Warning: This blog post is not about travel, but about American politics (kind of). It can’t always be palm trees and cocktails in exotic places!
OK, so here’s a little pop quiz for you.
Imagine a male, white Republican, seeking his party’s nomination as candidate for the US Presidency. He is widely derided as being a buffoon, a clown, a joke, and a B-grade TV personality more interested in the cult of his own celebrity than anything else.
This particular candidate is routinely slammed – not only by Democrats but by the mainstream of his own party – as being extremist and simplistic in his views. He comes from outside of the Washington elite, is rabidly free-market in his economic orientation, and has shocked everyone with his arch-conservative views (and strong language) on the subjects of immigration, international relations, unions, and gun rights.
Yet our candidate was once a Democrat before swapping to the Republican side, and so, somewhat confusingly, has some leftish-leaning positions on some key issues, too.
And finally, our candidate’s campaign is decidedly Populist in its approach: “Make America Great Again”.
So who am I referring to?
Of course the answer is Donald Trump.
Only it isn’t.
I am actually referring to Ronald Reagan, who was routinely dismissed in exactly this way, both in 1975 when he first stood for Republican nomination, and again in 1979 when he stood and won. And then again when he campaigned for the presidency and went on to be elected President of the United States of America. Not once, but twice.
And who despite all this naysaying was immensely popular once in the White House, and who is nowadays firmly ensconced in the pantheon of “Greatest Ever US Presidents”; revered by so many Republicans and Democrats alike.
So what’s my point?
Well first of all, I can tell you what it is not.
I am not in any way seeking to make the case for Trump by saying: “see, Ronald Reagan was not taken seriously and he won in the end and turned out to be a great President, thus so too could be the case with Trump”. No, I state up front that like many liberal-minded people I am no fan, and am literally terrified at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency.
And I am not even an American. But I have been spending a lot of time in the US recently, and so I’ve been subjected close-up to the ridiculous theater that is this year’s US Presidential election campaign. There has been wall-to-wall, 24 hour-a-day coverage of every tiny little detail of the race. And The Donald’s ascension to status of serious contender for Republican nomination (and, heaven forbid, the Presidency itself) has been beyond bizarre to watch, even as an “outsider”.
So my point, I guess, for the benefit of my American friends and readers who stand on the cusp of making some seriously fucked-up choices that just might impact the lives of every person on earth, is simply to repeat George Santayana’s famous adage: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Why? Because this is exactly what seems to be happening at the moment. Far too many people are ignoring history by not taking Donald Trump and his prospects seriously.
Indeed, wherever I have been in the US over the past six months – from dinner parties to bars to airplane lounges to sitting in a chair having my hair cut – what I have heard repeated time and time again, by all manner of folks in all manner of settings, is that this isn’t real. They say that the political process is the political process, but eventually the American people will wake up, electoral sense will prevail, and Trump will never become Republican nominee, much less President.
The prevailing view of all these eminently sensible folks, who surely know far more than me about their own politics, is that Donald Trump is a foolish, sensationalist flash-in-the-pan. Both Democrats and “establishment” Republicans appear to have aligned almost completely around this common position, endlessly chanting the mantra that Trump is a joke, an irritation, and a nuisance that will eventually go away.
The current President no less has seen fit to wade in on this basis, recently saying: “I continue to believe that Mr. Trump will not be President. And the reason is because I have a lot of faith in the American people…. they recognize that being President is a serious job. It’s not hosting a talk show or a reality show, it’s not promotion, it’s not marketing, it’s hard.” I mean, if even Obama is saying it, it must be true, right?
The problem is I just don’t buy it. Indeed, my view is the exact opposite: this kind of thinking is incredibly dangerous in its complacency. It is also arrogant and contemptuous, and dismisses out of hand the feelings of the huge number of people in the US who, despite everything, seem willing to support Trump.
It is a mistake, plain and simple, to cling to the belief that someone as ostensibly off-the-wall as Donald simply cannot win, and therefore things will sort themselves out. On the contrary, the sad reality of life is that a guy like Trump is eminently electable. Even in the modern world. And even if so many Americans assert as an article of faith “it can never happen”.
Take your eye off the wheel for an instant and not only can it happen, but it very well might. History is littered with examples of people who were ignored, trivialized, and vilified, only to then nevertheless prevail at the polls. Ronald Reagan is an excellent case in point.
But, and here is the big “but” of it all, although Reagan’s campaign history and path to the White House may be an interesting analogue to what is happening with Trump, that does not mean we can extrapolate to saying that Reagan’s presidency is a good analogue for what a Trump presidency might look like.
The reason being simple: Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan.
True, Ronnie was a movie star who never served in Congress and was a bit of a political outsider. But before becoming President he was a popular and respected Governor of California, so he had some prior experience of governing. And by all accounts Ronnie was smart, and very thoughtful. Where Trump is loud and bombastic and downright rude, Reagan was good-humored and witty and polite. A man well known for his extensive personal library, who was incredibly well read and knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects: probably far more so than any President since.
Trump does not appear to be any of these things. Despite superficial similarities, he looks to be a very different kind of creature to Reagan. And you don’t have to go back to 1930s Germany or scour through the history books of third-world countries to find appropriate analogues.
No, history is always there to be our teacher. Sometimes even very recent history. We just have to open our eyes and look.
In this case, to recent times in Europe and the curious case of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Because far more than any fleeting parallels between Trump and Reagan, those between Trump and Berlusconi are frighteningly apparent.
Silvio was, prior to entering the Italian political rat-race, a billionaire businessman and quasi-celebrity. He had no experience in government, but made a huge virtue of this fact, casting himself as the anti-establishment outsider who would ride into town, tell it like it is, and show the fuckers in Rome how to get shit done. Modesty was evidently not a Berlusconi calling card. “I am the Jesus Christ of politics,” he once famously boasted.
Early on in his campaign he captured attention by railing against communists and liberals and promising (in very general, non-specific terms) to fix everything that ailed Italy.
He also didn’t really exhibit the most sensitive new-age kind of views when it came to the subject of women (never mind his infamous Bunga Bunga parties, he once referred to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as an “un-f***able fat bitch”) and people whose lifestyle choices he didn’t approve of (“it is better to like beautiful girls than to be gay”).
And when people called him out for saying these sort of things, rather than being apologetic he made great store of the fact that he was a simple guy, who was guilty of nothing other than “straight-talking” and “saying it like it is”.
Almost without exception, the Italian intelligentsia and mainstream media dismissed him as a bad joke and declared it impossible for Berlusconi to actually win. Prevailing wisdom was that he would eventually implode and go away of his own accord.
Only, that didn’t happen. Instead, Silvio was elected Italian prime-minister, and served in that role on-and-off, for almost two decades. Despite everything, the Italian people chose this bloke to be their leader, their commander-in-chief, and their representative on the world stage. Go figure.
Then guess what happened? Well, pretty much nothing.
Outside of Italy, everyone soon forgot about what a joke he was. Other world leaders (even Angela Merkel) had no choice but to grit their teeth and put up with him: if that’s the guy the Italians have chosen, I guess that’s the guy we have to deal with. So after having a good laugh, the rest of the world got back to worrying about its own problems.
Leaving the fate of one of Europe’s largest economies in the hands of a philandering, self-anointed political Messiah.
The result, of course, was an entirely predictable debacle. Today, in the shadow of almost twenty years of Berlusconi leadership, Italy is a social and economic mess.
Silvio had promised to use his business acumen to get the country’s economy moving. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead growth went backwards. According to The Economist, the only countries that under-performed Italy in terms of growth per capita in the last decade of Berlusconi’s era were Madagascar, Bahamas, Kiribati, Togo, Brunei, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Central African Republic, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Eritrea and Zimbabwe. Not exactly the most spectacular list of peers.
He promised to stamp out corruption and vested interests. Nothing of the sort happened. He promised to slash bureaucracy and get stuff done. Nothing of the sort happened, and instead Silvio became a poster boy for rampant red tape. He promised to stem illegal immigration. Nothing of the sort happened, and today Italy is one of the key staging points for illegal migration into Europe, and a hotbed of political extremism.
I could go on, and of course you can’t blame the malaise of an entire country on one guy – even the most competent despot needs help. But you get the general point. If history has taught us anything, it is that nothing good usually comes from electing unproven narcissistic megalomaniacs to run the show. Even if they are rich, or amusing to listen to, or make grand promises to fix all of our problems with a wave of their magic wand.
So please, Dear America, on behalf of all those of us in the rest of the world who depend on your choices and thus give a shit as to the outcome of this election: do not underestimate The Donald. Don’t dismiss him as a clown. Treat him seriously, pay attention to what he says he stands for, and take what he says, and what he says he will do, at face value.
If, after doing this, you still fancy the Trumpster, then by all means vote for him. That’s what democracy is all about. But I suspect that once you listen and take him seriously, many of you will become very concerned, and maybe even very afraid. And then you hopefully will get up off your couch, turn off the TV, and do what needs doing to make sure Donald doesn’t win. Not now as Republican nominee, and not in the future as President.
After all, you don’t want to be waking up in November, the day after Trump is elected, and saying: “Oh, fuck. How did that happen?” By then it will be too late. And then you, along with the rest of us, will be condemned by your own inaction to living a history that no-one thinks is actually possible.