‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

From Chautauqua to chatroom: Trump in the world of modern communications

I think the dislike among many Americans for Mr Trump is as much visceral as political. It is his style - bluff, swaggering, arrogant, coarse, seemingly half-educated (actually he's an Ivy Leaguer) - that irritates them.

Peter Hitchens in the MoS today calls him "an oaf" [a term I have frequently applied to Trump] "and a yahoo" - but in fairness, also notes that Jimmy Carter was a "disaster" and JFK's personal life would have disgraced him in office had it been common knowledge at the time.

The people prefer skilful talkers, but they will settle for ambitious bullsh*tters. How else could one explain the success of the egregious Tony Blair (George Macdonald Fraser called him "Andy Pandy")? He may have saved the Monarchy with his stagy tribute to the late Princess Diana, but look at those lookatme hesitations, cocks of the head (in a fey, almost camp way merely a beta version of President Obama's stately turns of the countenance and elegant pauses). I half suspect that the check before uttering the phrase "people's princess" (Diana was the daughter of an Earl) was not so much rhetorical as a desperate attempt by Blair's throat not to let this shark-jumping, finger-at-the uvula description leave his mouth. And yet it worked, for enough of us. What a performer; sort of.

PT Barnum said "The people like to be humbugged." Perhaps it's that they like the alert-making challenge of having their intelligence tickled and misled ("This way to the Egress"); maybe it's that oratory can be a kind of word-music, effecting our temporary escape to another, more wonderful land. Or do we delight in witnessing the construction of a complex verbal edifice, on the way learning new words, unexpected twists of meaning, fresh associations of ideas? In admiring the superior man's ineffable cerebration, ratiocination? Might it be a sort of pack-animal relief at being shown one's proper place in the social order? One thinks of Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles"):

Hedley Lamarr: My mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.
Taggart: Ditto.
Hedley Lamarr: "Ditto?" "Ditto," you provincial putz?

Max Beerbohm was another to note the colonials' love of talk (in his Oxford novel "Zuleika Dobson"):

"Americans, individually, are of all people the most anxious to please. That they talk overmuch is often taken as a sign of self-satisfaction. It is merely a mannerism. Rhetoric is a thing inbred in them. They are quite unconscious of it. It is as natural to them as breathing. And, while they talk on, they really do believe that they are a quick, businesslike people, by whom things are 'put through' with an almost brutal abruptness. This notion of theirs is rather confusing to the patient English auditor."

But of course that is a nationalist tease: in reality, everybody falls for oratory. William Hague's biography of Pitt the Younger tells of an all-night speech that Prime Minister made, which ended just as dawn broke with a Latin quotation that was as perfectly appropriate to the sunrise as it was fitting to the conclusion of his peroration. MPs walked through the morning dew to their lodgings in awe at his linguistic feat.

And then there's Trump.

No vilification is sufficiently vile, no fabrication base and lewd enough to satisfy his fevered opponents among the populace maddened by vicious Chinese whispers in the social media. One begins to understand how the excesses of the French Revolution were made possible by the hot words of professional speakers building the cyclones of passion among the common folk. (What more could Julius Streicher have done had he had Twitter and Facebook as his tools? Indeed, his demonic successors are promulgating Jew-hatred by electronic means even now.) How far we have declined from the attempts to educate the public a hundred years ago - the WEA in Britain, the Chautauqua in the USA. Now, it is about appeals to our worst, unthinking instincts, anything to get the cross in the right box, the right placard held up for the TV cameras; and what marvellous ways we now have, to spread toxic messages among groups of the like-minded! Facebook in particular is full of eager amateur propagandists. Lately, tragically, the Fourth Estate seems to have forgotten its role and is limping as fast as it can behind social media, willing to parrot the latest rumour so as to seem in the loop; whereas it should find and tell the truth not only to power, but to the people.

I have been told in all seriousness that he is worse even than George W Bush (whom I regard as a genuine psychopath). Yet to date, Mr Trump has ordered nobody's death, started no war.

Is his behaviour towards women reprehensible? What of President Harding, pleasuring his interns in a cupboard while a Secret Service man stood by ready to knock if Mrs Harding should approach? Or Juanita Broaddrick's bruised lip?

Venal sins, or mortal? Think of Macduff's interview with Malcolm in the Scottish play, where the latter, testing the former's real intentions, pretends to be not only lustful but ruthlessly avaricious: "We have willing dames enough...  Scotland hath foisons to fill up your will", answers Macduff; it takes far more to make the pretender "not fit to live".

The system will adjust to Trump. A friend noted yesterday that the President-elect's Twittering has changed recently, as though another hand has been interposed between Trump's stubby fingers and the keyboard. No doubt it has; and less doubt, that the Chinese and Russians are studying his style, so that they too can read beneath the surface and ascertain his true position. It is will and direction that count; the rest is detail and diplomacy. Let us see how well Mr Trump steers and delegates.

In a mass democracy, politics tends to be personalised, but it is not one man's personality only that matters. More worrying for Americans must be the capture of the State by one party in Congress and the Senate; the partisanship of such organs of government as the intelligence services; the destabilising greed and influence of big business and its servants in Washington, and the private banks that own and rent out America's currency. And then there are the complexities of world trade and lightning-fast international finance, which may resist Canute-like attempts at control.

Perhaps the question for Trump is not so much the damaging things he may choose to do, but the good things he will not be able to do for his country.


Paddington said...

As far as we know, Warren Harding just had the one long-term mistress.

Sackerson said...

His wardrobe mistress?