July 2017


The handshake

By Don Watson
Could Donald Trump finally force Australia to critically examine its feudal obligations to the US?

The former puts his hands together and places them, thus joined, between the hands of the other man – a plain symbol of submission, the significance of which was sometimes further emphasised by a kneeling posture.

            – Marc Bloch, Feudal Society

You would think that the director of the FBI would know all the techniques by which the powerful subordinate the less powerful. It’s core business, surely. But when the now former FBI boss, James Comey, was confronted by Donald Trump’s seduction routine he was “stunned”: too stunned in fact to “move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed”, he told the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Patriot that he is, in that instant perhaps Comey couldn’t get himself to believe that this was the president of the United States going the metaphorical grope on the country’s principal law enforcement agency. It is a lot to take in. For a moment did James Comey feel something in common with all those young women on whom President Trump had imposed his “magnetic” personage in the days when he was a mere billionaire and TV star?

As a New York Times opinion writer declared the next day, what Donald Trump tried with Comey, after he’d kicked the attorney-general and everybody else out of the room, was the kind of routine that powerful predatory bosses habitually inflict on women: “There was precisely that sinister air of coercion, of an employee helpless to avoid unsavory contact with an employer who is trying to grab what he wants.”

It seems more than possible that in demanding Comey’s “loyalty” what Trump wanted was his submission, thus to protect himself against investigation. He has Congress in his corner, and the Murdoch media firmly onside. He’s turned the White House press conference into a farce, and his relentless use of social media (every day juiced up and broadcast nationwide by the conventional media) continues to satisfy his supporters while depressing everyone else and denying his opponents the kind of sustained attention that brought down the last truly corrupt president, Richard Nixon. But Trump doesn’t have the FBI, nor, as far as one can tell, any of the other 16 arms of the $80 billion US intelligence octopus, and they might hook him on the Russia business just as he’s about to make America great again.

For everyone but Trump, the Russia “cloud”, as he called it, should really be a matter of secondary concern: what he has already done to the country, its democracy and standing in the world, and what he is bent on doing, is much more troubling. And much more urgent is the need for a sober appraisal of the homegrown forces that got him to the White House. If impeachment were to follow from the present investigations, splendid – he can’t go soon enough. But it will be a poor sort of victory if the country is left thinking that the problem was merely procedural, and that with Trump dispatched by the usual reliable constitutional instruments the US can get back to being just dandy. And go on forgetting, of course, that when you’re talking about interfering in the governance of other countries no nation on earth can run the US close.

Meanwhile, of course, the investigations make great television: if Comey’s Senate interrogation was anything to go by, impeachment would put Netflix out of business. Where else, for example, can you experience live on TV not only Comey’s commanding performance but also, as a coda, the pathos, embarrassment and dread provided by John McCain? The ageing hero appeared to suffer some kind of synaptic misfiring and, like any old man in irresistible decline, grew more belligerent the less sense he made. Who needs Burt Lancaster and Henry Fonda when you have the stage presence of Comey and McCain? Maybe it’s only in such old-fashioned theatre as the inquiry, cocooned from the “universal environment of simultaneous electronic flow”, that reality can be made comprehensible and the democratic mind usefully connected to it.

Trump doesn’t go in for such naturalistic platforms, of course. His theatre owes more to vaudeville, with despotic inflections. You’d swear both Danny Kaye and Kim Jong-un had a hand in directing the televised 12 June cabinet meeting. It is a wonder that the president did not wear his ermine stole. The sycophancy of his team, including his generals, no doubt satisfies his ego. But assuming he wants to leave no doubt that he’s in charge and that even great soldiers, fellow billionaires and people of incomparably greater political experience bow down before him, it also suits his purposes. In Trump’s world, as in the feudal lord’s or the mafia boss’s, everyone owes his or her standing to him. He may as well say to them, “Without me, you are nothing.”

The whole presidency is so off-key, so asinine and so palpably rotten as to make any self-respecting vassal weep. Which is where Australia comes in: for no one is better at vassalage than we. The sycophants around that cabinet meeting table could be replaced by Australian diplomats and politicians, and nobody would notice much difference. The American wit Bill Maher was unkind to call Australia a “long-time poodle dog ally”. Better to think that ours is more like the feudal form of the arrangement, when the handshake confirmed the submission of one party to another, but it also confirmed the lesser party’s status as the man of a powerful man – a great man, a lord. Sure, he had to join in any wars he cared to fight and do his bidding in all things, but it was only because of his vassalage that he could hold his head up. It was called homage: the person proffering his hand declared himself to be the “man” of the person facing him, then “chief and subordinate kiss each other on the mouth, symbolizing accord and friendship”.

As far as we know, an American president has never required a kiss of an Australian prime minister, and no prime minister has ever offered one. And fond though he is of imposing his lips on those of unsuspecting beauty queens, President Trump is unlikely to try it on Prime Minister Turnbull, if our man ever gets invited over again. Trump hasn’t got the gist of the feudal thing at all. He understands submission as it is understood by the Mob, Roy Cohn and WrestleMania. His handshakes assert dominance, not accord.

We may yet owe Trump our thanks. Not that we would wish him on the good people of his own country or on the world. But for the vulgarity expressed in that bizarre phone call to Turnbull, we might be grateful; as we might be for the later slight when he left our prime minister waiting three hours while he celebrated the passage though the Congress of his health care bill. As we might for his Saudi sword dance, and for telling his Israeli hosts upon his arrival in Jerusalem that he had “just got back from the Middle East”. As we might for every other goofy error, loathsome policy, egregious lie and psychopathic kink.

It is not that through Trump we have learned the real nature of the country we are dealing with – knowing it is a prospect open to anyone willing to get beyond Brooklyn or the Beltway, or to read more than the New York Times. It is rather that Trump may force us to see how down the years the relationship has circumscribed debate, narrowed our perspective and shaped our nature.

Of course our leaders, diplomats and think tanks will never call it homage. They tell us that the ears of Washington’s most powerful are always bent in our direction. If we take the disastrous unending war(s) in the Middle East as just one example, this must mean either that they have listened and ignored our advice, or that our advice has consistently supported US policy, which would be to say that it has not been good advice. Can anyone think of a single instance since Suez when Australia has offered an opinion that substantially differed from US foreign policy or military strategy, or in any way changed its direction? And while we’re at it, when John McCain calls in to tell us that China is acting like a bully in the region, can anyone think of a good reason why our leaders should not tell him to get a hold of his own country’s history and stop taking us for mugs? Or is it that to be a patriot in Malcolm Turnbull’s sense is to be an American exceptionalist?

Perhaps our people never tire of telling the United States’ people where they’ve stuffed up, or why the election of an inept and dangerous jerk such as Trump, the militarisation of their country and the impoverishment of so many of their citizens are just three of many possible indicators of decline. Perhaps our sound and fearless advice just never gets reported, and the true character of the relationship only seems to be reflected in the fawning speeches, the idiot grins, the pap about shared values, the talking points that have scarcely changed in 50 years, and the unfailing participation in wars the US has decided to fight.

Believe that if you will, but vassalage is vassalage. The absence of any genuine clout in Washington is to be expected. In any event, it is not the worst feature of the relationship. Much worse is the fact that a dogma stands in the middle of this nation’s life as a substitute for supple and independent thought. Supineness is the permanent national posture, imitation and dumb sycophancy a national habit. Donald Trump just might encourage us to give it up. Dare we hope that the PM’s little escapade at the Midwinter Ball – for which everyone, including the PM, should give thanks to Laurie Oakes – might mark the moment when we learned that there is something to be gained by being a little braver every day.

An earlier, more considerable, American president wrote to the US Congress in 1862: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” We could do worse than take his advice, and start drafting a letter of our own.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing. The Passion of Private White will be published in November.

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