The end of exceptionalism and the resurgence of old cruelties under Trump
Listen to Richard read this week’s dispatch here:
When a doctor believes something may be wrong with a patient’s sense of reality, they ask them “Who is the president of the United States?” It’s part of a protocol called the Mental Status Examination, and evaluates a quality named orientation, the ability to discern the here and now. Since the elevation of Donald Trump to the White House, this simple test has often not worked as intended. One emergency doctor, Jeremy Samuel Faust, told Slate that “regardless of political affiliation, my patients’ reactions have shown that they find the truth to be far stranger – and more surprising – than fiction.”
This persisting disorientation is not just confined to the wards, either. “President Donald J. Trump” is not a formulation that ever loses its surprise, and even now, a year-and-a-half into Trump’s term in office, you can find yourself marvelling at the transition between the Trump of the past (Apprentice host, some-time professional wrestler) with the Trump of the present (leader of the free world). Friends describe being struck mid washing-up, standing paralysed as water runs into the sink. Some wake up oblivious, begin the day, and then stumble on the realisation, a pattern familiar to the bereaved.
In some quarters, like academia and the liberal media, Donald Trump’s presidency really has been a bereavement, a sense of loss far deeper than a lost vote. One American political commentator told me that he now believed his career had been a waste of time, and confessed that he’d spent the late months of 2016 playing video games with his son. (“Salman Rushdie finished Super Mario World when he was on the run,” I said, trying to cheer him up.) Sections of the American left, always suckers for paeans, have turned permanently elegiac, sandwich-boarding the end of decency and dignity, the end of hope and truth, and social media is rife with liberal chancers who perform these rages and sorrows as ably as professional mourners.
Many fixate on the immediate fact of Trump’s election. They want not a rematch, but a do-over, based on simple, magical logic: if Trump had a deus ex machina route to the presidency, then he can exit it the same way, accelerated by impeachment or declared incompetence. Donald J. Trump might have generated chronic scandals his whole life (so many they somehow cancel each other out), but perhaps this time the bill is too big to skip. What happened in a moment on November 8, 2016, can be undone in another.
Along with Trump himself, and Hillary Clinton, and a few million other people, I happened to be in New York City for that very moment, and I can still remember the prematurely celebratory mood in the morning, where a Clinton win had been pencilled in. New York City hates Donald Trump, not just because it’s a deeply Democratic town, but because Trump himself is an unwanted by-product of the place, a rag-bag of its worst qualities, Manhattan vulgarities and Queens insecurities. His comeuppance, overdue, was finally scheduled. There was a quickening undertow, though, and coming fresh off the campaign trail, I wasn’t the only one thinking that I might have missed something.
The evening was something else. For me, it rolled out in a series of bad-movie coincidences, snatches of eavesdropped conversation from newsstands (“… from rural Maryland and she said she didn’t know a single person voting for Clinton, not one”) and subway cars (“… they’d drawn swastikas all over it. All over the maps!”). Outside the Trump International Hotel, concrete barriers were stacked but not deployed, and it wasn’t until the booth results from Florida started coming in that the city really became unsettled. In Lincoln Square, I spent a few minutes checking the numbers on my phone, and then looked up to discover three or four thousand people standing just paces away, stunned into silence. An NYPD officer said it was the quietest, most docile crowd that size he had ever seen.
Soon that crowd would disperse (the silence, though, hovered over the city for days). At Clinton headquarters, the staff were said to be in tears, but the candidate wouldn’t come out. I saw Michael Moore getting into a black SUV, his face turning to ash. Times Square was empty now, apart from some windborne trash and a few stragglers. A group watching a store-front TV with me turned out to be exquisitely diverse: a gay Clinton campaigner who had fled the cry-in, an African-American veteran, a once-Republican Filipina migrant. They stood curious in the growing cold as Trump took the stage. It should have been all triumph; instead he was upstaged by Mike Pence, whose face was transmitting undisguised panic.
Across the square, a posse of drunk frat boys in Make America Great Again hats announced themselves with yelling, and our little group flinched. The response was so instinctive, the intimidation so visceral, that I thought I could feel the country altering minute by minute, a change as tangible as the dropping temperature. This was the sharp, leading edge of the Trump presidency. It was not until days later that I recognised this feeling of insipience for what it was: wrong. These election night episodes weren’t portents, they were echoes. The Trumpian elements in America might be emboldened, but they hadn’t just arrived. This was not the moment “everything had changed” at all. It was a culmination, not a beginning, and the change had started months, maybe even years, before, the product of other people and other places.
At first glance, Trump’s America does not look any different. The streets are still wide, the Best Western breakfast buffet still has only disposable cutlery. At the cheerily paranoid airport, the Department of Homeland Security agent said “sell it to me”, as though I was going for a role, not attempting a border crossing. “I’m here to write about America,” I said. “When were you here last? What were you doing?” It wasn’t about Donald Trump, I kept telling myself, but I had left him in New York, and was now following him to Washington.
Not the first time I’ve misjudged the gravitational pull of the Donald. I had heard Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comments and assumed that marked the end of his campaign. I had watched him tell lies in real time: in New Hampshire, he told police to lock an imaginary crowd of latecomers out of a campaign event (I had arrived late and fought my way through an empty carpark). It was hard to reconcile these cheap tricks with the presidency. But then it wasn’t just effete liberal writers who discounted the possibility of a Clinton loss. Even the people working on his campaign were sceptical. It turns out unpredictable events are hard to predict.
There is, in political reporting, a rough correlation between proximity to power and certainty, but that relationship seems to have broken down. There is a quality that a Trump supporter speaking to The New York Times named “motion sickness”; the Australian journalist Jonathan Swan, unusually well-connected to the administration, half-joked that he should attach an asterisk to every White House story he wrote, reading “*This will probably be wrong in two hours.”
What sort of asterisk is needed then for two years, or twenty? I can only report what I see, and can’t claim any special access, or even affinity. Conservatives are big on the shared mores of the Anglosphere, but as an impious, informal, and mildly socially democratic Australian, American values more often seem strange than familial to me. Perhaps most jarring – and in that there might be a clue – is the absence of an American language of failure. This is a country providential in its founding, and prodigious in its conception. Until now, it has believed itself exceptional in theory and practice.
When Trump voters angrily repudiated free-trade deals and wars in the Middle-East they had voted for previously, at first it seemed like a paradox. Why had they “voted against their interests” once again? But it’s not really so inexplicable: they had entered these conflagrations expecting to win. We are now bearing witness to America’s enraged and sometimes dangerous reconciliation with these failures.
The real story in Trump’s America is not the change, but the continuity. Fixating on the character of the president offers a kind of perverse comfort to his critics, a Not-So-Great man theory of history that confines a national pathology to a personality defect. At this moment in time, 42% of Americans think he’s doing a good job. If POTUS is chaotic, then he is chaotic in a way that authentically reflects the feelings of the people who elected him. He represents not a dark, new America, but the resurgence and recurrence of an old America, and the familiar crudities and cruelties that come with it. Right or wrong, that is the America I am entering as well.
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When a doctor believes something may be wrong with a patient’s sense of reality, they ask them “Who is the president of the United States?” It’s part of a protocol called the Mental Status Examination, and evaluates a quality named orientation, the ability to discern the here and now. Since the elevation of Donald Trump to the White House, this simple test has often not worked as intended. One emergency doctor, Jeremy Samuel Faust, told Slate that “regardless of political affiliation, my patients’ reactions have shown that they find the...