Friendship in Time(s) of Trump*

* trump (v.2) “fabricate, devise,” 1690s, from trump “deceive, cheat” (1510s), from Middle English trumpen (late 14c.), from Old French tromper “to deceive,” of uncertain origin. Apparently from se tromper de “to mock,” from Old French tromper “to blow a trumpet.” Brachet explains this as “to play the horn, alluding to quacks and mountebanks, who attracted the public by blowing a horn, and then cheated them into buying ….” The Hindley Old French dictionary has baillier la trompe “blow the trumpet” as “act the fool,” and Donkin connects it rather to trombe “waterspout,” on the notion of turning (someone) around. Connection with triumph also has been proposed. Related: Trumped; trumping. Trumped up “false, concocted” first recorded 1728.

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I have dear friends on the US East Coast who voted Trump. The husband fled Hungary in 1956 and so was allergic to anything with even the slightest tinge of “socialism”; the wife used to write the most magnificent stories that never quite made it into The Atlantic despite many personal and apologetic hand-written rejections from the last-but-one gatekeeper. Let me call her Miz P. She no longer writes stories, but our friendship that started online in a writer´s boot camp in the pre-web days is still going strong. So I want to understand what she sees in Donald J. Trump. So let´s take a step back in time.

In 1998 I was sent to a telco conference in Minneapolis, the Plenipotentiary
Conference of the ITU, and had a 24-hour stopover in New York. By email, I asked Miz P. if there were a chance of meeting up. There was, it was her birthday, and she converted a gift she’d received into a night with me in the Dorothy Parker suite of the Algonquin Hotel. Another couple from our writing boot camp came by in the afternoon and we cranked onto Compuserve to let our boot camp sergeant in the UK know that we had met up. Then Miz P. and I talked all night. Those 24 hours in the Big Apple became an event that eclipsed many others. Here was someone who had never met me, didn´t know what I looked or sounded like, who had given me enough Kool-Aid to sustain me over the four-week conference in Minneapolis, to become a precious memory that even led to a couple of published stories.

The conference was also one where, when I think back, I first became aware of being exposed to an “alternative” reality if not fact. I was in the room when Al Gore delivered his address to the conference; for my story, “Just a Toenail Away”, that experience translated into:

“The set is almost pure Spartacus. Flags flutter. Pretorian guards look at each other, make signs. She can almost hear trumpets sound as a curtain billows in the wings. The room is hushed, the human fabric alive, as a man, larger than life, takes the rostrum.

… The man´s voice is rich and deep, low at first as he starts his preamble: “The Internet has brought people together…”

The Clinton-Lewinsky affair had blown up earlier the same year and my story was a fictional What if? on the VP and an Internet tryst.

Back then, lies were lies, at least on the surface. I like to think that Miz P., having had her own outrageous takes in her stories on the American condition, was less concerned about Bill Clinton´s sexual peccadillos than her perception that “the boy is a liar”. My reaction at the time? So what? Anything to do with sex was no big deal. Americans, puritans on the outside and great purveyors of porn on the inside, liked to be distracted by their own conflicts. Europeans were more discreet and “above all that” as the case of Francois Mitterand attested, I thought. How “arrogant” can you get?

Then came the WMD falsehoods of the Bush years and the sinister forces of Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld and co. with perhaps their love children sneaking back behind the now golden drapes of the Oval Office. But we´re not there yet. Patience. Re-spool.

On the way back from an education conference in Washington almost one year ago, I stayed over with Miz P. and her husband. Bernie Sanders was still in the running; Miz P. was rooting for him while her husband supported Donald Trump. Neither considered Hillary Clinton. So far so good. I could understand that constellation. When Sanders was squeezed out of the running by what I perceived as a misplaced feminism stuck in a certain 60s elitism, I felt that for Miz P. there was no place to run except to start off again with an empty slate and keep fingers crossed.

Last night the political historian Dr Daniel S. Hamilton gave a talk at 6pm at Amerika Haus in Vienna hosted by the “ambassadorless” US Embassy on which the Austrian papers Standard and Kurier reported. (I mention 6pm since the Standard article was posted online with the time stamp of 17:15 and then 17:28, bearing out the dilemma of Press vs Media that Hamilton mentioned in his talk.) I arrived on time – our invitations had recommended we arrive early – to an SRO event which by counting chairs as far as I could see tallied more than 200 in attendance, and I had the feeling that once again the US was starting with an empty slate and the only way out was to keep fingers crossed. But I was wrong regarding the former. We´ve been there before, it seems, or someplace much worse, so there is still hope.

Dr Hamilton explained that there were four political streams in the history of the US: Hamiltonians (Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father and US Secretary of the Treasury 1789-1795 under unaffiliated George Washington) a strong national approach, but looking outward with trade; Jeffersonians (1801-1809 Thomas Jefferson Democratic-Republican) focussing inwards, but still keeping an outward interest in trade; Jacksonians (1829-1837 Andrew Jackson Democratic) inward concentration on nationalism, no partners, brutal general; Wilsonians (Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921 Democratic) outward looking, bringing democracy to the world, even with force, so as to make the world safe for the USA. Enter Trump from the left field and appealing to the GOP with his Jacksonian message. But his problems are only starting.

Any “successful” president, where “success” is measured as at least more than one term, needed to bring two of these streams together. Donald Trump thus far has not been able to do this so is trying to reach out to the unions, and doing some back and forth in his comments, for what that´s worth.

The closest to Donald Trump in previous US presidents would be Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945 Democratic) of the “New Deal” who served four terms, Hamilton tells us, almost as an aside. This was a time when also in Europe there was turmoil in several countries spawning the populist leaders: Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, … And then there was war.

We now look to the USA in shock as we see the country fold in onto itself; but the USA, too, sees something similar in Europe with its Brexit and all the other “exits” painted on the horizon. So it is no surprise that Trump, who wants TTIP and TPP scrapped, sees Europe as useless, preferring to work on shadow deals with Theresa May so that everything is in place when Brexit finally comes, while looking to playing separate European countries off against each other as Putin still tickles his palms.

I don´t think Miz P. expected Trump to win, but as Daniel Hamilton noted, why didn´t Clinton deign to visit Wisconsin, home of Ryan and Priebus? A case of pride before the fall? Why was not more done for voter turnout, especially among the young? Why could only Trump hear the voice of that other America, so often ignored? And are many in that other America, those with nothing to lose, just playing “wrecking ball” for their 15 minutes of fame in a giant reality show? Is it really only about that oxymoron of “alternative facts”, or is the matter of Donald Trump´s style a symptom of a disease in need of eradication in a vaccine-less time? And what do we tell the children?

Maybe there are lessons in Trump´s perceived madness – he is after all at a stroke-prone age with a concomitant life style – but his stream may continue once he has gone so there may be lessons to be learned.

Trump thinks little of the EU, but looks forward to doing deals with individual European countries. Lesson for the EU? Adapt the scaffolding to a new world and get your act together, or else.

Trump says NATO´s obsolete, but his Defence man, Mattis, hearts the alliance. Lesson for NATO? Shift focus, adapt to a new world, and for starters consider just 25 cents more per citizen of allies and recognise that Trump´s US cannot sustain 6 plus Euros per one of theirs.

Trump bashes the UN, but needs veto right on Security Council. Lesson for the UN? Cut the dead wood, old boys´club, nepotism; adapt to the new world or risk going the way of the League of Nations.

Hamilton says that outside Trump´s America there are only three items of importance for Trump: Destroying ISIS for which he needs Putin; playing Chinese checkers, for which he needs Putin; Mexico, for which he needs a wall. He may not care what happens in the Middle East apart from Israel, and eradicating ISIS, but the deal could be for Putin to attend to things in exchange for ….

He may not care if China is number 1 in the climate and trade areas, as long as his America is great again.

But who is his America? The incredible marches following his inauguration, impending marches by the scientific community and others, show him despite all his touched-up photo paintings that the USA is larger than the sum of its parts. If the marches just fizzle out, however, if there is no concrete opposition, or even something that may enable a collaboration, a way of finding that all important second stream, then we all may be in for a difficult time.

So what advice did Hamilton have for us in Europe? No crystal ball with this one. It will still take about nine months for 1,000 new people to be through the hearings and in place; executive orders are one thing, and although a Republican Congress holds the purse strings, there are conflicts in the GOP. Speaking of conflicts, Trump´s conflicts of interest are only just the beginning. And the media? Trump is against the Press, but he uses modern media, gets his message out there while mainstream media scrambles. (This is borne out by my cheeky comment on the Standard report on Hamilton´s lecture which due to time of posting could not have reflected on some of the questions from the audience.)

Just tighten your seat belt. We´re still all in for a rough ride. Nobody knows if Trump is just an episode or what will happen while he is still out on a limb bolstering himself with the knowledge that in some areas he may even be onto something. The price we are paying is now in the realm of what we tell our children and how we maintain a semblance of decency in a world whose underbelly and dirty washing is now exposed for all to see.

I am optimistic. As the French say il faut crever l’abcès (lance the boil), but not just in one place, in many areas on both sides of the Pond. And so I raise my glass to Miz P. and our friendship and wonder if the answer might lie in networks of interest rather than a dependence on sovereign states, something at which Dr Hamilton hinted, and with nationalistic movements to  safeguard citizens not being at the price of our freedoms.

All I can leave you with now is as ever onwards!

 

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