Obama founded ISIS. He claimed that Obama had not been born in America. These were lies masquerading as history of course, but as outrageous as they were, they helped get him get to the White House. This is why so many young people I know are upset. They keep asking “What does Trump’s election mean? Will it just encourage people to turn on one another? Does his success mean that it is unimportant to distinguish between lies and the truth? Does it tell us that what really counts now is money (lots of it) and success, especially huge, swaggering, in-your-face, name-plastered-over-lots-of-buildings success?
All of which leads me to the question of checks and balances. It just is not true that the American system of balancing the legislature, executive and judiciary is working well, and that the pendulum will easily swing back to whatever great and imagined state American democracy was in before. The net effect of the Patriot Act in 2002 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was to grant the President the power to declare any person, US citizen or not, an enemy combatant. Anyone thus designated can be immediately deprived of any rights, including the right to legal representation. Someone deemed to be an enemy combatant can be handed over to an alternative system of justice and detention, where torture is permitted. Naomi Wolf’s Letters to a young patriot spells out these worrying developments. She points to some uncomfortable parallels between ‘the fascist turn’ in America and those changes in Germany that allowed a fundamentally undemocratic new leader, but one offering hope, to come to power in Germany on January 30, 1933. What he brought instead was incalculable grief and destruction.
For several months in the summer of 1964 I shared a work hut in the Grampians with a Holocaust denier. His outlandish belief that the Holocaust was a fabrication never wavered, no matter how much evidence I tried to piece together to show him that he was wrong, factually and historically.
I have no doubt that the ex-miners, ex-factory workers, ex-steelworkers of Scranton have really welcomed the attention paid to their situation, and deservedly so, since so much of the once-productive heartland of American manufacturing has been hollowed out, shuttering buildings, blanketing hope.
I would love to believe that, when Trump railed against corrupt elites, what he had in mind was a fairer arrangement which would limit the ability of ultrawealthy individuals and corporations to secret their holdings outside the normal tax environment in which ordinary workers and the government struggle hard to build and maintain public schools, hospitals, railways and roads. Somehow, I don’t think so.
After the Treaty of Versailles (June 18, 1919) democracy came to be synonymous with humilation and defeat, and so in time Germany preferred to put its trust in a strong leader, even though America had shown that it was possible to flourish socially and economically as a constitutional democracy, protected by a framework of law.
President Woodrow Wilson planned to end destructive wars by setting up a League of Nations that would allow potential conflicts to be handled through dispute resolution procedures rather than through the use of force. However, he was never able to persuade his own country to join this new collective security arrangement. As a result, the League was weakened as a cooperative system, and war-weary nations re-armed. By the 1930s the world had become a haven for aggressors once again. We all know what that lead to.
My father served in Bougainville and elsewhere in New Guinea during the Second World War, yet apart from a few interesting anecdotes, he never talked about the hellfire that he and others went through. Partly as a consequence, I was brought up believing in democracy, the importance of truthfulness, honesty and prudence and the possibility of lasting peace. When only the strong seem to prosper, these are values to treasure
As the day caves in And the night is all wrong (Cohen, Ballad of the Absent Mare)
If it seems that truth is no defence against the outrageous lie, is it enough to say “don’t dwell on it”?
The birds they sang At the break of day Start again I heard them say Don't dwell on what Has passed away Or what is yet to be. (Cohen, Anthem Lyrics)
If it seems that the peacemaker always loses out to the bully, just remember:
Ah the wars they will Be fought again The holy dove She will be caught again Bought and sold And bought again The dove is never free. Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That's how the light gets in. (Cohen, Anthem Lyrics)