This autumn was always going to be a tawdry season in America. The past couple of weeks have been a jubilee of below-the-belt viral content: a photograph of the former vice-president’s son leaning down apparently to snort powder off a woman’s bare buttock; a still from the new Borat movie of the former New York mayor in a hotel room with a young woman, leaning back on the bed with his hands in his pants; a story of a journalist pleasuring himself during a Zoom conference in the sight of his colleagues (he said he thought he’d turned the camera off). Sleaze and perversion are now the permanent backdrop of US politics. The world turns its eyes away from a hegemon whose henchmen can’t stop pulling their dicks out. By contrast, the final debate between Trump and Biden was almost decorous.
It’s easy to forget about Mike Pence. Trump seems to have hired him in part because he wouldn’t have to think about him, and has kept him busy ‘reaching out’ to potentially disaffected evangelicals with repeated assurances that they are the ones who constitute ‘the American people’. His persona – that of a reanimated fossil from a 1950s that never actually happened – is innocuous enough that a fly could sit unperturbed on his skull for two minutes while he insisted the government has done well by African Americans. Much of last night’s vice presidential debate amounted to counterfactual historical fiction or speculative fiction. How would a Biden administration have handled the pandemic? Had the debaters discussed with their elderly running mates the possibility that they might turn into corpses while on the job?
On the question of whether Donald Trump is a sinister mastermind or an incompetent scumbag (not mutually exclusive), last night’s debate will have to register in the scumbag column. His constant interruptions, vanity, self-pity and frequent forays into lies and nonsense are all by this point wearyingly familiar. Of course, Trump has been consistently underestimated since he entered politics, and his supporters no doubt enjoyed the petulant way he dominated proceedings. But his abuse of Biden was a far cry from the humiliations to which he subjected his opponents in the 2016 GOP primary debates. The show has gotten old.
At its most rabid, the Republican National Convention resembled a witch burning. The Democrats in Philadelphia, when they take aim at Donald Trump, do so in the form of a sanctimonious anti-bullying public service announcement. This didn’t work for his Republican rivals during the primaries, but they were talking to Republicans, who may see bullying as a fact of life, feel a bit bullied themselves, and indeed nominated the candidate who sold himself as a national bully. The Democrats ask, do you want your children looking up to a president who’s a bully? Children are ever part of the equation in Philadelphia.
America is a disastrous hellhole teeming with criminal non-citizens who steal jobs when they aren’t killing innocent young girls, but on 20 January 2017 it will transmogrify into a tranquil, terror and alien-free manufacturing dynamo, with assault rifles available to all, upon the inauguration of President Trump: that was the simple message delivered at great length on Thursday night. Trump confirmed that for all the cartoonish sideshows attending his campaign, he’s essentially a one-issue candidate, and that issue is immigration. ‘Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,’ he said, and you expected him to list every one. The crowd chanted ‘Build a wall!’ Ancillary issues were touched on — the murder of police, shabby schools, crumbling roads, taxes in need of cutting, even African-American youth unemployment and Latino poverty — but they all fed back somehow to an evil trinity of globalism, defined as mass immigration of criminals riding on the wings of terror and bad trade deals. ‘Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,’ he said, promising to repudiate something that all other national leaders of recent memory have treated as an inexorable and desirable force of history.
It’s strange to be in a bar where the coolest guy is Newt Gingrich. The Westin Hotel is the headquarters of Team Trump, and its shock troops were outside smoking Cuban cigars and reminiscing about their efforts to win the Indiana primary, the contest that at last vanquished Ted Cruz. The delegates and GOP operatives at the bar not lining up for selfies with Newt felt the Tuesday proceedings had been an improvement on Monday in that none of the speakers seemed candidates for being sectioned. I was disappointed by the absence of Roger Stone, the former Nixon dirty trickster and longtime Trump confidant, who had been holding court the night before. Stone began his career at age 16 on Nixon’s 1968 campaign. He smeared the opponent, Hubert Humphrey, by making a donation to his campaign in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance and giving the receipt to the Manchester Union-Leader. He is also a longtime business partner, in the international political consulting racket (speciality: Eurasian dictators and elected Putin clients), of Paul Manafort, who has emerged as the Cromwell to Trump’s Henry VIII.
‘Fragments were used,’ Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort said of Melania Trump’s plagiarised Monday night speech. It was a Tuesday morning press conference, and Manafort, chief bulldog of Trump’s vintage Nixonian thug braintrust, was ceding no ground. 'Obviously Michelle Obama feels similar things about her family. The American people focused on her message. You people are trying to distort that message. The plagiarism charge was first spread by the Clinton campaign. Whenever Hillary feels threatened by a woman she tries to destroy her.’ Melaniagate occupied the day’s news cycle even though no one would expect her to write her own speech or to say what she actually thinks. Whether anyone cares what she actually thinks is another question.
I woke before dawn on Monday in Parma, a Ukrainian neighbourhood south of downtown Cleveland, and watched a lightning storm flash for half an hour over Lake Erie. In a world governed by the pathetic fallacy, the storm might have signalled that Donald Trump was angry or doomed or both, or that the Republican Party was angry or doomed or both. Trump has demonstrated that the GOP primary electorate can do without the three main planks of the conservative movement that’s had the party in its grip since Reagan. For a hawkish interventionist foreign policy, he has substituted a ban on Muslims entering the US. In place of globalised free-market fundamentalism, he has engaged in the rhetoric of nationalist protectionism and a xenophobic paranoia when it comes to the border with Mexico. Unschooled in the catechism of social conservatism, he has railed against the catch-all of political correctness. He made scorched earth of the party’s new policy of outreach to Hispanic Americans. Trump’s pick last week of the Indiana governor and former talk radio host Mike Pence as his vice-presidential candidate was seen as a sign of reconciliation with doctrinaire conservatives – at least until it was reported that Trump was making midnight calls to see if he could get away with ditching him.
Acquiescence, co-option, appeasement? It’s hard to tell what’s been going on between Donald Trump and the American right since he became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Tuesday saw Trump’s final Foxwashing, the end of the feud between the candidate and Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly.
An old friend of mine told me that watching the first plane hit the World Trade Center from a commuter bus in Queens he assumed pilot error was to blame. (If only.) Like many editors, my friend saw the world as a conspiracy of errors and believed, despite my attempts to convince him otherwise, that emailing manuscripts resulted in digital corruption – the sort of thing where ‘too’ replaces ‘two’ or ‘to’. But mistakes do happen, sometimes with dire consequences, especially if they involve planes and missiles. The seventh deadliest aviation disaster in history – the tenth if you’re counting 9/11 – is the downing of Iranian Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes on 3 July 1988.