American politics: 2011 and 2016

Returning from the US in June 2011, as had not been unusual following my trips there, I wrote a column about how awfully so many of their politicians were behaving – and of course the media too, unduly focusing on their most sensational utterances. To follow the news one could have been forgiven for imagining that the place was falling apart, I wrote, with Americans having sunk into hopelessness and confusion. And certainly if one watched Fox News, which had become the mouthpiece of angry, hateful America.

I said then that it was hard to tell how genuinely those who appeared on Fox actually espoused the extremist views they so fervently expressed. To what extent, I wondered, did they see themselves more as entertainers than as serious commentators on national policy?

I also observed that politically the country was more divided and partisan than ever, as could be seen from the speeches of candidates in the November 2012 election. Back then a motley crop of Republicans had been announcing they were running against incumbent President Obama and, I cautioned, at that early stage of the game they merely “pranced before their party’s fervent activists, trying to outdo one another with their conservative credentials and their patriotic chest thumping”. For these days it is only after the nomination that whoever wins must tack heavily toward the centre, re-inventing themselves in order to qualify for national electability.

More than ever I saw the Republican aspirants demonising their opponents, as those out of power promised to save the citizenry from the incompetent fools in office who get everything – yes everything – completely, woefully wrong. Obama and his people were spending America into bankruptcy; they were unreconstructed socialists; they were soft on terrorism and far too easy on illegal immigrants; they worried about climate change despite the complete absence of any evidence of global warming, never mind man-made; and they were condemned for their “anti-Christian” positions on faith-based issues like gays and abortion.

The President had failed, screamed the Republican candidates, he was ruining the country, and unless the Republicans took back the White House all would lost for America. Promising change is mandatory for oppositions, I noted, and negative campaigning had been shown to be highly effective.

All this is in the nature of multi-party democracy, I said. Oppositions everywhere believe that in order to unseat incumbents they must set up “straw men”, false and flimsy targets that can easily be lambasted by crudely selecting and distorting facts and figures. Oh and for sure they will bring heaven on earth within less than a hundred days.

In an excellent cover story in the Time magazine edition that appeared while I was there five years ago, Joe Klein wrote that the Republicans had “traded country-club aristocracy for pitchfork populism”, and had come to believe in “the amateurism of political virginity”. There was also what Klein called the “celebrity/reality-TV/talk-show wing” of the party, which in its ideological purity was “made up of adolescent candidates more interested in promoting themselves and their books and their TV shows than in seriously running for president”.

That was then. And just recently, in the run up to the California Primaries, I was in America again, and as I read what I had written in my earlier article I saw that I might just as easily have been writing it now. With one major difference: it’s got much worse. Very much worse. And not least thanks to the explosion onto the scene of Donald Trump, only one of the many anti-establishment outsider candidates who pour scorn on anyone who even knows how to spell “Washington”, and for whom seeing Hillary Clinton (“Crooked Hillary”, as Trump consistently describes her) in the White House would plunge America into terminal decline.

I was in America when Trump crossed the threshold number of delegates needed to clinch his Party’s nomination as the candidate to represent it in the November election. He delighted in mocking the many pundits who never foresaw his triumphal progress through the primaries, and who scoffed at the very thought that he might become the Republican nominee. But there he is, now neck-and-neck with Clinton in the polls, spewing contempt for her, her husband and the current President – and also for Republicans who cannot stomach him; ranting and raving over Mexicans and Muslims, over the Chinese and others who’ve run circles around America’s pathetic trade negotiators; describing so much and so many as “disgusting” and “horrible” and “the worst in history”.

The big question pundits are now posing is whether he will become “more presidential”, but all the signs are that he will not. This is the Trump that has been, that is and that will continue to be, the bombastic, aggressive deal-maker; the disagreeable, angry, offensive, uncaring, self-centred, narcissistic extravert – the man who now appears as though he could indeed become the next president of the most powerful country on earth.

Back to my 2011 article. “As in Kenya,” I wrote then, “America’s legislators posture and play political games instead of reaching consensus on urgent and strategic matters like their massive deficit and the obstinately high rate of unemployment. They live in a parallel reality, with everything viewed through the prism of their 2012 election… just as is the case here. On his recent CNN programme GPS, Fareed Zakaria said that America (unlike Greece and some other countries) has solutions for its economic problems. The pity is that its politicians – of both parties – are selfish and self-centred, not sufficiently concerned about the national wellbeing.”

It sounded all too familiar. But did I feel consoled, less angry about our political posturers, knowing they had good company in their counterparts in the richest economy in the world, in its most vaunted democracy? Certainly not.

In closing I let me reveal that in my next article I will be writing about attending a Trump rally. As the news anchors say, “You won’t want to miss this story.”

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